THE ALMAJIRI PHENOMENON IN NORTHERN NIGERIA
Capitalism has Proved Incapable of Resolving the Problem
By Aminu Ali, DSM, Kano State
The term Almajiri was coined from an Arabic word, “Almuhajir,” which means a migrant. In northern Nigeria, a person who migrates from his natal town to another in search of Qur’anic education is called Almajiri. Almajirai (plural of Almajiri) move under the tutelage of mallam (teacher), from whom they learn to read and memorize the Holy Qur’an. In many cases, such movement is not one-off but, as the researcher Hannah Hoechner found, flows with “agricultural work cycles.” With some degree of variations, Almajirci – the Almajiri system of education – is being practiced in a number of countries in West Africa. In northern Nigeria, it has been the most enduring system of Qur’anic memorization.
While pursuing their education, Almajirai live on begging for food and alms, menial job, artisanship and farming. Some of them join other forms of occupations usually at later ages and after attaining some level of Qur’anic education. In some cases, they are able to break the back of the beast and, therefore, become successful in their newly chosen businesses/occupations.
Prior to colonial period, the Almajiri system was supported by both the State (Caliphate) and communities. As a result of this, the system was more organized and functional than it is today. Almajirai constituted the most literate section of the population: they could read and write in ajami script (Arabic alphabets used for writing Hausa). Therefore, Almajirci was an avenue for social mobility that was opened to everyone, including the commoners, in such a feudal order. With overthrow of the Caliphate system and creation of the colonial state, the support – which the Almajiri system hitherto received – was no more forthcoming. This changed the Almajiri system in profound ways and of course marked the beginning of its sinking into abyss.
The colonial rule had disrupted and in some cases replaced the traditional institutions or changed the way they functioned. However, while colonialism and capitalism (which came to this part of the world with it) remarkably disrupted the old social order, a few aspects of it have survived, though fundamentally affected. Almajirci is one of those systems that survived, though profoundly affected by, colonialism and capitalist transformation.
In the post “independence” period, some efforts were made to reposition Islamic education, having recognized the challenges of the Almajiri system. For instance, Islamiyya (formal Islamic school) was encouraged in the First Republic by the Northern Regional Government as an alternative system of acquiring Qur’anic education. Under this system, children study from their parents’ home and the curriculum was expanded to include Hadith and jurisprudence. This has reduced patronage for Almajiri schools, especially in urban and semi-urban areas where these Islamiyya schools are mostly found.
It should be noted that although the aristocrats see themselves as the custodians of Islamic values, today it is impossible to see a child from their circle sent to Almajiri school. Almajirci is now dominant among, if not exclusive to, rural poor. Aristocrats, elites, petit bourgeois, middle class and urban residents send their children to Islamiyya schools which has today proven to be a better system of acquiring Islamic education.
FAILURE OF CAPITALISM
With ruthless imposition of neoliberal economic policies since the last part of 1980s, parents began to send their underage children to Almajirci as a way of assuaging the untold hardship occasioned by these anti-poor policies. This system has, therefore, become a sanctuary for the impoverished rural poor. Put simply, Almajirci has become a coping strategy in the face of neoliberal assaults. As a corollary of this proposition, in some cases Almajirai come back home during rainy season to assist their parents and only to go back to Almajiri immediately after harvest. Today, arguably, Almajirai spend more time on the urban streets begging for food and alms than in their schools learning.
The most fundamental concern is that these children left their parents at a time when they need their care the most. Consequently, they are exposed to different of forms of risks: child labour, sexual abuse, street begging and susceptibility to recruitment into criminal activity, among others. They also live in unhygienic conditions, hunger, squalor and misery. Failure to address the problems associated with Almajirci even 60 years after “independence” is an indictment against capitalism and Nigeria’s ruling class, especially the Northern elites.
While Almajirci is peculiar to Northern Nigeria, it is not uncommon to also see hundreds of children on the streets of Lagos, Onitsha, Port Harcourt and Aba either hawking wares during school hours or just loafing about. Some of these children are homeless and end up joining cults and violent gangs like the Awawa Boys or One Million Boys, who survive on looting of shops or mugging ordinary people. These children are hungry and are out on the street to survive either by begging or stealing.
