Barrister Zannah Mustapha is a Maiduguri-based philanthropist who recently won the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 2017 Nansen Refugees Award, the first in West Africa to be so honoured. In this interview, Mustapha gives an insight into his life a
Daily Trust: How did you feel when your name was mentioned as winner of the Nansen Refugees Award?
Well, I was exceedingly happy, more so when it was made by one of the major organisations in the world - the United Nations. It means a lot for them to say I am a worthy ambassador, especially after looking at the calibre of leaders previously selected as recipients of that award, including one of the greatest humanitarians - Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States. She was the first recipient of that award and then Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. For my name to appear in such a list, I am exceedingly happy. In my wildest dream, I never thought I could measure up to such leaders. DT: What does it mean to you?
I just want to say that it has made me stronger, and I would remain resolute in all the efforts that I’m trying to put in place for orphans and displaced people in my area and beyond.
DT: Have you ever been honoured elsewhere because of your humanitarian activities?
Well, I have to admit that you the Daily Trust, were the first to acknowledge what I am doing. You were the first platform that projected me to the world when I was honoured as Unsung Hero in 2013.
DT: You are a lawyer by training, what led you to humanitarian activities?
Well, I started as a lawyer but after twenty years, I felt I had done enough practice. I felt I could also engage in certain things I could call my own because the other ones were not mine as an individual; we go as a team. I wanted to give back to the society because the government, with no kobo from anybody, trained me. My last registration in the university was N40. I started this in 2007 with 36 orphans and as we speak, they have all gotten the minimum requirement for entering the university. We have graduated more than 1,000 students at the lower level; enrolled 626 in 2017, more than half of whom are girls, including 186 IDPs with 5,000 on the waiting list. These children include children from both the military and the Boko Haram and they have grown to see themselves as one. The wisdom is that if it continues like this, then we are sure of peaceful reconciliation and an end to the insurgency.
DT: Philanthropic ventures are mostly associated with the wealthy. Were you rich when you ventured into this?
It depends on your estimation of a rich man in terms of monetary value; I have never been rich in my life even to this point. For instance, I have never gotten the amount that came with this award. All I know is that I started with meagre amount and at that time, I never thought the insurgency would even come. It was therefore a big challenge with the onset of the violence because people were made orphans in their own homes; it caused a lot of displacement of people.
DT: Is it true you actually dedicated part of the house you live with your family for the orphanage?
What happened was that in 2007, I had a very large house in GRA Maiduguri, about 600 square metres and in Islam, one can give out at least one third of his estate as charity, gift or whatever. You can put it in your will that it should not be part of what your family will inherit. I felt I didn’t need to keep that much; 400 square kilometres is enough for me as a human being so I carved out 200 square metres from my house and started the school.
DT: How did you manage to bring in children from across the divide under one umbrella?
One example I want to give is when anybody sees a dead man on the street, nobody can stand there and cry; the highest he can do is to sympathise with the person in his mind because it is the intimacy that evokes emotion. So I felt that if all segments of the society are embedded in an area, nobody would feel isolated or abandoned; everyone would be incorporated. I never thought the insurgency would come to this and I felt since it has happened, our primary target should be orphans. The offences of parents should not be that of the children. These children are empty vessels, if you feed them with good things, they would grow up with it. If you keep orphans in a secluded area, it would be problematic by the time you want to reintegrate them back to the society.
If you keep them isolated as orphans, the issue of stigma will later arise and you would start talking of trauma because most of them witnessed how their parents were killed. If this psychological scar is not taken away from them by the time they get to adulthood, then the Boko Haram crisis would be a child’s play. That was why we introduced the social support; we take them for trauma sessions, and some of them go for a sort of counseling with religious and community leaders. One aspect that really works for us is the commitment we have shown because all my biological children went through this school alongside the orphans. All the directors of this school have their own children; the headmaster and all other teachers must have their children in this school. They eat together, play together and feel they are one.
DT: Another area you are noted for is trying to find amicable resolution to the insurgency, which also culminated in the liberation of hostages. What gives you courage to mediate?
Well, there are lots of things. The leadership and political will of President Muhammadu Buhari helped a lot. When the previous government proscribed Boko Haram, it meant nobody could mediate at both the international and local levels. If you attempt to mediate on these things, you can be treated as an accomplice.
My first time at mediation was when former President Olusegun Obasanjo came down. In fact, he didn’t call me until he landed in Maiduguri; then he called me and Senator Shehu Sani. When they came, we started the process of putting up mediation but that mediation fell short of some components; we started making the intervention long before the Chibok girls’ abduction.
We made some recommendations, which he (Obasanjo) took to the government then, but those recommendations were not heeded to and many other attempts were made. At this point, I just want to make a certain commendation because what made it possible (to mediate) was the ability of President Buhari to open his mighty heart. What makes it different this time is that the president showed some level of preparedness.
During his campaign, he said ‘I would crush them’ but maybe after coming to government, he understood what the crisis was all about so he took it to the United Nations to say ‘I want to negotiate with Boko Haram if they are willing to come forward’. That was when the narrative changed. That is not small courage; it opened up the frontier for us to go into mediation, at least for us to get those ladies. We first went in for confidence building which led us to get the first 21 girls. Then we went in again for the other 82 girls and that was when we were on a platform. In mediation, there are levels, one of them is that you have to get the mandate, the entry point and then build confidence; we were able to build confidence on that. Instead of being stagnated in one area, you need to open other frontiers, it’s not just about bringing the Chibok girls, there are many other captives, and even how to end the crisis. It is a kind of building block; when you start with this you go to a certain level then go for a wider one, so that makes it possible for us to reach out with a view to resolving other issues.
#BringBackOurGirls is just one aspect of the crisis. There are other integral parts of the process. Of course, we are trying to bring back more of these Chibok girls but when more than four hundred people are killed by suicide bombing, people would keep asking what kind of success is being recorded. That is why we have to open the frontiers of mediations; these are processes you cannot complete in one or three months. You have to go into the deeper aspects of the process. There are certain periods that you get stagnated but then you need to leverage on that and plan again.
If you keep them isolated as orphans, the issue of stigma will later arise and you would start talking of trauma because most of them witnessed how their parents were killed. If this psychological scar is not taken away from them by the time they get to adulthood, then the Boko Haram crisis would be a child’s play