A child is a human being who, as any other person, is imbued with fundamental human rights from conception to adulthood. These rights are to be promoted, respected and protected as provided for in various universal, regional and domestic legal instruments.
The Convention on the Rights of a Child defines a child as any person below the age of 18 years. So also The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the Child Rights Act 2003 and the Child Rights laws of the States recognise a child as someone who is below the age of 18 years. These laws have ample provisions for the promotion and protection of the fundamental freedoms and liberties of individuals including children of which almajiris are part of. This article looks at and considers the Almajiri as a Child.
The Hausa word “Almajiri” is derived from the Arabic “Al muhajirun”, “an emigrant”. It usually refers to a young person who migrates from his home to a popular teacher in the quest for Islamic knowledge. This forms the basis of the Almajiri system in Northern Nigeria.
These children leave their homes, parents and siblings and travel to far places, alone without care, attention and protection. They live on the streets in most inhuman and degrading circumstances. In most cases, they are not enrolled into the regular schools as they are averse to or are not encouraged to attend western education. A UNICEF report from 2014 put the number of Almajiri in Nigeria at 9.5 million, or 72 per cent of the country’s 13.2 million out-of-school children. Some estimates claim that the number of out of school children in the country has risen past the 15 million mark, more of them in the North.
One unintended consequence, and unfortunately so, is the perception that almajiri system is deeply related to and considered as an Islamic culture. It might not be necessary so. Just that the practice started in the Bornu Empire even before the advent of the British Colonial Rule. The practice then was not the way it is being practiced in Nigeria today.
It can be argued that the syndrome as obtained today in Nigeria is a menace as it exposes under aged boys who should be in schools to begging not only for themselves but also for their teachers (mallams) on the streets under the sun and rain. The minors (children) are exposed to crime as many take to it in order to make ends meet as they fend for more than one stomach. The rest who are not so strong to withstand the streets pressures succumb to various health challenges which snuffs life out of them before they reach the age of maturity. As the system is currently being practiced today, lots of the children never make it. Some are lost through violence in the streets, some through child stealing, while others are lost through diseases and hunger. Those who make it usually complete the reading of the Holy Qur’an and eventually became traders, drivers and so on. Those who could not make it are condemned to menial jobs, since they have no survival skills at hand. They resort to wheelbarrow pushing, touting, thuggery and so on. They remain as untrained armies available to anybody poised to ferment trouble.
The advent Corona Virus has introduced some drastic changes in the world system, no less the almajiri system. The spark of the Corona Virus better known as Covid-19 resulting into hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide has further worsened the plight of the almajiri child in Nigeria.
With the pervasive effect of the novel corona virus disease in the country, the governors of the northern states have taken some radical steps with regards to the popular street beggars otherwise known as Almajiri in northern Nigeria.
The northern governors’ forum in its meeting recently held in Plateau to discuss the regions’ response to the corona virus insisted that the Almajiri system has to be banned.
According to the Director of Press and Public Affairs to the Plateau State government, Macham Makut, who issued a statement at the end of the meeting on behalf of governor, Simon Lalong, who is also the chairman of the forum, “The governors also discussed the risk that Almajiri children are exposed to due to the virus and they unanimously decided to ban the Almajiri system and evacuate the children to their parents or states of origin.
The governors agreed never to allow the system to persist any longer because of the social challenges associated with it including the perpetuation of poverty, illiteracy, insecurity and social disorder, particularly as the almajiri can perpetuate the mode of community transmission of Covid-19.
Reports available indicate that some of the affected states have already begun implementing the ban by massively evacuating the Almajiri boys to their respective states where they are expected to rejoin their families.
Reports have it that Kano state has since evacuated the almajiri in droves to Katsina, Nasarawa, Jigawa, Sokoto, Yobe, and Kebbi states among others. Some of these boys were also evacuated to neighbouring Niger republic where they came from. Other states in the north including Plateau, Niger, Bauchi, Adamawa, and Kaduna among others may have also done the same. It is expected that some other northern states will follow suit.
The spread of the Covid-19 pandemic is the primary reason for this exercise. Children are vulnerable and more susceptible to be carriers and rapid spread of the virus since they don’t observe the social distancing rule. And since the virus is spread through human agency, sending the children to their home states could be a way of responding to and preventing the spread of the virus.
The questions that agitate the minds of discerning persons are: first why is the almajiri syndrome prevalent in the Northern part of Nigeria. The second question is can the universal legal instruments (frameworks) be effectively utilised to protect and guarantee the welfare of these almajiri children.
In answer to the first poser, reference will be made to Professor Idris A. Abdulquadir. According to the erudite Professor, who was quoted during the 21st convocation lecture of Bayero University in 2003 as saying “The Almajiri system of education as practiced today in the northern Nigeria is a completely bastardized system compared to the form and conditions under which the system was operating and its output during the pre-colonial period. The system has been forced, especially with the coming of the British, to its present pitiful state. During the pre-colonial era, begging was never involved and certainly the pupils were not reduced to doing menial jobs before they could eat.