Calls for abolishing of the Almajiri system is always met with stiff resistance from certain quarters. These calls are seen as treacherous attempts to undermine the Islamic and cultural values of the society. Ironically, even among those calling for the abolishing of the Almajirci, some sections of them benefit from this system: for it provides cheap menial laborers for the middle class/petty bourgeois; a pool of voters to political elites; prayer warriors to business moguls and aristocrats; and errand boys in northern higher institutions.
It is not surprising that northern elites have not rolled out genuine, concrete and comprehensive programme to overhaul the Almajiri system. This is not to claim ignorance of the ongoing coordinated efforts by some State Governors in the region to ban Almajirci. But these recent efforts are borne out of sheer populism and turning of a blind eye to the historical trajectories of the system and the circumstances that make it to thrive or its push and pull factors. As the Socialist Party of Nigeria aptly observes in its press statement on the gale of deportation of Almajirai across different states in Nigeria, their repatriation to their states of origin “neither means taking them off the street nor will it bring significant changes in their lives and still nor will it address other menace attributable to the Almajiri system.” This is so because there are millions of children who, though stay with their parents, live in very similar abject social conditions: they are street children (they are not adequately taken care of and are out of school), economically deprived and live in an unhygienic environment with poor access to healthcare.
For quite long, northern ruling elites are bewildered on what to do with Almajirci. While they benefit from the system, they still see it as a potential threat. The solution they have been contemplating is to abolish Almajirci without a simultaneous plan to invest resources to provide sustenance and free education to all young people. This, if accomplished, will create new social problems as the safety valve that the Almajiri system provides would be entirely removed without a replacement.
Until recently, Northern State Governors had been treading with caution not to hurt the sensibilities of the reactionary elements in the north. Some governors, having secured their second term, threw caution to the winds and started repatriating Almajirai from their states. They use COVID-19 as a pretext to execute their plan. The deportation of Almajirai has attracted mixed reactions. Those deceived by the populist posture of these governors hail the repatriation while, as expected, the conservatives condemn it as anti-Islamic. There are also critical observers who feel that while the Almajiri system as it is today poses imminent dangers and, therefore, requires reform, the approach employed was ill-conceived.
Almajirai are today being demonized and often accused of being automatically the drivers of many social ills bedeviling the North. Hoechner in her study argues that such accusation is unfair and unfounded, as there is no empirical evidence to suggest a link between Almajirci and the social crises in the region. She opines that because Almajirai lack social power to defend themselves, they have become a ready patsy for all the social ills.
As it stands now, Almajirai are enmeshed in a terrible tragedy: they are abandoned by their parents, despised by the society and rejected by the State. This is the precarious social condition in which these poor children live and will continue to live in the absence of a well thought/crafted and humane social policy that will guarantee bright future for them, something which is no longer possible on the basis of capitalism.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE
To begin to address the challenges of Almajirci, massive investment in public education and improved access to free and quality education, especially for rural dwellers, is necessary. As it is today, many rural areas in northern Nigeria have neither western schools nor Islamiyya, which means parents who want their children educated have limited or no option than to opt for Almajirci. Also, reversal of urban bias policies and enhancing the sources of livelihood for rural dwellers may go a long way in reducing the massive influx of Almajirai to urban centers. In other words, it will reduce rural poverty, expand the choices of ruralites and make Almajirci less attractive to them.
There is a need for rapid development of an adequately funded formal school structure that provides quality education, feeding, hostel/housing, and other basic needs for children both in and out of the Almajiri schools.
It is worth noting that – like many other social problems at national and regional levels – fully addressing the conditions that make Almajiri system to thrive in its current form is impossible under Nigeria’s retrogressive and decadent capitalism. As the SPN succinctly argues, “the Almajiri question cannot be resolved without addressing the fundamental contradiction of the society in which it thrives: abject poverty, widening wealth inequality and stitched social mobility.” Ultimately only the coming to power of a workers and poor people’s government on socialist programmes can lay the basis for the resolution of the age old problems and new ones created by capitalism.