Zannah Mustapha came to fame for his personal orphanage that provides care and education for children who lost their parents from either sides of the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency.
Recognised within and outside Nigeria, the lawyer-turned humanitarian worker was recently appointed a UN-Ambassador.
Anyone following the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency would not miss the fact that the retired lawyer was the first person to mute the idea of dialoguing with the outlawed Boko Haram using a rare opening created by his orphanage.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Abdulkareem Haruna, the caregiver speaks at length on what inspired his current job; the role he played in the negotiated rescue of 21 abducted Chibok schoolgirls; and what the federal government must do to help end the nearly one decade of war in northeast Nigeria.
PT: You are one of the three nominees for the Daily Trust African of the Year Award. How do you feel about that?
Mustapha: This is not the first time I am being nominated for such auspicious award in recognition of our modest contributions in the area of humanity. I was once awarded as the ‘Unsung Hero Award’ of the same paper, Daily Trust, in the year 2013. I am more honoured to be associated with such prestigious award, which you know have also been won by great personalities like Thabo Mbeki and the rest. Even though I have recently been recognised with another honour at the level of the United Nations as one of their worthy ambassadors, I think being nominated for an award, even if one does not emerge the winner eventually, it is really worthy to be so recognised; but we are still keeping our fingers crossed on that.
PT: Could you take us down the line on how this orphanage thing all started?
Mustapha: Well, when I started this venture of helping the poor orphans in our communities, I never thought even in my wildest dreams that we would get to this stage where orphans would be counted in their thousands. But what I came to understand is that we have not been models to our younger ones because of the sheer neglect of their education especially that of the girls. I felt it is our duty – everyone of us, not necessarily the government or those in government – for us to be given such kind of supportive services to these set of less privileged and vulnerable children. And the most vulnerable in my judgment are the orphans. That was my inspiration; after spending more than 20 years in my trained profession which is the legal profession, I felt I should venture in to the realm of humanity. That was when I went into the venture of helping the orphans.
PT: How was the challenge when you started and how is it now that there are thousands of orphans?
Mustapha: When I started, it was on a very small scale though, but it gives me greater joy. So in 2009 when insurgency erupted on its large scale, it added salt to our injury by creating large number of killings of teachers in school, which was precipitated by the killing of some Boko Haram elements; I mean those that started the war. The killed Boko Haram elements had families – their widows and children became some kind of outcasts, nobody was willing to relate or identify with them; most of them were being judged by the sins of their husbands. I felt I could as well come in to help these people whom I believe may not even be in the know of what their parents or husbands were into before they got killed. So I got some of them, heard their stories, and immediately I felt they could also come in to join other orphans in my school. So we then called the widows; yes there were 36 widows that were identified, and it was through them that we made further contacts with which we went in as an outreach to get more others.
PT: So how did they respond, especially after that feeling of being profiled as spouses Boko Haram?
Mustapha: It was really a turning point for the widows and their children because, as I said earlier, no one was willing to identify with them at that time. And surprisingly these widows were very much willing to let their children come to us. So when they came, we made sure we also engaged the widows by getting some of these international agencies like the ICRC who came in with different kinds of supports like food condiments and other basic things they could use to sustain themselves at home. That actually encouraged them and gave them that sense of belonging and acceptance despite their past experiences. So we tried to make life very easy for the widows because when their children come to school, we offer them free breakfast and when they return home, the parents still have something to cook for the kids. So that feeling of having their livelihood back strengthened them. We later realised that some of them could be of help in getting in contact with the colleagues of their late husbands. And many more of them began to open up even with information that could help the authority’s quest for dialogue and interface with Boko Haram. If you could remember that was what even necessitated the visit of President Obasanjo on his mediation effort at that time even though that mediation later failed because of lack of trust and what have you. From there we were able to carry on with the mediation efforts down the line up to the stage that the activities of the Boko Haram were outlawed even at the United Nations. So we never abandoned the widows, we continued to support them and their children; we gave them various lifelines, we gave them skills acquisition programmes and made them economically empowered. We have about 300 of them, and there is none of these 300 widows who could not get as much as N140,000 support which we facilitated thought the ICRC.
PT: So how come the federal government did not explore your channel to see that a mediation process was kick-started much earlier?
