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‘How attacks on me motivated me to help attackers’

Mutaru Muqthar is the 2017 Daily Trust African of the year. The Ghanaian was recognized for his counter terrorism efforts. He speaks about his motivation…

Mutaru Muqthar is the 2017 Daily Trust African of the year. The Ghanaian was recognized for his counter terrorism efforts. He speaks about his motivation for what he does.

Daily Trust: Who would you say were your mentors when you decided to go into countering terrorism?

Mutaru Muqthar: I didn’t really have a particular mentor for this kind of work. It was largely inspired by my own experience and the kind of environment in which I grew up, my family’s experience of what conflict can do to people and society. But over time, there were different people I consider to be my role models for different reasons – like the former UN Secretary General, Koffi Anan, whom I see as a model of change and peace and his profound role in the international environment in relation to peace and security. I see him as a role model. But specifically in terms of what I am involved in.

DT: Why was it significant for you to use a non-violent approach to achieve your goals?

Muqthar: Non-violent approach to resolving issues or to finding solutions to problems is always ideal because violence cannot bring about sustainable peace. This is very basic to my understanding. So I see non-violent approach as the best way to bring about sustainable solutions to the problems in our society, which is why I chose to engage in it to counter violent extremism. 

DT: What did it feel like dissuading that one person you succeeded with, from joining ISIS?

Muqthar: I think in the last three years, this, has been the most significant sense of fulfillment I have had working in this area. In general terms, I would say there is nothing that feels so good, more fulfilling than knowing that you have helped to save someone’s life. This guy’s experience is quite horrible and the fact that my effort has helped in preventing him from engaging in terrorism elsewhere feels so humbling. Two days before I came to Abuja, I had a phone conversation with him. We speak every two to three days because he still has a lot of challenges. He had stopped attending lectures some weeks ago due to lack of school fees. When I told him the fees would be paid, he broke down in tears. His fees only cost about $300 (N90, 000). There are several people in similar situations who at some point would consider violence as an option. 

DT: When you look back at the experiences that motivated you to start what you do, the interactions you have had in the course of work and winning this award, what do you find most gratifying or worrisome?

Muqthar: A lot of things come to my mind. This is an improbable experience for me. Even when I was told about it and the date fixed for the ceremony, each day felt different and held something bigger. It is difficult to contain it. It is a new thing for me. A huge sense of fulfillment with humility but at the same time, a big challenge also. It comes with obligations to those who look up to you to do more than ever and there are a lot of things to do. 

DT: In monetary terms, would you say this is the biggest endorsement you have received?

Muqthar: Certainly it is. When I started this in 2014 after I returned to Ghana from the UK, I had worked a bit after school for six months and saved some money. I tried to contribute to the security sector and after some time decided to set up the West Africa Centre for Countering Extremism with my savings. When friends and family saw its legitimacy, they began to support. Then funding became a huge challenge. For more than two years, we struggled and resorted to recruiting people as unpaid interns for six months. At the end, they chose to stay or leave. Then we got support from the US State Department through their embassy in Ghana to launch our peace network in secondary schools. That was the only support we received officially from an organization. 

DT: What are things you enjoy doing beside your work?

Muqthar: I love to write and read, occasionally watch football especially when Barcelona and Real Madrid are playing. I’m a Barcelona fan.

DT: If you were not doing what you currently do, would something else have given you the same satisfaction?

Muqthar: Maybe. But not doing what I am doing, I don’t know what else I would have done because I would have been looking back to say ‘what if and may be if I had.’ When I finished my first degree, I worked in consultancy and spent that time writing about security and policy. Even though I was working, my interest was still in this kind of engagement and security and leadership. If I had chosen to do something else, I still would have had a place in my heart for this. In 2011, during the imposition of the no fly zone in Libya, I was on BBC Focus on Africa. What happened after then gave me the courage to resign and to start up what I now do. 

DT: What next from here?

Muqthar: When I get back home, we’ll be revising the plan and timelines. It would be very ungrateful to think that this is normal, it isn’t. Our plan was to open an operational office in Burkina Faso or Mali by the end of this year. Another thing we’re working on is expanding our peace network which we launched in five schools in 2016. 

We’re looking to spread across and beyond Ghana. We’ll also increase our team and research report because there are a lot of issues. Discussing terrorism in Ghana only came into the public discourse in August 2015 and there is no local research, the reliance is on foreign information and online material. We want to build local literature around the subject on Ghana and other countries. 

DT: Do you worry that this puts you and your family in harm’s way?

Muqthar: Not necessarily my family, there are times I have been questioned about the legitimacy of what I do or why I do it because people think I represent some foreign agents. Ghana is a peaceful place so people question my need to do this. Many in Ghana don’t see terrorism as a direct threat; they think it is something remote. Unfortunately, we have Ghanaians who have left to join terrorist groups. Two days before I came to Nigeria, three people were arrested with seven pieces of grenade. One was from Mali and the other two had just been deported from Libya. Our office was attacked in 2016 and we still don’t know by who or why. Just before this award was announced I received calls cautioning me to be very careful about my own security, the feeling is that what you don’t know is more dangerous than what you know. I know it is a risk that I need to manage. 

DT: What was your reaction when you received the news about your win?

Muqthar: I couldn’t believe it. I was having an informal discussion at work about building networks when a call came in from a Nigerian number. I imagined it was one of my Nigerian friends from school. The person introduced himself and said congratulations you have been chosen as the African of the Year for 2017. I just said thank you. He said I should check my email. I don’t know what else he said after that until the line went off. I moved, dazed, not saying anything to anyone, checked my email and went on Google to see if the information was there. It wasn’t at the time, it was only after this that I mentioned it to my colleagues. I saw the other finalists as highly qualified and my having very little chance at being chosen. My colleagues were so excited. It was huge excitement. I don’t remember anything else that happened that day because I was so consumed by this. 

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