The first thing 15-year-old Burhani saw when he arrived at an Islamic reformatory school in October was rows of youth sitting on a courtyard floor, naked, bleeding and in chains.
His father sent him to the school, famous across northern Nigeria for correcting bad behaviour, because he was fighting and stealing, he said.
Thirteen days later, police descended on the school in Daura. It was one of at least eight raids on Islamic schools in the region over the past six weeks local authorities say uncovered horrific abuse. Nearly 1 500 children and young adults were freed in the raids including 259 on Monday in Ibadan.
A teenager, whose surname is withheld because he is a minor, doesn’t want to go back to the Daura school, nor would his father send him, both told Reuters. They retain deep respect for the mallam – or Islamic scholar – in charge. The scholar, Bello Abdullahi, was arrested and faces charges including cruelty to children, “is a good person and isn’t aware of ill treatment” by his teaching staff, said Burhani’s father, Yahaya.
Abdullahi could not be reached for comment and authorities would not say whether he has an attorney.
As shocking as the revelations about the schools were to people in Nigeria and around the world, they have not shaken the underlying devotion of some northerners to religious leaders who ran the raided centres, nor to the centuries-old Islamic education system from which they emerged, according to Reuters’ interviews with 17 current and former students, parents and community leaders.
Many interviewed blame the government of Africa’s most populous nation for failing to provide formal education and services young people need. Like Burhani and his father, they attribute troubles in the raided schools to lower-level teachers, rather than the revered mallams.
State institutions cannot meet the educational or social welfare needs of the booming, mostly Muslim population in the north, experts and child advocates say, largely because of limited and poorly distributed resources. Fewer than half the children in the region attend government primary schools, according to the latest official figures, from 2015.
Islamic schools, known as almajiri schools, help fill the void, enrolling an estimated 10 million students.
“If today we decide to close all the almajiri schools there would be an educational crisis,” said Mohammed Sabo Keana of the Abuja-based non-profit group Almajiri Child Rights Initiative, which advocates better conditions in the centres.
The office of the presidency repeatedly declined to comment on Reuters’ findings. Officials at individual ministries responsible for overseeing the schools declined to comment or referred Reuters to other ministries that did not respond.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, said in an October statement government would not tolerate “torture chambers” mistreating young people.
With mental health and substance abuse programmes scarce, some mallams treat behavioural problems including drug addiction and delinquency, attracting students from across West Africa.
Each raided school presented itself as a place of Islamic learning that could heal unruly loved ones.
Parents pay as little as 500 naira ($1.38) a month for children to study in almajiri schools, said Sabo Keana. Some pay thousands more to treat what they see as unacceptable behaviour.
One father told Reuters he paid 50,000 naira ($163) in registration fees plus an additional 10,000 naira a month to send his adult son to the Daura school for drug treatment – a significant sum in a country where the average monthly wage is $163.
“Government is supposed to handle the drug situation, but the burden is too much,” said the father, who, like some others interviewed, declined to be named for fear of government retribution.
As for the now-shuttered school he would send his son back if he could.
PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITY
Some child advocates told Reuters the schools receive little, if any, oversight from government.
The head of the Presidential Advisory Committee on the Elimination of Drug Abuse, Mohammed Buba Marwa, visited three schools before they were raided, according to former students and a mallam who helped at one.
A school in Kaduna touted the event on its Facebook page, posting photos of Buba Marwa with the mallam, Salisu Hamisu, on April 15.
Also on the page were photos underscoring the respected role of the mallam in the community. He is shown officiating at weddings, appearing on local radio and receiving a certificate of recognition from the local football club.
Hamisu, known locally as Mallam Nigas, was arrested and charged after police said they found men and boys chained, molested and beaten at the Kaduna school and a sister school in Katsina.
Hamisu could not be reached for comment and authorities would not say whether he has a lawyer.
Buba Marwa, the presidential committee official, did not respond to requests for comment.
Huraira Alasan, a 50-year-old cake seller, said her family paid 160,000 naira ($521) to enrol her 30-year-old nephew at Hamisu’s Katsina school for drug treatment.
Hamisu told Alasan he would be healed through prayer, she said.
When she visited once she found the young man in chains, begging to be released, she told Reuters. His father later demanded he be unshackled but kept the young man in the school.
“He wanted his son to stop taking drugs,” Alasan said.
Soon after release from the Daura school, Burhani and another student described their experiences to Reuters, giving a glimpse of student activities.
Burhani said he would wake at 3 am, unable to sleep from the unbearable heat in his unventilated quarters.
Boys and men were packed 40 or 50 to a room meant for eight, said Suleiman Surajo (25) adding he saw neither family or friends during more than a year at the school. He said teachers would call students to the courtyard at 6 am, where they would be beaten, naked, as they washed.
Beatings continued as they hopped or shuffled chained across the courtyard to fetch wooden boards inscribed with Koranic verses they were instructed to read, Burhani said.
Burhani and Surajo both have scars on their backs and ankles – Burhani’s still raw.
Food was meagre: a ball of boiled corn flour or mashed rice in the afternoon and again in the evening.
Police said sexual abuse was rife at the schools but did not single Daura out. The two young men at Daura interviewed by Reuters confirmed the practice.
“Some teachers were having sex with the boys; I would hear it,” Surajo said.
Masuda Rafindadi, who runs an Islamic school in Katsina, attended the school two decades ago and still bears scars from beatings there. He said lashings were needed to correct bad behaviour.
Today he beats some of his 100 students but does not chain them he said. He had only praise for his teacher, Abdullahi.
“For the whole of our time, mallam gave us love,” he said.