Sociological studies have linked street begging with poverty, crime and criminality. It is disturbing that the current Almajiri system in Northern Nigeria provides a leeway for street-kids to roam about in search of food handouts. Popularly known as Almajiri – a Hausa word derived from the Islamic word, “Al-Muhajirun,” this is a minor who migrates from his or her parent’s house in search of Islamic knowledge. The system is traced back to the migration of the Prophet of Islam from Mecca to Medina. Although well intentioned, the system exposes an Almajiri, a boy or Almajira, a girl to the elements and harsh economic conditions with little or zero access to western education and a barrage of health challenges.
In Nigeria today, it is estimated that there are approximately 10 million Almajirai across the country. About 300,000 Almajirai are roaming the streets in Kano state alone. According to a recent report, the government of that state disclosed that it could not cater for over 5 million Almajiri in Kano during the COVID-19 lockdown. As a result, it had to begin the process of deporting these kids back to their respective states of origin. Other Northern states followed suit citing the children as potential victims for spreading the dreaded Coronavirus across the region. Northern Nigeria accounts for approximately 69 percent of Nigeria’s 13.4 million school-age population. This piece attempts to draw the attention of the United Nations, international community, government and other relevant stakeholders towards addressing the menace.
The Almajiri System
The Almajiri system is said to have begun in Kanem-Borno, Northern Nigeria, around the eleventh century. It was later reproduced throughout the Sokoto Caliphate after the Jihad of Uthman Dan Fodio. Both empires backed the project with state funds in addition to promoting it. With its promotion by authorities at the time, the programme had the backing of other critical stakeholders such as those around the neighborhood, parents and the students themselves.
Scholars like Shittu and Olaofe (2015) maintain that later on, those who graduated from the Almajiri formed the elite class that ran various parastatals and government agencies in both pre and post colonial Northern Nigeria. It is crucial to note that there were many semi-literate Mallams in the system. This made it difficult for the Almajiri (students) to understand the teacher (Mallam) and the teacher to teach the students properly.
Problems Associated with the Almajiri System
It is on record that most of the students suffered various diseases and famine. While some got lost to crime, others took to street violence. We shall further highlight some challenges associated with the programme.
First, the Almajiri system of education seems inimical to Western education. That understanding prepares a false-start – this is because, most of the teachers are untrained and less literate. As a result, aside from the religious component which is good in itself, there is zero tolerance for the white-man’s ways. As such, when these children are sent to school, they are not taught what they are supposed to know – they end up doing menial jobs in other people’s farm to the delight of rich soup in Mallam’s kitchen.
Second, most Almajiris learn under unkempt environments which do not promote reading and learning. One of the hallmarks of learning is doing so in a conducive environment. The system is wanting in this area because children are made to earn under the tree, in makeshift tents, under the sun or worse still in dilapidated structures. Sometimes 50-100 are crowded in a small space with unhygienic conditions, lack of teaching facilities, writing materials, clean water and food leading to ill-health and fatalities.
Third, because they are presumably under a religious instructor, these children are left at the mercy of quacks who beat, molest, rape and maltreat them. Lack of monitoring and evaluation and bringing the scheme under the supervision of the state ministry of education makes it an all-comers affair with children as unlucky beneficiaries.
Fourth, because these vulnerable children are often left on their won to move from one place to another in search of crumbs, the female ones are exposed to various social vices such as harassment, pedophilia, or child-slavery, early marriage or even death. For the boys, they easily become street-urchins (area boys), male prostitutes, garage boys, petty criminals and end up joining the ranks of, Boko Haram, Islamic State of West Africa Province and bandits. What is more, they become prey to desperate politicians who manipulate them as political thugs, kidnappers and those who either rig elections or snatch ballot boxes.
Effects of the Almajiri System on the Nation
One of the effects of the Almajiri system on the nation is that many children are involved in violent acts that could destabilize the nation. Without taking into account the difficulties the kids might face, parents enroll their kids into the Almajiri programme where there is no serious parental upbringing for these minors. This often leaves them vulnerable to peer-pressure, drugs, alcohol and criminality.
Another effect this has on the kids is that, they rely on the street to survive. Since they have to beg to provide for their teachers and for themselves, in terms of food and clothing, they easily become disillusioned, and cruel to other members of society. Thus, they wreck havoc on society to remain relevant.
Also, the system makes for parental irresponsibility as it encourages people to marry many wives, sire children and leave them for the society to cater for. This way, they fail in training these kids to be role models in the society.
Poverty and illiteracy become a vicious cycle as children give birth to children in poor conditions and end up leaving poverty as a parting gift to their children and grandkids. It has been discovered that men who undergo this scheme tend to marry more than one wife.
Studies indicate that in as much as Almajiris roam the streets in search of support from different people, this has the potential of posing a threat to peace and security as earlier observed. Given that Northern Nigeria has over 10 million ignorant adolescents, there will always be a strong propensity for these youths to be exploited as weapons of violent extremism and interreligious strife.
Since Almajiris poses a threat to national security, one of the ways this issue can be tackled by both government and non-governmental organizations is massive investment in education. The national assembly and stakeholders in the education sector ought to legislate and impose sanctions on parents who allow their children to be out of school. By the same token, free education from primary to secondary school levels should be offered for Nigerians, equipping our institutions of learning and ending needless strike actions like the one currently embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is the way to go.
Without prejudice to cultural and religious values, government needs to give life to the erstwhile Almajiri boarding schools left behind by the previous administration. Only well educated and trained Imams or Mallams should be allowed access to other people’s children. If well positioned, what is seemingly a menace could produce refined citizens capable of transforming society through education sandwiched with religious values!
Rita Diwah Kukah is a 100 Level Student of Nigeria’s Premier higher institution, Veritas University , Abuja from where she contributed this piece.