Nigeria and indeed the international community have been in shock since the discovery of numerous so-called correctional centres that have turned out to be torture houses for young persons between the ages of five and fifty. It all started in September when the police raided Ahmad bin Hambul Centre for Islamic Learning in Kaduna and freed over 300 inmates who had been placed in chains and were regularly beaten and subjected to torture. Further investigation revealed that many kids were regularly subjected to sexual assault and sodomy. The surprise was that most of the inmates were brought to the centres by their parents who paid the authorities in the centres to take good care of their children.
Within a few weeks, dozens of such centres were located all over Northern Nigeria and closed down in Kaduna, Kano, Daura and so on. In one centre in Ilorin where 108 inmates were released from a facility in Gaa Odota, Ilorin, the owner of the facility identified as Abdulraheem Owotutu reportedly said, “the centre is a place where Islam and Arabic is taught as well as a healing centre for mentally-ill people, drug addicts and stubborn children. The State Commissioner of Police, Kayode Egbetokun countered the claims of the facility owner and stated that they received intelligence and surveyed the place for some days before carrying out the raid.The police were of the view that it was simply a torture chamber. The question is why would parents take their children to torture chambers and pay for them to be tortured. In the Ilorin facility, parents pay 100,000 Naira upfront and subsequently pay 15,000 Naira monthly to keep their children there.
One of the inmates in the first centre raided in Kaduna, Bello Hamza explained that he was supposed to be pursuing a Masters Degree in Applied Mathematics in South Africa, when his family members brought him to the centre, three months before his release. He told journalists that he was tricked into the centre by his family members and spent three months in chains. He added that: “They claim to be teaching us Quran and Islam but they do a lot of things here. They subject the younger ones to homosexuality. This is supposed to be an Islamic centre, but trying to run away from here attracts severe punishment; they tie people and hang them to the ceiling for that, but engaging in homosexuality attracts no punishment. Within my short stay here, somebody had died as a result of torture. Others have died before my coming due to poor health and torture. They give us very poor food and we only eat twice a day; 11:00am and 10:00pm. They have denied me a lot of things here. I am a family man, I have responsibilities, but I am chained here not knowing what is happening to my family members.”Clearly, these are horrific and unacceptable conditions but Bello did not however explain why he was taken there.
There are similar centres in the south. In Lagos for example, the police found that Pastor Joseph Ojo of the “Blessing of Goodness Healing Church” was running one such centre from which 15 people were released. Another was discovered at Olore Bus Stop in Ibadan with 259 inmates.
The fact of the matter is that Nigeria is in deep social crisis and drugs, hunger and joblessness has greatly disrupted the mental health of millions of young Nigerians. Dr. Mairo Mandara, one of the most committed and engaged change champion we have has been crying out for years that Nigeria needs to address the drug problem in our society and its consequences. She called for the ban on codeine for years and no one listened. Last year, the BBC studied her work and did a documentary – “Sweet, Sweet Codeine” about the drug problem in Northern Nigeria and four days later the Nigerian Government banned codeine. That’s the world we live in, our government listens to issues only when they are raised by outsiders.
The use of codeine in cough syrup is vast. It is estimated that in Kano and Jigawa States alone, three million bottles are consumed each day. Before the ban, the cough syrup sold for 300 Naira per bottle, today, it sells for 3,000 naira – a tenfold increase in price because the addiction is real and a ban is not enough to stop the opioid epidemic.Codeine is a pain killer but also an addictive opioid, which when taken in excess cause schizophrenia and organ failure. The problem is vast and needs to be addressed seriously.
It is precisely because Government is doing nothing to address the crisis of both addiction and care for those addicts that have become mentally challenged that desperate parents are actively seeking to identify religious organisations offering correctional facilities to cater for their children. The institution of “Gidan Mari” has existed for centuries in Hausaland as correctional facilities run by qualified religious organisations and that is why parents seek them out to send their children. As is often the case in Nigeria, some of such organisations are abusing the persons brought for care. It is not enough to just say that they are torture chambers and should be closed down with no alternative centres to take care of the addicts.
Government has received the report of the Marwa Committee on the matter and should use that as a spring board to develop a comprehensive policy framework to address the social crisis. Standards have to be set for all correctional facilities and they should be registered and inspected regularly. Government should also provide its own centres and provide resources for them. Every weekend as I read about people murdering their parents, raping babies, engaging in incest and so on, what I see is a huge mental health crisis that we are simply not addressing. These criminal acts tell a serious story of the breakdown of social cohesion and collapse of religious values of a society at war with itself. It is not a normal problem that NDLEA can address. The rescued inmates that have been liberated will simply return to old habits of drugs and crime making worse, our already bad situation.
Yes, let’s close down the torture chambers, we have no need for them. What we need urgently is to open humane correctional centres. Even more important is the need to seek serious solutions to the drug addiction and social crisis in our society.