More Pain for Nigeria’s Children Living Under Difficult Circumstances

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Udora Orizu writes that the determination of the 19 state governors of Northern Nigeria to abolish the Almajiri system may have increased the hardship of less privileged children in that region

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria, the federal and state governments have taken various measures to curb its spread including closing national and local boundaries, restricting movement. Not only has this pandemic proven the country’s ‘failed system’. It has also shown various flawed decisions by government in the believe that it was helping to curb the spread of the virus.

One of those measures is the move by Nigerian governors from the 19 Northern states to end the Almajiri system. In order to execute the decision, there has been a rash of transfer of Almajiris back to their states of origin. The controversial ban of the Almajiri from states in the north is one of those terrible decisions, a clear proof of policy without social content.

The Almajiri crises have been age long issue. However, recently the move by the Northern governors to ban the Almajiri system as part of efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria triggered the latest crisis. The decision had Islamic clerics, the National Assembly, lawyers and other stakeholders calling for its halt, with some describing it as inhumane and a violation of human rights.

With the ban also, some have questioned, how the host states were able to know that the parents of those children are from the states to which they are being forcefully moved. Where are the records? Who keeps an accurate data of the Almajiri. What part of the constitution gives the governors the right to embark on such an action?

Almajiri may be described as children who live under difficult circumstances. They grow up on the streets without the love, care and guidance of parents; their struggle for survival exposes them to abuse. Most of them are used as slaves, brainwashed and recruited for anti-social activities and used for destructive and violent activities.

In the northern part of the country, they usually move in groups, begging for or scrambling over a small plate of food. At times, they move from house-to-house, singing begging songs, and calling on people in the house for help.

Historically, Almajiri, formally called Tsangaya, is a migratory system of Islamic education that emerged in the pre-colonial era from the Kanem-Borno town of Northern Nigeria. Almajiri was inspired by Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina and is derived from the Arabic word Al-Muhajirun, which means a person who leaves his home in search of Islamic knowledge.

Young boys would leave their homes to be taught by an Alarama (Teacher) for up to six years, starting with understanding basic Arabic alphabets to memorising the Qur’an. The schools were established as an organised system of learning Quranic education and Islamic jurisprudence, a replica of Islamic learning centres in Muslim countries like the Madrasah in Pakistan, Egypt, etc.

These schools were primarily funded by scholarships from the Emirates system, though members of the community and parents also contributed through Sadaqah (Giving of alms). However, the British side-lined the Almajiri system after their 1904 invasion as they did not recognise it as a standard educational system, ceased official funding and established a new system of Western education called Boko. Though funding went down, interest in Almajiri remained the same. As contributions from parents and community members were not enough to sustain the practice, the students started begging.

The Almajiri system of education are Islamic schools with a longstanding tradition in northern Nigeria, dating back to the 11th century. The Islamic revolution of the 18th century solidified the Almajiri system under the Sokoto Caliphate. This system of education focuses on Qu’ranic and Islamic education, where students also learn a trade for livelihood. Under the Sokoto Caliphate, schools were regulated and teachers reported directly to the Emir of their province. Students in the school were raised by teachers, parents, leaders and the community at large. To supplement the Almajiri system, students would farm and bring food for the school. Like Western education, it was a course in the society and culture of the region where students were taught the Islamic and northern Nigerian way of life.

Under British colonization, however, British rulers deliberately dismantled the Almajiri system, killing most of the Emirs of the region and abolishing state funding of the system. The dismantling of this system directly created the structural problems facing Islamic schools in Nigeria today.

A 2014 UNICEF report estimated that there are 9.5 million Almajiri children in Nigeria, making up 72 per cent of the nation’s out-of-school children. Estimates reveal that Nigeria presently has between 13.2 million and 15 million out-of-school children, most of them in northern Nigeria.

The Northern governor’s Forum reached an agreement last month to ban the Almajiri system as part of efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria.

The governors agreed to evacuate the children back to their parents or states of origin to minimise their exposure to the disease that has infected over four million people across the world.

