The seven-year-old had spent just one academic term at his new school in Abuja when he told his mother he would not be returning to the institution, a special facility for children with disability. Using sign language, the boy, born with speech and hearing impairment, said he feared he may be killed.
"They will kill me if I return to that school," Hannatu Usman recalled her son saying.
Alarmed, Mrs Usman, a medical doctor, pressed for details. The boy motioned about being sodomised and being forced to perform oral sex on older school mates. He spoke about being driven in the night to a gathering where men killed and conducted rituals, drew children's blood and forced them to perform erotic acts. The boy said he was brutalised whenever he refused to do as instructed.
On March 26, the minister of education, Adamu Adamu, said after weeks of investigation, a government panel had found no evidence of occult or cannibalism in the school. He dismissed the claim by the Usman family as "unfounded and baseless", and said the panel based its conclusion in part on the fact that no other parent reported missing children at the school at Kuje, about 37 kilometres from the Abuja city centre.
Mr Adamu said the allegation of sexual abuse could not be confirmed because Mrs Usman had refused to meet with the panel, alongside her son. "However, the doors are still open for her to come forward and testify," the minister told a news conference. "This is because as things stand today, this report is inconclusive as her major allegation of her son's abuse has not been conclusively established nor can it be dismissed with a wave of the hand."
He, however, acknowledged that a police investigation had confirmed the boy had been sexually assaulted. The Abuja police commissioner, Bala Ciroma, confirmed the finding to PREMIUM TIMES.
The report, first by the Abuja-based Human Rights Radio, that a child with a disability was sexually abused at a school his family hoped will help him with care, terrified parents and angered rights advocates, not less because it happened in the nation's capital. Ahead of the announcement by the minister, a civil society group, Human and Environmental Development Agenda, said in a petition to the National Human Rights Commission that "the case is one deserving of immediate and urgent intervention and investigation."
Now, interviews by PREMIUM TIMES with the boy's family, officials and pupils at the school, police and other government personnel, paint a troubling picture of what appears to be a rare case of brutal abuse of a minor that went unnoticed, which the authorities now struggle to come to terms with.
While the family and police said the child was sexually molested repeatedly, education ministry officials, other parents and residents of Kuje scoffed at the idea the abuse happened.
"The news is rubbish and a complete lie. My son has never made any complaint of such to me," said Fagbade Oyesoji, whose 11-year-old son has been in the school since 2015.
Another parent, Hassula Saleh, told PREMIUM TIMES his son had done a session of three academic terms in the school and "so far it's been good".
"My son has been here since he was eight years old, but I had to withdraw him when we relocated to Adamawa. And now we came back to Abuja, I brought him back. My son writes well so if anything goes wrong, he will write it for me," he said.
Some residents of Kuje backed those claims. Fareedah Hassan, who lives next to the school, said she never heard "anything bad or demeaning about the school." She said people with hearing and speech challenges "hide nothing" and if they were mistreated, they would have reported. She recalled how the pupils once attacked a former headteacher in the school for allegedly maltreating them.
"The students pointed him out themselves," Mrs Hassan said. "The deaf people do not keep secret, they will say anything that is happening to them."
Vincent Iyerima, who heads the parents-teachers' association, said his daughter was in the school and "she will tell me if she hears such."
Mr Vincent Iyerima, PTA chairman, Kuje school for the deaf.
But the police reported differently. While not proving widespread incidents of sexual violations, they cited medical evaluation by the National Hospital in Abuja and a confession, and concluded the boy was repeatedly penetrated through the anus. The main suspect is 18-year-old Filo Sani, the boy's school father, who is also physically challenged.
Sex and violence
The first time the boy, whose name we have decided not to use for this report, spoke of the attacks was in December 2018, weeks after the term had ended, said Salamatu Maina, his grandmother, who, alongside Mrs Usman and the boy, visited PREMIUM TIMES headquarters in Abuja in March.
The boy had tried to wear his socks at home and when the grandmother cautioned that he would need them again in school. He responded by motioning about his throat being slit if he returned there, and the exchanges dramatically turned gruesome.
The boy narrated how his assailants would wake him at night and forcefully have sex with him, ejaculate in his mouth and hit him if he dared to spit.
"He said they will take their penis and put in his mouth up to the throat," Mrs Maina, 60, told PREMIUM TIMES. "We asked him why didn't he tell anyone, he said they would kill him if he told anyone. That's when we realised why the boys were always with him anytime we visited him. Even when we go during classes, we suddenly see the school father by the window."
