Almajiri: The Untold Story

News Introduction: 
Over the years, so much has been said about the bane of the ‘Almajiri’ culture in the Muslim-dominated parts of northern Nigeria, but the practice has continued to defy every effort aimed at addressing it. - By George Emine

Abubakar Ibrahim was sent far away from home by his uncle when his father died.  He grew up under the tutelage of Mallam Musa Ja’far, a teacher with over 50 pupils in his Tsangaya School popularly called the Almajirici (plural for Almajiri).  Ibrahim, at the tender age of six, was introduced to conditions he was alien to until his father’s untimely death.  His colleagues are other children in similar pitiable conditions. They all sit every morning with unwashed faces and dirty, torn clothes, clutching wooden slates called Allo and torn pieces of paper, writing and reading sections of the Qur’an.  Their task is to learn different portions of the Qur’an everyday, assisted by the unfriendly horsewhip of Mallam Ja’far and his assistants.With lacerated backs, they are sent out at mid-day break to beg for alms on the streets of Kano; most times, this is the second round of begging for the day as they would have woken residents up from their sleep through their early morning begging.  Their means of sustenance is the meagre sum they realise from begging, which they are expected to return to the Mallams.  The begging is done at least three times a day for as long as they remain Alamajirinci.  With very little to eat, they are forced to scavenge from restaurants and backyards of the affluent; stealing therefore becomes a survival tactic, which they often resort to inadvertently. The Alamajiris study, eat and sleep under these deplorable conditions devoid of parental care or love. Alamajiri is an ancient tradition where poor families from rural areas across West Africa send their children to a network of Islamic boarding schools in the cities of northern Nigeria, under the guise of searching for Islamic knowledge, but in reality, the children are subjected to inhuman treatments.  In reality, once enrolled, the pupils, who are often hundreds of kilometres away from their families, receive very little Quranic education, attention, food or money.  There is usually no specific age when a child is enrolled into the system but the standard practice is about seven years. The duration of scholarship as an Almajiri also depends on the intellectual capability of the pupil, who is expected to memorise the Qur`an, which he does in three stages - learning the Qur`an by heart (Tilawa); memorising it (Hafizi), and perfecting his ability to write the whole Qur`an devoid of errors on sheets of paper or slate off-hand (Darasi). This usually takes at least 20 or more years to fully accomplish. If a child starts at age seven, by the time he graduates, he is often too old to enroll in formal schools.Abubakar and his colleagues are among the over seven million children begging on the streets of northern Nigeria and seeking Quranic education in the tsangaya schools or the almajirci as they are widely known.  The story is typical of all the major towns and cities of northern Nigeria from Kano to Maiduguri; from Kaduna to Sokoto and even in Niger State.  In Kano State, according to a 2009 statistics from the ministry of education, there are 1.6 million almajiris in 26,000 tsangaya schools across the 44 local government areas of the state. Sokoto State has 1.1 million almajiris in 19,167 schools. However, the Sokoto State ministry of religious affairs querried the figures, saying it was not conclusive as there are still cases of omission in some of the villages. Kaduna State has 824,233, Almajirinci while Borno State, reputed as a centre of Islamic learning, has 389,048 almajiri pupils.In Borno, indigenes account for about 266,160 almajiris, while those from other Nigerian states are about 118,280.  Interestingly, non-Nigerians enrolled as almajiris in Borno alone account for about 4,608; just as there are 4,464 Tsangaya teachers (or mallams).Over the years, the almajiri phenomenon has been a source of embarrassment, not only to northern leaders but to the country as a whole.  Analysts say it has been overwhelmed, neglected and abused, and that it is one very repressive form of child abuse; exposing young children to very laborious work at a very tender age.The almajiri trend is quite alarming because research has shown that it has taken a different dimension compared to the original concept behind the practice.  Instead of the children supposedly sent to tsangaya for learning by their parents doing what they are expected to, they are made to engage in unnecessary activities which carefully mould them into societal misfits.The absence of formal education, career counseling, and parental care, which are being replaced by harsh living conditions and constant flogging during the meager lesson periods, end up turning these children into aggressive and violent young adults with obvious hate for the larger society. Social psychologists for instance, have argued that when a child is exposed to labour at a tender age and deprived of basic necessities and love, the entire psyche of that child is affected.Recent events have, however, thrown up a very dangerous twist to the phenomenon.  