Covering the transition programme of the Third Republic in the 1990s meant I travelled much. Prior to that time, I never crossed the River Niger northwards, although Dad and Mum told me they took me as a baby up to Bacita and Jebba in Kwara State during my father’s many transfers under G. Cappa Nigeria Limited, the Italian construction giant of those days. As a journalist, I reported politics and travelled endlessly with Babagana Kingibe, MKO Abiola and other players in that ill-fated transition, which afforded me a panoramic exposure to the nooks and crannies of the country.
But the North broke my heart. The disease. The squalor. The listlessness and indolence. The flies. And yes, the Almajiri. In my eyes, the streets of the North brimmed with these plagues in the face of a lag in human capital development. Up North you found the contradiction between rich citizens who appeared dizzyingly rich, and poor folks who swung on the pendulum of abject poverty and debilitating disease. In-between you had the introverted middleclass. But everywhere, the poor idolised and hero-worshipped the rich in the lingering breath of ancient feudalism. Anytime we landed with Kingibe in Maiduguri, tons of children and youths chased the Social Democratic Party (SDP) national chairman’s convoy through the town like flies follow the festering sore of a dog’s ear. In the evening, all shades of folks turned up in huge numbers and took their places on the bare ground of the Ambassador’s vast compound, where they encircled trays of sumptuous rice and roasted guinea fowl that they rapaciously devoured.
The same depressing narrative assaulted my eyes in the homes of various Arewa politicians. It reverberated from Minna to Nupe, Maiduguri to Damaturu, Biu to Potiskum, Kano to Jigawa, Katsina to Kaduna, and virtually all through the Muslim core North where this troubadour traversed. Scores of able-bodied youths, arrayed in prison-colour monochrome kaftans, flocked the streets with plastic bowls in their hands. They begged for alms. Local journalists told me these were “Almajiri.”
Indigenous colleagues educated me that the Almajirinci system signposted the centuries-old system of Islamic education practised in Northern Nigeria. But despite the march of enlightening civilisation, this archaic form of learning continues to hold strong. According to a 2014 UNICEF estimate, up to 9.5 million Almajiri boys and Almajira girls follow this learning curve in Nigeria, their figure representing an astounding 72 per cent of the country’s out-of-school children. Whatever its pluses, the arrangement has bred Almajirai who constitute a major eyesore on the streets. Tens and hundreds of these youngsters live in ramshackle hostels and cells under a Mullah, the equivalent of a school headmaster or school proprietor, who superintends their training in Arabic alphabets, Arabic numeracy, the Koran and, sometimes, divination.
Behind this facade of religiosity, however, dark politics lurks. Since the days of Lord Lugard, poor northern Muslims have been encouraged to embrace polygamy, breed ad infinitum and pump up the region’s population figure. While the South tamed population through education and birth control, the northern elite fanatically pursued a population supremacy over the South by encouraging the proletariat to breed recklessly and dump children irresponsibly in the countless Almajiri colonies.
Perpetually in motion, these children, in singles, pairs or groups, move from person to person, house to house, street to street, begging for Sadaka or charity. What philosophy in the world reduced school-age children to this indignity, servitude and platitude? Something told me back then that this was a keg of gunpowder! Danger loomed as I could see. And I never ceased to wonder why the leaders of the North turned a blind eye to the looming explosion.
Clearly, these youngsters had no life! In whatever holes they crawled into at night, they got initiated into homosexuality, while Almajira girls suffered rape, with some parcelled off into underage marriages as juvenile brides. Substance abuse among them spiked as both Almajiri and Almajira experimented with all shades of drugs (from alcohol to Tramadol, to marijuana and lizard’s faeces) to get them perpetually “high” and psychologically escape their nightmarish life. Their way of life was no way to live! How could any society stomach this sub-human existence?
