President Muhammadu Buhari drew attention recently to the offensive Almajiri system that features children yanked at an early age onto the streets in the Northern states to become beggars and social miscreants in the name of religious scholarship. Though long acknowledged as an anomaly, the President followed the well-beaten track of the elite in apportioning blame, offering listless solutions and avoiding the hard, but necessary, step of shutting it down. A system that puts millions of vulnerable children on the streets is cruel, a violation of their rights to care and schooling and deserves nothing else but strong action to end it immediately.
Already, the President’s seemingly casual acknowledgement of the problem has provoked critics who rightly suggest that he should take action as a leading member of the northern elite class that he blamed for poverty and child begging. We couldn’t agree more. His lamentation: “When I drive round the country, what upsets me most is the status of our poor people…You see the so-called Almajiris wearing torn dresses with plastic bowls. I think we the Nigerian elite; we are all failing,” is apt in its indictment of the leadership.
But a malignant social and economic problem requires, first, a proper, accurate diagnosis, followed by workable solutions and the will to implement them. All three are lacking in the central and state governments’ approach. Believed to number between eight and 10 million across the 19 northern states, especially the 13 states of the North-West and North-East zones, almajiris are children, aged between five and 15, sent from their homes to itinerant Islamic teachers for religious instruction; some are separated from their parents by age four and drift far from home across distances even adults would hesitate to traverse. A child born in Sokoto town, for instance, could end up with his mallam in Maiduguri, over 1,000 kilometres away; another from the ungoverned borderlands linking Nigeria and Chad, Niger Republic or northern Cameroon to roam the streets of Kaduna. Thus sent adrift, they are not supported by their parents with money or clothing. Instead, they survive by begging, scavenging and occasionally running errands for residents. They share their meagre takings with the mallamai, many of whom are similarly un-schooled in the Western sense. They are often bedraggled, in tattered, filthy rags that combine with their equally unwashed bodies. They are a pitiable spectacle. They besiege restaurants, places of worship, palaces, cinemas and outdoor recreation centres aggressively harassing people with their begging bowls. In the North, they outnumber regular beggars.
They do not attend regular school, since, according to the National Council for the Welfare of the Destitute, some mallams indoctrinate them to regard Western education as sinful. On graduation from the mallams’ “schools,” they are unemployable in the formal sector. They are ever available as recruits for sectarian and ethnic violence and, lately, for terrorism. Governor Abdullahi Ganduje admitted in 2017 that there were up to three million of them in Kano State, while a 2014 headcount identified 462,212 almajiris in Katsina State. The system is a national shame.
Riots in the northern states in 1953, 1966, 1980, 1982 and 1991 and all others since then, have had a prevalence of these child rioters. The Justice Anthony Aniagolu report on the Kano riots emphasised the large contribution of almajiris in the orgy of killings that left over 1,000 people dead. Of the 94 fanatics initially arrested by police in 1993 after extremists rampaged through Funtua, Katsina State, killing hundreds of people, 45 were identified as almajiris. They were prominent in the 1982 Bulumkutu riots in Maiduguri, Borno State, and in the orgy of violence in Kafanchan, Zaria, Bauchi, Kaduna, Kano and Katsina in 1987.
Now is the time for action. Once relevant when literacy in Arabic was the basis of social, economic and political mobility, today, almajiri system is a ghastly aberration. It accounts for about eight-10 million of the 13.5 million out-of-school children in Nigeria, the world’s highest, and almajiri are included in the 91 million wretchedly poor in the country.
Buhari and the 19 northern state governors should take decisive action: unfed, unclothed and uncared for children are clear violations of the their constitutional rights, the African Charter on Human Rights and the United Nations charters on rights and the rights of the child. All states should domesticate the Child Rights Act that enshrines the right to care and to free, compulsory education up to age 15. Religion cannot and should not be a justification for binge procreation. Educating and empowering women will go a long way in arresting the uncivilised practice.
The northern states should commence programmes of compulsory free education up to secondary school, adult education and criminalise the practice of parents throwing under-age children on to the streets. A study found that after years of impoverished existence with the mallams, the ability or knowledge of almajiris in reciting the Koran is far below that of children who live with their parents and attend both Western schools and Koranic schools, exposing the dubious value of the aberrant system. Northern governors and the elite should stop manipulating religious sentiment for political advantage.
Terrorism, kidnapping, frequent riots, banditry and Fulani herdsmen/militants’ rapine have cost thousands of lives, displaced millions and decimated farmland and other economic activities. No amount of investment summits or troop deployment will bring investors to a disastrously unsafe region. There is no cultural basis or excuse for almajirai or for mass illiteracy: while northern Nigeria states have average literacy rates below 50 per cent, literacy levels are 94.48 per cent in Saudi Arabia, 97 per cent in Iran, 93 per cent in the United Arab Emirates and 95.6 per cent in Turkey. Our continental rival, South Africa, has 94.37 per cent literacy.
All states should set up child rehabilitation centres, pull in the hapless children and return them, where possible, to their parents and guardians. Any parent who, henceforth, abuses his child by pushing him out onto the streets should be prosecuted. States and local governments should set up, fund, train personnel and equip functional social welfare services units/agencies to monitor child abuse, ensure that every child receives schooling and outlaw child begging.