Walking The Talk on The Almajiri Conundrum

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“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” -Malcolm X

The recent presidential directive by Muhammadu Buhari for the North to do away with the long-established Almaijiri system, and more significantly get the millions of out-of-school children back to the classroom is highly commendable. That is, even as his diehard critics are asking why he is just waking up to the harsh reality of the social menace these denizens of the street constitute to the country, now. To his traducers however, he should have done the needful back in 2015. But as it is often said, “it is better late than never”.

All the same, pitched against the swirling, violent waves of the Boko Haram insurgency, blood-letting killer herdsmen and banditry that have ravaged the Northern geo-political axis, education and a quality one at that should come in as the sine qua non to mitigate the spate of lawlessness.

That the gambits of kidnapping for ransom and armed robbery have swept from the Atlantic coast over the Middle Belt states up to Abuja-Kaduna road and beyond are all enough to inform the president’s wise decision. But then, what is the Almajiri social matrix all about and what is the best way forward?
According to the online medium, thewillnigeria.com of July 10, 2015 “the traditional Almajiri system, which began in the 11th century after Kanem-Bornu Islamic tradition was primarily conceived in humility through austerity and borne out of intellectual necessity”.

Notable however, is the caution it gave that “the North will never get it right politically and developmentally until it stops seeing the Almajiri system as a tradition and starts seeing it as the menace that it has become. It has become an affront to our religion, culture and civilization. No community will prosper by condemning its future generations to begging and all sorts of societal indignities”. Good to note that the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno is on the same page.

Of great importance is the fact that the federal government has identified the connecting chord between mass ignorance, joblessness and the escalating storm of all manner of crimes and criminality currently bedeviling the country.
Even then, the evolving scenario triggers a lot of burning questions, literally begging for answers from the federal and concerned state governments. Who are those who have benefitted from the Almajiri system and have they been sufficiently enlightened on the compelling need for a paradigm shift? Will they key into the vision of the empowering nature of western education? How serious are the state and federal governments on funding of education in Nigeria?

Oh, yes funding is critical to sound education delivery; in terms of provision of solid infrastructure, stable electric power supply, good access roads, learning materials, equipping the libraries and laboratories? Also important is staff welfare package and frequent training, especially in this era of technologically-driven, global knowledge economy. The reality on ground is however, a far cry from what is promised and even expected.

For instance, under President Buhari the funding of education has been paltry: in 2015, N392.2bn representing 7.74 % went to the sector. In 2016 it was N369.6bn or 6.10%. In 2017 it was N550bn or 7.38% and in 2018 it was N605.8bn or 7.03 %. In fact from 2009 till date, the highest percentage budgetary allocation to education was N493bn, representing 9.94%. That was under former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014. The worst was in 2010 when N249.09 bn representing 4.83% was voted for the sector.

It is instructive therefore to note that only the Premier of the then Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo (of blessed memory) ever aligned with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommendation of 26 % budgetary allocation to education delivery. Out of the revenue generated from the export of raw cocoa (which could have been far higher if it was processed) his government still instituted the popular and impactful free education policy. Till date, no other government, either at the state or federal level has done the needful.

Although the Second National Development Plan (1970-74) raised the allocation to 13.5 per cent, it fell to 7.5 per cent in the Third National Development Plan (1975-1980). Again, it jumped to 17.3 per cent in the Fourth National Development Plan (1981-85). However, it has not gone higher than 13.5 per cent since 1990 except of course, in 1997 when education was given 17.5 per cent.
Even current President Buhari during a visit to France in November 2018, assured the Nigerian community there that education would be better funded. “We are currently reviewing investments in the entire infrastructure of the country like road, rail and power, including investing more in education,” he had said. But while he proposed N61.73 bn to education, the Senate then under Dr. Bukola Saraki had to up it to N102.907 bn. That must have been in the national interest.

According to the National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, the ruling class in Nigeria does not prioritize education. “Go to Ghana; in the last 10 years, they have never budgeted less than 20 per cent for education. There is South Africa, Egypt, among others”. Back to the Almairi conundrum. Kudos must go to ex-President Jonathan for establishing 165 Almajiri schools up North. “Over 80% of the 10.5 million children for which majority are known as Almajiri came from the northern part of Nigeria, where I recorded the least votes in the elections I contested. But knowing the value of education, I could see that the ugly situation was limiting the opportunities of these children and negatively affecting the development of my country”.

He stated this while he addressing an audience at the Peace Summit at the Junior Chamber International, JCI, in Malaysia in 2018.Unfortunately, two years after he left office most of those schools were found to be in decrepit state, due to utter neglect. Must we politicize an issue as crucial as education?

As reflected in my book: “How to be a successful student” the noble role that sound and quality education delivery plays in transforming a nation from one of mass illiteracy and ignorance to that of an industrial hub can never be underestimated. We all have become witnesses to the rapid rise in the economic activities of countries such as India, the acclaimed Asian Tigers and particularly China, which now rubs shoulders with the United States as one of the most productive in the world. The secret lies in how well the leaders have actualized their vision for the citizens in human capacity development.

For Nigeria to achieve meaningful socio-economic transformation and to be counted amongst the top 20 industrialized countries, increased resources and various governments’ attention must be deployed to arresting the drastic slide in the standard of education. The time to frontally tackle the Almajiri issue is now, with the solid support from Emirs, rich individuals and corporate organizations. For, as the Chinese proverb goes, “If you are planning for a year, sow rice, if for a decade plant trees, but if you are planning for a lifetime, educate the people.”
–– Ayo Baje, Lagos