During the 2011 elections for instance, investigations by this magazine revealed that some of these mallams made so much money from their almajiri students as they were asked to register, irrespective of age, during the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC voters’ registration.  Some of the mallams then used them to bargain with politicians for votes.  For instance, a source who spoke on conditions of anonymity told Newsworld of a mallam in Kaduna, who collected money from politicians to register all the almajiri children under his care so that they could vote for these politicians.  In the end, the almajiris were given nothing.  During the elections, the same mallam collected money from politicians vying for different offices, using the voting strength he controls to bargain.  This scenario was said to have been repeated in several northern cities.Again, analysts say the tsangaya schools or almajirici have thus become breeding grounds for political thuggery and religious fanaticism.  The success so far made by the Boko Haram sect for instance, might not be unconnected with the proliferation of the tsangaya schools.  One young man sent by his family from neighbouring Niger Republic once told the cable News Network, CNN, how the schools used him and other children as foot soldiers in religious clashes. Fearing for his life, he spoke on condition of anonymity, telling how he lost his arm in the year 2000 religious violence that resulted in the death of about 1,000 people in the northern city of Kaduna.  “I blame my Quranic teacher, who sent me to fight during the riots; he has ruined my life,” the young man told the CNN.Investigations revealed that most religious, sectarian, ethnic and political crises in the north have been perpetrated by mostly the alamjirinci who have been so pushed into the last of society’s corners that they have nothing at stake, and so nothing to lose.  They are also wrongly indoctrinated to believe that participating in such crises, especially in the slaughter of a Kafri would earn them huge rewards in the hereafter.  So for the architects of these crises, the tsangaya schools provide a readily available band of foot soldiers in the almajirici to carry out their nefarious acts. In 2002, Abdulrazaque Bello-Barkindo, a widely travelled and seasoned journalist living in Sweden, wrote on Nigeriaworld, an online news agency, after the religious crisis that rocked parts of the north in 2002 that the almajirici, who were used in these religious conflicts were, “illiterate northern Muslims with no repository and no hope but a faith in Allah. Put mildly, the injustices almajiris face in the north is enough to drive anyone insane. They are not only suffering from oppression by northern elite; they are also suffering from the refusal of the media to understand who they are and what they hold dear. Worse, they are not treated as human beings and the consistent theory of western conspiracy against Islam, or against Nigeria by government officials and northern elite is not making matters any better.”Bello-Barkindo wrote further in his piece titled ‘Why Is Almajiri Aggression Unsolvable’ that:  “I am sure the almajiris do not sit back and rejoice at the number of “infidels” they had lynched. They are incapable of such revision. They also do not understand the full ramifications of their action. As illiterates, they hardly even know the cause, especially when it is a newspaper. I am sure that if they met a vendor they wouldn’t pick out which of his papers was Thisday. It has to be somebody with insidious intentions who has read the blasphemous article, and told the Imam to heat up the system. Who is this man? Who was the Imam that made the sermons and from which Mosque did the riots emanate? These are the questions to ask, if solutions are to be found to tame Mr. Almajiri.”“Their sponsors belong hypothetically to the same group that has, for decades, denied them the right to learn how to distinguish right from wrong. If the almajiri had well-paved streets like the ones in the GRAs, he would not want them littered with corpses of fellow humans. If he had a job, he would not expose himself to the danger that rioting comes with. If he had a home, he would not be there to be incited. If he had hope, he would not find refuge in extremism.  “Much has been said about his education but too little has been done. Even today that glorified almajiris are ‘governors’ in some states, the street almajiri’s situation remains the same. We are led by a bunch of losers who have been presiding over our economic decline and are about to bequeath mediocrity to the future generation. Their task in the north is to redouble their efforts in education, while containing the risks or else when eventually the Christians are not there to attack, all of us will constitute the next target.”Muhamed Ladan, a professor of law at Ahmadu Bello University, said the alamajirici are “easily instigated for them to be involved as children in such conflicts that have largely been violent and very bloody in this part of the world."Also, Usman Jibrin, president of the National Council for the Welfare of the Destitute warned that: “They’re a real threat, a real problem to the society, unless you address this issue now, otherwise, these children will one day take over control of this country  in a very unpleasant way.”  