Christian peer Lord Alton of Liverpool has written to the BBC challenging a report that an orphanage for abandoned children which was forcibly closed by state authorities in Nigeria was functioning illegally.
He has also highlighted the case in a letter to the Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (UK).
According to religious freedom charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Prof Richard Solomon Musa Tarfa, the co-founder of the Du Merci Centre in the Kano state capital, was detained by authorities on Christmas.
A report by BBC Pidgin reporter Mansur Abubakar, published on the BBC News website on 9th January, stated that police in “northern Nigeria” had “rescued 27 children from two illegal orphanages operating in Kano and Kaduna states”, quoting police spokesman Abdullahi Haruna.
CSW said credible local reports show that while Prof Tarfa was initially held for not having a licence to operate an orphanage, the charges were later changed to ‘criminal abduction of minors’ after his wife produced the required documentation proving registration. He has denied both charges.
On 3rd January, the professor’s bail terms were set at N5 million (£10,562) and included the provision that one of his sureties must be employed as an undersecretary in a federal ministry.
So far he has been unable to meet these demands and remains detained. Prof Tarfa’s wife, with whom he co-founded the orphanage, was also briefly detained and released on the same day. However, 19 children residing in the orphanage in Kano were transported to the Nasarawa Children’s Home.
Eight children who were seized in a following raid on the Du Merci branch in Kaduna state on 31st December were also transported to the same location.
This is not the first time the professor has been arrested in an attempt to close down the orphanage. He was initially detained in 2002 following a similar raid on the orphanage.
In the letter to the BBC, Lord Alton writes: “In 2002, and following the intervention of the late Emir of Kano and a legal challenge in the wake of a similar raid, a High Court ruled that the Du Merci Centre was duly registered and was conducting a legitimate endeavour. It also ordered the return of the children who had been seized. A copy of this ruling is also available easily.”
Lord Alton has also written to the Nigerian High Commission in the UK, following up on earlier letters sent to the Police Commissioner and Attorney General of Kano state, which are yet to receive a response.
CSW’s chief executive Mervyn Thomas has welcomed Lord Alton’s intervention.
“The orphanage is duly registered and keeps records on how each child came to be there, documentation that could have easily be verified by a thorough investigation,” he said.
“The court ruling of 2002 verifying the legality of the orphanage could also have been accessed prior to the unchallenged publication of a false narrative. The excessive charges against Prof Tarfa are completely unfounded and we urge the Kano state authorities to facilitate his release without pre-condition.
“In the current era of fake news the need for careful research and factual reporting that challenges disinformation is more important than ever.”
CSW said Prof Tarfa and his wife opened the Du Merci Centre in 1996 to care for abandoned children in the Christian District of Sabon Gari.
The centre provides accommodation for these children, who view them as parents and are educated and cared for until they are able to live successful independent lives.
It also accommodates young women who are pregnant out of wedlock, until they give birth, reconciling them whenever possible with parents who had rejected them due to social stigma.