Almajiris

By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU

A recent first-time visitor to a northern state had an encounter that has changed his understanding of the problem of the country. It was the face of poverty in the north. He was in the restaurant to eat.

“Just from the blues, about ten gaunt-looking children descended on my food just as I went to take more sachet of water”, Toke Adebayo, a businessman who regularly travels to Katsina told this newspaper on his first impression of Almajiri children in the North.

“They didn’t say a word, but their mien conveyed a thousand meanings, and  a mood of inexpressible longing for food, burdening customers at the cafeteria with a feeling of guilt and compassion, enough to sacrifice their meals for the children’s bowls.”

The scene above was at an open cafeteria in the heart of Daura, Katsina State, the hometown of President Muhammadu Buhari, and the children are almajirai, the boys forced to beg for survival, while they are kept with Islamic teachers, or mallams, supposedly for Quranic education.

Every day, in all part of Northern Nigeria, privileged, well-dressed northerners, the cream of the north’s military, business and political elites including public servants, see and pass by these poor children, as does President Buhari whenever he returns to his fortified country home in the town, near the country’s border with Niger Republic.

Long and steeped in history and religion, the almajiri system is the over a century-old practice of poor rural parents who are in the habit of sending their male children to live with mallams in pursuit of Islamic knowledge, which the children now receive under violent and torrid conditions.  But the females are well taken care of.

These street urchins with no formal education are not enrolled in any school for formal education, a breach of Nigeria’s child rights law and universal basic education law, which, respectively, prohibit any activity preventing children from education and make primary education compulsory for all children.

According to UNICEF, eight million of Nigeria’s out-of-school children were in 10 northern states, namely Bauchi, Niger, Katsina, Kano, Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi, Gombe, Adamawa, Taraba, and the FCT.

It is no longer news that the Northern part of the country is the most disadvantaged part of the entity called Nigeria in terms of development indices. In terms of education and infrastructure and elements of modern life, the North is far behind other parts.

Even the region’s successive leaders, including current political actors, such as Nasir el-Rufai, Kaduna state governor, former Emir of Kano, Mohammed Sanusi, ex-governor of Kaduna, Ramallah Yero and others are agreed on the underdeveloped nature of the region.

The former presidential candidate of the Young Progressive Party (YPP) in the 2019 general elections, Prof. Kingsley Moghalu, blamed northern political elite for the region’s poverty and underdevelopment. Moghalu, a former deputy governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) questioned the quest of northern leaders to constantly hold on to power at the centre when an average citizen in their region still lives in abject poverty.

He asserted in June 2019 as a guest speaker at Ra’ayi Initiative for Human Development annual lecture in Kano, saying he was worried over the North’s state of education and a socio-economic disparity with other regions of the country.

Speaking on “Northern Nigeria’s Prosperity in the 21st Century: The Imperative of Social and Economic Transformation”, Moghalu said statistics showed that the north accounts for 67 per cent poverty in the country, worsened by devastating security threats and high rate of unemployment.

“Statistics has shown that over 92 million Nigerians are living under $2 per day, which has made Nigeria overtake India in a dubious distinction. With the assertion that Nigeria is now capital poverty state, it is regrettable that Northern Nigeria has become the poverty capital of the poverty capital in the world.

“If you check the UNDP data, North West has 80 per cent poverty rate, North East (76 per cent) and North Central (45 per cent). On the aggregate, Northern Nigeria has 67 per cent poverty rate against Southern part, which has 24 per cent, South West (19 per cent), South-South (25 per cent) and South East (27 per cent).

“The problem is further compounded by a low level of education, which was degraded by government policy on less educational disadvantage. This has largely rendered many young people in the north uncompetitive with their southern counterparts,” he stated.

Moghalu, therefore, advocated utmost commitment to human capital development as a major priority and solution for Northern Nigeria to overcome poverty and backwardness.

In his perspective, Chairman, Ra’ayi Initiative for Human Development, Dr Ibrahim Musa, expressed concern over the 3.5 million out-of-school children in the North and collapse of industries, which he said, worsened the region’s economic stability and underdevelopment.

“At the core of the underdevelopment in the North is a low level of the human capacity to actualise transformational agenda as a result of a low level of education”, says Prof. Babatunde Mohammed of the Department of History and International Studies, Nasarawa State University in a chat with this newspaper.

This development has led to the flowering of fringe, a criminal group such as Boko Haram finding an excuse in a quasi-religious context to pursue economic agenda, continued Prof. Mohammed.

“There is an unholy alliance or affinity between underdevelopment and banditry and its cousin insurgency- all being an outlet for letting out discontent, said Dr Olufemi Omoyele of the Department of Management, Redeemer University.

“As sad as it is to admit, death is becoming normalized in Nigeria. We would have expected a stronger sense of responsibility on the part of the government. We would have hoped that they hugely condemn the killings of thousands of Nigerians by bandits, Boko Haram and other criminal elements, especially in the North. This evil has not been met with a stronger response on the part of a government”, Omoyele argued further.

Since the Boko Haram insurgency was ignited in 2009, killings have been a regular feature in Nigeria. This deadly group has killed thousands of people, maimed many and displaced families.

“Till date, there has not been a full audit of these deaths and the corresponding socio-economic effect it has had on the country”, concluded Prof. Mohammed, blaming the government for the rising insecurity in Northern part of the country.

In a landmark study by Institute of Security Studies, headed by veteran African Security analyst, Jakkie Colliers, 37% of the 39,286 violence-related fatalities recorded in Africa in between 2014 to 2019 occurred in Nigeria, mainly as a result of attacks by Boko Haram.

