The uproar over the ban and deportation of child beggars, popularly called almajiri, by northern governors, reflects the ominous schism in the polity. The destitution among these street kids vividly depicts the worst violations of child rights globally. The state of these urchins, mainly from the North, roaming and rummaging through dumps for food, is heart-rending. Hence the action of the Northern Nigerian Governors Forum(NGF) to proscribe the controversial system is widely hailed.
However, the move has also received knocks, due to the exigencies of relocating them in these perilous times. Several efforts by past administrations to end the primitive institution were crushed by powerful individuals whose wards study abroad, allegedly. Such is the paradox of the Nigerian society, where indigent families are pushed to despicable conditions, under the guise of religion and tradition.
This absurdity says much about the country, with about nine million almajiris and 10 million out-of-school children, the highest number worldwide. The almajiri practice is blamed for fuelling the nation’s huge number of street kids and criminalities. The current fireworks and polarisation over this issue, along ethnic and religious fault lines, are untenable.
Previous attempts to abolish several detestable customs, notably early and child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), as well as discrimination against women and children were foiled over similar dissensions. In saner climes, young people are highly prized for their fragility and potentialities as future leaders. They are not subjected to needless hardships, under the guise of moral tutelage. But in Nigeria, the reverse is the norm. Societies that fail to invest in children’s education and welfare often face social instability.
Nigeria is currently inundated by terrorism, violence and unemployment, due to insufficient investments in youth development. The fact that these boys are already trooping to the South portrays the complexities of resettling them.
The Nigerian Christian Graduate Fellowship (NCGF) said several truckloads of young beggars were “intercepted in Enugu, Abia and Cross River states, by security forces, and turned back.” NCGF described the migration as “suspicious and posed health and security dangers to the region.”
Yet, the House of Representatives has asked the Federal Government to halt the evacuation, citing constitutional breaches and transportation hazards. According to them, the policy violated rights of citizens to reside in any part of the country. The lower chamber also urged the governors to incorporate the kids in the Universal Basic and Technical Education (UBTE) programme, before scrapping the ancient order. But the state executives have vowed not to rescind the action, as thousands of almajiri have already been profiled and moved to their various states and local governments. Certainly, relevant state and federal agencies should, synergistically, adopt a holistic template to arm them with adequate trainings and resources for a more secured future and productive life.
However, initiatives that tend to relieve parents of their sacred duties to their children are often cumbersome. Government agencies should offer support services but not adorn the role of parenting. Despite the merits of American policy on child removal from abusive parents, custody rights in several states and counties remain contentious.
Closer home, the almajiri Islamic education, which originated from the 11th Century Kanem Borno empire, has become burdensome. Many believe the exercise ‘should have a human face or be suspended.’ For others, “nothing can be as inhuman as neglect of one’s offspring.” Even animals take care of their newborn.
“It is not the right time to move them,” others argue.
But when is the right time?
With the current health crises, some believe they should reside in their present locations. This argument is somewhat spurious, because, whether they are evacuated or not, their safety and livelihood remain precarious. Their squalid circumstances and nutritional deficiencies predispose them to diseases and dangers.
For how long will society cuddle a quaint practice that neither serves its adherents nor society well? With the lockdown and economic restrictions, how will they survive on empty streets, bereft of alms givers? Should kids be pushed to the streets to fend for themselves?
It is immoral and anachronistic to abandon one’s offspring. Adults should take responsibility for their wards. Without proper education and skill acquisition, individuals become a menace. The era of indiscriminate breeding of children is gone. Such antiquated and reckless behaviours have no place in modern times.
They negate the principles of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and 2003 Child’s Rights Act. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 11 northern states, including Kano and Katsina, have not domesticated this legislation. The agency said its ratification is crucial for boosting children’s welfare, in line with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It will also protect them from exposure to exploitative labour, human trafficking and sex industry.
The present brouhaha captures the insidiousness behind the philosophy of begging as a way of life for both adults and minors. These reprehensible tenets that promote backwardness in the land call for urgent redress. The North needs to acknowledge that it is time to purge itself of cultures that perpetuate poverty and destitution in the region.
Latest National Bureau of Statistics report ranked the North as the poorest region in the country. According to the 2019 Nigerian Living Standards Survey, nine out of 10 poorest states were from the North. Sokoto State topped the chart with 87.73 per cent poverty head count rate, while Taraba and Jigawa posted 87.73 and 87.02 per cent, respectively.
This global catastrophe offers a veritable opportunity to review the region’s impoverishment, in order to engender rapid economic growth in the zone.
Rapid development can be stimulated in the area through promoting literacy, family planning, alternative energy supply, as well as securing credit facilities and premium markets for farmers and rural dwellers.
No doubt, this pandemic has thrown up a new norm and exponential challenges across nations. It is worse for the almajiris whose lot remains dark and dreary, as some of them have tested positive to the infection. The financial disaster has indeed worsened their plight. Parents are still impoverished. Social amenities remain scant. State governments do not seem well-positioned to undertake their quandaries. With this dilemma, these kids may return to the streets. It is a looming danger that must be averted, and urgently too.
•Ojukwu, Hubert H. Humphrey fellow, is a Lagos-based journalist