“Think as WE, not ME” – Declare May 3, 2020, as International Day of Almajiri

Nigerians recently woke up to the disturbing headline “50 out of 59 COVID-19 cases in Kaduna are Almajiri pupils – El-Rufai” by Daily Trust reporter, Lami Sadiq which was published on May 3, 2020. This story which may have sent cold shivers down the spine of many fellow countrymen and women further noted that Governor Nasir El-Rufai said: “Out of the 59 active cases of Coronavirus in Kaduna State, 50 were found among repatriated Almajiri pupils from Kano State.” To any concerned citizen, this story is an embarrassment to the nation. It is evidence of a perversed society which has neglected its most vulnerable members. What is more saddening is the fact that the largest black oil-producing country on planet earth has allowed the perpetuation of a system which destroys its future leaders. 

From Kano to Kaduna, Gombe to Taraba, these innocent children who have no wardrobe allowance but God as their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) against Hunger Coronavirus, are tossed about with possibly no one willing to care for them amidst the deadly COVID-19 endemic. At this juncture, it is critical to ask how the Almajiri system came about. One school of thought claims that the programme was a well-intentioned form of Quranic education which centred on teaching faith, morals and some quasi form of Islamic jurisprudence. The second reveals that it was the removal of Emirs and defunding of religious schools by the British colonialists that formalized the Almajiri scheme. Muhammad Salisu Abdullahi surmises the origin of Almajiranci to between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when great centres of Islamic learning were established and flourished as a recognized and acceptable socio-religious practice in Northern Nigeria. 

The Almajiri phenomenon is a two-in-one system which has kids who are between 3 to 15 years of age in one category and those who have graduated referred to as Gardi or Gardawa who fall within the age range of 15 years and above. A common denominator between the two siblings is that they lack shelter, good clothing, food and qualitative education. The only wealth they have is their humanity and Makarantan Allo (Islamic teaching) under the tutelage of a Malam. While they could be addressed as street urchins, it would be improper to refer to them as school dropouts since about 80 per cent of them may not have come in contact with Makarantan Boko (Western education.) In a previous article published in Peace Studies Journal (Vol.11, Is. 1, 2018) titled: “The Halal and Haram of Boko: Communicating Meaning in Contending with Statecraft or “Modern-Witchcraft” in Nigeria,” this columnist emphasized that the Almajiris in the northern parts of the country are ready for any kind of job. This submission aligns with the views of scholars like Chinda et al (2018) who lamented that the Almajiri System exposes children to roaming the streets in search of/for meal-handouts as they end up becoming vulnerable targets for recruitment into terrorists’ organisations. 

In a position paper titled “Almajiri crisis in Northern Nigeria: A cry for our children” published on PM News, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Murtala Muhammed Foundation, Aisha Muhammed- Oyebode and 5 other Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) from various Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) decried that: “Today, the name Almajiri has become synonymous with seemingly abandoned children roaming the streets of our nation, seeking alms, begging, and sometimes engaging in criminal activity as a result of their basic survival needs not being met.” The mothers lamented about the shocking discovery of 300 men and boys with scars of beating and chains on them who were probably sodomised but eventually rescued from an Islamic school building in Kaduna, Kaduna State in September 2019 plus 259 men, women and children who were also liberated from a similar rehabilitation centre in Ibadan, Oyo State two months later.

It is in the midst of this untoward quagmire that a former Governor in one of the Northern States once criticized the ban of the Almajiri system. He cited “vital issues like their religion, culture and settlement” as reasons for taking that position. Plausible as his reasons may seem, the questions that readily come to mind are: How many governors, members of parliament and politicians in the region have their children in the Almajiri squad? How does a nation which lacks a workable social welfare scheme pretend to look the other way in the face of a culture where certain people sire children they cannot cater for? No thanks to this harrowing practice, we are left with kids who are willing tools in the hands of politicians, prey to belligerent preachers and incubators of insurgency and crises.  

Truth is, Almajiris and all vulnerable people have legitimate concerns. The first concern is that they are human beings created in the image and likeness of God; the second is that they are bona fide citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and not some foreigners begging for attention and the third is, they are not to blame for their situation since they are products of an unorganized society which feeds on what it does produce and produce what it does not consume and lacks welfare packages for the Lazaruses within its ranks. In a period where those who have the means are only concerned about their needs and busy stockpiling for the rainy day, which seems unending, who would speak for the poor of the poorest? Stephanie Preston (2020) aptly describes the scenario as: “A version of the “tragedy of the commons,” wherein a public resource might be sustainable, but people’s tendency to take a little extra for themselves degrades the resource to the point where it can no longer help anyone.”

