In the last couple of weeks, the news media has been inundated with reports of torture houses across the country. Many of these houses were hitherto presented to the public as religious correctional facilities to help rehabilitate people, especially juveniles with issues bordering on delinquencies and mental health. In September when one of these centres first became public, it was reported that nearly 500 men and boys had been rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, where the detainees were allegedly sexually abused and tortured, with visible injuries and evidence of starvation.
Those chained in the supposedly Islamic school included children as young as five. The children were taken there voluntarily by relatives who believed the facility was a Koranic school. In the months of October and November, similar centres have been located in Zaria, Katsina, Yola, Ilorin and Ibadan. A study of the situation by Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that thousands of Nigerians with mental health conditions face prolonged detention, chaining, physical and sexual violence or forced treatment, including electric shock therapy. It stated further that this mistreatment is “rife” in both Christian and Islamic faith healing centres and state hospitals and rehabilitation centres.
In response to these media reports, the president’s office issued a statement declaring that it would not “tolerate the existence of the torture chambers and physical abuses of inmates in the name of rehabilitation.” But what the president has failed to address is the failure of government at all levels to address social problems associated with delinquency, addiction and mental illness. Indeed, the proliferation of such centres is the consequence of the effort by non-state actors, including traditional healing centres, to fill the vacuum created by the failures of state provisioning. Many states have social welfare ministries and departments that are starved of funds or lack the technical capacity to respond to the needs of communities. Thus, people spend years in institutions created to cater for such patients due to inadequate support services. What is more, Nigeria has less than 300 psychiatrists rendering services to its population of over 200 million. As HRW puts it, because most Nigerians cannot afford mental health care, they resort to “traditional religious healing centres, where prayer and herbal treatments are prescribed”.
In many communities, religious bodies of different hues have become major players in mental health. This role of religious organisations is further buttressed and reinforced by the prevalence of stigma and misconceptions, including beliefs that mental health conditions are caused by evil spirits or demons. In such religious facilities, the patients are sometimes detained, tortured, abused and forced to live in very dehumanizing conditions as forms of religious treatment.
It is surprising that state governments are still pretending to come to terms with the existence of such centres. They are known to have been in existence in several parts of the country for decades. There are many of such ungoverned spaces where diverse organisations operate outside the purview of any government. Such places are home to a number of crimes, including human trafficking, modern slavery and religious extremism. With regard to security, they demonstrate the weak intelligence gathering capacity of the government. They also demonstrate the fragility of the country and poor penetration of the security agencies.
We call on the various levels of government to treat the situation with the seriousness it deserves in a concerted manner. The government must seek out and thoroughly investigate the legal status of each of such centres. It must recognise such facilities where they are properly established and found to be working. Those operating illegally or operating as labour or slavery camps must be closed down and their operators made to face the wrath of the law.
The government must admit that the centres have proliferated as a result of the poor or non-existent government reformatory or rehabilitation centres. That is why some parents of children rescued from the illegal centres have protested the decision to close them down. The government should provide minimum standards for the provision of such services and exercise due diligence in monitoring and supporting the work of these independent centres. Chaining and other forms of abuses must be abolished in such centres. Importantly, too, the government must demonstrate commitment to these standards by ensuring that its own rehabilitation centres are adequately funded, effectively run, and provide predictable and quality services to patients.
Above all, it is the prime responsibility of the government to protect the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. As such, the government should carry out public enlightenment campaigns on mental health conditions and the rights of persons with mental health and related problems. This is to raise awareness on how to handle such issues and provide adequate and proper care by stakeholders, including alternative mental health service providers, community members, leaders of faith-based organisations and the media.