Findings by BusinessHallmark relying on  National Bureau of Statistics and figures from other studies showed that in 2014 alone, Boko Haram was responsible for the deaths of 6,664 people, 561 more than deaths attributed to ISIS.

According to the Global Index Terrorism Report 2018, although Nigeria has the least increase in terrorism deaths from 2015-2016, it remains the 3rd highest impacted country with terrorism in the world. Boko Haram is not the only purveyor of violence and death that the country has had to combat.  Banditry and kidnapping have become rampant.

Another agent of mayhem spreading deaths and violence in the North is Fulani herdsman.

According to the Department for State Security (DSS), a large number of these herdsmen are not Nigerians; they are people from other countries who armed themselves from the stockpile of ammunition built-up during the unseating of Muammar Gadaffi in Libya in 2011.

These herdsmen have been described by the United States State Department as the third deadliest terror group in the world. In the last three years, herdsmen have unleashed terror on Nigerian communities with Benue, Plateau, Kaduna, Adamawa, and Taraba states the worst hit.

Boko Haram is one of the deadliest terror groups.

Data gathered by CFR, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization and think tank based in the United States, says Boko Haram has been responsible for the death of 16,533 civilians between 2011 and June 2019.

Within this period, 2,877 state actors including soldiers, Policemen, Civil Defense Corps, and Vigilante groups have lost their lives as well. On the other hand, 15,915 Insurgents have been killed within this time frame.  This brings the number of lives they have caused to be wiped-out to 35,325 in Nigeria as at June 2019.

These deaths are predominantly in the northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, and Taraba. There were also deaths recorded in Niger, Abuja, Kaduna, and Bauchi at several points within the years in view.

According to the report,  documentation of killings started in May 2011 and in that year alone, 597 people were killed. Out of this number, 379 were civilians, 123 State actors and 95 were terrorists. The number of deaths increased to 1,673; 1,102 Civilians, 340 state actors and 231 insurgents in 2012.

In 2013, the death toll continued to rise with 1,784 civilians losing their lives as well as 298 State Actors and 584 Boko Haram members. Boko Haram killings reached a crescendo in 2014, as Nigeria was building up towards the 2015 General Elections. At least, 5,500 civilians lost their lives. While 6,308 insurgents were killed in return— the highest number so far. No fewer than 450 state actors are recorded to have lost their lives too.

Despite the change in leadership in 2015, 5,260 civilians died, 450 security officials were killed, while 4,751 Boko Haram members were vanquished.

In 2016, 2017 and 2018, civilian deaths numbered 690, 827 and 587 respectively, while state actors deaths were 231, 202 and 459 in that order. For the insurgents, 1,354, 947 and 872 were killed in the three years.

As at June 2019, Nigeria has already recorded 404 Civilian deaths; 773 Boko Haram members have been killed and 491 state actors murdered as well. The Fulani herdsmen were peaceful in their relations and interaction with other ethnic nationalities, but that amity was broken in 2016 when they started hostile relations with other nationalities over resources.

Riding on the crest of the Libyan crisis which led to a proliferation of arms, a new breed of herdsmen entered into Nigeria and unleashed terror on its people killing farmers and destroy communities where their herd have been denied access to fresh grass, this was the narration sold to the people by the Nigerian government.

A report by Global index revealed that the herdsmen crisis, which went up another notch in the last three years has led to a 300% increase in deaths. Between 2010 and 2013, there were just 80 deaths as a result of the herdsmen-farmer clash but it has been on the rise since then. Deaths rose to 1,229 in 2014 and then reduced to 525 in 2015.

By 2016, Nigerians have woken up to the new reality, tales of woes of herdsmen attacking villages and communities in several parts of the country, from Southern Kaduna down to the South Eastern state of Enugu. That year alone, 4,940 people lost their lives. The gory tales continued in 2017 with a total of 1,832 deaths and 1700 in 2018.

In 2019, there had been no specified number of deaths recorded as a result of the herdsmen, as many observed, the herder-farmer heat simmered in the build-up to the 2019 general elections. The Nigerian government has since been toiling with ideas to find a permanent end to the clashes, like the RUGA policy which was met with stiff resistance from Nigerians (especially southerners) and has since been suspended.

Although it can be said that there are no exact figures on the almajiri system’s contribution to the incidence of children out-of-school,  but UNICEF’s data suggest a  grimmer picture that should prick the conscience of political leaders from the North.

According to the UN body, in the northwest and northeast, 35 per cent and 29 per cent of Muslim children, respectively, receive Quranic education which does not include basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, and “the government considers children attending such school to be officially out-of-school.”

We should note that the above statistics exclude other children, including Christians, forced to stop formal schooling due to the decade-long Boko Haram terrorism ravaging the northeast.

Yet Northern governors have expressed their determination to end the Almajiri system.

After a long history of its existence and associated implications for the human rights of the children, security and social order, and perpetuation of poverty and illiteracy, northern governors now say they want to end the almajiri system. The COVID-19, which rages across the north, as well as the south, may have triggered their vows, but questions remain about mustering the political will against the long-entrenched system.

“We are determined as the northern governors to end it (almajiri system),” said Nasir El-Rufai, Kaduna State Governor in an interview with Channels Television in the past week. “We didn’t take this decision because of COVID-19 but COVID-19 provided us with the opportunity because COVID-19 enables us to know where the almajiris are and to get them at one go.”

“We have been looking for ways and means of ending this system because it hasn’t worked for the children, it has not worked for northern Nigeria, it has not worked for Nigeria. It has to end and this is the time,” Mr El-Rufai, known for his tough approach to reforms, added.