Let me start by sharing with my readers an incident that happened somewhere in north-western Nigeria a few years ago:
A father took his five years old child to an Almajiri school very far away from the village where he lived. He assigned the small child to the teacher, who had about a hundred such children as his pupils. A few months later, winter set in, and in that part of Nigeria, it could be absolutely brutal. The teacher did not have enough rooms to shelter all his students. Therefore, some of them slept in the open, completely exposed and at the mercy of the elements. The five-year-old was one of such unlucky students and, before long, he developed acute pneumonia and died shortly after.
With too many students, the teacher could not even remember the name or address of the father of the child. But before burying the child, he smartly reported the matter to a police station. The police took details of the matter and gave the teacher the station diary number and date and granted him permission to bury the child.
Four years later, the father of the child reported in the school to see his child. He was suffering from acute poverty and thought that, by now, his child must have started some trade and amassed some profit he could draw from. So, the visit was not just to see the abandoned child, but to benefit from him. The father introduced himself and reminded the teacher that he was the one who brought his five years old child four years earlier. There were many like him, and so, it took time for the teacher to remember which child was being referenced to. He remembered, to his shock, that this was the father of the child who died of acute pneumonia. He welcomed the father and asked him to go with him to where the child was. And off they went to the police station, where the teacher got the personnel on duty to trace the case, telling them this was the father of the young child who died a few months earlier. The police promptly arrested the father and detained him.
The bitter truth we find so convenient to hide is that, in the streets of most northern Nigerian cities and villages today, such has since become the new normal. Fathers who cannot cater for their children use the almajiri schools as an excuse to abandon and dump their children. The teachers who operate these schools know they do not have the wherewithal to fend for these children brought to them as pupils, yet, they accept them without asking the parents for upkeep money. They then throw the children to the society. And the children roam about aimlessly begging for food. They have no idea whatsoever as to what the word parental-love means.
A UNICEF report released in 2014 shows there are 9.5 million almajiri children in Nigeria, making up 72 per cent of the nation’s out-of-school children. Nigeria presently has between 13.2 million and 15 million out-of-school children, most of them situated in northern Nigeria that has ironically produced the highest number of leaders of this country.
The almajiri grows up in the streets without the love, care and guidance of his parents. His struggle for survival exposes him to heavy abuse. Oftentimes, he is used as a slave, brainwashed and recruited for anti-social activities and at times deployed for destructive and violent activities.
Depriving children of a loving family environment causes lasting damage to their intelligence, emotional wellbeing and even their physical stature, according to the most extensive study of social deprivation yet.
Such children are likely to grow up feeling alienated, becoming hostile, aggressive, and anti-social. They are also less likely to report hostility, distressing social interactions and psychosomatic symptoms. For those who want to know how the terrorist organisation Boko Haram was formed, this provides the basis. The inability to report hostility also largely informs why Boko Haram finds it easy to operate because, up to now in Maiduguri, very few people cooperate by informing the security services when these terrorists hide in their midst. They strangely still see them as their own that should not be exposed, perhaps because almajiri had its roots in Kanem-Borno in the 11th Century, though it was of a noble variant at that time.
In a publication titled Child Attachment Disorder, written by Dr. Jacqueline Payne, a renowned general medical practitioner and author, she emphatically states that “when a child does not bond with his mother, it results in a condition called attachment disorder. It happens to babies and children who have been neglected or abused, or who are in care or separated from their parents for some reason. It usually leads to the child having aggressive or violent behaviour towards other children and adults. Such children grow up depressed, unable to control their temper or anger, and they are more likely to be in trouble with the police when they start growing up. Dangerous people use them because they grow up without any fear for strangers. They have no one to verify whether the person influencing them is a good or bad person.
“For babies or children who have never had the person who looks after their needs properly, there is no secure attachment. There is no safe base from which to form relationships, explore new situations and deal with stresses. The end result of this is a set of difficulties with behaviour and emotion, which can affect the development of the child.”
This informs why Boko Haram, whose soldiers were mostly drawn from the thousands of almajiri roaming the streets of Borno and other northern states, was once cited by the CIA as the most brutal terrorist organisation in the world. It also informs why those almajiri that have resorted to deviant behaviour end up becoming the most heartless and callous.
And it is in this connection that I want to strongly advice our governors to tread with serious caution the way and manner their respective administrations are going about transferring almajiri children to their states of origin. Firstly, as many respected lawyers have stated, it is a breach of the fundamental human rights of these children, but even worse is that they are being reunited with their parents who have never shown them any love. A few such almajiri I interviewed told this column that, right now, they feel unwanted by society, because they were not doing anything wrong when they were picked up by police and forced into vehicles that ferried them to places they hardly ever knew all their lives, against their wish.
