His heart was not pounding with anxiety, but the weight of responsibility was heavy on Zannah Mustapha’s shoulders as he boarded the United Nations helicopter. It was 1 am on October 13, 2016, and he was on a mission with a few others to secure the release of the first batch of Chibok Girls abducted by a Non-state Armed Group (NSAG) from their school hostel in April 2014. Zannah Mustapha, a lawyer and mediator, was not afraid, but the gravity of the situation was not lost on him
We had had several communications with them and agreed on a cessation of hostilities. They sent us coordinates and we took off in a chopper. I was dozing in the chopper when my phone rang, and I assured them that we were on our way. Not quite 15 minutes later, we arrived at the location
The girls had spent two and a half years in captivity, and Rebecca Mallam was the first girl to breathe the air of freedom, followed by 20 others. The group, which included a team that had worked tirelessly to negotiate the girls’ release, quickly piled back into the chopper, flying westward back to Maiduguri. The girls looked haggard, but Mustapha knew just what to do.
“Most of them were Christians, so I told them the Bible story of Meshach, Shedrach, and Abednego during the flight. Soon they were singing. They sang all the way back to Maiduguri,” said Mustapha, a Muslim.
In Maiduguri, the girls were handed over to authorities, and Mustapha returned to his school, the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School, where children orphaned by the conflict and other vulnerable children received free education. The school was established in 2007, two years before conflict broke out in Maiduguri. It has been providing tuition-free education for disadvantaged children with a skill acquisition program for widows and other vulnerable women.
The journey to freedom for the Chibok girls was not an easy one. While a few escaped from their abductors, 97 Chibok girls are still unaccounted for. Nine years after the abduction, a lot has changed in terms of school enrollment and protection services for children. The Borno State Child Protection Bill was passed into law in January 2022, providing a legal frame to prevent multiple child right abuses and prosecute offenders.
However, protracted conflict and diminishing livelihood opportunities have continued to imperil access to education and protection services across Nigeria’s northeast region. A total of 1.9 million children and youth are out of school in the region (1.3m children in Borno), while almost half of the schools across the region need rehabilitation. Mustapha believes that more can be done to improve education and child protection services in the region.
We need a multifaceted approach to this challenge. Education is the only conduit that can light the future. I believe a lot has been done, but we can do more. The government has more leverage in terms of data. They know the vulnerability index and the number of girls who are out of school. There are girls who have suffered abuses more than the Chibok girls, and we need to create alternative platforms for their education, especially those who have been with their abductors for several years and are now released
The Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School provides free education services for 2,240 children with four branches across Maiduguri. The school is entirely free, providing uniforms, socks, and learning materials for the children.
Mustapha understands that even the smallest things can be the biggest barriers to education.
“A vulnerable child can drop out of school because of a simple thing like a 40-page book that costs N200 (about 40 cents). If you ask such a child to buy 20 books, that could mark the end of their attendance in school,” he said with emotion in his voice.
Despite the challenges, the school has received support from UNICEF, through the support of the European Union (EU) and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), which has provided learning materials. However, Mustapha, who was the only African selected as one of the 2021 CNN Heroes of the Year, knows that more can be done to support the school.
“We have 102 teachers with a monthly bill of N1.75 million (about USD$2,500). We are lucky to have volunteer teachers, including the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Maiduguri. But we need furniture and more learning materials,” he added with a hint of desperation.
Zannah Mustapha has dedicated his life to educating the most vulnerable children in Maiduguri, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed. His heroism and selflessness have inspired many, but he knows that there is still much work to be done. He will continue to fight for the education and protection of all children, especially those who are most vulnerable.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UNICEF Nigeria.