One of the Northern Governors, Abdullahi
Ganduje of Kano State recently described the Almajiris as the breeding ground for Coronavirus because of their vulnerability as a result of lack of hygiene, lack of shelter and lack of proper sanitation.

He said, “Because they stay in a congested environment, they have no defined place for them to sleep, no prescribed food for them to eat, no provision for sanitation and therefore they are vulnerable. Based on these we decided to pay special attention to them by establishing the special response team to examine and protect them under the climate of COVID-19. Those found to be negative will be taken back to their parents while those found to be positive will be retained, isolated and treated. When they recover, they will then be taken back to their states with certification from the NCDC.”

“We decided to examine all the Almajiris in Kano state. Our intention is to protect them and those who are negative, we take them back to their parents, back to their states to ensure that they are free from Coronavirus. Those who are positive, we are not taking them back to their states of origin. We are putting them in isolation centres until they are cured and are confirmed negative. For those Almajiris from Kano, we have an adequate arrangement for their education and for those who cannot find where to go, we are their parents and we are ready to cater for them. Our intention is to ensure that the Almajiri system is fully integrated with the conventional system of education. Our children have the right to education and Almajiris have right to education.”

Also the Governor of Kaduna State, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, recently said the Northern States Governors Forum was determined to end the Almajiri system of education in the north, amidst the spread of COVID-19 among the children.

El-Rufai said the COVID-19 pandemic provided the opportunity to determine the state of Almajiri education.

He said the decision has been a subject of deep deliberations in the Northern States Governors Forum under the chairmanship of the Plateau governor, Simon Lalong, for the past 12 months.

“We’ve been looking for the ways and means to end this system because it has not worked for the children, it has not worked for Northern Nigeria and it has not worked for Nigeria. So, it has to end and this is the time.”

He said his state has been expanding the capacities of schools in Kaduna with the hope of accommodating the subsequent integration of these children as the best alternative for them.

“You know, it is better to count 200 children in a primary school classroom and give them some kind of modern education than to allow them to waste their lives away, roaming about the streets begging for what to eat under this system. Anything is better than this system and we’re determined as Northern governors to end it,” he said.

The Governor also said if other Northern governors are treating the issues with levity, that is their own business, but that in Kaduna State, the Almajiri sytem is dead.

He revealed that he has reviewed a law that will formally prohibit such a system in his state, noting that all parents of the children have been tracked and would be properly trained on parental responsibilities, in order to efficiently and effectively enforce the proposed model for the children.

“We are not just abolishing the system, we’re not just telling the parents of the children, but we’ve let them know that the children must go to school once school is open and we’ve tracked each and everyone of their parents and we’re going to counsel them on parental responsibilities. It is a long process, but the children must go to school,” he added

Following the ban by the Northern governors, there has also been speculations of influx of Almajiris in the South-east.

Recently, apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo and traditional rulers in Anambra, Imo and Abia States, raised the alarm over the increasing number of youths from the northern parts of the country, being dumped in the South-east, calling on governors in the zone to take a serious stand on the issue without further delay.

The group rejected the ferrying of Northern youths and Almajiri in large numbers to the South-east States, saying that their movement was not with good intention.

The publicity secretary of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Prince Uche Achi-Ogbaga said, “This is the most difficult riddle of the years. Most of the palliatives have been shifted to the Northern part of the country. While the palliatives were shifted to North, the people from the North are trooping in thousands to the South East and South South. I wonder what they are coming here to do.”

“And the way the so called Almajiri are loaded in vehicles and lorries are alarming. Who provides the lorry and fuels it? Who organized this because it is an orchestrated organization? It is not just that they saw a lorry on the road and climbed on it. It was a well-organized arrangement and they are being pushed to Southern parts without requisite food to eat.”

“They push them inside South-east and want them to go and earn their living from where? So many of them will turn to criminals and herdsmen and begin to harass people; go to people’s farm, maiming, killing, raping and destroying farm crops and yet, government is encouraging people to go into farming.