Let me at this point state that not all almajiri are bad or criminally inclined. A vast majority of them can impact very positively on society, if it shows them care and love. I belong, for example, to a WhatsApp chat group that feels that one of the best ways to resolve the almajiri conundrum is by showing them care and love. We resolve at our level to each of us fending for at least one almajiri.
And so, in my house in Kano, I am responsible for the feeding and upkeep of six almajiri, and these young lads are already contributing positively to the society by engaging in small trades, with N%,000 that I gave each of them as capital.
I am surprised that some Muslim groups are complaining that some Christian groups are planning to train 10 million almajiris and give them a sense of belonging.
They fear that the children could be converted to Christianity. But then you cannot eat your cake and still have it. The Muslim North should either, in unison, show true care and love to these abandoned children, or run the risk of having them converted to any other religion or even high-grade criminals and terrorists.
A society that only uses these children as thugs during elections and abandons them thereafter cannot expect any good from the children. The North is sowing the wind, and strangely feels it should not be entitled to reap the whirlwind.
Forceful removal of almajiri from their present bases to their states of origin will only breed serious resentment, as it is already doing. Already, these children that have been abandoned by their parents are feeling society also has deep hatred for them. The northern governors should go for the real culprits; the heartless parents of these children and deal decisively with them. The problem can only be resolved from the base, except we are deceiving ourselves.
We have to be very, very careful of the implications of these rejected children deciding to take revenge on society. We will then be having on our hands a monster far worse than Boko Haram. Moving them from one state to another could not deprive them of their citizenship of Nigeria, and so, inasmuch as they are within our shores, they can decide to return with vengeance sooner than later. It doesn’t require any rocket science to decipher this.
If we are really serious about resolving the almajiri menace, part of the solution is to go back to the same Tsangaya schools established by President Goodluck Jonathan all over northern Nigeria. Sadly, the same northerners that stand to benefit from these schools abandoned them because of cheap politics.
A year ago, The Guardian newspaper published a report on the history of the almajiri system in Nigeria. Before British colonization, a system called Tsangaya prevailed in the Kanem-Borno empire. It was established as an organised and comprehensive system of education for learning Islamic principles, values, jurisprudence and theology. Modeled after madrasahs in other parts of the a Muslim world, Tsangaya was funded largely by the state. Islam traditionally encourages charity, so the community readily supported these Almajiri. In return, the Almajiri gave back to the society, mostly through manual labour.
The Danfodio jihad brought with it some modifications, the establishment of an inspectorate of Qur’anic literacy, whose inspectors reported directly to the emir of the province concerning all matters relating to the schools. In those days, the pupils lived with their parents or guardians for moral upbringing, and all the schools were located within the immediate environment from where the pupils came from.
The students were at liberty to acquire skills in between their Islamic lessons, and so were involved in trades such as farming, fishing, masonry, among others. Many were the farmers whose produce formed the famed groundnut pyramids in the North. After colonization, Almajiri were recruited by the British as miners in Jos.
The system also produced the judges, clerks and teachers who provided the colonial administration with the needed staff. The first set of colonial staff in Northern Nigeria was provided by the almajiri schools. With the coming of the British, the capture of Emir Aliyu of Kano and the death of Sultan Muhammadu Attahiru of Sokoto, the emirs lost control and accepted their new roles as vassals to the British. They also lost fundamental control of education.
The British abolished state funding of Tsangaya, arguing that they were religious schools. Western education was introduced and funded instead. With this loss of support, the system collapsed. The pupils and their malams, having no financial support, resorted to begging for survival. Animosity and antagonism grew, worsened by the belief that the Western education was of Christian-European origin and therefore anti-Islamic. Fears grew that children with western education would eventually lose their Islamic identity. The malams increasingly sent their students to beg. The malams assured their students that it is better to beg than to steal. The students in their turn swarm into society with no bearing. This was the genesis of the predicament of the Almajiri system today.
And it is for this very reason that I strongly feel we need to go back and unearth those Tsangaya schools; see where, if any, President Jonathan got it wrongly, and effect modifications in our collective interests. And let me warn: this is not a problem for the North alone. It is a problem requiring the support and cooperation of all Nigerians of goodwill. When the whirlwind starts, and I pray it does not, it will engulf not just the North, but the whole of Nigeria.