An alarming exodus of the almajirai to the South of Nigeria is setting nerves on edge in many places. These days, hordes of almajirai are being intercepted in virtually all the southern states in a manner never witnessed before. In response to this, Southern governors have been repatriating these children to their states of origin. Not surprisingly, this policy has triggered a chain of divisive reactions from the North and reopened the North-South fault lines.
In spite of this, the influx has not abated, generating waves of tension between the South and the North. Cunningly, almajirai are being moved in droves to the South in trucks conveying food and livestock to escape security checks.
In the South, this exodus is viewed with suspicion – even something with political undertones. It coincides with the indefinite ban the President, Maj.-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has imposed on interstate travel throughout the country. So, who is aiding and financing these far distance trips and how do large groups of urchins escape the security network and interstate border lockdowns, passing several states on the way?
Unexpectedly, their movement southward comes just after the 19-member Northern Governors Forum banned the almajiri system. Consequently, they have been repatriating them to their states of origin, mainly in the North. But the haphazard and crude implementation of the ban by the northern governors is leaving a trail of threats, controversy, anger and animosity, not only in that region, but also in the South. In the North, a couple of states are attacking one another on the policy.
In the midst of this discord, the fate of the almajirai is bleak. For now, they are left on their own in an uncertain world. These children are victims of a failed feudal system, recklessly promoted and stubbornly defended by successive governors and the self-serving elite in the North. In The Almajiri System of Education in Nigeria Today, Idris A. AbdulQadir, a professor, states: “… it appears as if the Northern states of Nigeria have a monopoly of ‘Bara.’ Young and old, able and disabled have, taken to streets, on a permanent basis, legitimising begging on socio-economic and religious basis. This phenomenon represents a scar on the face of Northern Nigeria.”
And that is just the problem. The education deprivation in northern Nigeria is driven by various factors, including economic barriers and socio-cultural norms and practices that discourage attendance in formal education, especially for girls. The almajiri system and poverty go together. Poverty remains one of the most obstinate barriers, with children from the poorest households almost five times more likely to be out of primary school than those from the richest, says UNICEF. It adds that one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria.
The North should, for once, face its self-inflicted problem squarely. It should solely bear the responsibility for the rehabilitation of the almajirai. Education is the right of all citizens and the responsibility of the state and family. In the South, this is taken as an article of faith. But there is a lingering education crisis in the North that should be fixed immediately. In terms of the legal framework, the Federal Government had enacted the Universal Basic Education Law in 2000, in which the centre helps the states with funding for the first nine years of a child’s education. This is in line with UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child that was adopted in 1989 and has been signed by 196 countries, including Nigeria, as of 2015. In 2017, the Federal Government allocated N35.2 billion for this, but as many as 17 of the 36 states failed to draw down N16.2 billion on the excuse that the conditions attached to it were stringent.
As of 2019, at least 11 of the 19 Northern states have refused to domesticate the Child Rights Act, an offshoot of UNICEF’s CRC. Essentially, the law recognises the need for governments to educate every child, train it in a family setting and ensure that a child is free from forced labour and trafficking. The almajiri system violates these national laws and international conventions.
So many other things are wrong with the almajirai system. It encourages unbridled procreation and creates armies of violent youths. But up till now, the governors and the elite in the North have looked the other way as the practice festered out of control. Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, attempted to reform the system, but failed. His government established 400 integrated schools for the almajirai in 2012, with an investment of N15 billion. The project is currently in ruins.
The almajirai constitute a high percentage of Nigeria’s ranking as the country with the highest number of out-of-school children, which the multilateral agencies and the Minister of Education Adamu Adamu estimate at between 13.5 million and 15 million.
As it is, the South is asked to bear the North’s abject indiscretion and leadership failure by continuously shipping the children down to the South. This is impossible. Among other worries, the almajirai children have nowhere to stay. This encourages destitution, and it is not desirable at this time when staying safe requires that children stay at home with their parents and maintain social distancing. Therefore, it seems that this army of youth invaders will aggravate the spread of the COVID-19 disease. In addition, these are children without any skills and education.
The banditry, cattle rustling, herders’ violence and Islamist insurgency afflicting the North cannot be totally dissociated from the almajirai phenomenon in which the child beggars grow into adulthood without any way of fending for themselves. As they suffer from deprivation, illiteracy and unemployment, they are ready-made recruits for Boko Haram and criminal syndicates.
To extricate themselves from the sinister web, the Southern governors should not flinch in returning the beggar-children to their state of origin as their counterparts in the North have done. Going by the Constitution, valid laws on education and child’s rights, these children should still be under the guardianship of their parents. Part I of the Child Rights Act states that the parent or legal guardian is obligated to fulfil the duty to give the child basic protection. In several ways, the South has its own share of societal ills and almajiri scourge should not be added to them. The Southern governors need to return these kids to their states without violating their rights to dignity.
To resolve the logjam, there is a need for the coordination of responses by the Northern governors. In the first place, there should be a modality for the rehabilitation of these street children in such a way as to turn them into productive citizens. A process could be initiated to review existing legislation on children and how these could be implemented for the almajirai. The existing laws on child’s rights should be domesticated and enforced. The North should consider a special school model with the aim of training these potentially productive children in craftsmanship. Region-wide mobilisation should be a priority in ensuring parents and guardians take responsibility for their children and wards.