He noted that the children are a violent threat to Nigeria but also its first victims.Ustaz Hamid Adegbite is a Muslim cleric in Kuje, Abuja.  He told Newsworld that there was nothing wrong with the almajiri culture but that the problem lied with the way it was being practised in Nigeria.  “It is the way it is being practised that is the problem because the alamjiri is being affected by lack of understanding and sometimes greed by some of these mallams.”  The Ustaz therefore does not blame the almajiri for the societal ills they commit as he thinks their actions are only a product of the harsh conditions they are made to pass through.  He believes that the hostility and anger is to be expected as they have “grown up in an atmosphere devoid of love and everyone who they meet wants to take advantage of them before giving them a hand.” But experts say that the almajiri schooling system is as old as the religion of Islam because the four notable Islamic scholars in the religion were once the products of almajiri schooling system. The four notable scholars were Imam Maliki, Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shaafi’i and Imam Bn-Hambal.  According to Mallam Abdulkareem Mai-gemu, an Islamic scholar, the original almajiri system was not as obtainable today, where unkempt children roam about the streets with plates in-hands begging for alms. “In the beginning, almajiri were kept in the custody of their mallams who took care of their feeding, housing and up-keep from the resources supplied by their parents till they graduate. Inability of the parents nowadays due to poverty has made them not to be sending items to Mallams again for the up-keep of the children. And, the mallams would have no options than to send the children outside for begging,” Mallam Maigemu said.A curious look at the relationship between the mallams and the almajiris reveals that they do not beg for themselves only but for the entire households of their mallams. Some of the mallams that have farmlands do carry the children there to farm. At the same time, anyone who requires the services of the children pays their mallams for such services.  Almajiri system nowadays has expunged the girls because of the value the Hausa culture places on female children above their male counterparts. Modern day almajiri system is like throwing away a male child because most of the almajiri may not set their eyes on their parents again, as majority of them are sent out of their parents’ presence for such a schooling system and may not return home again.  According to Alhaji M. A. Yususf, “the surviving almajiri can be found in different categories.  There are those who will continue with the Islamic teachings by being teachers to others. There are those who will turn to Yan-Chirani (those who will start fending for themselves) after leaving the Al-majiri school or still staying with their mallams but do petty-works like shoe shining and carriers in market places. “Others are those whose parents are fanatics and who would instigate their children to go and fight and destroy whenever there is a slight opportunity on the premise of Jihad, which they regarded as Holy War.  The last are those who are half-educated in Islamic tenets and who always resort to violence through the preaching of other Islamic Scholars. This group is otherwise known as Mallam Ya che which means “the teacher says….”The above categorisation of the surviving almajiris has one thing in common. They are below the poverty line since they earn so little that cannot allow them to have a breakthrough in life, as they lack education and  hence, gainful employment.  Based on this, they have to depend on the peanuts being given to them by the unscrupulous politicians and religious leaders.Whenever there is an outbreak of any crisis (religious or political), the almajiris are found outside destroying and burning properties and likewise, maiming and killing of innocent people going about their legitimate duties.  But experts warn that the indoctrination, especially against western education and Christianity poses the real threat.Boko Haram, according to sources, started sometime in 1995 as Sahaba and was initially led by Lawan Abubakar, who later left for the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia for further studies. Yusuf Mohammed was said to have taken over the leadership after the departure of Abubakar and indoctrinated the sect with his own teachings, which he claimed were based on purity.  He was said to have commenced what many described as “intensive membership mobilisation” after his first release from police custody in November, 2008 in Maiduguri, a process said to have recorded huge success. He allegedly had over 500, 000 members before his demise and in the almajiri fashion, he taxed them one naira daily, which translates to approximately N500, 000 daily for him. Yusuf, therefore, had so much money to spend; driving exotic cars and using modern technologies, though he banned members of the sect from using Western materials, which he claimed was sin to Allah. The present Boko Haram, which is being referred to in some quarters as the Nigerian Taliban, emerged in 2004, when it set up a base in Kanamma village in Yobe State, on the border with Niger Republic. From the base, the members of the sect launched attacks on police outposts and killed scores of officers.Meanwhile, as Yusuf went recruiting his members, investigations revealed that he went from mosque to mosque and from one tsnagaya or almajiri school to the other.  