Police arrested seven adults in the raid on the building, which had a sign in Arabic at the entrance declaring itself “House of Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal for the Application of Islamic Teachings”.
Some parents paid fees, believing it was an Islamic school. Some described it as a good institution and dismissed talk of abuse. Others saw it as a correctional facility. Police and regional officials said it was not registered as either.
Despite mixed accounts about its role, the abuse reported by victims has thrown a spotlight on Nigeria’s struggle to provide enough school places for its rapidly expanding population, leaving a gap for unregulated institutions that poor parents sometimes turn to.
The West African nation’s population will swell from 190 million to 400 million by 2050, according to U.N. figures. Primary education is officially free but about 10.5 million Nigerian children aged five to 14 are not in school. “Nigeria is facing a demographic tidal wave,” said Matthew Page, an associate fellow with the Africa Programme at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.
“The long-term viability of the Nigerian economy – and the state itself – hinges on the government, religious, and traditional institutions developing a plan to address this challenge before it becomes impossible to remedy,” he said. Prior to Thursday’s police raid, those who made it out of the Kaduna institution were sometimes returned by families. Some parents said they needed to discipline wayward children and others said they were too poor to look after all their kids. Kaduna state government said there were at least 77 boys under 18 years old held there. The youngest was five.
All the victims said beatings were regular and said children and men were frequently shackled. Days were dark, long and hungry: food was only served at 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. Suleiman’s elder brother sent him to the institution five months ago for skipping school. He was signed up to board while he studied Arabic and Islam’s holy book, the Quran. “They beat us everywhere in the house, even in the mosque. If you asked to speak with your family, they would shackle you,” said the 15-year-old, who showed sores, scabs and scars on back. When Suleiman and three friends were caught trying to steal some garri – a staple food made from cassava shavings – they were stripped and whipped, he said.
“When the police raided the school the whole place was in pandemonium, we were so happy,” he said. “What I want now is to return home. I’ll be a good boy.”Jibril, now 17 and who was hung up for trying to escape when he was 10, said boys faced a stark choice: submit to regular sexual assault or be beaten. Jibril chose beatings.
“The teachers and prefects raped boys. Those who were sexually molested were enticed with canned fish. Those of us who refused were caned,” he said, blaming a scar beside his left eye on a caning. “They used planks of wood to beat us.” He now struggles to raise his arms since his punishment for trying to escape. He was sent home for six months after that incident. His family returned him when he had healed.
Jibril and Suleiman are now in a safehouse on the edge of Kaduna while the authorities try to find their relatives. Their temporary home is filled with laughter as boys and teenagers, up to 17 years old, play together. Those adults who were freed are staying in a neighbouring building.
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