Aisha could not sustain the memory of living without a mother; she tried to abscond from home again but her father caught her this time.
For four months, 17-year-old Aisha Hakeem was caged in a cell at the Ayegbami Islamic Centre in the Oremeji area of Ibadan, Oyo State. She had been enrolled in the Islamic school for rehabilitation after repeatedly disobeying her father.
Born into a broken family, her parents live separately. Aisha wanted to stay with her mother but her father would not allow her. Frustrated, she left her father's house in Ibadan for Lagos in search of her mother. But a relative of her father saw her roaming the Lagos streets and took her back to Ibadan.
Aisha could not sustain the memory of living without a mother; she tried to abscond from home again but her father caught her this time. Her punishment for attempting to run away in search of her mother? A torture home.
"I was in Junior Secondary School 1 when my dad brought me here,” she recalled, describing how the Mualim – an Arabic word for the Islamic instructor – would appear to pass her meals in the small cell she was caged in. “He will pass the plate of food through this open space of the net and after eating, he will come to pick the plates and cup by himself.”
The Home Of Torture And Abuse
In the interior area of Ibadan city, a torture home is operated unhindered in the Ayegbami Islamic centre. Named after the founder of the supposed Islamic school, Saheed Ayegbami, unscrupulous parents seeking rehabilitation for their tough children enrol them for revival. But rather than infuse Islamic knowledge in the children, many of them — tagged petty thieves, addicts and scoundrels — are trapped in cages, chained, starved and largely maltreated “like animals”.
Venturing into the centre earlier this year, I observed that the torture home is embedded in a four-bedroom bungalow with faded paintings, broken windows and a filthy environment. Situated about 5km away from the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, a rusted gate could be sighted beside the building leading to an unkempt kitchen and two small rooms with heavy urine odour. In the living room of the apartment, the teacher tends to his visitors.
At least 20 students are crammed in each of the rooms, according to undercover interviews with pupils and those familiar with activities in the Arabic school.
Residents of this area told me that students “with chains tied around their legs” in the Islamic school always beg passers-by for food. Many of the students, residents said, have become even worse after they enrolled in the torture house.
"There was a boy in this area who was doing fine before he was brought to this Arabic school, but now he has become another thing,” a resident of the area told me. “Most of the pupils there always beg for survival.”
What It Takes To Enrol Your Child In A Torture Home
On July 30, I presented myself as an elderly sister willing to enrol her stubborn younger brother at the said Islamic centre. My mission was to gain access to the torture home and it didn’t take much time before the teacher, popularly known as Alfa Ayegbami, fell for the bait. After listening to the story I had concocted to suit my posture, Ayegbami asked me and my guide to pay three thousand naira (N3,000) for the admission form.
He also told us that the rules and regulations that govern the school were stated in the white paper.
A part of the guideline pages stated how much parents or guardians willing to enrol their children must pay. The admission form is N3,000 and the acceptance fee into the Islamic school is N2,000. The feeding fee for a student below 15 years old is N3,000 weekly while a student whose age is above 15 is expected to pay N5,000 weekly.
One of the rules of the Islamic school is the compulsory presence of either the father or mother of the child before admission. Parents are urged to come and check on their children once a month. Parents are also expected to buy bathing soap and toothpaste for their children and those who want their children to have Arabic knowledge must buy them a copy of the Quran.
It is also enshrined in his rules that parents can't visit or take students that came for rehabilitation three months after admission.
To be sure, we demanded to see how some of the tough students were chained because the child we were about to enrol in could be really hard to handle. Ayegbami then boasted about torturing some students for more than two years. He said chaining and torturing the students are designed to make their rehabilitation process faster.
"This person I am showing you is 43 years old; he used to smoke heavily before his parents brought him here,” he said as he moved us around the torture house. “The funniest thing is that he is deaf and dumb, but since he arrived in this place, his character has changed; before he was enrolled here, he used to get drunk to the extent that he would disturb the peace of the community, but now he is a changed person and has been here for two years.”
The Diabolic Rehabilitation And The Pains Of Chained Students
Feared for possessing diabolical powers, some of his neighbours warned me and my guide not to put our child under the watch of the Islamic cleric. I had sighted some mentally unstable persons in the Islamic centre but Ayegbami claimed those were students undergoing his rehabilitation in his torture home.
On several occasions, he had been seen making diabolical concoctions and magic black soap to heal some of his “mentally retarded” students. Residents said they suspected that some of the concoctions he gives his students make their condition worse or mentally unstable rather than heal them.
What Ayegbami said when I told him my younger brother might not follow me to the Islamic school confirmed that the suggestions of his neighbours about his diabolical powers might be true. He had assured me that he would perform some magic to force my supposed brother to the school.
"Just let me know when you want your brother to get here; I know what to do spiritually to make sure he gets here that day,” he had said.
