Abuja (AFP) – A Nigerian lawyer who helped secure the release of more than 100 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram was on Monday awarded one of the United Nations’ top prizes.
The UNHCR said Zannah Mustapha was given the annual Nansen award for his “crucial mediating” role as well as his work helping children affected by the long-running conflict.
Last year’s recipients of the award were more than 2,000 volunteers who saved the lives of thousands of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
Mustapha, who is in his late-50s, said the award was unexpected but he was “exceedingly happy” to have been chosen.
“I look forward to being a worthy ambassador… for such a noble award,” he told AFP in an interview in the capital, Abuja.
Mustapha set up The Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School 10 years ago, which has since proved a lifeline for children in conflict-riven and impoverished northeast Nigeria.
The primary school has grown from having just 36 children and a single classroom to 540 pupils — more than half of them girls — and four times as many on the waiting list.
Last year, a second school was opened near the first in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, providing free education to 88 pupils displaced from their homes by the violence.
Students also include the children of Boko Haram fighters and Nigerian soldiers.
“This is the place where every child matters, no matter what their religion, background or culture… Our aim is to make positive changes in their lives,” he told the UNHCR.
Mustapha is a well-known figure in northeast Nigeria having previously represented the family of Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram who died in police custody in 2009.
The lawyer has previously been involved in peace talks with the group, whose insurgency has left at least 20,000 dead and displaced more than 2.6 million in the last eight years.
He refused to disclose exact details about his involvement in talks for the release of 219 schoolgirls who were seized by the group from the remote town of Chibok in April 2014.
A total of 106 of the Chibok girls have been released, found or escaped.
He told AFP when a deal was first reached it was “the highest point” in his life.
He said that being from the region, the kidnappings, which brought global attention on the Boko Haram conflict, were as if his own daughter had been taken.
Zannah was also circumspect about the fate of the remaining schoolgirls, confirming only that talks were ongoing and he was involved.