Olurode: Proscribing Almajiri overdue, but process must be culturally sensitive

Olurode

Professor of Sociology and former Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lagos, Lai Olurode, in this interview with GERALDINE AKUTU, said government’s plan to outlaw the Almajiri system of education will reshape the children’s lives and help tackle poverty and illiteracy among the population. But he warned that the policy must be inclusive and culturally sensitive.

What do you make of Federal Government’s planned proscription of the Almajiri system of education, which has been operational for decades in the country?
FIRST, we need to have a clear understanding of what Almajiri is all about. The first issue for clarification is the concept of Almajir, which is an Arabic concept dating back to the time of Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina – the period of Hijrah. The word almajir is from almuhaj – those who migrated with the Prophet of Allah.

In its current usage in Nigeria, it is used for those children constantly on the move in search of knowledge. It is believed that the root of the Prophetic tradition that drives the concept is weak.

The root of the practice is in the Sunnah that encourages scholars to search for knowledge even if it’s in China. There isn’t any good justification in this age to be wandering about in search of knowledge. Those who move about aren’t even the best in Islamic education. It is a class issue, as the children of the affluent – traditional and modern elites do not move about in search of knowledge. They engage teachers for their wards or make them attend Madrassah. Itinerant pupils in search of knowledge should be dispensed with. Zakkat and Waqful can be good sources of private fund to finance the project on sustainable basis.

The planned proscription by government should be a welcome development to anybody who is concerned with two inter-related issues of development. First, the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) says that the welfare and security of the people shall be the primary purpose of government’s existence. Any government that is unable to look after its citizens and secure lives and property is not worth remaining in power.

Aside from seeing to the welfare of the people, the other reason the state exists is to spur development in the country. So, it’s a welcome development. When you look at the number of out-of-school children in this country, most of them are from the Northern part. Of course, they are scattered all over the place but I think it will add value to development.

The third reason is with regards to security. When a large number of children wander about aimlessly without being under the control of anybody, aside from constituting nuisance to the society, they constitute danger to other children.

In the first instance, it is a development that ought not to have been there before. How can there be children that are not under parental care? So, the decision of government is long overdue on the grounds that we have stated. If you bring children into the world, it is your responsibility as a parent to take care of them.

The social malaise has festered over years due to cultural and religious reasons. How difficult do you think its eradication would be for government?
The Madrassah system, an institution through which younger Muslims are exposed to the rudiments of the religion, is a global institution in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kenya and the Muslim world. What a typical Madrassah system does is that when children leave school, they go to those classes to be taught the Quran, Islamic science and Islamic jurisprudence, so that as they are participating in the sphere of western education, they are also accorded the opportunity to develop themselves spiritually.

Over the years, however, these children were completely removed from participating in the two spheres (western education, and Islamic and Arabic education). There has been a kind of imbalance between the two because the government failed to live up to expectations.

Some parents also chose not to be responsible by withdrawing their children from participating in the two spheres and leaving them to participate in the Madrassah system.

After school, these children are made to scavenge for food and support. That is why you see disturbing photographs of almajiris because they are left to fend for themselves and stay with teachers and owners of Madrassah without anyone taking care of them.

Ordinarily, it’s a good system, which was meant to show that these children are properly socialised. I also went through Madrassah, as well as my children. But they participated in the two spheres; they are all graduates and professionals in their own rights today. This was made to prepare them for the religion and make them cherish Islamic values and science but it appears that over the years, these two spheres have been abandoned.

It is good that the State is waking up but there are some caveats in wanting to go into it. The methodology and framework must be clear because if you are not prepared and you draw out from the other system, it means the State has to cater for and shelter those children. Existing infrastructure in schools cannot cope with the number of students. Across the 36 states, you will see where children learn under the tree; no infrastructure and the teachers are not well remunerated. Teachers are not happy working in such condition, yet some of them are poorly trained with no retraining programmes.

Good intervention and good policy is doable. We were in this country when former Lagos State governor, Lateef Jakande came in 1979 and eradicated the shift system in schools.

