It was a rainy day, making it difficult for the reporter to navigate the wet and slightly muddy road that leads to Unity Orphanage Home and Youth Support Centre, Gwagwalada.
Walking through the front gate, the reporter’s expectations of an orphanage were disappointed by the scene of barefooted and scantily clad children roaming under the downpour.
However, this did not come as a shock, since Elijah Osho, a 15 years old former occupant of the home, had told this newspaper that children are being maltreated in the home.
“Whenever it rains, they don’t give us a sweater or something thick to reduce the cold. We just wear normal clothes no matter the cold.
“The cold gets worse at night because we sleep on the floor every night. Only the big ones were allowed to sleep on the bed,” Elijah had told the reporter.
Though not an orphan, he was one of the 19 children ‘rescued’ from an ‘illegal orphanage’ by officials of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Social Development Secretariat (SDS). The ‘illegal facility’ was run by a church, Mountain of Mercy Deliverance and Refuge Ark, led by Elijah’s mother, Deborah Osho, as the pastor.
The children were taken to the Unity Orphanage owned by the Federal Capital Territory Authority (FCTA), where they were kept for two months.
Elijah, who is the eldest amongst the children, told this reporter how they were taken from their church, denied access to their parents and treated poorly at the home.
How it all started
An investigation by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that a team, led by Safiya Umar, the Acting Secretary of SDS, on April 16 stormed Mountain of Mercy Deliverance and Refuge Ark in Jiwa community where the children were worshipping with their parents.
The team whisked the children away as their parents watched helplessly.
It was gathered that the officials stormed the church following reports that Mrs Osho, the pastor of the church, had converted the building to an illegal orphanage.
The pastor, however, denied the allegations. She said the parents of the children were in the church at the time the officials raided the premises.
She said the church was not registered as an orphanage because she was only helping the children and their parents who are members of her church.
“This church is not registered as an orphanage, so I know it is wrong. The parents don’t have money to send their children to school; so I offered to employ someone to teach them within the church premises during the week.
“They come in the morning and go back to their houses at night. I’m not taking any money from the parents; the children eat at the church when they come in the morning, take lunch and also eat before going home at night.
“When the government came, I told them the children are members of the church but they turned deaf ears. They locked me up in the police station at GwaGwa and they took the children away,” Mrs Osho said.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited the church located at Jiwa, there were no traces of mattresses, clothes or other materials to indicate that the building was an orphanage or that children slept there.
The building, which was unpainted, has about three iron doors, four windows with no net, some musical instruments and a few plastic chairs.
At the time of the visit, some children were sitting on the rough cement floor.
Elijah narrated his ordeal at the FCT facility to PREMIUM TIMES.
“My first night at the orphanage the government took us to was terrible. We spent two months at the place but it seems like years because of the way we were treated,” he said.
“The night we got there, we were told to sleep on the bare floor but I told them we cannot sleep on the floor, I had to go around looking for bed space for some of the younger ones to sleep on,” he said.
He also said the nannies used one sponge in bathing all the kids.
“The next morning, all the children were asked to come out so they could take their bath. I noticed they used the same sponge they had been using for others before our arrival to bath all the children.
“In less than two days after we arrived at the home, some of the younger ones started having skin infections. They are always scratching their bodies and crying because of the pain,” he said.
He alleged that they were not given clothes.
“The trouser I wore the day they took us away was the only one I was wearing until it got torn.
“I was left with only my boxer, which I had to keep wearing because they didn’t give me clothes,” he said.
“I was ill for about two weeks and most times, they gave me medicines without food. In an instance, I didn’t eat all day and they came to give me drugs. I told Mummy Nurse I was hungry and she gave me garri to drink.
“The nannies there are very wicked. Mama Igbo uses cable wire to flog little children.
“Aunt Mary also flogs the kids mercilessly. She puts the kids’ heads between her laps and pounds the child,” he said.
In an effort to verify the children’s claims, this reporter visited the orphanage twice.
It was raining heavily on the first day of the visit.
Some of the children were roaming about under the rain and those that were not in the rain also had no sweater. Most of them are below the age of 10.
Some of the children looked unhealthy and dirty, some of them wearing torn clothes.
About nine of the children who the reporter came across had different kinds of infections on various parts of their body.
Some had infections on their private parts, some on their heads, some on their arms and some all over the body.
After a tour around the building, the reporter went round to check on some of the officials of the home.
The reporter met one of the nannies forcibly feeding a physically challenged child.
She used a piece of cloth to hold the child’s head back as she forced the food down her throat.
When challenged by the reporter on her method of feeding, she said that was the only way the child could be fed due to her health challenges.
The nanny also told the reporter, who was there in the guise of a donor, that the home lacks lots of things.
“The children don’t have pampers, they lack clothes, provisions, food items and you can bring anything you think they will need.
“The government are doing somethings but they can do better. They are government, they have the power and the money. So they need to pay attention to this place,” she said.