History has shown that, this system started in the 11th century as a result of the involvement of Borno rulers in Qur’anic literacy. Over seven hundred years later, the Sokoto Caliphate was founded principally through an Islamic revolution based on the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. These two empires run similar Qur’anic learning system which over time came to be known as the Almajiri system. Under the Almajiri system, during the pre-colonial days, the pupils lived with their parents for moral upbringing. All the schools were located within the immediate environment from where the pupils came from. The Dan-Fodio revolution brought with it some modifications; the establishment of an inspectorate of Qur’anic literacy. The inspectors reported directly to the Emir of the province, concerning all matters relating to the school. It was argued that, this period, was the height of Qur’anic education in the northern Nigeria….’’
Thus it can safely be submitted that, once identified as an almajiri, Islamic practices begin to inform opinions as cultural practice governed by Islamic law and custom.
The answer to the second poser is therefore closely related and linked to the first poser. The fact that the almajiri practice has been in existence for a long time explains why the universal laws which provide for the rights, welfare and protections of children are received with scepticism in Northern Nigeria. That explains further why secular laws such as the Convention on the Rights of the child, The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the Child Rights Act (2003 and the Child Rights Laws are not readily accepted and implemented for the purpose child protection in some states in the Northern Nigeria. That also explains why majority of the states in Northern Nigeria are reluctant to domesticate the child rights laws in their various states. Otherwise, there are sufficient legal instruments to transform and uplift the living standard of the almajiri child if the laws are enacted and implemented.
Chapters II and IV of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 (as amended) spells out the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy and also the Fundamental Rights of citizens. These Chapters are significant in all respect because they protect and guarantee the basic freedoms and liberties of all human beings including children (see the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules 2009). The principles enunciated in chapters II and IV of the Nigeria constitution are of universal origin and application as the chapters stems from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other protocols. But because children specifically needed to be given special attention in terms of welfare and protection the Convention on the Rights was adopted in 1989 and ratified by various countries Nigeria inclusive.
In 2003, Nigeria domesticated the Convention on the Rights of the Child as the Child Rights Act 2003. Nigeria being a federation, it is expected that each federating unit, that is, each state will have to enact the law, which will provide a legal framework for the protection and welfare of the child. So far, about 26 states have domesticated the Act, which is known in the States as Child Rights Law. Majority of the states which have not yet domesticated the law are from Northern Nigeria. The reason why there is slow enactment of the law in Northern Nigeria is largely due to cultural and religious beliefs. The fact remains that, the law becomes easier to apply and enforce if it has been domesticated or enacted by the states.
The solution to the almajiri conundrum is in the New Normal
The New Normal is the condition or situation which the Covid-19 has foisted on the whole world. We are all aware of the horrific deaths caused by the pandemic. Thousands of deaths have been caused by the pandemic whether in Wuhan China, Italy, Spain, UK, USA etc. In terms of economic endeavours, businesses have been closed, staffs laid off. Both formal and informal businesses have been shut down. Flights been cancelled, borders shut, interstate travels cancelled. With all these happening all over the world, it will no longer be business as usual. In Nigeira, the Virus has already claimed over 50 lives including Abba Kyari, the former Chief of Staff to President Muhammed. Buhari. The lockdown is also affecting the operation of businesses. Things will never remain the same again. There are going to be system changes. There is certainly going to be a new now.
The almajiri system in Nigeria will also certainly undergo reforms. It is suggested that the following be implemented as soon as occasion warrants.
- The States Receiving the evacuated almajiris should immediately activate the provisions of sections 17 (2)(b) 3(a)(b)(c)(d) of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
- The States which have not yet domesticated the Child Rights Laws should not hesitate to do so as soon as circumstances warrant. This will provide a legal framework, which has the universal best practice, for the welfare and protection of the child.
- Ensure the implementation of the enacted laws which also have good provisions for the social welfare and protection of children including the almajiri child.
- Rehabilitate and provide livelihood and survival skills to the almajiri children. There is dignity in labour, therefore, the practice of street begging by kids who should be learning life’s survival skills should be greatly discouraged not only by the government but by well-meaning and public-spirited individuals
- Strengthen the livelihoods of families and the homes to be established as provided for in the Child Rights Laws.
- Provide Remedial studies to these almajiris to prepare them to be integrated in the regular schools to participate in JAMB, WAEC, NECO etc. The products of the almajiri schools, as they are now have no compatibility with the 21st century modern day work place.
- The evacuated children will live with their parents/guardians for moral upbringing and be at liberty to acquire skills in between their Islamic lessons, and also be involved in trades such as farming, fishing, masonry, among others. The study of the Quran and Arabic can still be done side by side with the western education
- The almajiri schools established by Former President Jonathan should be activated. For the purpose of building strong institutions rather than strong men, it is necessary for the Buhari led government to continue this laudable policy left behind by his predecessor.
- Finally, Legal Practitioners, NGOs, and CSOs have to be to invoke the Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules 2009, to protect the rights of almajiris
Once these steps are taken, it is hoped that the almajiris will no longer be ‘discriminated’ against. The almajiri will have a new identity as a child with full potential for survival, development, participation, and protection as all other children in the world.
Clement Iornongu (LL.M).
Executive Director, International Centre for Peace, Charities and Human Development (INTERCEP). firstname.lastname@example.org; 08034746116