DAURA, Nigeria (Reuters) - The first thing 15-year-old Burhani saw when he arrived at an Islamic reformatory school in October was rows of youths and young men sitting on a courtyard floor, naked, bleeding and in chains.
His father had sent him to the school, famous across northern Nigeria for correcting bad behaviour, because he had been getting into fights and stealing, he said.
Thirteen days later, police descended on the school in the northwestern town of Daura. It was one of at least eight raids on Islamic schools in the region over the past six weeks that local authorities say have uncovered horrific abuse. Nearly 1,500 children and young adults like Burhani were freed in those raids including 259 on Monday in the southwestern city of Ibadan.
The teenager, whose surname is being 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. But they said they retain deep respect for the mallam - or Islamic scholar - in charge. The scholar, Bello Abdullahi, who was arrested and faces charges including cruelty to children, “is a good person and isn’t aware of the 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 these schools were to people in Nigeria and around the world, they have not shaken the underlying devotion of some northerners to the 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 of those interviewed blame the government of Africa’s most populous nation for failing to provide the formal education and services young people need in this impoverished region. And like Burhani and his father, they tend to attribute troubles in the raided schools to lower-level teachers, rather than to 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 locally as almajiri schools, help fill the void, enrolling an estimated 10 million students.
“If today we decide to close all of the almajiri schools … there would be an educational crisis, said Mohammed Sabo Keana of the Abuja-based nonprofit group Almajiri Child Rights Initiative, which advocates for 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 Oct. 19 statement that the government would not tolerate “torture chambers” that mistreat young people.
With mental health and substance abuse programs scarce, some mallams in recent decades have offered to treat behavioural problems including drug addiction and delinquency, attracting students from across West Africa.
Each raided school had presented itself as a place of Islamic learning that also 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. But some pay tens of 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.
“The government is supposed to handle the (drug) situation, but the burden is too much for them,” said the father, who, like some others interviewed, declined to be named for fear of government retribution.
As for the now-shuttered school, he said, he’d send his son back if he could.
Some child advocates told Reuters that the schools receive little, if any, oversight from the government.
The head of the Presidential Advisory Committee on the Elimination of Drug Abuse, Mohammed Buba Marwa, visited three schools in the months before they were raided, according to two former students and a mallam who helped at one of the centres.
One of the schools, 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 city’s football club.
Hamisu, known locally as Mallam Nigas, was arrested and charged after police said they found men and boys who had been chained, molested and beaten at the Kaduna school and a sister school in the city of 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 who lives near the border with Niger, said her family paid 160,000 naira ($521) to enroll her 30-year-old nephew at Hamisu’s Katsina school for drug treatment.
Hamisu told Alasan he would be healed through prayer, she said.
But when she visited one Friday she found the young man in chains, begging to be released, she told Reuters. His father later demanded that he be unshackled but kept the young man in the school.
“He wanted his son to stop taking drugs,” Alasan said.
Soon after their release from the Daura school, Burhani and another student described their experiences to Reuters, providing a glimpse of students’ daily activities on the inside.
Burhani said he would wake up at 3 a.m., 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, who added that he saw neither family nor friends during more than a year at the school. He said teachers would call students to the courtyard at 6 a.m., where they would be beaten, naked, as they washed.
The beatings continued as they hopped or shuffled across the courtyard, with chains around their ankles, to fetch the wooden boards inscribed with Koranic verses that they were instructed to read, Burhani said.
Burhani and Surajo both bear scars on their backs and ankles - Burhani’s still a raw pink.
Food was meagre: a ball of boiled corn flour or mashed rice in the afternoon and again in the evening.
Police have said sexual abuse was rife at the schools, though did not single Daura out. The two young men at Daura interviewed by Reuters confirmed the practice.
“Some of the teachers were having sex with the boys; I would hear it always,” Surajo said.
Masuda Rafindadi, who runs an Islamic school in Katsina, attended the school two decades ago and still bears scars that he said are from beatings there. But he said lashings were needed to correct bad behaviour.
Today he beats some of his 100 students, although does not chain them, he said. He had nothing but praise for his teacher, Abdullahi.
“For the whole of our time, mallam gave us love,” he said.
(The story refiles to remove extra letter in paragraph three).
Reporting by Paul Carsten in Daura, Ahmed Kingimi and Ola Lanre in Maiduguri, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Garba Muhammad in Kaduna, and Felix Onuah and Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Editing by Alexis Akwagyiram, Alexandra Zavis and Julie Marquis