Two weeks ago, officials of Osun State Ministry of Women Affairs burst an orphanage allegedly run illegally with many of the wards grossly malnourished. GBENGA ADERANTI, who visited the home, spoke with its operator and some inmates who were not around when ministry officials came to evacuate their counterparts, and they told their story.
- Ministry ‘abducted’ 54 inmates, not 47 – Official
- Says ‘abductees’ include two biological children of owner
- No genuine orphanage would harbour 70 inmates – Commissioner
The fenced property could easily pass for a nursery school. The black gate at the entrance of the building had seen better days and was definitely on its last legs. The paint had faded to give way for rust, highlighting the apparent desolation in the compound.
A few weeks before The Nation visited, Oroyemi Elizabeth Covenant Home and Care Centre, Opa, Ile-Ife, Osun State was a beehive of activities. Children and teenagers were everywhere, especially the playground. But all that has changed since officials of Osun State Ministry of Women, Children and Social Affairs visited the orphanage and sealed it off.
The ministry had had to wait for three to four years before it unleashed its sucker punch on the strength of intelligence reports allegedly gathered about the home. Among them was alleged inability of the home to take care of the children in its custody as many of them were malnourished. It was also accused of operating in an environment that was anything but tidy.
By the time the ministry struck, 47 children and unspecified number of adults including a physically challenged were said to have been “rescued”.
The owner of the orphanage, Mrs Elizabeth Oroyemi, a widow and former headmistress, however, said there was no justification for the ministry’s action, noting that the children were traumatised and shocked with the way the home was invaded. She said she had taken the incident in good faith, believing that it is a phase that would soon pass.
Insisting that she was not doing anything illegal at the home, Oroyemi said: “It is God that gave me this ministry; it is God that has taken it. When it is time for God to return my captivity, He will surely do it. This is a gift from God.”
Oroyemi said she did all the necessary paper works before she started operating the home, adding that the home is fully registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).
Most of the rooms in the orphanage were deserted when our correspondent visited during the week. But a number of teenage girls sighted there said it is the only home they have known all their life.
In one of the rooms, a woman who was probably in her late 20s sat quietly on her bed gazing outside the window. The Nation later gathered that the woman was mentally challenged and was left out by ministry officials when they came to evacuate the residents.
Among those currently in the custody of the ministry are said to be three girls, two of whom are in SSS 2 while the third is a student of Civil Engineering in Osun State Polytechnic, Iree.
The orphanage, which began at Moro before it was moved to Opa, Ile Ife, was said to have started about 18 years ago. It moved to the two acres of land in Ile Ife donated by an Ife indigene in the Diaspora and renovated by a prominent Osun traditional ruler.
The Nation gathered that early last year, the Ministry of Women Affairs invited Oroyemi for a roundtable discussion, where the home was accused of engaging in illegal adoption, but she denied the allegation.
While agreeing that the facilities at Moro might not have met the standard available in developed countries, she told The Nation that the commissioner insisted on a renovation that would meet the standard of the orphanage at the new place in Opa. She said: “When the ministry officials came to the home in early June, they rejoiced with me. They said that this place was more acceptable than where we were coming from. She also told The Nation that after completing the renovation, the second team from the ministry came and were happy with it and suggested that she should do one or two things, which she said she did.
But the romance with the ministry after the orphanage relocated to the renovated property at Opa only lasted about three weeks, according to Oroyemi.
“In the third week, four government vehicles came and packed all the children. They did not even allow us go near them,” she said.
She alleged that she was forced to sign the withdrawal of her certificates at gunpoint, and that too traumatised her the more, the Women Affairs Ministry went on air to tell the world that she was operating a baby factory.
“Is there any sign of a baby factory here? She asked.
She said it was in a bid to forestall a situation like this that she made it a point of duty to conduct visitors round the home.
She recalled that the recent raid was not the first, noting DSS had raided the orphanage at Moro early in the year.
How we escaped raid — Inmates
Two of the teenagers who spoke with The Nation insisted that there was no iota of truth in the ministry’s claim of a baby factory.
One of them, 17-year-old Balogun Temilade, who said she was brought to the orphanage with her sister when she was six, said she had just finished her Secondary School Certificate Examination, adding that she was traumatised by the absence of her colleagues in the home. According to her, it was providence that saved her when the ministry officials came, as she could have been ‘arrested’ with the other girls.
“Unfortunately, majority of us have been here since we were kids. Nobody catered for us except Mummy (Oroyemi). We are now grown up. Why should they take us away now?” she queried.
Temilade described the home as a “very nice, wonderful and exciting placed.”
“Sir, look at me, do I look like someone that is malnourished or hungry? I’m 17 years old. Just look at me,” she said with pride and excitement.
Another teenage girl, Akorede Ayomide, who had also just finished her SSCE, described the home as wonderful.
She said: “I think they are saying bad things about this place because of petty jealousy. We’re lucky we were not at home the day the ministry people came. I feel pity for others under their custody. This is our home. Mummy makes us happy. All these allegations are false.
“All I know is that mummy is my mother, this place is my home and all the elders here are my sisters and brothers.”
Ayomide made a passionate appeal to the Osun State Government to order the release of her colleagues that were taken from the homes.
“I don’t know where the children are, but I’m sure they are home sick right now. They should allow them to come back,” she said, arguing that the education of her colleagues in the custody of ministry officials could be jeopardised if they are not returned to the home, as some of them would be writing their exams next year.
“By keeping them, they may have to repeat a class or spend extra year in secondary school,” she said.
Ayomide, whose sister is among the girls in the ministry’s custody, said her sister was not lactating as claimed by ministry officials.
Both Temilade and Ayomide argued that if truly the children taken away from the home were suffering as claimed by the ministry, they would have been eager to go with the ministry officials when they came to the orphanage.
