In Nigeria, a school takes on the fight against Boko Haram

Zannah Mustapha visits the classes every day to talk to the kids. Photo by: Linus Unah

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Just a stone’s throw from the banks of River Gadabul — 4 kilometers from the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri — sits a cinder-block building housing three classrooms. Inside one of the classrooms, 8-year-old Abubakar Ibrahim reads from a textbook spread between his hands.

“Audu is making the bed,” Ibrahim yells. His two dozen classmates chorus after him, their voices rising above the din of people working in the fields close to the river.

In 2014, the radical militant group Boko Haram attacked his village in Gwoza — formerly a stronghold of the insurgents. Ibrahim fled as the insurgents killed his parents and seized the town. For nearly one week, he trekked to Maiduguri, which was the epicentre of the insurgency that has forced more than 2 million to flee their homes and killed about 20,000 people mostly in the northeastern region.

Ibrahim landed in an informal displacement camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri. Without access to formal education and food, the prospects of a better life eluded him. But in 2016, he was invited to join the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School, which provides free education to children affected by the insurgency.

At the school, Ibrahim, alongside hundreds of children orphaned by the insurgency, receive meals, uniforms, health care services, bags, and learning materials, leaving them free to continue their education. Ibrahim’s class draws in those from all sides of the conflict: Children of Boko Haram fighters sit alongside those whose parents were killed by the fighters; the children of security forces attend, as do the children of traditional rulers and religious leaders, and the school founder’s own children.

The co-mingling is by design, turning the class into a hub for peace building. Inside the school, the suspicion and the stigmatization of children of Boko Haram fighters is tackled by creating an atmosphere where pupils focus on working together as friends.

“Bringing them all to learn under the same roof promotes friendly co-existence among the children thereby building everlasting peace,” says Suleiman Aliyu, the headteacher of the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation.

The foundation, which started in 2007, predates the insurgency itself. Zannah Mustapha, a 58-year-old lawyer and father of 10 said he got the idea shortly after enrolling his daughter at a pricey private school and began to think: What would happen to his children if he were not alive? Who would pay for their fees and provide quality education for them?

Surrounded by children in that very state, Mustapha created the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation to cater for orphans milling around the streets of the city and other vulnerable children.

“But I didn’t go ahead to do this all alone,” he told Devex. “I consulted the ward leader and the religious leader and got widows whose children were not in school to be part of the planning board. Together, we selected 36 orphans and vulnerable children under the ages of 3 to 8.”

The widows told him they wanted Islamic education to be incorporated into Western-styled education. Mustapha listened. He poured his personal savings into building four blocks of classroom and employing the best teachers around.

Suleiman Usman, 6, was also orphaned by the insurgency. Photo by: Linus Unah

For two years, the school ran without any incidents. Then, in 2009, Boko Haram fighters launched a rebellion in the city to create an Islamic state. The Nigerian government’s hawkishness meant a confrontational approach was adopted to put down the insurrection. Soon, Nigerian security forces raided the city in search of suspected members of the radical group, shelling their base in Maiduguri, destroying their property and killing scores of them, including Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of the group.

In the immediate aftermath, children orphaned by the crackdown on members of the radical group littered the streets of Maiduguri, mostly begging for food to survive.

“That was when a lot of children were cast on the street because they were considered to be evil … just because their fathers were members of Boko Haram,” says Mustapha.

The school rapidly expanded. Mustapha tasked the widows whose children already attended the foundation to reach out to the new orphans. In a matter of two months, 250 new children were enrolled. But as the student body increased, so also did the number of Boko Haram attacks.

As bombings across the city sent schools shuttered, Mustapha reached out to the widows on his team, some of whom had been wives of the insurgents, and warned that any further attacks on neighboring schools would force him to shut down the school.

“It was also difficult for Boko Haram to attack the school because their [offspring] were here and nobody would want to attack his child. The widows also assured me that nothing would happen. The kids even felt safer here than they did anywhere else,” Mustapha said, perched on a wooden couch inside the compound of the school nestled on a quiet, dusty street on the southern edge of Maiduguri.

“All I want is for this foundation to grow and cover the whole areas of the insurgency … to become some sort of template for others to carry it so that they can resolve conflict.”

— Zannah Mustapha, founder of the  Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School

That a school incorporating Western education could manage to avoid attacks from Boko Haram seemed almost impossible in Maiduguri. The very name Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden." Throughout the years of bombing and raiding villages, the jihadists often focused on schools and teachers. In April 2014, it raided the town of Chibok and kidnapped 276 schoolgirls. As of September, UNICEF reported that some 1,400 schools were destroyed in Borno state alone, with the militants killing more than 2,295 teachers and displacing a further 19,000.

Today, Future Prowess Foundation School has grown from the initial 36 enrollees to well over 540 pupils, with nearly 300 of them girls. The foundation has expanded to include another school with 88 pupils and to a livelihood center where women affected by the insurgency are given vocational training on the outskirts of the city. At least 1,000 children have graduated from the school. His work has also made him a key interlocutor between the insurgents and government. Last year, he brokered deals in which 21 girls and later 82 Chibok schoolgirls were released after three years in captivity.

As the foundation has grown, so too have its advocates. Today, it is partly supported by wealthy philanthropic individuals and international agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,, UNICEF, and the Borno state emergency agency. This year alone, the school is planning to enrol 300 more children, though more than a thousand remain in its records waiting to be considered.

Apart from teaching the pupils Arabic, French, English, and math, the school gets older girls to enrol in a skills acquisition program where they learn to knit and make beads — that’s crucial, said Mustapha, as girls in particular struggle to find work.

Fatima Muhammadu Mafi was just 4 when she got into Future Prowess in 2009. “I wasn’t going to school until my dad was killed, that was when I was admitted to this great school,” said Mafi, who stayed at the school for six years before moving to a junior high school in another city.

“When I came, I met many kids like me, and we played and ate together. We treated ourselves like brothers and sisters and you wouldn’t even know we were from different homes. It was the best moment of life.”

As classes closed on a dusty, cold Tuesday evening in mid-January, a child of about 5 scuttled over to Mustapha and kneeled to greet him. Mustapha returned his greeting with a “Hello” and watched as the child scurried to meet up with his friends at the entrance. A glint of pride shot through his eyes as he looked at the chattering kids.

“All I want is for this foundation to grow and cover the whole areas of the insurgency. In fact, not only the three states affected by the insurgency but to become some sort of template for others to carry it so that they can resolve conflict,” he said with a smile, and waved to an elderly man who sauntered into the school for afternoon prayers.

“If you want to transform people you have to use education as a tool. If you don’t want education there is no way you can transform. It is just like bringing life to people, like raising a dead man — that is what we do with education here.”

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About the author

  • Linus%2520unah%2520headshot%2520%25281%2529

    Linus Unah

    Linus Unah is a Nigerian journalist covering global health, conflict, agriculture, and development. His work has appeared in The Guardian, IRIN, NPR, NewsDeeply, The Christian Science Monitor, among others.