Hundreds more have been freed after authorities began cracking down on illegally operated Islamic reform schools in northern Nigeria, where mostly male students have been chained, beaten, enslaved, starved and, in many cases, raped.
The government of President Muhammadu Buhari announced on Oct. 15 that it would no longer tolerate abuse and inhumane conditions at institutions known as Almajiris — schools where many parents throughout the region send their children for Islamic education, rehabilitation or discipline.
The announcement followed a September raid in Kaduna state where over 300 men and boys were rescued, many of whom showed signs of abuse. Authorities discovered children as young as 5 were being chained to metal railings with their feet shackled together.
Since the announcement, more victims have been freed from Islamic reform centers raided by authorities in Kaduna and Katsina states, including one center located in Buhari’s hometown of Daura.
"Mr. President has directed the police to disband all such centers and all the inmates be handed over to their parents," a presidential spokesman told the media. “The government cannot allow centers where people, male and female, are maltreated in the name of religion.”
Authorities announced on Oct. 19 that they raided a second Islamic reform center in Kaduna, freeing 147 people.
The raid marked the fourth operation in a month against Islamic reform centers in northern Nigeria. According to Reuters, over 1,000 people have been released from the schools.
Unlike other raids, the most recent raid on the school in the Rigasa area of Kaduna yielded the release of 22 female captives, a Kaunda government official told Reuters.
The raid was ordered by Kaduna Gov. Nasir El Rufai.
The school in Rigasa was owned by the same person who owned one of two schools raided in Katsina earlier last week.
The Daily Trust reports that until last week, institutions known as the Malam Bello Mai Kawari and Malam Niga served as traditional reformatory and rehabilitation centers in the Katsina local government area.
But both institutions were closed down by local police. Police raided the institutions after some of the victims revolted and escaped. About 67 people were rescued last Monday during the raid on the center located in Daura where at least 300 inmates were held.
“In the course of investigation, 67 persons from the ages of 7 to 40 years were found shackled with chains,” Katsina police spokesman Sanusi Buba said in a statement. “Victims were also found to have been subjected to various inhuman and degrading treatments.”
Many were sent to the school to learn the Quran or to receive drug addiction treatment.
“Victims were also found to have been subjected to various inhuman and degrading treatments,” Buba said, according to Reuters.
Police arrested 78-year-old Mallam Bello Abdullahi Umar and Malam Salisu Hamisu for crimes including wrongful confinement, cruelty to children and criminal conspiracy.
Fahad Jabrila Mubi, from the Adamawa state, told police that he stayed at the center in Daura for two years. During that time, he said he saw six people die and two develop mental problems due to abuses.
Mubi claimed that rape was common and money sent by the students’ parents was used by teachers.
"The proprietor (Malam Bello) is aware of what's going on here. He also sodomizes the inmates,” Mubi charged, according to The Daily Trust. "There is no lesson being taught here, we don't worship or pray, it's always beating and more beatings. We have people who have spent about eight years, five, three and one years here.”
Mubi said that he and others were regularly starved and deprived of medication.
Hassan Adamu, a victim held at the same facility, told The Daily Trust that there were dozens of people housed in each room of the facility.
“I am the assistant to the leader of my room. We were 32 in a room. And it is a small room," Adamu explained. "If you are pressed at night or want to defecate, we have cellophane bags that we used and pass through the window for those sleeping in the open to handle."
"As for the urine, we urinate inside a gallon and if you don't have one, you urinate in your food container,” he added. “In the morning, you pour the urine away and use the same container for your pap."
A parent of one of the captives in Daura told Reuters that they “deeply” regret sending their child to the rehabilitation center.
“I was ignorant of what was actually going on here,” the parent contested.
When the first Islamic reform school was raided in Kaduna last month, human rights advocates warned that similar abuses could be facing many other students at other Almajiri schools in Nigeria.
Authorities have estimated that there are more than 9 million students enrolled in Almajiri institutions, according to AFP.
The Abuja-based nongovernmental organization Almajiri Child Rights Initiative reports that Almajiri schools have “some of the shabbiest conditions imaginable” as many victims face “nutritional challenges aggravated by daily street begging and next to no jobs or opportunities for Almajiri adults in an increasingly challenging and competitive world.”
In 2018, the NGO launched the Almajiri Child Rights Day on May 25 to draw international attention to the abuses against Almajiri children.