Education, be it formal or informal, is the foundation for the sound development of every child and one of the critical tools for the development of any society.
Every child has the right to education, which eventually empowers him or her to stand and become useful to the society, irrespective of race, religion and ethnicity.
In the light of its importance, educationists observe that inadequate education is one of the causes of armed conflicts, underdevelopment, agitations and evil in many nations.
They specifically identify poor education among the youth in the northern part of the country as a tool that insurgents use to perpetrate crisis by branding western education as evil which they translate to Boko Haram.
With this erroneous belief of the insurgents, they target education sector, setting schools on fire, killing and abducting students, in some cases.
The abduction of the 276 Chibok school girls on April 14, 2014, was an example of one of the group’s onslaught while it has also held many school girls and people hostage.
Worried by this development, a lawyer, Mr Zannah Mustapha, began to educate children in the region on the platform of his non-governmental organisation — Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School.
Founded in 2007 in Maiduguri with 36 persons to cater for orphans, widows and other victims of the insurgency, the school has graduated more than 1,000 and it has enrolled 626 in 2017 alone, most of who are girls.
According to Mustapha, the aim of the foundation is to stop insurgency by integrating children that are affected by insurgency and family members of Boko Haram in society through education.
He explained that inclusion of children and family members of Boko Haram insurgents in the foundation’s programme would prevent discrimination.
“The school provides free education, free meals uniforms and healthcare to children affected by violence.
“Those orphaned by the conflict on both sides, that is, the Boko Haram children and children of security operatives, are welcomed to the classroom as a sign of the reconciliation we hope to achieve for the region.
“Even a dog would not eat his own child and so, members of the Boko Haram insurgents would not want to attack a school where they know their own children and family members attend.
“The school has united them in love and they all see themselves as brothers and sisters, not minding who their parents are and with this, they would one day push for a stop to the violence,’’ Mustapha said.
According to him, the foundation’s method of including Boko Haram’s members will engage everybody to the mode of operation of the school in terms of dressing and subjects to be taught which all parties agreed to and signed as a document.
Mustapha commended the efforts and interventions of President Muhammadu Buhari in the fight against the insurgents with a note that without his efforts, negotiation with the insurgents would have been difficult.
He said the foundation had been able to function with the assistance of development partners such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Norwegian Refugees Council, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Borno Government and kind-hearted individuals.
He said while the ICRC had significantly relieved the school of the burden of expenditure on food through donations, Gov. Kashim Shettima of Borno paid the first three months’ salaries of teachers, among other assistance.
To ensure sustainable funding of the school, he said the foundation established a medium-scale fish pond and hatchery; ventures that had provided money support to the school activities.
However, Mustapha’s humanitarian work has not gone unnoticed as it has attracted the acknowledgement and recognition of the UNHCR and won him the 2017 Nansen Refugees Award.
The UNHCR recognised Mustapha’s brave works as one of the largest humanitarian emergency operations in between 2016 and 2017.
The commission notes that the intervention comes at a time when the country’s education sector is confronted by challenges of not getting thousands of youths enrolled in schools.
The UNHCR commended the award winner for his tenacity in operating the school not minding Boko Haram attacks on the education sector and the killing of teachers.
It also recognised Mustapha’s role in empowering women, his role in securing the release of the 82 Chibok school girls and negotiation for the release of hostages.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Filippo Grandi, described education as one of the most powerful tools for helping refugee children to overcome the horrors of violence and forced displacement.
“It empowers young people, equips them with skills and works to counter exploitation and recruitment by armed groups.
“Conflict can leave children with physical and emotional scars that are deep and lasting as it forces them from their homes, exposes them to unspeakable atrocities and often rips apart their families.
“The work Mustapha and his team are doing is of the utmost importance, helping to foster peaceful co-existence and rebuild communities in north eastern Nigeria; with this award, we honour his vision and services,’’ Grandi said.
Similarly, UNHCR Country Representative to Nigeria and the Economic Community of West Africa State (ECOWAS) Mr Jose-Antonio Canhandula, congratulated Mustapha as the first Nigerian Laureate of the Nansen Refugees award.
He commended Mustapha for using the school to promote peace and for his role in the negotiation for the release of the 82 Chibok School girls, setting up cooperatives for widows and providing empowerment programmes for nearly 600 women in Maiduguri.
Canhandula said it was for these extraordinary services that the committee chose him as winner of the 2017 Nansen Refugees Award among the five other nominees.
“Looking at Mustapha, the committee was strongly influenced by his dedication to abandoned and orphaned children, including children born by Boko Haram parents, who, in that environment, are rejected by society.
“He tries to bring all these children as well as orphans and widows and give them a sense of life, protection and livelihood, particularly through education and skills training for victims of the conflict.
“These are some of the criteria that the committee looked at and actually put him ahead of the five others from different continents.
“He represents a good platform and he is supposed to receive an award that includes some money for him to be able to continue; but money is not enough, particularly when you look at the kind of crises that we have in the North-East.
“UNHCR will support him to be able to sustain his works to generate more income for its own long-term sustainability.
“There are many rich and influential Nigerians we could reach out to and show them what he is doing and see how they can support him going forward in 2018,’’ Canhandula said.
On his part, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugees Council, Mr Jan Egeland, noted that the recognition of Mustapha’s brave works pointed to the importance of education for the future of Nigeria.
UNHCR Nansen Refugees award was established in 1954 and awarded annually to an individual, group or organisation, in recognition of outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced and stateless persons.
The award includes a commonwealth medal and monetary prize of 100,000 dollars donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland to begin a project in consultation with UNHCR.
The 2017 Nansen Refugees Award will be presented to Mustapha on October 2 in Geneva.
Okoji writes for News Agency of Nigeria.