On his part, in a communique after a meeting in Awka, chairman of Anambra State’s Council of Traditional Rulers and the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe, said the influx of Almajiri was giving them a lot of concern.

Others who signed the communique include Achebe’s two deputies, the traditional ruler of Okpuno, Igwe Sunday Okafor, and the traditional ruler of Okakwu Odekpe, Igwe Chuma Onyia.

According to the royal fathers, the worrisome aspect of the situation was that many of the Almajiri might have already been infected with Coronavirus disease before being sent to the South East.

They urged the governors in the zone to ensure that the Almajiri were not allowed to enter the states since the Almajiri would not fit into the zone’s economic, social and cultural environment.

There have been other reports of police Intercepting 200 Lagos-bound Almajiris from Katsina State.

Police spokesperson in the state, Ajayi Okasanmi, said the lorry conveying the young people was intercepted at Kanbi/Oloru in the Moro Local Government Area of the state after taking off from Funtua in Katsina State.

Condemning the Almajiri expulsion, senior lawyers speaking to THISDAY last Saturday warned that such decisions might stoke constitutional crisis and further endanger the unity of the country.

Besides, the lawyers argued that the decisions of the state governments to send non-indigenes to their states of origin violated Chapter III and Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution, which respectively spell out the privileges of every Nigerian citizen and guarantee fundamental human rights.

In separate conversations with THISDAY, a former President of the West African Bar Association (WABA), Mr. Femi Falana (SAN); Nigeria’s leading human rights lawyer, Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa (SAN) and a former Chairman, Governing Council, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Dr. Chidi Odinkalu expressed grave concern about the decisions of these governors.

Falana observed that the fundament rights to freedom of movement, like other rights under the 1999 Constitution, might be derogated from or abridged in defence of public health, public safety or public morality.

The human rights lawyer acknowledged that in order to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus, the federal government banned inter state locomotion of all citizens for two weeks.

He noted that the decision, “cannot be questioned since it is based on the protection of public health. Section 45 of the 1999 Constitution allows such derogations,” which according to him, are based strictly on public interest.

However, Falana observed the policy might be impugned if it is applied in a discriminatory or selective manner, noting that even though the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) suggested the policy, the federal government accepted it.

The senior advocate said the state governors “have incorporated the ban into the COVID 19 regulations made by them. They are binding on all and sundry.”

He, however, lamented that the ban “is not effective as it is being sabotaged by security forces who have erected toll gates in the border towns.”

He faulted the decision of some state governments expelling non-indigenes residing within their territories, noting that such decision violated the fundamental rights of the affected citizens under the 1999 Constitution.

He explained that the 1999 Constitution “has recognised the fundamental rights of citizens to move freely and reside in any part of Nigeria. To that extent, the expulsion of flotsam and jetsam otherwise called Almajaris by some northern governors is illegal and unconstitutional.

“The danger of the illegal expulsion at this point in time is that many of the expelled citizens are COVID 19 positive. So the actions of the governors are promoting community transmission of the infectious disease.”

He lamented that the federal government “has not deemed it fit to call the governors to order. Some public interest litigation lawyers have concluded plans to challenge the constitutional validity of the expulsions in the federal high court after the lockdown..”

Like Falana, Adegboruwa provided two interrelated grounds, which according to him, showed that the decisions of some state governments to expel non-indigenes living within territories are completely unconstitutional.

He, first, cited the significance of citizenship to the federation, to which a whole chapter of the 1999 Constitution was devoted and the chapter explicitly outlined the rights and privileges attached to the citizenship status.

He said, “Once you are born in Nigeria and can trace any of your parents to Nigerian origin, you are a free born citizen with all the rights and privileges attached to that citizenship in line with the provisions of Chapter 3 of the Constitution.

“This cannot be taken away by a declaration by a governor. I have no doubt that the decisions of the governors in expelling citizens from their states on the ground that they are not indigenes of those states are totally unconstitutional.

“It is unfortunate what is currently happening in Nigeria, in respect of the COVID 19, which now seems to have its own Nigerian identity, from fake test results, to propaganda of bloated capacity and even corruption,” Adegboruwa.

