Dealing with the Almajiri burden

Almajiri. PHOTO: TVC

Looking pale and unkempt, they scrambled to the scene, bent down in a cluster, and with bare, dirty hands, began to scoop food off the tarred road. Seemingly delighted at their luck, oblivious of vehicles that sped by and passers-by that watched bewildered, they ate in rush. It was a rare offering for the almajiris.

The scene had occurred in a Government Reserved Area in Gombe state earlier in the year when a minor accident involving a tricycle and a food vendor led to the spilling of rice on the road. The image got the nation talking, with many expressing worries about the demeaning situation of the children.

But this was not a happenstance. Variants of such occurrences where children (almajiris), left by themselves, beg or scramble for food, solicit alms or other forms of assistance from the society have never been rarities in most parts of northern Nigeria. The new development rather, has been the susceptibility and manipulation of the boys for violence and insecurity purposes.

The Almajiri practice predates the colonial era. It was a system of education that put children, as young as four-year-olds, in stead and quest for Quranic literacy. The flagship system of education across the caliphates and emirates in northern Nigeria at the time, it had a strong support base in the communities, derived funding from the same and was hugely supported by parents.

With the coming of the British in the early 20th century, however, traditional and local governments were toppled. There was the subsequent introduction of Western education. It marked the beginning of the end to state funding of the almajiri schools.

With no support, students of the schools resorted to alms begging and took up menial jobs to survive. That was at a time when the schools were few and in close proximity, and a head-count of the students could be taken.

Over the years, as population in the northern part of the country grew and with more parents subscribing to the system, the number of almajiris, as the students are wont to be called, multiplied alarmingly. The result has been an ever-present army of young children, with no formal training or parental care, left to roam the streets mostly in search of food and means of survival.

So, with children in saner climes ensconced in cozy rooms, learning to solve complex equations, coding, robotics and so on, or learning other soft skills en-masse, majority of children in the north are left to wander and wither, learning nothing. They simply dwell in the streets, brawling to survive on morsels of cheap food. And regularly, the world is assaulted with worrying images arising therefrom.

Aside from constituting a large chunk of Nigeria’s embarrassing population of 13.2 million out-of-school children, the almajiris have also formed a pool from which ready hands are often recruited and unleashed to perpetrate violence on society. It is a situation that has given not a few of the nation’s leaders and policy makers some grey hair. And that list includes some former heads of state, presidents and governors, who tried, without success, to address the phenomenon.

Disturbed also by the trend, President Muhammadu Buhari, while speaking at the inauguration of the National Economic Council (NEC) on Thursday, June 20, hinted at the planned abrogation of the age-long almajiri system. He said the move was part of his administration’s commitment to free and compulsory education as a long-term objective of bringing to an end, the phenomenon of out-of-school children prevalent in the north.

Though, clarifications have been made by the Presidency that the action would not be immediate and would be done in due course after consultations with relevant authorities, reactions that have trailed the President’s pronouncement have been vast and varied, and in torrents.

While some expressed skepticisms as to the sincerity of the Buhari government’s plan, others welcomed the idea, but suggested modifications for effectiveness, rather than total abrogation of the system. Yet, there were calls for wide consultations with stakeholders and the will on the part of government to implement recommendations made in past by traditional rulers, religious leaders and people at the grassroots. 

A public affairs and development analyst, Mr. Joshua Musa, who spoke in Jos, said that though the system used to avail the child the opportunity to learn and live independently of his/her parents and guardians, the growing population in Nigeria without corresponding development had destroyed it.

Musa said, “We have been unable to control births and marriages due to religious beliefs. And this growing population has affected social, political and economic development of the human person. It has resulted in the lack of control and subsequent abuse of the almajiri system. Today, the system has even become a menace to the society, whereas, it was initially a system conceived for religious and character development of the children as they grow.”
 
He also noted that today, the physically challenged, whether young or old, now also consider themselves as almajiris, depending on begging solely for survival. He highlighted a situation where foreigners from such countries as Niger Republic, Chad, Benin Republic, Mali, Togo and some other African countries now also beg on the streets of Nigeria as worrisome.