The vulnerability of the almajiris made them handy as they were already antagonistic to western culture and opposed to society which has failed to treat them well.  His membership also had university and secondary school dropouts, who already harbour grudge and resentment against society and the entire system due to their obvious lack, which has automatically relegated them to the background.  The widespread membership of the group and its militant nature has been largely responsible for its spontaneous strikes across the North. The members are daring because they are mostly people perceived to be societal misfits; people who have been forced by harsh circumstances to the lowest rungs of the common man.  They do not appreciate the positions of other Muslims and Christians, who believe in western education.According to the Borno State police commissioner, Mohammed Jinjiri Abubakar, the Boko Haram sect is, “a group of miscreants using Islam as a cover-up and have succeeded in instilling fear in the minds of the people of the state to the extent that 90 percent of Maiduguri residents are hesitant and fearful to provide information to the police on the hideouts and activities of the Boko Haram sect members.” The commissioner maintained that the group had succeeded in cowing residents of the town, noting that the residents needed to come out of their shell and resist the sect, since its members resided in their midst.“We don’t have any magic wand to fight the armed sect members, as long as the residents are not willing to provide information on the sect members’ activities to our men and officers.”  And ever since then, especially after the death of their leader, the group has been on rampage, causing mayhem.  But due to failure to tell the truth, the mayhem has continued.  Northern politicians have continued to condemn the actions of the Boko Haram sect but they failed to own up to the fact that the political class, as well as the elite in the north have carefully groomed the sect to its present mature state.  The alarming poverty rate and degradation may be the real reason that has pitched these extremists against the state, which has over the years failed to live up to its expectation.  According to Babangida Aliyu, governor of Niger State and chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum, NGF, the activities of the sect is most unacceptable in the 21st century, “when other nations are making scientific and technological breakthrough and societal progress, we must condemn in totality, the recent sectarian activities of a sect called Boko haram, which caused mayhem in the states of Borno, Bauchi, Yobe and Kano. As governors who believe in the values and legacies of the late premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sarduana of Sokoto, we must condemn and reject such retrogressive incidents in our states.” Earlier, Governor Aliyu had stressed the need for societal reorientation in the North. “We need to discourage the ‘ranka ya dade’ syndrome, which abuses and dehumanises the people by offering them stipends out of the often stolen wealth, and encourages laziness while some of us go about in arrogance. We also need to address the embarrassing almajiri phenomenon in our states; we need to question what appears as the Islamisation of Poverty. We need to ask, why do we have endemic poverty in Muslim, dominated settlements, when Allah has enjoined the faithful to balance the search for the thereafter with the search for this world?”As various states across northern Nigeria have been trying many policies and programmes towards the eradication or modernisation of the almajiri system, our correspondent visited Mallam Sule Bala, who was once an almajiri from Kano State, but now settled in Kaduna with his family, and he has this to say in pidgin English: “walahi” no government in north go stop almajiri because the people no go agree as the thing done be part of their culture. Even if any government try it, people no go let the policy work.”Mallam Abudullahi Salihu Doba, another erudite Islamic Scholar believes that almajiri cannot be eradicated completely now, but, it can be modernised through integration with Western education as being embarked upon by Kaduna State government that has made primary education in the state free and compulsory.” Continuing, Abdullahi averred that “integration will assist in Qur’anic education because a scholar who is versatile in both will facilitate the spread of Islamic tenets globally.”  It is against this backdrop that a former commissioner for water resources in Kaduna State, Honourable Edward Percy Masha identified education and skills acquisition by youths as ways of stopping all forms of violence in Nigeria and particularly in the northern part.  