The late Tai Solarin called it ‘Quick Baptism in School’ but Jakande stopped it because he was committed and serious. If this policy is going to be implemented, government should be fully prepared. There should be a timeline. Whatever the intervention is, it must be culturally sensitive. Government should also seek consensus of the critical stakeholders. All stakeholders must put heads together to ensure it is a well thought-out programme.

With protracted security and insurgency challenges in the country, especially in the North, could we say that our leaders are now willing to confront the almajiri menace headlong?
There is a need for buy-in because the Federal Government alone cannot tackle the Almajiri problem. There had been proliferation over the years. Government can put things in place but let the stakeholders have a critical role to play. I wouldn’t advocate too much government interference.

Government should ensure that these children have access to schooling and skill development programmes. So, as they are participating in Madrassah, let them participate in other programmes that will give them hope. It is a collective responsibility. Don’t forget the Maitasin crisis, which was used to cause mayhem. These children are Nigerians; if we don’t take care of them, there would be a backlash. So, it is in our interest to see what we can do in their lives to make them useful.

Remember the popular saying that ‘it is better late than never.’ Should we let this continue because we feel it ought to have been done long ago? We can’t let it persist because that would be a wrong approach. When you look around the Islamic world, where you have children wandering about, not cared for or being attended to, it is as a result of lack of wherewithal on the part of the parents. There has to be reproductive behaviour and education. Children’s education in Islam is well respected.

In fact, it is an obligation and the prophet of Allah says that you cannot bring a child into the world to suffer or be ignorant. In the Islamic world like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, you will not see this kind of phenomenon. Now that the State has woken up, it must be responsibly executed. This phenomenon persists among the poor and it is as a result of social exclusion. Therefore, they are powerless and cannot do anything to intervene in the life of their children.

What systemic approaches or structure should be in place for this intervention to be effective?
There are three major causes of poverty; you cannot handle skill without education. I think with proper planning, exposure and education, the situation will improve. The population of almajiris will be reducing and their potential for criminal activities minimised because they would be useful to themselves and the society.

There is no hope for someone who has no skill, no job and is socially excluded. If you give education and skills to the people, you are making them relevant.

Indirectly, you are tackling the problem of poverty, illiteracy and insecurity. Exclusion can give rise to criminality. Nobody is born a criminal but we make criminal out of people. The society and upbringing made them (almajiris) who they are. Good planning and measures will help but not doing anything at all will be catastrophic. The almajiris are not exposed to human dignity, which is a constitutional requirement.

One of the major obstacles to development in this country is that we think more of throwing resources at challenges. There must be understanding of the almajiri phenomenon; what gives life to it, why it exists in some communities and not all communities and what the Almajiri perception of life is. These people want care and want a place to put their head. In most cases, they want food and that is part of the economic objective of government.

I think government should put up policies that will identify the causes through the use of science. So, you will need sociologists, political scientists, social workers and all core stakeholders in the almajiri enterprise. Government should make sure that anyone that brings a child into the world is responsible for the upkeep of the child except the person, for economic reasons, is not able to do so.

There must be community intervention. If you are an emir in a community, you must be given a task that no child should be allowed to wander. Whatever the government touches, there must be sustainability. Let’s see how we can use community institution to respond to this problem. I believe it is workable. Let children in the communities have a skill. For anyone to function anywhere in the world, basic education is very important. Functional literacy is fundamental.

Would there be any reason for the government to study countries that have successfully tackled similar problems in order to design a realistic plan or we should just develop a homegrown strategy?
Of course, we can learn from the responsibility of other countries and our own and fine-tune it. However, it must reflect cultural sensibility. Don’t let it be one policy that will work somewhere and has no relevance. I believe if this is approached the scientific way, it will go a long way. There should be continuous orientation. If we do something now, we will reshape the lives of the almajiris and their lifestyle will be different from that of their parents. From generation to generation, there will be improvement.

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