– Akubeze Okocha
On 16th April 2019, 19 children were allegedly abducted from their church in Jiwa, Gwagwa, a small community in the forgotten suburbs of Abuja, by officials of the Social Development Secretariat (SDS), a department of the Federal Capital Development Authority, (FCDA). The children were held in the Unity Orphanage Home and Youth Support Centre in Gwagwalada and remained separated from their parents for almost 3 months, until our intervention in June 2019.
The significance of this case was appreciated immediately it was mentioned by an officer from the Anti Human Trafficking Unit of the FCT Criminal Investigation Department on 13th June 2019. The officer recalled that they had been put on the case in April 2019, upon a complaint from the SDS, about children who were being trafficked out of an illegal orphanage at Jiwa. However, after investigating, the officer discovered that the children were actually in church with their parents and that no crime had been committed. The officer, however, felt the need to refer the case as a result of the attitude of the Acting Secretary of the SDS, Hajiya Safiya Umar, as she kept stalling and suggesting that the kids had been given out for adoption.
Upon hearing about the case, I met with the pastor of the church, Prophetess Deborah Osho who explained how on the evening of 16 April, a group, including Hajiya Safiya Umar of the SDS, officials of the Nigerian Police Force, some NTA videographers and other pressmen, stormed into her church and carried everyone in attendance to the Chief’s Palace, on allegations that she was running an Orphanage out of which children were being trafficked. After an interview at the Chief’s palace, the children were taken to the Orphanage and Prophetess Deborah and her brother were kept in police custody for three days. On the third day, the case was transferred to C.I.D. shortly after which they were released on bail.
From April till June 2019, the pastor, the parents and the police had been going back and forth with Hajiya Safiya Umar of the SDS trying to reunite the children with their parents. Some of the parents even claimed that they had gone to SDS office and to the Unity Orphanage but that they were stopped from seeing their children by the officials. So, Amara Nwakpa, Jennifer Ogbogu and I decided to pay an undercover visit to the Orphanage in Gwagwalada.
We took two parents with us, but our cover was quickly blown as one parent spotted two of her children and began bawling. We beat a quick retreat out of the Orphanage, but we had our first confirmation that the parents’ story was credible, so we proceeded to visit the community. We interviewed the pastor and the parents. They were all so broken as they shared how helpless and afraid, they were. One 42-year-old man said he had considered killing himself as his wife had died six months earlier and now his only children were gone. By the time we finished interviewing all the parents, it was clear that we had gathered real evidence that the children had parents and that they were unjustly taken from the care of their families.
The following Monday, we scheduled a meeting with the FCT Social Development Secretariat (SDS), the police and the parents. Acting Secretary Hajiya Safiya Umar showed up for the meeting, with the Director of Gender, Agnes Hart. They had a brief private meeting with the police, after which the police invited us into the room, released the children to their parents and asked the parents to thank Madam SDS and promise to mind their kids better. This was no happy ending, but rather a sad realisation of the shameful and destructive operations of the SDS.
In post-release interviews, the children testified that they were subject to poor and hazardous living conditions while they were kept in the Unity Orphanage. They complained that they were made to wear the same underwear and that they all had to share one bathing sponge throughout their stay. They also complained about their diet as they ate noodles and rice every day and their access to education as they were kept out of school. The children also noted that they were subject to corporal punishment and neglect. One child recalled how she dislocated her arm when she fell off a bunk bed and she was not given proper medical care. At present, the arm is still dislocated, and numerous other children are suffering from infections and various other illnesses.
Prophetess Deborah complained that the incident which happened on the 16th of April was a personal attack on her and her church by the Chief of Jiwa. She alleged that she had been having issues with some of the neighbours who are predominantly Muslim after she started building the church, especially after some of her neighbour’s children started coming to play in the church. She also noted that the man she bought the land from tried to reclaim it from her on the grounds that he did not know she would use the land to build a church. Prophetess Deborah and some of the other parents have also complained that they are now afraid of living and practising their religion in that area. They fear that the Chief will still come after them and their children again. When I went to visit the church on 7 July 2019, a random churchgoer said that he heard some of the Chief’s boys say that they were planning something for two people in the church.
Considering all this, we reached out to Save the Children to request intervention and also Samuel Ogundipe and Nike Adebowale of Premium Times. Save the Children connected us to the Child Protection Network (CPN) who accompanied us back to visit the community post-reunion. After this visit though, they became unresponsive and it was revealed that the SDS that was responsible for the abductions was also a member of the CPN.
The SDS was reported in some news outlets as the rescuers of the children when in reality they were the ones endangering the children, exposing them to diseases, abuse and neglect. A further investigation into the SDS Unity Orphanage by Nike Adebowale of Premium Times produced a more credible report which confirmed how children are subject to poor treatment and substandard living conditions in the home.
If you follow human rights news then you would recognise that it is the same SDS that masterminded the arbitrary abduction and oversaw the abuse of women on the streets of Abuja, calling them prostitutes. The same SDS that caused us to pour out on the streets in protest. The same SDS that is now the subject of an NHRC hearing on the #AbujaRaids. Yes, the same SDS that was involved in the violation and denigration of women is the same body involved in the violation and denigration of children and it appears that the SDS uses these arbitrary abductions of women and children to make money. Women and children are the bedrock of any society and so the Social Development Secretariat must be mindful that it appears to have turned into a vessel for Social Destruction!
Akubeze Okocha is a Lawyer, Vlogger and Advocate for Gender Equality and Human Rights.