Uche Usim, James Ojo, Paulinus Aidoghie, Fred Itua and Tunde Odu
Abuja residents may have accepted kidnapping, armed robbery and other budding crimes as a sad reality. But what they do not understand and obviously uncomfortable with, is the swelling number of Almajiris.
In the city centre, only a handful of them are often spotted. But this is not so in the satellite towns like Kubwa, Dei-dei, Nyanya, Jikwoyi and Kuje. They swarm around restaurants like locusts, with hunger and deprivation boldly written on their faces.
Almajiri, an Arabic word derived from Al-Mahaajirun literally means a person who leaves his home in search of Islamic knowledge. The children are usually neglected by their parents to survive on their own.
Unfortunately, the Almajiri culture in the North has since outlived its purpose. It has become a breeding ground for child hooliganism, with all the catastrophes that come with street life. These vulnerable children, aged in most cases, between four and 14, are often clad in worn-out clothes and some without shoes.
Their unmistakable identity is their plates they occasionally use as drum sets, while roaming the streets and begging for alms or food. But where do they disappear to every night? That is the question on the lips of FCT residents.
The thought that the vulnerability of the youngsters may be exploited by terrorists is given Abuja residents great concerns and fears. That fear has been heightened by a recent video of a child terrorist of less than 10 years old shooting his 22-year-old captive in the head in Plateau State.
Residents insisted that the Almajiri system should be abolished as it represents the relics of a creation abhorrent to western education, which has been discarded in many Islamic nations, including Saudi Arabia. They asked the Presidency to come out boldly to state what it intends to do with the Almajiri education system, rather than issuing conflicting signals.
A teacher in one of the public secondary schools in Kubwa, Mrs Apata, described the Almajiris as ticking time bombs because they are children bred on the streets without the love, care and guidance of parents. She told Daily Sun:
“Their struggle for survival exposes them to abuse (homosexuality and paedophilia), used as slaves, brainwashed and recruited for anti-social activities or even used for destructive and violent activities.
“In the FCT, especially the suburbs, we are seeing more and more of them. Their numbers keep swelling, perhaps due to the blossoming crimes in the North East and North West that may have driven them here.
“For now, they are peaceful in their conduct. But I am extremely worried about the future of Abuja if these almajiris are not socially taken care of. Some say they sleep in uncompleted buildings and mosques. How sure are we? Who gave them those facilities and what are the short, medium and long-term motives? We are certainly playing with fire. We cannot continue like this.”
For Tajudeen Olaosebikan, a commercial bus driver, the menace of Almajiris is something that should not be toyed with: “Their presence is usually not felt in the morning rush in areas like El-Rufai Park, NNPC, FHA, NYSC junction and Arab Road junctions.
“But as the evening approaches, they start converging at Arab Road junction and later spread to the NNPC junction, which is the busiest of all the junctions on the Kubwa Expressway.
“With the signatures of a bowl and tattered cloth, the boys of between five and nine years age always take advantage of the slow traffic at the junctions to solicit for money of any left over food. They are not aggressive as they beg and they walk away, the moment they observe that you are not looking friendly.
“The next thing is to converse among themselves in Hausa language and move to the next car or passenger waiting to connect with Okada riders to their next destination. They constitute no disturbance to our operations.
“They are not a problem to us, we don’t even see them in the morning and afternoon. They take advantage of the traffic at the junctions to solicit for money or any left over food. They are not aggressive in their begging as they always flee to the next car once they encounter any unfriendly person.
“They are not a problem to us, we don’t even see them in the morning and afternoon, it is in the evening time that they come to beg for money to eat. We don’t have issues with them at all, at least for now. At times, as a father, you will even pity them and think about their tomorrow.”
It was also gathered that the Almajirai are quite visible in Kagini, Saburi and Guda, three villages off the expressway where they sleep in uncompleted buildings and mosques.
“You can find them at Kagini and Saburi in day time. But they move to the junctions of these villages and in Kubwa to beg. My fear is what they would become when they grow and become adults,” a worried used clothes seller at the NNPC Junction said.
A lecturer at the University of Abuja (UNIABUJA) who declined to be named said the Almajiri phenomenon should be treated as a huge social challenge capable of destabilising the country. He blamed government at all levels and Islamic scholars who have continued to support the almajiri system that has lost its values.
He added that the Presidency was adding to the woes of Nigeria by creating and sustaining an environment where child beggars and potential terrorists are bred in the guise of giving them Islamic education:
“I was a primary and secondary school teacher before I became a university lecturer. I know what it means to be responsible for nurturing young minds. They are innocent and vulnerable and anything you teach them, they learn. Anything you don’t teach them, they’ll learn on the street. It is as simple as that.
“If we fail to take care of them, Boko Haram will. They will use them to rebuild their depleted manpower stock. You saw that video of that small boy saying some words and then shooting a man in the head. That boy should be in school. He should live in a house and cared for. But he has been hijacked by Boko Haram.
There are millions of them out there and terrorists are plucking them whole the government and other well-meaning Nigerians look the other way. We may be building a future for terrorists if we don’t do something today. The Almajiri system, which is massively responsible for the bulk of our 13.5 million out-of-school children (the largest in the world) is not something we should nurture.”
On June 21, 2019, the National Security Adviser (NSA), Babagana Monguno, at the end of the National Economic Council meeting in Abuja, admitted that the Almajiri system has become a huge problem to the society as many of the pupils end up as criminals, drug addicts and ready tools in the hands of “those who have very dangerous intentions”.
Many concerned Nigerians, including the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and some Islamic scholars applauded it just as some vehemently opposed it. The Sultan of Sokoto and President-General of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III and the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Sanusi Lamido Sanusi have consistently condemned the system as being “unislamic.”
Regardless, beneath the public perception of beggars is an untold story of people who had, in the past, had a life of their own. A chance meeting with Mr Oseni Mohammed, an indigene of Jigawa State within the vicinity of the National Mosque, Abuja, revealed the unexpected.
He is probably in his 50s he has lived in Abuja for over four decades. He told Daily Sun that prior to resorting to begging, he was into supply of goods. He spoke in Pidgin English: “I have stayed long in Abuja. I have been here for over 40 years. Oga, you know the way Nigeria is now, but I thank God all the same. I am into supply. That is my work.”
How did he find his way to the National Mosque, begging? His response: “You know there is no work. Getting a job is problematic. Anywhere I go in search of job, I find plenty women doing the same work I am supposed to do. Things are okay a little. I live in Gwagwa for now, the suburb.”
He said his business is facing severe challenge from the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB): “If I have a job, I won’t come here. It is because I don’t have a job. Anytime I go out to search for job, there is none available. Allah! If I have a job, I won’t come here. What will I come here to do?”
Salamatu Usman, an indigene of Kano State, probably in her 50s and lives in Karmo, a suburb in Abuja, said she visits the National Mosque only on Fridays, to beg, as a result of the challenges she encountered in her business. She has lived in Abuja for over 20 years, having relocated with her husband who later passed away:
“I was into petty trading. I have no money to further my trade. That is why you find me here. I have seven children. If I have money, I will go back to trading. I will buy goods that I used to sell, stock a shop and continue with life.”