Many of the students I discreetly engaged in the school confirmed that Ayegbami had given them some black soap to use for a spiritual bath. They said they had also been asked to take some concoctions months after they were enrolled in the school.
"We used to eat concoctions and drink some spiritual herbs whenever we felt unhealthy,” Aisha told me; her claims were corroborated by interviews with other students. “He used to give us black soap to bathe at times; he told us that this will make our healing faster."
During my first visit to the Islamic school, the clanking of chains on the students' shackled legs could be heard. Some were chained; others were caged and only two pupils were allowed to move freely. I observed that boys and girls as young as 10 were seen in different parts of Ayegbami's compound. Many were visibly bearing scars from beatings and numerous tortures. I also saw children shuffled with their ankles manacled and others had their legs chained to prevent them from an unprecedented escape.
One boy, identified as Tajudeen, was seen trudging unsteadily. He had sores on his back that appeared consistent with injuries inflicted by a whip and looked tattered and unhealthy. A few weeks earlier when the cleric went out for a public function, some of the pupils found their way out of the torture home.
"One of those that have escaped is nicknamed Alhaji; he is an adult and because our master feels he might destroy the cage and run someday, he chained him on the leg and left him in the compound,” Aisha narrated to me. Her experience in the torture home is similar to several others whom I interviewed at the local “rehab centre”.
Segun Olatokun, 34, was brought to Ayegbami in 2015. He was said to be an addicted smoker who needed rehabilitation. After trying several places, Segun's parents were advised to take him to the Ayegbami Islamic centre for some spiritual healing. Now, he had spent more than six months under the care of the cleric and also paid more than N200,000 to him but residents and students of the torture home said Segus’s condition has only gone worse.
Segun's father, Olatunde Olatokun, who spoke with me said he regretted taking his son to the Islamic school for rehabilitation. The father added that the family later took Segun away from the school when they noticed there was no positive change.
"There was a time, the cleric said he needed to slaughter goats to make some sacrifice for my son, I bought everything he ordered me to get but nothing changed about him,” he said. "During his stay, Segun was caged. I used to visit him there. It is just that nothing about him changed; he became worse. I just wasted money for the whole period that he was there.”
The Consequence Of Running A Torture Home
Child torture remains widespread in the world. The largest group of tortured children are among refugees, according to a report by Amnesty International, a global human rights think tank. There are high numbers of unaccompanied children, mainly from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Amongst them, are child soldiers and those affected by armed conflict street violence. A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it is estimated that up to 1 billion children aged 2–17 years have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year globally.
Emmanuel Abayomi, a consultant psychiatrist at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro, Abeokuta explained that the consequence of what those students are facing at the Islamic school is potential harm to their physical and mental health. Abuse is a stressful experience for children; it can actually impair the development of their brains, he said, adding that such children can end up with mental health consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorders, panic and other anxiety disorders, depression and suicidal behaviours, and drugs and alcohol use.
"Some other consequences include antisocial behaviour, bullying, self-harm, suicide, teenage pregnancy, smoking, poorer educational attainment, reduced economic productivity, and even poorer quality of life for the child, not to mention the family, and the nation at large,” he noted.
Yinka Folarin, the Group Chairman of the Committee for Defense of Human Rights in Ogun State, the Ayegbami Islamic Centre cleric should be examined psychologically for caging and abusing children and treating adults like animals.
"I will recommend that such a teacher should be subjected to psychiatric tests because ordinarily, your responsibility is to teach not to maltreat, not to descend on innocent children and also, you should not force the child against his or her wish,” he said. "There are ways of dealing with our children, when a child is not corporative you have to adopt all the methods, it is not for you to feel that the next thing is to take up a cane and start beating the child.”
Folarin, however, said that stakeholders need to raise an alarm to condemn the "heinous act". He noted that children are the future of the nation and should be taught and trained with respect. “That is the only way they can grow positively but when you deprive them of all this, you will be killing their courage and you will not make them become what they want to be in life,” he said, adding that “a threat to a child is a threat to the future; it is a threat to the nation, it is a threat to human rights."
'It Is Against The Doctrine Of Islam'
Sheikh Yayah Salaudeen, the founder of the Muslim Association Forum in Ibadan, said maltreating students in Arabic and Islamic schools is against the doctrines of the religion. He noted that the best way to rehabilitate stubborn students is by preaching the words of God to them and ensuring they understand them. He stressed that Islamic schools should get approval from the government before chaining or caging students.
"Those clerics chaining their students ought to have registered at the appropriate quarters with the aim of training thugs. If the government gives permission they can go ahead and if the government insists that students should not be chained, they should stop maltreating their students,” he said.
The Islamic cleric, however, blamed the government for not establishing rehabilitation centres where such children can be trained for revival.
This story was produced with support from the Tiger Eye Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.