A legacy gone bad in Nigeria's north

Nigeria's almajiris are mainly students or beggars.

Nigeria's almajiris are mainly students or beggars.

By Rafiu Ajakaye

LAGOS - In most parts of northern Nigeria, no alarm clock is needed to wake up for work.

The loud chants of children begging for alms are heard every day, from Kano and Jigawa in the northwest to Maiduguri and Yobe in the northeast.

The bowl-carrying children are called "almajiri," a local bastardization of the Arabic word "Al-Muhaajirun," meaning "immigrants."

In practical terms, however, Nigeria's almajiris are mainly students or beggars.

Opinions differ as to how the original almajiri system began, but no one doubts the idea's noble origins.

It is a system whereby parents send their children to prominent Muslim scholars, sometimes in faraway locations, to be tutored.

In its pure form, which can be traced to the 11th century before the British conquest of Nigeria, the almajiri system is said to have produced countless scholars of the Quran, the hadith (the sayings of Prophet Muhammad) and other branches of learning.

Back then, pupils were taught to be simple, strong and disciplined. Today, however, many say the practice has become a curse, creating a potential breeding ground for extremist tendencies and antisocial behavior.

The Nigerian government, especially the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, is committing substantial resources to reforming the almajiri system.

Many schools and student hostels are now being built to curb the phenomenon and curtail what many government committees see as recruiting grounds for Boko Haram.

Between seven and nine million children are believed to constitute the almajiri population across Nigeria's north, according to the National Council for the Welfare of the Destitute – greater than the national populations of some countries.

Yet these children lack any appreciable education or viable means of survival.

"Most times, these almajiris leave their homes at a very tender age and they are sent to islamiyyah [religious academies in the north] for training in Quran," Eneruvie Enakoko, a public commentator who has done research on the system, told Anadolu Agency.

"So often, these kids aren't even sent to the islamiyyah within their environment, and they're sent there most times without resources because of poverty," he said.

The children live with so much hardship, Enakoko added, that they often resort to begging and taking menial jobs to survive.

"They go hungry, live in poor and rat-infested shelters, and barely have clothing," he asserted. "As a result, these shoddily-run islamiyyahs become a haven for breeding disgruntled kids who resort to violence at the slightest provocation."

According to Enakoko, these children are "easy prey for ambitious and evil politicians and others with evil plots."

Garba Shehu, a media relations expert and a native of northern Nigeria, agrees.

"Before it was corrupted by lazy parents, greedy teachers, exploitive politicians and employers of labor, the almajiri education [system] had functioned as a veritable means of the internalization of the Quran by youngsters and a way of imbibing a Spartan lifestyle as a means of self-discipline," Shehu told AA.

"These days, parents who find the upbringing of their male children burdensome throw them into the system with little or no supervision or care," he said.

"Such children, brought up as baggage, tend to feel or behave in a way that shows them as psychologically inferior, without a sense of self-worth," he added.

-Muslim failure -

But how did this system – which had once made the region a center of learning, boasting great scholars such as Othman Dan Fodio, Mukhtar Nasir Kabara, Abubakar Ahmad Gumi and Abu Fathi – turn into a liability that now risks being discarded?

Diego Okenyodo, a communications consultant at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told AA that Nigeria's once laudable almajiri system had collapsed, along with the country's social system.

He also pointed to the "near death" of the Islamic zakat (almsgiving) system, which had once been a pillar of the almajiri system.

"The almajiri system, as I have read, is a distortion of a social system that encourages Islamic religious scholarship," he asserted.

"Youths are supposed to study under malams [teachers] that are catered for by the zakat of every Muslim," Okenyodo said, going on to point to a number of recent "changes."

"Westernization has crept in and not many Muslims paid zakat," he said. "The malams started fending for themselves by keeping farms and livestock, which their wards helped tend to."

"Nevertheless, when droughts came and poor harvests followed, begging for alms began to become a way of life," said the consultant.

"The almajiri system symbolizes a failure of the Muslim to adhere to one of the pillars of the religion," he added.

"Islam emphasizes knowledge and the thirst for it – so much that any Muslim who supports the quest is waging a holy war, a war against ignorance," Okenyodo said.

-Karatu Boko-

Many scholars in the north say the British destroyed the almajiri system in the 19th century by starving it of funds, which were reallocated to run 'karatu Boko' – the Hausa word used to denote western or British-style education.

Okenyodo, the managing director of ISU Media, added that the collapse of the system that had traditionally sustained the almajiri could be likened to the collapse of the traditional value system, which heralded an ideology that encourages wanton killing.

"In this light, I don't see a difference between the destitute almajiri and the warped ideology characterized by violence that is being propagated as Boko Haram," he said.

"A lot of things show that Boko Haram isn't the same as the group originally acting in the northeast," he added.

"We know that many Muslims have been killed in the blasts in Kano, Yobe and Borno. I don't believe such deliberate killings of Muslims are being perpetrated by Muslims," asserted Okenyodo, a Christian.

-Root causes -

While the government is making efforts to stamp out the almajiri system, many doubt that anything will change.

Kano State Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso, for one, appears determined to end the almajiri system.

His spokesman, Halilu Ibrahim Dantiye, said that significant funds were being committed to enrolling the children in school, while also ensuring that they receive adequate care.

"This is a path the governor is taking; there's no going back on this," told AA.

"We're taking children off the streets," Dantiye said. "There's already an existing law that outlaws begging – in whatever form – in the state."

But social critic Tunde Ajinifesin believes that laws banning the almajiri system aren't the answer.

"Laws alone would not take these children away from the streets," he told AA.

"Factors facilitating this scourge remain: widespread poverty, illiteracy of the parents and lack of basic social infrastructure almost across board," Ajinifesin stressed.

"It takes real-term developmental strategies," he noted. "People are starving. Many parents are too poor to take care of their children."

Both Okenyodo and Enakoko agree that legislation alone will not end the problem.

"There's truly a failure of the family system in the north. Many youths have little parental guidance," Okenyodo told AA.

"The government cannot legislate this into existence, but it can recognize this challenge and consciously work towards changing it," he added. "The focus on material things is so undue that everything is thrown out of the door."

Enakoko suggested that the almajiri system could be stopped with the right government policies and intervention.

"While it isn't solely responsible for the Boko Haram menace, I believe the almajiri system contributed to it," he said.

"But I believe it could be eliminated, reduced or curbed," he added. "This is why I welcome the government's [recent] involvement in the islamiyyahs and almajiri in the north."

But for now, Jaafar Abdussalam, a teenager from the northeastern Bauchi State, continues to roam the streets of Kano, bowl in hand.

"I'm an orphan. I only know my mother, who's too poor to take care of me," he told AA in the local Hausa dialect.

"I grew up seeing her beg for alms to feed me and my brother," he added.

Abdussalam said that he and some colleagues had come from Bauchi State to study and seek greener pastures in Nigeria's second largest city.

"Here, we study while also seeking something to eat," he said.

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