The point at issue has always been blamed on poverty and ignorance. In 2017, Nigeria infamously entered the Guinness Book of Records by overtaking India as The Poverty Capital of the World. Prior to this unwholesome rendering, Oxfam, an International Charity, disclosed that the number of those considered as extremely poor in Nigeria had risen to 94.4 million people. Recently, the National Bureau of Statistics disclosed that 82.9 million Nigerians are considered poor by national standards. The North is said to be the poorest region of the country. Worse still, about 80 per cent of the population live on less than $2 a day.

One would have thought that the efforts of the Federal Government to introduce the Universal Primary Education (UPE) Scheme in 1976 and the re-introduction of the Universal Basic Education (UBE) in September 1999 would eliminate the menace of street children in the country. But no! The reverse is the case as a legion of children are still roaming about the streets of Northern Nigeria while their counterparts in the Southern parts of the country are winning international awards in innovation and science. The population statistics created by the Kano Statistics Board disclosed that some 3.67million number of parentless, under-aged kids, are wandering on the streets. Only recently, Vanguard’s Dele Sobowale broke the news that Nigeria’s Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, lamented that the North has already destroyed itself. The Lawmaker also reportedly feared that out-of-school children constitute a security risk to the country. 

On May 1, 2020, the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Abubakar Rasheed revealed that the North-East and North-West regions have only five Private Universities of the total 79 presently in the country. He also disclosed that: “Based on the geographical spread of the 79 private universities in the country, 13 are located in the South-South, 14 in the South-East, 36 in South-West, 11 in North-Central, two in North-East and three in North-West.” Anuoluwa Ogunyin who reported the story said the NUC boss disclosed in his office in Abuja while receiving in audience, the cerebral Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Most Rev. Dr. Matthew Hassan Kukah, who was there to present the NUC helmsman with a proposal document for the establishment of Sherah Hassan University, Kachia in Kaduna State.

It would be recalled that while delivering the 43rd Pre-Convocation Lecture entitled “After the Insurgency: Some thoughts on National Cohesion” at University of Nigeria (UNN) Nsukka on March 27, 2014, Bishop Kukah maintained that: “To prepare for the future requires more than mere tokenism and symbolic gestures – Nigeria has to come to terms with how it will resolve the problems of poverty in the country especially in the Northern States.” He, however, counselled that: “Given the complex religious traditions in our country, especially Islam and Christianity, what we should be looking for are platforms to enable our young people to learn not only about Rivers and climatic conditions but about culture and religious traditions too. In this way, they will grow to respect one another’s beliefs.”

It is heartrending that even when some concerned Nigerians offered to lift these kids out of their misery, it was met with resistance and huge criticism by a section of Northerners who claimed it was an attempt to Christianize their children. In a region that seems obsessed with “Forum” for its political and cultural associations, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF) and Area Youth Forum (ACF) are apparently comfortable with the scenario because till date, they have done nothing to change the situation of these children in danger. The African proverb “An adult does not sit and watch while the she-goat suffers the pain of childbirth tied to a post” applies here.    

In a review article “Silence of Journalists about Children in Conflict: A Critical Assessment” published in 2018 (7, 1: 25 – 40), I raised an alarm that organisations like the World Health Organisation (WHO), UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and Save the Children should rise up to the occasion to stem the tide of unwholesome acts which denigrate children’s dignity and self-esteem. The paper indicated that they should also mobilize support and employ expertise, advocacy and funding towards fulfilling the aspirations of Sustainable Development Goals (MDGs) 1,2,3 and 4 which canvasses support for ending poverty and hunger as well as ensuring healthy lives and inclusive education. Indeed, the enactment of the Child Protection Act or Policy in line with acceptable international best practices as promulgated by the United Nations to safeguard the rights of children in flashpoints of the world like Nigeria is critical.

Northern Governors (states) need to reinvest in a functional educational system. The Northern elite should beware of what the Social Critic, Rev. Fr. Dr. George Ehusani dubbed “The revenge of the poor.” If they keep flying their children to Ivy League Universities like Harvard and Oxford while ignoring the plight of Almajiris by refusing to invest in the education sector, chances are that one day they will not be able to sleep with their two eyes closed. Given this time bomb and humanitarian disaster, I call on the UN Secretary-General, the international community and the Federal Government through the Ministries of Humanitarian and Internal Affairs, as well as those of Education and Health to declare May 3, 2020, as International Day of Almajiri – a day dedicated to reflecting on the plight of all vulnerable children in Nigeria towards creating awareness to end Almajiranci. May the 50 Kaduna-repatriated Almajiri pupils who are currently infected with Coronavirus disease get healed even as they stand as a metaphor for all children who need nothing more than the best in our country. In the words of Dhar Mann: Let’s Think WE instead of ME. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria. 

 Fr. Justine Dyikuk is a Catholic Priest and Researcher who combines being the Editor of Bauchi Caritas Catholic Newspaper, Communication’s Director of Bauchi Diocese with his job as a Lecturer in the Department of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Nigeria. He can be reached through – justinejohndyikuk@gmail.com.  

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