While a chill was in the air one January morning, four ragged children beset an open-air cafeteria. They would not talk, but they conveyed a mood of inexpressible longing for food, burdening customers at the cafeteria with a feeling of guilt and compassion, enough to sacrifice their meals for the children’s bowls. The evidence of the children’s hunger and desperation was their rush when a customer motioned to them to come for leftover food.
This was at a side of the crossroad in the heart of Daura, Katsina State, the hometown of President Muhammadu Buhari, and the children are almajirai, the boys forced to beg for survival, while they are kept with Islamic teachers, or mallams, supposedly for Quranic education. They are mostly pre-teen.
Every day, in Daura, the town’s privileged, well-dressed residents, including public servants, see and pass by the poor children, as does Mr Buhari whenever he returns to his fortified country home in the town, near the country’s border with Niger Republic.
The almajiri system (or almajirci) is the over a century-old practice of poor rural parents who send their children to live with mallams in pursuit of Islamic knowledge, which the children now receive under violent and torrid conditions.
It is a sore, and there has rarely been an elite consensus to heal it across the north. Even with scores of tsangaya (“almajiri”) schools built by the previous Goodluck Jonathan administration to reform the system by inculcating some formal education curriculum and housing the children, the problem festers and the schools are now abandoned.
Apart from Mr Buhari’s Daura, the practice is a common feature, deeply rooted in Nigeria’s north – especially northwest and northeast, the country’s poorest regions – with most urban centres there ubiquitously having these malnourished, ragged, and abused children begging for alms. They return parts of the alms, money or food, to their mallams.
“Where the children live is worrisome,” the Kano State commissioner for education, Muhammed Sanusi-Kiru, said in April, The Guardian reported. “No adequate conveniences, shelter and other hygiene facilities. Three thousand children live in a small apartment without proper care, hygiene and necessary needs.”
“A bleaker picture”
The almajirai are not enrolled in any school for formal education, a breach of Nigeria’s child rights law and universal basic education law, which, respectively, prohibit any activity preventing children from education and make primary education compulsory for all children.
Despite these pieces of legislation, Nigeria is the country furthest away from the Sustainable Development Goal of universal basic education coverage, with more than 10 million children out-of-school, according to UNICEF.
“In the north of the country, the picture is even bleaker,” UNICEF says on its website, giving a within-country variation. In a statement shared with PREMIUM TIMES last July, the UN body said eight million of Nigeria’s out-of-school children were in 10 northern states, namely Bauchi, Niger, Katsina, Kano, Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi, Gombe, Adamawa, Taraba, and the FCT.
There are no exact statistics on the almajiri system’s contribution to the incidence of children out-of-school but UNICEF’s data suggest a picture.
According to the UN body, in the northwest and northeast, 35 per cent and 29 per cent of Muslim children, respectively, receive Quranic education which does not include basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, and “the government considers children attending such school to be officially out-of-school.”
These numbers do not include other children, including Christians, forced to stop formal schooling due to the decade-long Boko Haram terrorism ravaging the northeast.
No formal education, no adequate Quranic knowledge
Apart from not receiving formal education, the daily toil they are forced by their parents and mallams to endure to feed themselves means they also do not have the concentration to acquire Islamic education. Random interviews with the children in Daura, Birni Kebbi, Argungu, and Illela, all in North-west Nigeria, showed many of them are not able to recite common Quranic chapters, like Qursiy. The interviews also suggested that many of them do not understand or cannot interpret the verses they had committed to memory.
Aliyu, an almajiri in Illela, Sokoto State, was asked to interpret the Muslims’ oft-used Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran, in the Hausa language. He failed and smiled before moving away with other almajirai.
At another time, the children could labour on farms for their mallams as seen in Argungu, Kebbi State, where Mallam Kasibu had to employ the threat of a whip on the toiling children, who were, though, kept with him for knowledge.
As they are roundly disadvantaged, lacking formal education and badly taught in the Quranic school, society is the worst-hit. In this term, the almajiri system, nurtures a vast sea of disadvantaged young people, without education and civic culture and proper knowledge of the Quran, thereby creating “easy recruits” for violence, whether Boko Haram in the northeast or the spiralling rural banditry in the northwest.
“I see a powerful connection between the almajiri and the violence in the northeast even though many try to deny it on sentimental religious grounds,” said James Saliba, professor of history at the University of Maiduguri, Borno State, the birthplace and epicentre of Boko Haram.
“By the time you remove children from their parents, without social support, guidance, with hardship and they see other children well-fed and going to organised school, and they are exposed to extreme ideology by those who talk to them about injustice which they can experience in their own daily lives – you are making an environment for easy recruits into violence.
“And we have evidence in what Mohammed Yusuf (late Boko Haram founder) used; he mounted a social welfare system, fed these children, preached to them about injustice which they can experience,” the professor told PREMIUM TIMES.
“It has not worked for northern Nigeria”
After a long history of its existence and associated implications for the human rights of the children, security and social order, and perpetuation of poverty and illiteracy, northern governors now say they want to end the almajiri system. The COVID-19, which rages across the north, as well as the south, may have triggered their vows, but questions remain about mustering the political will against the long-entrenched system.
“We are determined as the northern governors to end it (almajiri system),” said Nasir El-Rufai, Kaduna State Governor in an interview with Channels Television in the past week. “We didn’t take this decision because of COVID-19 but COVID-19 provided us with the opportunity because COVID-19 enables us to know where the almajiris are and to get them at one go.”
“We have been looking for ways and means of ending this system because it hasn’t worked for the children, it has not worked for northern Nigeria, it has not worked for Nigeria. It has to end and this is the time,” Mr El-Rufai, known for his tough approach to reforms, added.