Mustapha: You know at that time there were many attempts by government to mediate with the Boko Haram before they were finally proscribed. So even when we got ample mediation opportunities then, we could not because there was a proscribing law in existence and then the general fear that anybody that is seen associating with them in any form will be termed as an accomplice. Everyone became hesitant in coming out to help. And things continued to deteriorate until the coming of President Muhammadu Buhari who took that bold initiative by going to the United Nations and declared, as a President, that “I want to negotiate with the Boko Haram”. And that, for me, was the beginning of the whole new mediation between government and Boko Haram which led to the release of the Chibok girls.
PT: Could you shed more light on that?
Mustapha: That declaration at the United Nations actually changed the whole narrative; and the Boko Haram too began to have some kind of trust in the mediation effort. It was actually against the initial narrative of the president, especially during the campaigns, that the slogan was I will crush the Boko Haram, I will crush them was being used.
But as soon as the president made the ‘I am ready to dialogue with Boko Haram’ statement at the UN, almost immediately within that month, we don’t know how the video was handed out to CNN, but a proof of life of the girls was released by Boko Haram. How CNN got first clip of the girls after a long time that we saw them is still a mystery up to this time. It was clear that the Boko Haram too wanted the mediation, and that was why they offered to the world the proof of life of the Chibok girls; and that actually eased the bulk of the mediation efforts because there are two willing parties. When we are to go in for the mediation, what we needed at that time was to build confidence, and that we did by emphasising the position of the President at the UN. And after a long effort of conflict analysis we went in and had the mediation. As God will have it, those girls, 21 of them were released.
PT: How did you come in?
Mustapha: The fact of the matter is that it was the government that initiated and coordinated the entire mediation, I was brought in probably because I was the one who first started the idea; so I was also invited to be part of it. And it was so stated in the commendation letter sent to me from the the president that what I did was truly patriotic and it was something that can be measured in terms of honesty, dedication and loyalty to own country. Nobody contacted me to do this in the first place, I felt it was necessary to do what I did as a humanitarian. I was not influenced by anybody from the either sides.
PT: We understand that some international bodies were also involved in the mediation that led to the release of the 21 Chibok girls; so one would want to ask – without actually jeopardising the national security interest – how was the contact made, who chose the location…
Mustapha: (cuts in)…you see whenever things like this or situations like this avail themselves, there must be some sort of sacrifices that everyone has to make. To me, the questions of how or who are inconsequential. But all I know is that the whole successes of the mediation was facilitated by the courage of the federal government through the president who declared that he wanted to dialogue with Boko Haram. We may not appreciate that singular effort of the president; but it was the icebreaker if you ask me. Let me give you an instance; If President Nelson Mandela of blessed memory had not come out to say “I have forgiven”, the 27 years he spent in Robben Island would have been a waste – yes! It would have been wasted years because it involved the likes of Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo etcetera who died in that process. But when the leader came out to say he has forgiven the past, all others had to follow suite. So the president’s declaration at the UN eased the entire process. So knowing the forensics of how it was carried out may not be necessary. If you look at the whole conflict, one would say it is an African affair; and we have our own mechanism of setting up how conflicts are resolved. For me, when we went in, the Ugandan and Rwandan experience and some of the training we got from Switzerland enabled us to easily facilitate the mediation. You need to look at the demands, find where is the entry points, where are the confidence building mechanisms you have developed etc. So it was after the conflict analysis and confidence building measures that we have been able to succeed. It is easier, when the two sides lower their guards and begin to talk as counterparts. Let me give you a quick scenario here; if someone picks up a gun and went to another person’s house with the intention to kill; but on reaching there, he did not carry out his mission but turned back, would you still tag such a person a killer? Certainly not. Or would you go after him to kill him? The truth of the matter is Boko Haram folks are killers, there is no two ways about it. Many people have died because of them. But if we too go ahead and continue killing them, without exploring other means of ending the carnage; then what are we too? Two wrongs don’t make a right. If we go on killing, the killings won’t stop! The truth of the matter is that the mediation that led to the release of the Chibok schoolgirls won’t have been possible if the military had not subdued the Boko Haram. It won’t have been possible during the times that Boko Haram had taken over villages and towns and in full control of war tanks. But now that they have been degraded and subdued to an enclave, and people can even guess where they are hiding and so on, it is easier to talk them into dialogue. In fact there is no time we can say is better for negotiation than now that the military has subdued them. Looking at the magnitude of the attacks they had carried out in the past, you would say that though it is still very painful loss but the attacks of today are insignificant. It is time to start talking dialogue, amnesty, reintegration, provision of safe corridor etc. When we are seen to be doing this, then it means we are winning the war. But in as much as we have failed to do this now, then the fight continues and many lives of Nigerians will be lost. But for how long are we going to fight? We have already fought them for a decade! Do you want us to continue fighting ourselves for another decade, and may be if we still fail to end it, our children too should inherit the fight? We can’t continue like this.
