•Doubts capacity of region’s governors to resolve crisis
Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Most Rev. Matthew Kukah, says the Almajirai of northern Nigeria have become a scapegoat for the “multiple sins” of the region’s elite and the Muslim Ummah, warning that an apocalypse may hit that section of the country if the controversial Islamic education system is not properly addressed.
Almajirai, a system of Islamic education practised in the northern parts of Nigeria that encourages parents to leave parental responsibilities to Islamic schools where their children and wards are attached, has become a source of tension in the country. And leaders have introduced various measures in a desperate attempt to solve social problems that have arisen from the system.
But Kukah doubted the capacity of the northern governors to address the Almajirai crisis. He feared that the about 13 million Almajirai in the country might transmute into Boko Haram commanders and foot soldiers for the Islamic extremist group.
According to him, “The fate of the mallam and Almajiri will hang in a balance for a long time and may consume the region as the numbers overwhelm us all. Yesterday’s Almajiri could graduate to become today’s Boko Haram commander and foot soldier or turn to other crimes. With their main theatre of operation being northern Nigeria, it is easy to see why apocalypse may not be too far if something urgent is not done.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, governors across the 19 northern states have “deported” several dozens of Almajirai to their original homes in the North, with some governors calling for the abolition of the Almajiri system.
However, the Catholic Bishop, in a piece titled, “Almajiri: What Happened on the Road to Heaven?” said the children caught in the web of the now contentious system had become objects of political manipulation in the hands of the northern elite.
“The life of the Almajiri is supposed to be a spiritual journey of nurture and knowledge, guided by a Mallam, his spiritual foster father. Today, all of this is now besmirched,” Kukah stated in the article exclusively given to THISDAY.
Lambasting the northern leaders, the Bishop wrote, “The Almajiri has become a scapegoat for the multiple sins of the Nigerian state, in general, and the Muslim Ummah, in particular. I have decided to add my voice to this debate in a slightly different context. As usual, as of now, the northern elite will do what they do best: hide in the sands of self-deception, knowing that this will blow over and soon, no one will remember again.
“The governors indicted themselves when they said that it is time to act now because the Almajiri has outlived his usefulness. At least they have admitted their complicity and the fact that the Almajiri system had always been a tool for political and economic forms of transaction. Here is my thesis: With regards to his condition today, the Almajiri is an object, not a subject, is a victim, not a perpetrator, sinned against rather than a sinner.”
Kukah explained that the Almajirai and their religious tutors (Mallams) “are in the dock” and “charges are being read out to them,” noting that the children are charged with being dirty and unkempt, miscreants, delinquents, a nuisance to the society, petty thieves, prospective Boko Haram recruits, a stigma, and an assault on Nigerians’ collective social sense of decency.
He said the tutors were being charged with many sins, including child abuse, abduction, human trafficking, exploitation, physical abuse, hard labour, enslavement, etc.
Kukah, then, argued, “So, we identify the mallam and his Almajiri more by their crimes than their names. They are spoken about and not spoken to. In the media reports, no one bothers to give them a voice of their own. They do not speak for themselves. If they had a chance, for example, they might say: ‘Everyone calls me, Almajiri. No one has asked me my name. We are in the millions but have only one name. I have no name. I have no father. I have no mother. I have no home. I have no town. I have no tribe. I have no address. The streets are my home. I do not know if I have brothers or sisters. I am an Almajiri. No one knows if I have feelings. No one has ever asked me what I want to be in life. I live for today and for the sake of Allah. I have no tomorrow except Allah gives me. Tomorrow is in the hands of Allah.’”
Accusing the northern states’ governors of using and dumping the Almajirai, Kukah stated, “They are seen as a nuisance and their begging bowls, torn rags, mucus dripping faces and their weather-beaten lips, charred by hunger and pain, assault our social comfort. We clear them off the streets when some foreign guests (read white folks), are coming to town. Before elections, they are preserved as vote banks and during elections, they are lined up and their votes are used as barter.”
To the northern Muslim Ummah, Kukah asked, “Where did all this go wrong? Where was the Almajiri supposed to go at the completion of his studies? Was there a career path? How and why did the mallam and his Almajirai, a much-treasured part of Islamic history, deteriorate to the status of the scum of the earth?”
Kukah, whose Catholic Church has borne a brunt of the on-going carnage in the North, accused northern Muslim Ummah of failing to prepare the Almajirai for the future. He criticised them for leaving “their people in the lurch as the modern state emerged, providing no further rung on the ladder of progress” for the Almajirai but leaving them behind in the “cave of ignorance about the modern state.”
Kukah stated, “They have remained trapped in time. The new world of modernity was presented as a contaminant to the purity of Islamic knowledge. So, while the modern elite equipped themselves and their children with the armour of Western education, the mallam and his Almajirai were left behind in the twilight zone of ignorance, fear, anxiety, disorientation and discomfiture, treating those outside with veiled contempt.”
He said, “It is impossible to see the fate of the mallam and the Almajiri outside the loop of the decay that has gripped the North. Poverty, destitution and hopelessness hang in the air and the sheer numbers are intimidating.
“In terms of population, if we put all the Almajirai together today and accept that we are dealing with over 13 million children, we are dealing with the equivalent of the populations of Abia, Ekiti, Kwara, Yobe, Taraba, Bayelsa, and Gombe. Resolving the Almajiri crisis will require political resolve, a commodity that has almost totally absent in the calculation of the governing elite in the region.”
Kukah admitted that the Almajiri crisis had a long history, but said he did not trust the ability of the northern governors to do much to resolve the crisis. He said, “It is tragic that successive governments at the federal and state levels have not been able to wrestle with this problem and time has not been able to heal this fracture. The northern governors have spoken, but I am not alone in doubting that anything will be done. As usual, we shall await the fire next time.
“For now, I leave the reader with John Pepper Clark’s sobering civil war poem, ‘Casualties.’ He might as well have been referring to the Almajiri when he said: ‘The casualties are not only those who started a fire and now cannot put out. Thousands are burning that have no say in the matter. The casualties are not only those who are escaping. The shattered shall become prisoners in a fortress of falling walls.’”