The victim said the school father chained him repeatedly, and once pulled his middle fingernail violently for refusing to comply with directives. He would then be given a handkerchief damped in a liquid with anaesthetic effect so he could inhale and sleep. Back home, he demonstrated that experience using his mother's perfume.
The boy spoke about being led on a bike out at night to what seemed like a cult meeting. When the family visited PREMIUM TIMES, the boy had a scar his mother said was an injury he sustained during the trip.
"The day they closed and got home with his mother, he was in pain. He came with a handkerchief which we did not know. When asked, he said when the pain is too much, they put something, he sneezes and sleeps off," said the grandmother, Mrs Maina.
Horrified by the story, Mrs Ayuba, an oncologist, said they stayed awake all night waiting to get to the school. The next day, the head teacher, Edache Onoja, thanked the family for reporting the matter, promised a swift investigation, and linked them to the chairperson of the parents-teachers' association, who also offered to help. The head teacher, however, advised them to leave the police out of the matter, according to Mrs Ayuba.
The National Hospital report confirms Mrs Usman's son had been abused. Some officials question the claim. Credit: Azeezat Adedigba
A specialist at the National Hospital later confirmed the boy had been sexually violated, and the family began to seek help immediately. First, they tried to rally other parents. When that did not work, they went to the ministry of education, where they were initially rebuffed by an official directed by the minister to attend to the case. They reported to rights groups and governmental agencies, including the National Human Rights Commission. Then, with no quick help coming, they went to the media.
No history of abuse
The United Nations says across the world children with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual abuse than those without incapacities. An October 2018 report by the UN population fund said children who are deaf, blind, autistic, or living with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities were five times more likely to be subjected to abuse than others.
While such reports have mostly evaluated females, the victims sometimes are males. In 2010 for instance, at least 20 boys said they had been sexually abused by four men at Argentina's Provolo Institute School for the Deaf. The scandal broke after a mother reported that her son was forced to perform sexual acts with other pupils while the culprits, including a priest, watched. The victims ranged in age from 10 to 12 years old. The attackers were later arrested.
For all its challenges, the School for the Deaf in Kuje had never been enmeshed in a sex scandal. Established in 1999 when Jeremiah Useni was FCT minister, it was billed to cater to the needs of children with development and learning challenges. The school, which lies in the suburban area of Kuje, is divided into two sections with the average age of children between four and 21 years of age.
It was initially funded through the then Family Support Programme, an initiative of Fati Abubakar, wife of former military ruler Abdulsalami Abubakar, but was taken over in 2006 by the Universal Basic Education Board (UBEB). But parents said the services at the school are below the required standards. The main challenges over the years have been lack of teachers, teaching aids and facilities required to provide education to children with disability. Insufficient funding has seen the facility overstretched, leaving many children with no wheelchairs and beds, staff said. The school's population currently stands at 630, and for that number, there are 24 specially trained teachers, 24 non-teaching staff and another 13 staff recruited by the PTA, the Voice of Nigeria reported in September 2018.
Still, many who know the school, the only government-run facility for the deaf in the federal capital, speak well of it. "I have not seen or heard any act of ... . maltreatment before," said Hajara Hussein, who has lived close to the school for more than 23 years.
The Usmans registered their son at the school in 2018. In addition to speech and hearing impairments, the boy was born with heart defects and underwent major surgery at age two.
Back in Kaduna where they lived before, he attended a school for the deaf and an Islamic school for the deaf. His mother said he did so well and loved going to school that he was leading other children during prayers. He spent only one term there before the family moved him to Kuje, Abuja.
There, given the extent of care each child requires and the population of the school, authorities advised guardians to entrust their wards to school fathers - older pupils who could provide additional support.
The family met Filo Sani, a young man Mrs Usman acknowledged was so helpful that she regularly left him generous tips during visits.
Staff at the school who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said Mr Sani took great care of Mrs Usman's son and regularly cleaned him up when he soiled himself. They refused to believe he would have done him any harm, and suggested Mr Sani could have been tortured by the police to admit abusing the boy.
"Sani was told he would be released to go home if he agreed to say he touched the boy and he won't have to come to the station again," one staff who said he followed the investigation told PREMIUM TIMES. "Mind you, he was taken to the station every day until the day he said he did it. Honestly, I am so disappointed, I felt they will pay the school guardian with a good coin."
The school said Mr Sani, a primary 5 pupil, has two other pupils under his care, and none of the families had complained of any wrongdoing. So strong were the voices discrediting the abuse story that some sympathisers set up online crowdfunding to seek ways of securing Mr Sani's release from Kuje Prison where he is being held ahead of trial.