Another worker, who asked not to be named because he has no permission to speak to journalists, confirmed what Elijah had told the reporter.
He said some of the children sleep on the floor because of inadequate beds at the home. But he said the government was now supplying them mattresses.
He also said some of the little children suffer from infections that are left untreated.
During the second visit, one of the orphans in the home, identified as Blessing, told the reporter that they were not being treated like children.
Thirteen-year-old Blessing was vomiting and sat helplessly in front of her dormitory at the time the reporter arrived.
Nannies, nurses and other staff walked past Blessing but none of them stopped to offer her any support.
“I have been ill for one week now. The nurses have been giving me drugs but I am not feeling better.”
She also said some people were sleeping on the floor when there was no adequate bed space.
“Sleeping on the floor stopped just recently in my room. I don’t know about the boys’ side. Before, when they bring more people, there is not enough space for everyone. So they tell some people to sleep on the floor,” she said.
There are four buildings with many rooms. Some of the rooms had bunks with mattresses on them while some bunks were empty.
In the building for the little kids, there were no bunks. The mattresses were placed on the floor.
The reporter also noticed that most parts of the window nets were bad. Some had pulled out completely while others were just hanging in the air.
One of the nannies said the kids use mosquito nets at night to prevent mosquitoes bites.
Staff are underpaid
The staff who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said they are poorly paid compared to the kind of work they do.
He said the highest-paid person receives N15,000 monthly.
“The director comes at the end of the month, counts N10,000 or N15,000 as the case may be and hands it over to us. It is not fair, this work we are doing is very stressful and we deserve a good salary.
“You see some of the nannies beating the children carelessly. My sister, they are doing that out of frustration. If they are not happy, they cannot be happy with the children,” he said.
“If you want the children to be happy and treated nicely, then treat the nannies that are in charge of the children right,” he said.
Official says allegations untrue
The Director of Gender, Social Development Secretariat (SDS), Agnes Hart, claimed that the findings and the allegations are false.
Mrs Hart, who is in charge of child welfare, said the chief of Jiwa community reported to the SDS that he suspected some movement of children he was not comfortable with.
According to her, they “rescued” the 19 children from the church”illegal orphanage”, profiled them and kept them at the Unity Orphanage.
She said after the issue was reviewed, they handed the children back to the owner of the “illegal orphanage” officially.
She claimed that no child sleeps on the floor at the orphanage even when told some of the children confirmed so.
“No child in the Unity Children’s home, Gwako, sleeps on the floor. Government is very responsible and proactive. We have more than enough beds and mattresses, blankets and the children use them for their benefits.
On the poor salary of the staff, she said the workers do not work every day and they live close to the orphanage.
“They only work three days in and three days out in a week, that is about nine days in a month. And their salary for me, in fairness, is just adequate,” she said.
“We have more than enough clothes. We took lots of clothes for the children because we buy lots of clothes for them. Some of the clothes are kept specially for them because you know how careless children can be. Just on Saturday, I went in there to sort out clothes and I burnt so many old clothes.
“This is also raining season so clothes don’t get easily dried. So we are getting a washing machine that will help us to wash and dry. The place is alive and we are working,” she said.
Speaking on the capacity of the home, she said: “We have 91 children at the home.
“The home is utilising four bungalows. Each bungalow has four bedrooms, sitting rooms, a kitchen and two toilets. The grown-up kids are housed separately. Five children to a room with one caregiver is the global standard and best practice.
“The home can comfortably accommodate 100 children. This figure is not permanent because the home is a temporal shelter for vulnerable children,” she said.
A Human Right Issue
The Director, Corporate Affairs and External Linkages of the National Human Right Commission (NHRC), Lambert Opara, described the alleged poor care of children at the orphanage as a human rights violation.
He said the commission will probe the management of the orphanage and ensure appropriate sanctions is meted out to anyone found guilty.
“The information you are giving us is seriously a human right issue and the commission is going to carry out on the spot investigation about it and the circumstances surrounding the management of the orphanage.
“The Child Right Act is against maltreatment of children and the commission frowns at any such treatment being melted to children.
“If the information is true, we will certainly set up a machinery to ensure that those who are involved in this dastardly act are brought to book and appropriate sanctions will be melted against them,” he said.
Women Lawyers (FIDA) had brought the issue of children at the orphanage to the attention of PREMIUM TIMES.
A representative of FIDA, Akubueze Okocha, said the organisation will continue to protect the rights of women and children in Nigeria.
Ms Okocha was in charge of the children’s case.
“As an organisation with a mandate to promote, protect and preserve the rights of women and children in Nigeria, FIDA Nigeria could not sit back idly and watch while children were abducted from their parents and kept away from them in degrading conditions for over two months.
“FIDA Nigeria was stirred to intervene to ensure that these children were reunited with their parents.
“FIDA Nigeria calls for the investigation and reform of the home and for the training of government staff so that such abductions and abuse can be avoided in the future and so that the best interests of the child will be upheld in our society,” she said.