The Almajiri Question



This dangerous season of COVID-19 is truly one in which the inherent contradictions in the society blow up.
On a positive note, the socio-economic trauma consequent on the (mis)management of the public health emergency is daily bringing out the best examples and expressions of our collective humanity.

Acts of compassion and genuine love for the poor are vividly on display in many quarters. The mood of the moment is indubitably that of massive solidarity. Food, water, medical facilities and equipment are donated on daily basis to support government’s efforts to care for the sick and the socially vulnerable. Spaces and tools are made available for isolation centres by organisations and individuals. Profit-making corporates, religious bodies and charitable foundations and individuals are in unison in giving succour to the needy.

In contradistinction, this is also a season in which some state governments take some vile policy steps in response to the coronavirus crisis. As someone said, the crisis is bringing out both the best and the most unpleasant in the Nigeria experiment with governance.

The pronouncements made and actions embarked upon by some state governors simply upend decency of officialdom.
More fundamentally is the abysmal lack of a social purpose in the activities of some of the state governments amid the unfolding crisis. Governors should not make mechanical orders as if they are technicians operating in a workshop. If the people are truly the objects and subjects of policy, the steps taken by governments should be accordingly humane. Otherwise, what some governors take to be solutions now would later turn out to be problems greater than the one they are supposed to solve.

The controversial expulsion of the Almajirai from some states in the north is a clear proof of policy without social content. In theory, the Almajirai (Almajiri – male and Almajira -female) are children entrusted in the hands of a teacher for Quranic education. It is a legitimate concept of education. The practical reality on the streets, however, is that you have millions of destitute children in Nigeria who should be in schools but are roaming and begging for daily meals. These children are receiving neither religious nor secular education. They are not cared for and loved by either the parent or the society.

They are simply abandoned. They come up as occasional statistics in development discussions. And that’s all. Their rights as human beings are violated by the state that is meant to provide them social protection.
To paraphrase Wole Soyinka on another occasion, the condition of these children is “an open sore on the conscience” of this nation. The northern governors, in particular, should move fast to tackle the social question of the Almajiri. Otherwise this open sore might degenerate into a gangrene on their collective conscience sooner than they may imagine.

The trigger for the latest Almajiri crisis was the inexplicable move by the Kano State government to expel poor children begging for alms from the state to their “state of origin.” As things have turned out, some of the children moved from one state to the other have tested positive to coronavirus. This has in turn created public health problems in the various destinations of the children.

It should also be remarked that in the mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis wrong words are deployed with reckless abandon to justify illegal actions. State governors talk of “borders” and “deportations” as if these bona fide Nigerian citizens are moved from one country to the other. What you have between two contiguous states are boundaries, and not borders. Yet, you hear that the “deported” children were received at the Kano-Kaduna “border” as if there are countries on the world map called Kano and Kaduna. Indeed, the resonance of this riot of “deportations” is being felt in virtually all the states of the federation. Hence there are reports of “deported” fellow citizens being stopped at the “border” of Oyo or Delta state. This certainly cannot be a normal state of affairs.

Meanwhile, you can only deport aliens. How come these poor children have become aliens that should be “deported” all within their fatherland. Such is the level of conceptual confusion that has permeated the realm of governance in Nigeria.
This is not a simple of grammar as there are serious legal connotations to some of these unfortunate activities of some state governments. It is an unconscious expression of their deep alienation from the nation’s reality as defined by the constitution. As some lawyers have argued, it is unconstitutional for any governor to expel a citizen from any state of the federation. These children being tossed around like football have rights of citizenship and residence protected by the 1999 Constitution. These are the rights being flagrantly trampled upon by those in power.

It’s re-assuring that some lawyers have reportedly signified intention to challenge in court these violations of the rights of fellow citizens. By expelling the roaming children from any state in Nigeria, the governor is unwittingly criminalising their poverty and destitution. This should be unacceptable in any decent society with any modicum of humanity in it. How are the children to blame for the abandonment by their parents who are themselves obviously poor? Some of them could also be orphans. In any case, what is the proof that the parents of those children came from the states to which they are being moved forcefully? Where are the records? Who keeps a diligent register of the Almajirai? Who has the data serving as the basis of these frantic operations?

This attempt to solve an ingrained social problem with a mechanistic mindset will not work. Such an approach has never worked in history. The contemporary crisis in Nigeria will not be an exception.
The harassment of these children with the code, Almajiri, even runs counter to the universal protocols for containing the spread of coronavirus. On the one hand, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 is spearheading a national sensitisation on the restriction of movement of people in order to break the chain of the virus.

The slogan is even “Stay at Home.” Is it rational that only the street children are the only exception to this rule? Why can’t they stay where they are and be cared for as other vulnerable people are being supported during this crisis? This ill-advised action of sending the children out of their state in which they find themselves has turned out to be a disaster foretold. Those among them who have tested positive might invariably spread the virus in their so-called states origin if precautionary measures are not taken on their arrival.

In any case, some of them have reportedly ended up in states other than their alleged states of origin. In a period of public health emergency, the nationality, much less the state of origin, of residents of a state should be of no consequence in matters of keeping safe and stopping the spread of the virus. The same principle ought to apply to the neglected children. In fact, they should be cared for by the state humanely as persons belonging to the most vulnerable segment of the society.
Worse still, by virtue of the law making basic education free and compulsory the children are supposed to be in school in whatever state they reside.

If state governments enforced these laws as instruments of social change, no child would be on the street, in the first place. The failure of governance on this score is at the core of this problem.
To the credit of the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, the problem was confronted frontally. About N15 billion was invested in the famous Almajiri education in the north. Some of the facilities put in place have been reportedly abandoned. Conceptually and practically, not much has been done to improve on this progressive policy step of the Jonathan administration.
It is not enough to blame the parents of the abandoned children for privately shirking their responsibility. And this period of crisis is not an appropriate time for the technical topic of the alleged demographic error of bringing those children to life.

In social terms, the society should see them as potential assets and not as mere liabilities. As an economist once put, you should not only look at the fact that each of them has a mouth to eat; each child also has a brain and two hands to think and work with when and if they are developed to be responsible working adults. Between childhood and the working age when they could be useful to society, it is the duty of the state to invest massively in their human development – healthcare, education and general welfare. This is a matter of social development and not just narrow and abstract economic calculations. Afterall, there are aging societies whose problem is generating a youthful population for future development. Regardless of whatever your economists tell you about growth rate versus population expansion, these human beings are here already in their millions. The task of government, therefore, is to make them fully part of a developed society.

If the governments, especially state governments, do not prioritise the human development of these young citizens, terrorists, bandits and other criminals would find recruits among them at the peril of the larger society.
For instance, it is the constitutional duty of the Kano state government to ensure that all children resident in Kano have access to basic education and healthcare regardless of where their parents were born in Nigeria.

The forum of northern governors ought to see the utter illogic in the movement of these children across states. The forum should put a stop to this ugly trend and fashion out a common solution. If the forum cannot harmonise things quickly and find a just and equitable answer to the Almajiri question, it will only be portraying itself as irrelevant
The class prejudice against these children is highly unconscionable. They suffer this fate because they are poor and destitute.
The contradictions thrown up by their gross abuse and oppression cannot be fully understood unless issues are seen in that light.

For instance, the Kano state government cannot expel members of the Kano elite who are of Kaduna state origin. And whatever benefits the residency of these elitist elements bring to Kano would not be passed on to Kaduna state as the burden of the Almajiri is being shifted now.
The social content of policies should be improved upon by governments at all levels.
That is the kernel of the Almajiri question.