Oroyemi said that some inmates of the orphanage were away in different higher institutions around the country, including one at Adeleke University, Ede on scholarship and three other boys at the College of Education Ilesha.
“If you see them, you will know that they are big boys. There is one at Obafemi Awolowo University. If not for the lockdown, he would have gone for service (National Youth Service). One of the politicians is taking care of the boy. He pays his school fees,” she said.
She alleged that the inability of some ministry officials to take the original copies of the adoption papers she did could have irked some people in certain quarters.
“I insisted that they could not go with the original, that they should allow me do the photocopy, but they said they would go with the original. That was when they came up with the allegation that I slapped the government because I did not give them the original copy of the paper,” she said.
Although she went to the ministry the second day with an apology letter and photocopies of the adoption papers, that would not assuage those of them that felt it was an effrontery on her part to challenge ministry officials. An official of the home told The Nation that the home was probably sealed on the orders of a prominent politician in the state.
Orphanage challenges Women Affairs Ministry
Speaking to The Nation, an official of the home said 54 of its inmates were actually taken as against the 47 reported in the media, including two of the biological children of the owner of the orphanage, Oroyemi.
He insisted that the ministry should not only subject the girls taken from the home to medical examinations, the general public, particularly journalists, should be granted access to those that were taken away from the orphanage to determine the authenticity of the orphanage’s defence.
“We don’t have women here; what we have are children and students. The ones they said are lactating, one of them is a student at Iree Polytechnic, the other ones are SSS students.
“One of them was brought in by a zonal officer of the ministry with pregnancy. She was six-month pregnant. They said she was raped. The girl gave birth and we lost the baby three months after. We informed one of the directors and the official that brought the girl,” the owner of the orphanage insisted.
Twist in the story
Initially, our correspondent spoke with an aide of one of the prominent supporters of the orphanage, who admitted that his boss was one of the major supporters of the home, adding that the orphanage’s owner was a regular face at his boss’ abode.
He, however, reneged on his promise to get more facts on the matter when our correspondent called him for an update on the matter.
“It is a confidential matter. It is too big for my mouth,” he said.
Further efforts by our reporter to get him to speak on the matter were rebuffed.
Orphanage not duly registered, Commissioner insists
The Osun State Commissioner for Women Affairs, Olubukola Olaboopo, described the allegations of highhandedness and unnecessary witch-hunting leveled against her ministry as frivolous.
According to her, several letters were written to Oroyemi about the orphanage, but they yielded no response. The commissioner said she had no personal problem with the proprietress. She also said that 50 members of the home were picked, including 47 toddlers and three adult girls.
Olaboopo denied certifying the home. Rather, she said, it was during a familiarization tour to some orphanages and her zonal office, where there are social workers who monitor social works within their stations, that she visited the orphanage.
She said: “When I came, I wanted to familiarise myself with my officers. I wanted to familiarise myself with those who are on the field. I wanted to see their work condition, what they were going through and what could be done to better their lot. So, it was when I went to Ife that I got to know about the orphanage.”
She said it was after she had been briefed about the activities of the orphanage that she gave it some time to make amends and improve on the qualities of the facilities in the orphanage, adding that the children then had not been moved to their present location.
“There was never a time we certified the orphanage,” the commissioner insisted.
She also denied the allegation that her ministry invaded the orphanage with DSS officials, saying that neither herself nor any of her officers went to the home with the DSS.
“We had called the woman several times to talk to her. We needed an intelligence report, so we ran to the DSS for them to launch their investigation, which they did and gave us a feedback. We never went there with a DSS officials or security personnel,” she said.
The commissioner explained that the last time ministry officials went to the orphanage, they were thoroughly harassed.
On the denial that none of the girls were lactating as against what the ministry claimed, the commissioner insisted that nobody has personal interest in the matter. But as an agency of government saddled with the responsibility of the children in Osun State, it was impossible for her to fold her arms and allow things go the other way.
“Those girls were with us in the hall. We saw one of them carrying a baby. We asked was the baby hers? She said no and we assumed it was not her baby, but we were not sure whether the baby was her own or not because the woman has trained them not to speak. None of them is talking to us.”
Olaboopo said it was the feedback the ministry got from those that were taking care of the girls that it worked on.
“Two of them were said to be lactating, two were pale, looking like they just gave birth and there was the need to take them through medical examination so that they would not collapse.
“But to the surprise of the ministry, the girls bluntly refused medical attention and examination. They said that even Mama does not even allow them drink paracetamol; that they preferred the traditional agbo (herbs).
“For two days, those girls were not eating. They just decided to be uncooperative.”
Explaining why the ministry left the woman that was mentally challenged while others were taken away, she said: “That is part of her recalcitrant behavior. We sealed up that place but she is back there. She has children with her.
“What we told her was that as soon as her children who went for examination finished their NECO exams, she must bring those children. It is over two weeks now and she has not brought the children.”
While not disputing the claim that Oroyemi could have the certificate to operate the orphanage at the time she was about to start, she said: “We got about 50 from there. There are still about 19 or thereabouts that we are expected to take from her, making 70. There should be no orphanage having as many as 70 wards or inmates. How do you want to cater for them in the present day Nigeria? That is one of the typical examples that she is flouting her operational procedures.”
The commissioner said there was no point in time that the ministry adopted babies from her. She said although she had been hearing that some prominent people were behind the orphanage, she would not believe that, because no responsible person who worked his way diligently, genuinely and morally up the ladder would want to associate with that kind of thing.
She said: “I do not want to believe that there are prominent people behind her. If there are prominent people behind her, I have not seen any of them who is bold enough, who is confident of the activities of the woman enough to come to government and say, ‘I’m part of her’. Nobody has identified with her.”