Those who defend Mr Sani said they suspected his school son was unable to properly "sign", a term that describes the language used by people with speech and hearing difficulties. They argue the boy might have passed the wrong message to his parents.
But Mrs Usman and her mother, Mrs Maina, point to medical and police evidence and affirmed the quality of communication they had with their child. Both women said they received basic training in sign language to aid their interaction.
More importantly, they confirmed physical scars and behavioural changes on the boy that corresponded to the timing of the reported attacks. On the claim that other children made no complaints, Mrs Usman told PREMIUM TIMES many parents whose kids attend the Kuje school were so poor they lacked the skill to effectively communicate with the children the way they do.
The kitchen at the School for the Deaf, Abuja. Parents said the services at the school are below the required standards. (Photo Credit: Azeezat Adedigba)
They also argued that the story would have been too complex and consistent for a child of seven to make up, especially since he had been in schools in Kaduna without a complaint.
In his horrifying narrative, Mrs Usman's son said when he returned from the suspected occult meeting where people were killed, children forced to perform sex acts and their blood taken, he tried to report the incident to his teacher but was threatened by his attackers. He said the school father took him to the sick bay to treat his bruises, but lied to the nurses that he had got into a fight with another pupil. Mrs Usman said the teacher contacted her and spoke about the "fight" and assured that the boy was receiving medical attention.
Back home, the boy demonstrated how his blood was drawn with a syringe from the mother's drawer. He showed his mother a scar he said the school father inflicted on him after he repeatedly vomited at the meeting.
Mrs Usman said based on the details, she began to piece together past tell-tale signs to understand what might have happened. She started with an observation she made repeatedly during school visits: the school father would insist on staying throughout their time with the child, and once tried to hide the child's hands.
Mrs Usman and her mother now believe Mr Sani usually lurked around to ensure their son did not speak out. Hiding the boy's hands, they believed, was to conceal the injuries on them after he pulled his fingernails.
Early but doubtful probe
The education ministry commenced its investigation fairly early after officials initially rebuffed the complaints. The permanent secretary, Sonny Echono, led the effort. The team and the police visited the school and interviewed staff and students, and sent doctors to examine about 170 children, the headteacher, Mr Onoja, confirmed.
But the investigations that started from the same premise, soon progressed on contradictory paths. While the police said they confirmed the assault through medical examinations and confessions, the ministry and the school suggested the boy may have misreported events.
"This boy was in Nursery 2 and he only spent six weeks. How can a child that was on admission for six weeks give such a comprehensive report? I don't know where the mother got all this information," asked Mr Onoja.
"The boy cannot sign well," he says. "The sign language for sex and poo looks similar. This boy had a major operation under two years and we were not told," Mr Onoja said. He showed PREMIUM TIMES reporters the school's fences and barbed wires and wondered how children could make their ways out for any illicit meeting.
Edache Onoja, who is the headteacher at the school says the claims are unbelievable. But medical and police reports say otherwise. Credit: Azeezat Adedigba
At the start of the investigation, Mr Echono, the permanent secretary, said his team had concluded that "there was definitely an abuse of that child" - referring to Mrs Usman's son. "What we don't know at this stage is when, where and how that child was abused," the Punch quoted him as saying during a visit to the school.
But in his statement announcing the outcome of the investigation, the minister said a 17-member committee worked on the case and established that no parent had reported any missing or dead child in the school in the last five years.
He denied widespread sexual abuse and said the committee could not confirm that Mrs Usman's son had been sodomised since the duo did not appear before the investigative committee. Mr Adamu only cited the police report that they had obtained a confession from Mr Sani, the school father.
Mrs Usman told PREMIUM TIMES in a statement that the ministry's report showed "how helpless the poor has been reduced to in Nigeria."
"From onset, there was deliberate delay in initiating action for almost two weeks. We were not invited to the first sitting until they were all seated in Kuje in January. That made it impossible for us and the child to attend. Yet, the report was distributed," she said.
She said the content of her letter was deliberately distorted to make the whole issue look nonsensical.
"I never said that cannibalism was taking place in the school. I never said that students were fed faeces in the school.
"They didn't mention the fact that my son said penis was forced into his mouth and he was beaten for refusing to swallow semen," she said.
She said part of the reasons she did not attend the sittings of the committee was to avoid exposing the child to further trauma. She also argued that officials of the ministry and the school had abused their trust and the family felt safer working with the police.
Mrs Usman said in her latest statement that during one of such sessions with the police, after Mr Sani admitted sexually abusing her son, the victim, whom the mother acknowledged was usually hyperactive, jumped up and motioned to the police that the attacks happened more than 10 times.