For weeks, thousands of almajirai have been repatriated to their respective states of origin across the north for “care” amid COVID-19 threats following an understanding reached by the governors as a step believed to be towards ending the system. The almajirai are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, having little or no care, with zero chance of social distancing and awareness of personal responsibilities advised for prevention. Scores of them have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and are being managed in their home states.
“We have repatriated over 30,000 almajiris back to their states and we are happy to receive any almajiri from any state of the federation that is indigenous to Kaduna State,” said Mr El-Rufai in the Channels interview.
The governor pointed at the vulnerability of the almajirai as they are barely cared for by anybody. “The situation in the north is that if the children were not brought to us they would simply have died in Kano. Some of them may survive the disease but the situation in Kano is overwhelming. I don’t think anyone will remember to look out for almajiri,” he said.
Kano State started the repatriation, first early March when the state “repatriated” over 1,500 almajirai to Katsina, Zamfara, Kebbi, Borno and Yobe states following its policy banning street begging. Later in April, another 1000 children were transferred to their states of origin, most of them, this time, to Jigawa.
Halima Jabiru, the commissioner for women affairs and social development, Nasarawa State, which has already transferred nearly 800 almajirai to various states, said the northcentral state had documented 63,358 child beggars and that thirty thousand of them were below age 10.
Quoted by Leadership newspaper, Ms Jabiru said, “those that are below the ages of ten years, we will take them back and reconnect them with their states of origin,” while others would be allowed to remain in the state for formal and informal education.
“Very soon, we will have all our kids off the streets, we will follow it up in such a way that any Islamic or tsangaya schools that fail to obey, the government will deal with them decisively,” she reportedly said.
Similarly, Adamawa State has sent 132 boys, among 400 identified for removal, to Gombe State following what the state government secretary, Bashir Ahmad, described as the governors’ decision to “take back those that are not their own and receive those that are theirs and also plan to integrate Quranic teaching into western education.”
However, the governors may need more than repatriations to prove genuine readiness for actions against the almajiri system. “I think they look determined to end the almajirci this time,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, a professor of political science and development expert. “But I am concerned, why at this time?”
“Calls have been going for 50 years but no governor has risen to the occasion. It is still difficult to see if this is not a symbolic gesture to be seen as doing something during this COVID-19 menace,” said Mr Ibrahim.
The commissioner for education in Bauchi State, Aliyu Tilde, told PREMIUM TIMES that returning the almajirai to their parents in their various states of origin amid COVID-19 threats was in pursuit of the policy to “wipe out the menace of child begging through the almajiri system” and a public health necessity.
Mr Tilde suggested that a collective decision, not minding political risks, would be key to the success of the governors’ determination to wipe out the menace.
What replaces the almajiri
Mr Tilde said designing a whole new system of education for the returnee almajirai in each state would not yield success in the long run, fearing costs.
He said: “The answer lies in parents accessing Islamic religious education through conventional Quranic schools in their neighbourhood. This gives them the chance to enrol also in modern schools for secular education. This is the system that we all went through in the 1960s. Quranic schools are found in every nook and cranny of the almajiri-areas of northern Nigeria.
“The second option is to enrol the returnee Islamiyya schools which have a broader curriculum in Islamic studies, where they learn other sciences like jurisprudence, hadith, etc. These schools are abundant in all semi-urban towns under the old Borno and Sokoto Caliphates, usually holding on weekends.
“The beauty of the two options is that they accord them the chance to pursue secular education that will come handy to them as they grow and engage in the tough survival battle in Nigeria.
“Coming up with a system specifically for the almajiri, unless it is a short-gap measure of integration into conventional secular schools, means creating a parallel system side by side with the present primary and secondary schools. If we imagine the cost it will involve in terms of manpower and infrastructure, the thought is almost certain to remain a wish.”
Finding the political will to end the almajiri is certainly daunting. For some states, the removal of the almajirai from various states may just not be more than a public health option amid the pandemic, without the will to comprehensively and sustainably end the practice and ensure the children have formal education as Nigeria’s law prescribes, alongside Islamic knowledge.
This is the fear Mr Jibrin, the political scientist, expressed in his interview with PREMIUM TIMES. In Kano State, the education commissioner, Mr Sanusi-Kiru, had in April said, “Against the misconception of some people in the society that the government is planning to stop Qur’anic schools in the state, it was an effort to bring sanity to the system. It is also part of a comprehensive effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus.” He was not clear about a formal education aspect.
But Kaduna is categorical about its readiness to end the almajiri system. “At least I can assure that in Kaduna State it is gone,” Mr El-Rufai said in his Channels interview while hinting at a new piece of legislation to legally prohibit the practice.
“We are not just telling the parents of the children that they must go to school when the schools reopen, we have tracked each and every one of the parents and we are going to counsel them on parental responsibility,” he said. “It is a long process but the children will go to school. They must go to school. At least in Kaduna State, I can assure you of that.”
The Jonathan-era tsangaya “almajiri” schools are now being handed to the state governments, the minister for of state for education, Chukwuemake Nwajiuba, said on Thursday, adding that the federal government ‘fully agrees’ with the northern states over moves against the almajiri system and that what they are doing is lawful in line with the universal basic education law.
“We fully agree with all the northern governors to take in and take back all the almajiris,” Mr Nwajiuba said. “We hope with what has now happened with regards to taking our children off the streets and finding a way to progress or mainstream them into a formal education system, we can then use most of those facilities, that is the tsangaya schools.”
This support from the federal government would be an ample boost for the northern states committed to ending the almajirci.