Masha gave this indication in Kaduna while commenting on 2011 general elections and the recent post election violence. The ex-commissioner attributed the violence to lack of education and gainful employment on the part of the majority of the youths who felt they had nothing to lose causing unrest.According to Honourable Masha, “In Kaduna State where I come from, I will advise the government to take statistics of youths roaming the street Local Government by Local Government and look at a way of getting them busy. By the time somebody is busy making some money legally on a daily basis; no one can give him N200 or N500 to cause trouble.”From Kaduna to Sokoto, Kano and even Bauchi, government has begun to make efforts towards solving the problem, but these efforts look pale in the midst of the growing insecurity and poverty.  It also becomes rather clear that there are certain persons who are deliberately working against such laudable efforts at curbing the almajiri menace.  For instance former governor Ali Modu Sheriff of Borno State had in 2006 promised to integrate the Tsangaya system into western education. But his government was still compiling the list of tsangaya pupils and teachers till his tenure elapsed. Goni Zarami, Borno State chairman, Tsangaya Association, said the governor lacked the political will to reform the system as he had written 37 letters to him from 2003 on how to change the fortunes of the system but with no response. “I am tired and vowed not to write again as the monthly allowance given to 1,090 tsangaya mallams of N3,000 monthly started by the Kachallah administration is still what we are living on.”A Zamfara-based Islamic scholar thinks northern governors are only being hypocritical. He says by now, some impact should had been made in the area of poverty alleviation, which is the root cause of this problem. To him: “There is no sincerity in their hearts because if they eradicate the problem, there will be no place for them to recruit political thugs, and that is why what we hear on daily basis is government officials going to Malaysia and Egypt to understudy how their own tsangaya system is run.” Apart from the politicians, the mallams and the pupils also do not want any reform as they see the reform as a threat to their religious belief. Those worried by the present state of affairs say the age-long cultural and religious belief in the north is that western education has no value to the Muslim. The mallams also see the move as a way of robbing them of their means of survival. For instance, such a reform will take away the midweek tax, called ``Kudin Sati``, imposed on all almajiris by the teachers.Another group opposed to the reforms is Islamic fundamentalists.  The passage of the Child`s Rights Act 2003 by the National Assembly, for instance, gave a ray of hope that it might be the magic wand to save these children. But the refusal of most northern states to domesticate the law as directed by the federal government according to Umar Labaran, a legal practitioner and Borno State chairman of Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria, MULAN, is because the act seeks to confer unto parents those duties, responsibilities and obligations to their children, whose realisation will lead to proper development of the child. The argument is that the contents contradict Islamic values and also is a deliberate attempt to bring western values, which allow a child to seek redress in the courts against his parents should he feel his rights have been trampled upon.The National Assembly, through the Senate, made another effort to end the almajiri problem by proposing a bill for the enactment of the National Commission for the Eradication of Child Destitution in Nigeria in 2008. The bill, popularly known as the Almajiri Bill and sponsored by Umaru Argungu and 31 others, seeks to punish any proprietor of an unregistered tsangaya school with two years jail term. The Goodluck administration has also promised to ensure that this syndrome is completely tackled.But as these efforts are being made to check this huge problem, Alhaji Balarabe Musa recently blamed the northern elites for not knowing when to help the region to grow.  He said if the elites of the north had put to good use the 6-3-3-4 system of education for instance, the issue of almajiri would had been over by now.  The former governor and NADECO member, who traced the origin of what is today called Boko Haram to the almajiri system, blamed leaders for not integrating formal education with the tsangaya schools earlier.  He said even in his own time, “western education was resisted so that even we who were attending school despite the integration of Islam were called ‘Yan Boko; meaning products of decadent western culture and we were told that the consequences of us being subservient to western culture was that we will end up in hell after death.”It therefore behooves on government to take bold steps in initiating a steady and concerted effort towards addressing these salient issues instead of giving it mere lip service, which will further heat up the system. Additional report by Femi Olanrewaju


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