From Tunde Omolehin, Sokoto
Nine-year-old Adamu Bala, an almajiri pupil, had modest expectations when he was enrolled for Quranic lessons at one of the Islamic centres in the Mabera area of Sokoto metropolis.
His parents, who live in Mafara, Zamfara State, had dropped him off in Sokoto in 2019, under the tutelage of a local Islamic teacher popularly known as Mallam Idris where he was to undergo Quranic studies.
But contrary to the parents’ belief that the young Bala would be fulfilling the obligation to provide both religious and moral education to the child, his arrival in the midst of other young boys was just an addition to a league of alms beggars on the streets of Sokoto State.
Two years later, Bala and his compatriots have only improved in alms begging. Surprisingly, he was stuck abruptly when asked to recite the first verses of the Holy Qur’an.
For several days recently, Saturday Sun traversed Kware, Wamakko, Bodinga, Sokoto North and Sokoto South Local Government Areas of Sokoto State, engaging underage beggars on their plights and wellbeing.
Like Bala, an encounter with seven-year-old Dahiru, (real name withheld), was another piece of evidence that most of the children were only preoccupied with alms begging rather than concentrate on the core learning of the Qur’an.
He sarcastically responded to every question posed to him on why he had chosen to leave his parents in far away Kalgo in Kebbi State purportedly for Qur’anic lessons. Not only that, Dahiru could barely understand elementary questions thrown to him on the purpose of Qur’anic lessons.
The duo of Kabiru and Amir were spotted roaming the main street of Wamakko town. They said they migrated from neighbouring Zamfara State to undergo Qur’anic education under the guidance of a local teacher. Their outlook portrayed that of indigent children in need of urgent help.
The Almajiri learning system is the centuries-old practice among Muslims parents who send their children to live with mallams in pursuit of Islamic knowledge away from their residential places.
But, rather than the children focus on the religion teachings, they are forced to endure to feed themselves by daily besieging major roadsides and other public places.
Indeed, the struggle to cater to their personal needs on the streets had reduced many of these pupils to beggars. Hardly do they comprehend the verses of the Holy Book they had committed to memory.
A recent report by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) on Nigeria’s out-of-school children indicates that Sokoto ranks among 10 northern states due to a large surge of Almajiri pupils in the state.
The UN agency asserted that, though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school.
“Only 61 per cent of 6-11 year-olds regularly attends primary school and only 35.6 per cent of children aged 36-59 months receive early childhood education.”
The UN agency record reflected the likes of Bala and others in the state, who did not pass through any formal education system after their Quranic tutorial.
“This is a clear indictment that these children were not really getting the needed guide under these Mallams,” Najib Danjebe, a civil rights campaigner, told Saturday Sun during a conversation.
He described the almajiri system as “harmful” and a breach of Nigeria’s universal basic education law.
“Aside the begging aspect, these children could be exposed to various social hazards like hard labour, sodomy and crime,” he added.
In May 2019, a lawyer with the National Human Rights Commission, Hamza Liman, facilitated the arrest of one Murtala Mode, an Islamic teacher after being accused of child abuse and sodomy.
The suspect was alleged to have serially raped his pupils, who were mostly from the neighbouring Zamfara State, for the purpose of receiving Quranic knowledge under his custody.
The pupils, aged between four and 15, said the teacher also collected money from some external homosexual clients and forced the children to submit themselves to sexual acts.
Both the suspect and victims were paraded by the police, but his trial was truncated by the nature of Islamic justice system which requires at least four witnesses against the accused before he could be prosecuted.
Rabiu Gandi of Save the Child Initiative, a non-governmental organisation championing the rights and wellbeing of children in state, said issues of child labour, street begging and child abuse would continue to be prevalent, except a formal law to protect vulnerable children is put in place.
While enumerating many benefits of the Child Rights Act (CRA) during a coalition meeting organized by Youth Hub Africa with support from Malala Foundation, Gandi also noted that the law is designed to protect the children against harmful practices in the state.
“We need the CRAs to protect the children against harmful practice in the state, Rabin said.
He said there is presently no law in Sokoto State that gives children rights to against injustice committed against them by the society.
“But with this act in place, the future of our children will be secured. The law will enable them achieve their targeted goals in life, either by getting them the needed quality education or a deserved parenting care,” he assured.
He said the document had been filtered and fine-tuned by relevant Islamic groups and scholars to be in conformity with norms guiding Islam.”
Alms begging as norm
Sheikh Ahmad Wasiu, an Islamic scholar who also heads a local Quranic centre at More in Kware Local Government Area of the state, denied the public perception that the children are let loose on the streets without any form of guide.
“Contrary to what people are saying. begging for these almajiri boys only take up about five or six hours of their day. The rest hours are for Quranic recitation and prayers. It will be difficult for a child not to comprehend what has been taught,” he told the reporter.
He said the children will be woken up from 4:30 a.m. to enable them prepare for morning prayers and a Qur’anic recitation. A break is given them to enable them solicit alms and they then return to the mallams for afternoon prayers. The lessons would then continue till 10pm, he said.
Tracing the origin of the almajiri education system, Abubakar Shekara, a media practitioner, said the system has produced prominent clerics and accomplished personalities in all walks of life.
“Those early days, Qur’anic learning was also combined with daily engagements at commercial or vocational centres in town, where the almajiri was exposed to occupational experience.
“The system was in fact, an all round training in learning, character and trade. It was indeed, a regime for the development of a complete personality that predates Western education in the North by centuries,” Shekara said.
He frowned on the incorporation of begging into the activities of almajiri. “It is a contemporary corruption of that traditional education system,” he said.
A recent plan for the adoption of Indonesian system of integrating Western education and vocational training into religious studies in the state has been applauded by stakeholders.
The system, if reformed and implemented, will definitely see these children busy and off the streets,´ Abubakar Junaidu told Saturday Sun.
A lawmaker and member of the Presidential Committee on the Reform of Almajiri System in Nigeria, Dr. Shehu Balarabe Kakale also urged the Federal Government to give due recognition to the certificate of the Quaranic education students, popularly known as Almajiri.
He said the equality will position Islamic students for equal opportunities with the Western education, which he said are of same level.
Kakale, however, said the implementation of the Child Rights Act in the state will further protect the children from any form of abuses and guide them on the path of their lifetime careers.
He urged that the Islamic form of education should be fully funded by not only the Federal Government but all the tiers of government in the country as it is being done for Western education.
“The system of Almajiri we are calling for is not the way in which they take their wards for begging, but a corporate system where they will not only learn Arabic but also be computer literate,” Kakale said.
The Executive Secretary, Sokoto State Arabic and Islamic Board, Dr. Umar Altine, said the reform of almajiri education would no doubt solve a mirage of problems in the country.
A cross section of civil society organisations in Sokoto State said a lack of sensitisation among stakeholders, and the lack of political will on the side of government, were part of the challenges affecting almajiri system in the state.
They said children in the state need the passage of child protection law to safeguard their fundamental rights and enable them achieve one of the Sustainable Development Goals of free and compulsory education for the children.
A legal practitioner, Rashida Muhammad, decried how lack of tangible laws is affecting the prosecution of child rights and sexual violence perpetrators.
She emphasised the need for more advocacy and sensitisation so as to remind the policy makers the need for the passage of child rights protection law in the state.