He, also, explained the illegality of the decisions of the governors under section 41 of the Constitution, which according to him, stated that every citizen of Nigeria “is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof and no citizen shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry or exit.

“This provision is very sacrosanct to our unity as a nation, going by our collective motto of unity and progress. You should be able to stay in any part of Nigeria, so long as you are law-abiding and you have not committed any offence to warrant the deprivation of your rights as a citizen.

“Now, some of the reasons given are that these are itinerant persons who have no visible means of livelihood and they are said to constitute some risks to the containment of the COVID 19 pandemic. The question then is this.

“If they are already infected persons, will the act of expelling them from their state of residence take away the virus from them? Is the virus regulated by physical boundary between states such that once you are expelled, then the virus would immediately recognise the boundary and then disappear?

“We compel those who occupy positions of authority to familiarize themselves with the provisions of the Constitution which they have all sworn to uphold. In that wise, we will have less infractions of the Constitution when leaders become more aware of its provisions,” the senior advocate said.

He warned against expelling citizens from their places of residence to their states of origin, noting that such decision “is like sowing the seed of disunity.”

He said the state governments that expelled them “are simply telling them that even though they have worked and lived all their lives in their places of residence, they are not welcome as Nigerian citizens unless they can trace their states of origin. It will lead to social disintegration, social disharmony.”

He, also, noted that the action of the state governments discriminated “against these citizens on grounds of places of origin and their status in society, because most of the states that are expelling Almajaris still accommodate the rich men and women from the same state where the Almajaris come from.

“They are just being targeted because of poverty and low status. If this is allowed to fester, then you cannot refer to Nigeria as a federation. In section 2 of the Constitution, it is clearly stated that Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state to be known by the name of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

“But when you don’t allow citizens of other states to reside and take abode in your state freely, you are telling them that you are not part of the federation, which then would mean that the governor executing such illegality is not fit to remain in office as a governor, having committed a breach of his oath office to uphold the 1999 Constitution,” he said.

Adegboruwa, therefore, urged the NGF to convene an emergency meeting and encourage all its members “to accept the people as they are. In many cases now, those who have tested positive to COVID 19 are not necessarily indigenes of the states where they reside.

“We should not get to the level where out of panic, the problem of COVID-19 that we are trying to solve will be escalated because these almajaris are packed together in trucks as if they are not human beings and in that wise, they will not be able to observe the social distancing and hygiene policies associated with COVID 19.

“Even though one appreciates the concern of the governors that are affected, it is important to realise that the 1999 Constitution is the grundnorm and the organic document of our existence as a nation and it is important not to take steps that fly in the face of that basic document,” he explained.

In his response, Odinkalu noted that lots of issues (have been happening in the country “that are strange to federal structure. Expelling non-indigenes from their states of residence is one of such strange happenings.”

In any federation, Odinkalu argued that citizens “can live anywhere or move from one place to the other without let or hindrance. These people have not committed any crimes. Poverty is not a crime. Nor is destitution.

“But even if these were crimes, internal banishment is not a punishment and there is nothing like repatriation or deportation to your place of origin. As a fact, no one knows where most of these people come from in terms of origins.

“The state governors, who have paid no heed to them all this while, are all of a sudden inventing reasons to be nasty and amoral in a way that frankly endangers everyone. It is the cluster removed from Kano that began the spike in Gombe and Bauchi as well as in Kano’s North-west neighbours,” he said.

With these developments, he said the federal government “has the responsibility to protect the integrity of the federation. It is failing woefully. Governors who swore to defend the constitution are undermining it egregiously.”

Also against the expulsion is the House of Representatives.

The Green Chamber at the plenary on Tuesday, urged the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to enforce the Inter state travel ban order and direct the Governors concerned to immediately halt the evacuation of the Almajiri.

The House also urged the NCDC to counsel the governors concerned on the threat posed by the evacuation of the children at this critical period.

