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Africa Insiders: Behind Nigeria’s Islamic school “torture house”

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Police raided Ahmad bin Hambal Centre for Islamic Teachings, a faith school in Kaduna State, northern Nigeria, over the weekend and arrested about seven teachers. Hundreds of boys and men were held at the centre. Their bodies were marked with wounds, evidence of systemic physical torture. The students told reporters they were sexually abused.

  Islamic schools are common in northern Nigeria, a region that has the volatile mix of high population density, high poverty rates and low literacy levels. The north’s present state can be traced back to colonialists who focused on providing social infrastructure to coastal towns in the south, which were more essential to colonial administration and exports.

Many parents in northern states choose to send their kids to Islamic schools to learn how to read the Qur’an because they cannot afford to buy books and uniforms required in tuition-free government schools. At these resident schools, the children often become money-making instruments for teachers. They beg in the streets to survive. The boys (girls stay at home) are called Al Majiris meaning ’emigrant’ in Arabic.

The north is struggling with the Al Majiri system. State governments are lost. President Buhari is considering a ban. Education experts have referred to the system as a ticking time bomb, a breeding ground for violent extremism. Analysts even argue that Boko Haram is a consequence of the north’s under-education. More than 13 million kids are out of school in Nigeria, 70% of whom are from the north. Former President Goodluck Jonathan’s attempt at reforming Al Majiri by constructing schools with integrated curricula – combining Qur’anic lessons with Western-style education – was only partly successful.

 The raid in Kaduna signals the state government’s intolerance of child and human rights abuses. Governor Nasir el-Rufai has previously been praised (and criticised) for education reforms in the state. The activities in this particular school are eye-opening and alarming, but state officials who participated in the raid promise rigorous scrutiny into the affairs of all Qur’anic schools.

The school was able to operate undetected in Kaduna city for years. One officer voiced her fears about what is happening in schools located in more remote areas. One imagines it will be much worse. Although the Al Majiri system is unique to the Kanem-Bornu Empire, where it originated, students from Mali, Ghana and Burkina Faso were also among those freed, suggesting there is much to uncover in the system.

States need to look into Al Majiri centres urgently. This may prompt a state ban in Kaduna which could push the federal government to act at a national level. But there will likely be backlash from those who are used to the system. Integrative measures need to be put in place to prevent that. What cannot be done, though, is to ignore the problem. If we are facing groups like Boko Haram and ISWAP now, what will tomorrow bring?

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