PT: It is nearly a year since the release of the 21 Chibok girls and Nigerians are itching to see that the rest should be released if they are still alive. You were at the mediation that freed the 21 girls. Are you convinced that the other girls out there are still alive?
Mustapha: You see, I have on several occasion made this comment that when you are talking about the atrocities of Boko Haram, reducing the insurgency to 300 Chibok girls does not help us at all. There are hundreds of other girls and women that have been taken away by the insurgents. We have an army of underage children who do not even remember their second names or where they came from, not even their language or what their culture is like that are today in the IDP camps. There are thousands of displaced women and children that are dying everyday of hunger and diseases. There are communities that have been completely destroyed to almost an irredeemable state. Forgetting all these challenges and concentrating on the 300 girls alone does not make sense. It is not that they are not equally important; but we should not be tasking government on the remaining over 100 girls alone – we should be talking about the larger problem in our hand – we should be talking holistically about how to end Boko Haram and that includes the rescue of the Chibok girls. Rescuing the 21 of them was a major feat. But how do we move on to build on that achievement? The next time the government is lucky to have another window of opportunity to interface with the insurgents, we should be talking about cessation of hostility, protection of civilians’ lives, stoppage of suicide bombings. These should be the transformation that we should be talking about – not going to discuss rescue of abducted persons alone. For how long are we to continue going back and forth on rescuing abductees? If say we go there today and we secure more girls, then the next one will be the University of Maiduguri staffers, or the women abducted along Damboa road etc. Doing this would even further embolden the Boko Haram to continue abducting people so that they can call for negotiated freedom – and that will not be good for us.
PT: Boko Haram has the UNIMAID scientists and the Damboa road women abductees in their custody and from the last videos they released it was obvious that the Boko Haram are pushing the abductees to call for a negotiated release. What do you think the Nigeria government should do about that?
Mustapha: Like I said earlier, responding to the piecemeal negotiation demands of the Boko Haram is not healthy for the mediation process and it is not healthy for Nigeria. Because true mediation has to transform from one stage to an advanced stage. But to be stagnated on a point where all we do is release of hostages, is not the best for us. We need to transform to a level where Nigeria can negotiate the total end of the conflict by making the Boko Haram drop their arms completely. We need to bring the protection of civilians to the front burner the next time we interface with Boko Haram and that includes all those in captivity; we need to negotiate the total stoppage of suicide bombings, which is also a big deal! We too can negotiate their (Boko Haram) protection from arrest, killing and guarantee them some form of safe corridor. By doing that we are going to be seen as winning not only the battle but also the war.
PT: Talking about negotiating with the Boko Haram; what exactly were the demands of the Boko Haram the last time the federal government met with them and what did they take away for giving out the 21 girls?
Mustapha: You see, as simple as the talk about negotiation with Boko Haram may sound in our daily discussion, the issue of negotiation with the insurgents are very sensitive that it will not be wise for anyone to go extreme in divulging information that are considered as very sensitive. Much as one finds himself as a facilitating partner in the whole mediation process, I would rather respect the positions and opinion expressed by the two sides on such crucial moments. This is so because we are seen as an impartial umpire, and that is what I stand for. And it will be uncharitable on my part to be seen divulging information that is not within my powers. But the underlying truism is that there are two willing parties who are ready to dialogue in order to change the narratives and even save lives. Details of ‘hows’ or ‘whats’ don’t matter to me. What is material now is that there is an entry point which we must explore at all cost.
PT: Is there anything else you want to say concerning the current state of things in respect of the counterinsurgency operation?
Mustapha: Whether we like it or not, the dynamics of Boko Haram has changed because they have been subdued by the military. But that is not to say that a single armed terrorists cannot hold a country to ransom. Just like what happened in Mumbai where a group of eight armed men held unto the largest city in the world to ransom for weeks. So the best way out to deal with the degraded remnants of the Boko Haram is to mediate.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The interview was conducted before the Daily Trust Africa of the Year Award was held. Mr. Mustapha did not eventually win the award.
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