Placing the genetics of the region’s many crises under the microscope showed that the Almajiri substantially featured as foot soldiers and cannon fodder in northern Nigeria’s many ethno-religious eruptions, even when they never understood the raison d’etre of such upheavals. Once the blood-lusting Mullah’s voice rang through the mosque’s horn-speakers, these expendables jammed the streets with blood-curdling screams: La ilaha illallah! Allahu akbar!
At such faith-driven frenzy, these boys quickly became part of (to borrow Winston Churchill’s words for Nazi missiles during the First World War) “destruction sent forth in a soulless machine.” They joined the foot soldiers of the Maitatsine crisis of the 1980s and Mohammed Yusuf’s Boko Haram’s descent into terrorism at the dawn of this millennium. Today, they remain available for Boko Haram, bandits, ISWAP and suicide bombing that has inflamed the insecurity turning the North into a vast killing field. During elections, they execute under-aged voting and over-voting for politicians to rig polls and finish off uncooperative electoral officers.
President Goodluck Jonathan rolled out an intervention to ameliorate their darkness with the establishment of 157 Almajiri schools. The schools designed conditions to pamper the Almajiri. Offering free education on a platter of gold, they admitted students pro bono. Tuition, meals, uniform, books and boarding came free of charge! But rather than scamper into the four walls of modern education, the Almajirai and their slave-masters scoffed at these pearls and dug deeper into their dung like pigs.
Today, these unfortunate souls form a substantial part of the aggregates coalescing to make the North the poorest place in Nigeria and Nigeria the “poverty capital of the world.”
However, recent pronouncements by northern governors and Arewa leaders insinuate an awakening to the danger the Almajiri poses and the urgent need to guillotine this backward system. The system and its runners have been used and, having outlived their usefulness, must now be dumped.
But instead of adopting strategic thinking to retool over 10 million youths, children and operators destined for dislocation, the authorities hide behind one finger to make grandstanding pronouncements aimed at throwing these miserable souls under the bus and outlawing them.
Even worse, the orthern establishment wants to push this army of liabilities southwards! Southerners have kicked, vowing to resist any attempt to arm-twist their region into welcoming the dislocated Almajiri in the name of political correctness.
To be fair, the South grapples with its own home-grown black sheep –area boys, cultists, kidnappers and drug addicts. Additionally the South already bristles with millions of strange northerners and their foreign cousins, already raising suspicion. Apprehensive southerners suspect that adding this new wave of Almajari was not the North’s master plan originally –to train this army of vagrants and release them to the South as part of an overall scheme to advance Caliphate hegemony and expansionism in the South (stage one of which saw foreign herdsmen embark on an unbridled raping, kidnapping and killing campaign)! Such southerners’ suspicion is fuelled by the way the Arewa literati has vehemently defended the invading Almajiri and forcefully demand their accommodation in the South because they must enjoy their constitutional right to movement and residence. Almajirai are certainly Nigerians and should not be rendered stateless. But how does making them leave the known for the unknown solve their problem? Who approbates and reprobates in one breath – you encourage their lifestyle, and when you find them toxic, you suddenly outlaw them and want to dump them in another man’s compound?
Southerners are saying: Back to Sender! As far as they are concerned, the North created this Frankenstein and must bear responsibility for its annihilation and rehabilitation!
Like charity, the retooling of the Almajiri, must begin at home. The dismantling of the Almajiri circle deserves commendation as it represents a giant leap away from the tipping point into Boko Haram, the extremist form of Almajirinci’s kindred philosophy of rejecting modernity and Westernisation. The next stage is for the North to embark on mass rehabilitation of its dislocated inmates through re-indoctrination, skills acquisition, mass employment, birth control and massive education beginning with heavy investment and enrolment in the 157 Almajiri schools.
The challenge confronting the North is not to simply dismantling the antiquated Almajiri institution but to equip its victims with resources for modern living. This critical task of retooling the Almajiri the northern establishment can neither circumvent nor delegate.
•Oboagwina, a journalist, writes from Lagos