He stressed that a large chunk of these foreigners have become willing tools for any form of criminality. “Some had been discovered to be involved in suicide bombings, which were once rampant in the Northeast. Some are willing tools for politicians to rig elections or used in public mass protests to cause destruction to private and public property,” he added.

However, if government must arrest the situation, Musa said that it could not be done by mere proclamation because of its tendency to “consume the Nigerian society if not properly handled.”

He advised government to establish synergy with stakeholders, particularly the traditional, religious and community leaders in finding a solution to the malaise. “There must be adequate data for population control. The solution must be a gradual process that would see government funding education with adequate training for teachers, learning facilities for children, while making education compulsory from age zero to 21. In addition, there must be job creation, an enabling environment for the private sector to thrive, good supply of electricity and water, good roads and other basic services,” he said

Alhaji Sale Bayari, a Jos-based Islamic scholar, also echoed Musa’s thoughts that phasing out the almajiri system must be gradual.

Miffed by the idea of parents giving birth to children and not being there to care for them, Bayari said it was an abuse of the rights of the child to give birth to children and at the tender age of three, four or five, send them into the wilderness to sleep in the streets, go hungry for almost 24 hours on a daily basis or go begging for food, moving in tattered clothes.

“Under no parental care, you are sure that those kind of children cannot be good citizens. We have discovered that a lot of these parents have four wives. Yet, their means of livelihood cannot even feed one wife. The man has 20 to 30 children who have nowhere to sleep but still wants to produce more children. So, if we can discourage parents from giving birth to children that they cannot take care of, it would be good for society,” he said.

But the Imam of Ungwan Rimi Mosque in Kaduna State, Mallam Musa Tanimu, noted that several recommendations had been made to government on how to tackle the Almajiri menace, saying implementation by government had always been the problem. 

Tanimu explained that with a sizeable population in the North with the ideology that Western education is irrelevant, there was a need to educate them with a view to eliminating such ideology from their mind.

Besides, he observed that since the traditional rulers and religious leaders were the custodians of the people and people listen to them, it was incumbent on government to implement their recommendations.

“If government organises seminars and workshops, they will get more from them. Government needs to be close to people from the grassroots.

I recall during the time of vice president Namadi Sambo, they wanted to do something similar. They started planning at the top without getting the necessary people involved. When it was time to implement, they failed,” Imam Tanimu recalled.

He warned that President Buhari must avoid the same pitfall. “For sustainability of the plan, government must involve the grassroots and make them realise it is for them and not the government.” 

He also advised that the workshop and researches to be done should vary from state to state because the system of Almajiri in Katsina State may not be applicable in Kaduna State because of the ethno-religious conflict and multiethnic nature of Kaduna. “The one that would work in Borno, where there is insurgency may not work in Kano State. Therefore, different systems should be adopted in tackling the situation.”

Alex Uangbaoje, a Kaduna-based development expert, expressed the belief that resolving the issue required strategic thinking and planning, which would necessitate adequate sensitisation of Islamic scholars.

Uangbaoje said, “You have to first get the Mallams, who are involved in sending the boys into the streets in the name of teaching, to believe in the modern-day almajiri system you are conceptualising. Then let the fathers who are sending their children to Mallams understand the need for them to be responsible in taking care of their children. And thank God the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan has built numerous Almajiri Schools in various states in the North where they could be sent to for proper education.

“So, if this government is serious about it, they should come up with a deliberate policy that can sincerely address the issue; not just talking in the media without action. It may not be something you achieve in one day, but gradually in the next few years, you can eliminate it completely. Don’t forget that Governor Nasir el-Rufai attempted a law to ban street begging, but it failed because the people were against it. If the FG uses the same approach without planning, they must be prepared for a bigger problem.”

Another expert, Dr. Ben Yaryok, who specialises in catering for children living with disabilities, said the FG’s idea of banning Almajiri would only see the light of day if it partners with well-meaning Nigerians and international stakeholders willing to contribute to the nation’s education sector. 

He called on government to build a good relationship with individuals willing to sponsor education and help develop the nation. “They could get Non Government Organisations from outside the country that are willing to establish schools; give them land, provide security and other forms of support to them. Banks and companies in Nigeria could also be approached to contribute to the mass education of the North project.”

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