It further urged the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management to include the Almaijiri children among the beneficiaries of palliatives being distributed by the Federal Government to the less privileged.

It also urged the Northern Governors Forum to provide the almajiris with the requisite tools for the universal basic and technical education system.

These resolutions were sequel to the unanimous adoption of a motion of urgent public importance, titled, ‘Urgent Need to look Into the Evacuation of Almajiri, Amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic’, sponsored by Hon. Aishatu Dukku and Hon. Shehu Kakale.

Presenting the motion, Dukku noted that about 10 million children attend the Almajiri schools in Northern Nigeria with over 500,000 Almajiris living in the state of Kano alone where majority of the children are being evacuated from.

She said that the evacuation of the children is in violation of the interstate travel ban currently enforced by the government.

She recalls that the statement by the Northern Governors Forum hinges on the risk that the children are exposed to due to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

The lawmaker expressed concerns that the evacuation is jeopardizing the fight against COVID-19 due to the high level of movement of the children from different places and its attendant high risk of infection.

Dukku worries that the nature and manner in which the chiidren are being transported is dehumanizing and has brought them pain and untold hardships.

She raised alarm that such action is capable of putting Nigeria on the spotlight of human rights violators and at the same tune jeopardize the country’s fight against COVID-19.

She said, “The evacuation of the children is against their fundamental human rights of residing anywhere in Nigeria as guaranteed in Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It’s disturbing that in some cases, these children after travelling for so many hours under harsh weather, were rejected and turned back by their states of origin or at best, they were kept in isolation under dehumanizing and demeaning condition.”

Also the Senator representing Kano South, Kabiru Gaya, has said the abolition of the almajiri system by Northern Governors Forum is not a good decision. The Senator said recently that he was once an Almajiri and moving the Almajiri from one state to the other has only worsened the COVID-19 crisis and heaped more burden on the parents of such children, who are already overwhelmed by poverty.

“Scrapping the Almajiri system won’t solve our problems. We have to think of a way to educate them. I was an Almajiri. When I was in primary school, I came back in the evening to the Almajiri School. And we are contributing our best to the country as a former Almajiri.
Packing those children to homes where their parents cannot feed them will only expose them to crime. The governors should put heads together. You don’t make a law and do not provide an alternative. Instead of transporting them back to their states, the government should create more schools where the children can go and get a better form of education and enjoy the Quaranic education as well,” he added.

However, since the repatriation commenced, some of the children have tested positive for the disease after returning to their home states. Sixty-fice Almajiri students tested positive for COVID-19 in Kaduna after being returned from Kano. Sixteen others transferred from Kano to Jigawa also tested positive, while another seven tested positive in Bauchi.

The harassment of these children is against the “stay at home order” for containing the spread of coronavirus and the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 sensitisation on the restriction of movement of people and interstate travel ban in order to curb the virus.

These children being moved around like have rights of citizenship and residence protected by the 1999 Constitution and these rights are being abused by those in power. According to the law making basic education free and compulsory, the children are supposed to be in school in whatever state they reside.

It is first important to change the way we view and treat the Almajiri, not as “one of them” but as “one of us”. The idea behind the Almajiri system may be worth preserving, but the schools ought to be properly integrated into the educational sector and their curriculums upgraded and revised in a way that allows the students get both Quranic and secular education.

QUOTE 1:

A 2014 UNICEF report estimated that there are 9.5 million Almajiri children in Nigeria, making up 72 per cent of the nation’s out-of-school children. Estimates reveal that Nigeria presently has between 13.2 million and 15 million out-of-school children, most of them in northern Nigeria. The Northern governor’s Forum reached an agreement last month to ban the Almajiri system as part of efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria

QUOTE 2:
The Northern governor’s Forum reached an agreement last month to ban the Almajiri system as part of efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria. The governors agreed to evacuate the children back to their parents or states of origin to minimise their exposure to the disease that has infected over four million people across the world. One of the Northern Governors, Abdullahi
Ganduje of Kano State recently described the Almajiris as the breeding ground for Coronavirus