Governor Abdullahi Sule of Nasarawa State is fast coming up strong on the concept of the Almajiri system of education in northern Nigeria, saying measures were already being taken to stop the culture of begging in his state, while also insisting that there were more than 10 million child-beggars in the north. He shared this and more in an interview with Igbawase Ukumba. Excerpts:
Many people seem to have a different understanding of the Almajiri system. What then is the clear concept of this system in northern Nigeria?
Well, just like the controversial Ruga project that was completely misunderstood, I think we have totally misunderstood the Almajiri system. The Almajiri system is a system of acquiring education – searching for education, where children leave the comfort of their homes and parents to go out for acquiring Islamic knowledge and in the process, also interact and have the opportunity to understand other places and their culture.
Unfortunately, these days, the Almajiri system is completely compromised with begging on the streets and that is exactly the menace that has come into the Almajiri system and government can no longer serve as a bystander and just watch it. Government has to come into this and develop it.
How wide is the spread of Almajiris in northern part of the country?
According to the figures that we have, there are more than 10 million children that are operating the Almajiri system in the entire northern states. Most of them serving as beggars, they spend all time on the streets begging. That is not the Islamic education that they are supposed to have. So, it is a total deviation from what the Almajiri system is supposed to be. The responsibility is also on government, parents and religious speakers.
Do most of the children, who leave their homes for the Almajiri education, do so with the consent of their parents?
It is very few who fall into this category. Very few actually leave with the consent of their parents, and that is why I said the parents are responsible. For instance, in Nasarawa State recently, we came across a truck that came with these innocent children all the way from some states in the north into Nasarawa State to come for begging.
If you go to Kano, you’ll see plenty of them coming from other states like Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto and other states, because Kano being a commercial city, they come to look for something to do. So, in the first place, their parents are very much aware of that.
But my worry is that parents are running away from their own responsibility. The actual rule of the Almajiri system is that if you are bringing a child to Almajiri system, you have to cater for such a child. You pay for the care of such a child either quarterly or yearly. But they just take and dump them there without any care. So, it is only government that will enforce this kind of system. Parents need to know their responsibilities.
There were attempts by various interests groups in the north to check such. Do you have an idea why those efforts did not yield any result?
Most times, in this country, we start efforts especially, in a political era like ours, a governor wants to start a programme, it becomes controversial and the governor becomes unpopular and he backs out or a political leader comes and starts a programme and he becomes very unpopular like the Ruga project, which comes with good programmes, but people misunderstood it and the government backs out. So, that is what happens when you have this kind of problem.
We have to take responsibility as a government and say no, this is wrong; this cannot happen; we will not agree to this; for this to happen, we have to do ABC. It doesn’t matter if it will make me unpopular, so be it. But we have to stand to protect the lives of these children, because they become avenue for criminality and insurgents to just recruit them. They become evil for human trafficking.
They become child labourers and all kind of abuses that these children go through. So, we can’t just shy away and become bystanders, because of fear of being unpopular. That is why we need to come out and say this is wrong and this is the way to go.
Corruption is the key word here, why has it become impossible for the northern governors’ forum to design measures and find solutions for it? What are your plans about the Almajiri in Nasarawa State?
Well, I don’t think the Northern Governors’ Forum has not approached it. But like I said, it is time we approach the issue and not back out. We just listen to so many states governors that came either through their SSGs and each one of them will tell you we are doing something about it.
We are establishing a law that will ensure that these children are protected. But when we say education is free, we are not even enforcing it to make sure it is free.
Some of us didn’t go to Almajiri School, when we were young. I didn’t go outside my village to attend Almajiri School. I was attending Roman Catholic school in the morning and then in the evening, I go to Almajiri School. That was how I acquired my Islamic education. My parents didn’t send me outside my home state to acquire this.
The northern governors are doing it. Let me correct an impression, Almajiri problem is no longer problem of the north, I think it is a problem of the entire country. I live most of my life in the US and while in the US, we established an association called Zumunta.
The logo of that association is our ethnic diversity. It is our strength. I live in Lagos since I return from the US and there are so many Almajiris in Lagos and it is a big problem for Lagos State government. Each time I travelled to other places in the south, I saw these people.
When we have this insurgent come with this crime, this crime is not limited to certain people; it is everybody including foreigners. So, I think why the northern governors have to come together, the federal government must also come in to say that this is the direction we have to take. So, all state governors must come together to see how we can tackle the problem.
How do you enforce these laws to make sure that parents become more responsible to their own children?
We have to collectively solve this problem.
The FG has abolished standard jurisdiction in the country, what do you understand by that?
Almajiri system is misunderstood; Almajiri system is a system of acquiring Islamic education. No government in the world can say you cannot acquire Islamic education. What the government probably abolished will be the streets begging.
Some of us acquire both. Like I said, I went to a Roman Catholic Christian School and Almajiri Islamic school. So, I acquired both and the federal government can’t abolish Almajiri School.
What government can do is not to abuse a child. The government can abolish street begging but not Almajiri School. Government can’t stop parents from taking a child to another state or country for the purpose of education of any form without providing for such a child. No parent should do that. So, government has the right to abolish that and that is the direction we are also going.
What do you intend to do in your state regarding the Almajiri system?
As far as Nasarawa State is concerned, we are going to actually make it a crime for a child to be begging on the streets as Almajiri. If it makes me unpopular, so be it. We have to protect the rights of these children. We are approaching insecurity in Nasarawa State from three different angles. We are ensuring that all those who graduate from school and all those who are going to school get jobs by agriculture.
Agriculture is a big employer of labour. We are opening up areas for agriculture; the sugar production, livestock and milk production. So, that is the direction we are going to take for those who commit this crime. We are also going in the area of education. We are giving people technical and vocational skills so that people can actually have something to do to become employer of labour. And lastly, we are equally going to make sure that if you are sending a child to Almajiri School, you must provide for that child.
If we find children on the streets that don’t have parents, we are going to take them to different area that the parents will not like. Where you separate them from the parents completely, we will take care of these children and make sure that no new ones are brought to us. We will block that. So, these are the ways that we are approaching it in Nasarawa State, so that we don’t continue to breed criminals. When these children have nothing to eat, they become criminals, and this is exactly what is happening.
Will you like to table this approach to the northern governor’s forum?
Yes, even the last meeting we held in the villa, we mentioned that Almajiri system is a menace. We mentioned it at the security meeting and we equally mentioned it at the governors’ forum meeting.
What is your advice to parents?
Parents must take responsibility. You can’t bring children to the world and dump them somewhere and want somebody else to take care of them. You have to take care of your own children. So, it requires a lot of education. It requires sensitization. It requires parents having something to do, because some of these parents shy away from responsibility simply, because they don’t have anything to take care of these children. You don’t bring children to the world and can’t take care of them.
What assistance do you require from the federal government in tackling this?
Every state will require one support or the other. In the past, before I joined politics, I saw a lot of Almajiri Schools built by the Jonathan administration but unfortunately some of them are not put to use, because some were located where you do not even have Almajiris. I know of one in my area; it was for political reasons.
So, one of the things the federal government can do is to establish that it is a crime to abuse a child. It is a crime to bring children to this world and send them to Almajiri system, where you cannot take care of them. It is a crime to send children to the street begging. The federal government can do this.