By Nnedinso Ogaziechi
His frail look and vacant countenance caught my attention; he was clutching his small green plastic plate in his right hand while his left was on his waist desperately trying to pull up his oversized blue nicker that was as torn as it was dirty. His hair was unkempt and had started to self-twist into dreadlocks; tears were dropping from his eyes.
I was a visitor in Zaria town and was waiting for my host. I decided to engage little Ibrahim who sat on a nearby pavement looking forlorn, he seemed not to know his age, but I assumed he was between the ages of seven and nine. My little friend Ibrahim knew neither his street address nor his birth date.
He however knew his Islamic cleric merely as Alhaji. His plate had tell-tale signs of usage but I doubted that Ibrahim had been well fed in the past years. His stature, gaunt look and sunken eyes were all signs of a malnourished child. His cognitive development seemed affected by malnutrition
As I expressed my shock at the fate of young children like Ibrahim in the city, my friend was not as shocked as she explained to me that she had ‘outgrown’ the initial shock when she arrived a few years earlier from Port Harcourt. She said it was the people’s culture and religion.
I could not understand her explanations. I then decided on my return to research into the Almajiri system in Northern Nigeria with the picture of little Ibrahim and how millions like him have been denied the nurture and education that are their rights as children and the future of Nigeria on my mind.
I have often written about the implication of leaving the almajirai without their human dignity, proper family bonding and comprehensive education or skill acquisition that can make them grow into independent adults that can contribute to their economies.
Over the years, for a country without any population policy in place, the number of almajiris has ballooned into millions of kid-destitutes and that system has become the metaphor for child neglect, poverty, out of school children and the symbol of leadership failure.
They have become the focus of global development agencies that keep reminding the country that there would be no real development until every child is cared for with good healthcare and education.
The almajiri system of education has an Islamic root and is meant to impart Islamic religious tenets and culture to the kids at very tender ages
However, with a dynamic world, only visionary countries willing to adjust to changing times and economic models would be guaranteed prosperity.
There had been calls on the governments to remodel the almajiri education system to a more comprehensively functional system that would retain the Islamic pedagogy with modern education system to equip the children to grow into functional and economically viable youths.
Curiously though, many Muslim countries seem not to adopt the Nigeria almajiri model that tends to plague the society with helpless, uneducated, unskilled, malnourished youth population.
The Round Table considers the new efforts by the Northern Governors Forum to remodel the almajiri system one of the huge advantages of the COVID-19 pandemic despite its tragic effects on humanity.
In the past, schools had been set up aimed at integrating western education into the system. There had been the nomadic education properly channelled to cater for the nomads and their kids.
However, lack of committed implementation of those policies made them unfruitful in the zone.
The news from Governor Nasir el-Rufai that the Northern Governors Forum, under the leadership of Governor Lalong of Plateau State, is determined to end the almajiri system is one that is almost late in coming but as they say, better late than never.
The sad news that some of the children are already infected with COVID-19 are being ‘deported’ from Kano and other states to their states and countries is as heart-breaking as it is symptomatic of the failure of successive governments to plan and protect its children.
While Governor el-Rufai regrets the fact that some of the almajiri children have been infected, it is curious that there are reports that some of the governors are allegedly sending the children back to their ‘home’ states.
Some have been returned to Jigawa from Kano in what appears a very tacky way of handling this pandemic. There are allegations that many have been transported to states in the South in livestock trucks.
Re-evaluating the almajiri system is a very good and progressive plan by the northern governors. It is coming late but ironically, thanks to this pandemic, this period has provided the push but we hope it is not just for fear of the spread of the virus.
However, expanding schools in Kaduna to accommodate the new intakes is good, planning to remodel the system is equally commendable, but here on The Round Table, we believe a more comprehensive and well -articulated programme must be adopted because already, these children are psychologically, socially and economically disoriented.
They have lost family bonding, love and care that should imbue them with the humanity to be well-rounded adults.
Beginning to load mere kids into trucks for ‘deportation’ sends a very bad signal to the world. The governors must come together, own the children and treat them like children who need love and care.
The country is already suffering years of Boko Haram insurgency and other dire security challenges and leaving those kids to roam around in the guise of sending them back to their states might just continue to make them easy targets as recruits for different groups.
The governors must work at the re-orientation of the people and advise and plan better family units. They must be made to understand that just bearing children and dragging them to Islamic clerics who in turn drive them out to fend for themselves in the streets is an ill-wind that blows no one any good.
The fact that parents and governments hide under religion to sheik responsibility of loving, caring for and grooming their children under organised family units ultimately create problems for not only the region but the whole country.
The fact that Governor el-Rufai indicated that if other governors decide to retain without adjustment the almajiri system that would be their business sounds very dismissive and counter-productive.
The governors should provide leadership for the sake of the children; unbundling the system must be holistic and requires total and all inclusive participation by all stakeholders.
Each child matters and is carrying the region and country’s future and must be treated with dignity due the human person.
It has taken decades to nurture the system and it will equally take the committed leadership of the elite in the zone to re-strategise for growth.
The prognosis that in the next few decades, if nothing is done to improve the system that the region and the country would dive deeper into poverty and illiteracy is too grim to contemplate.
Already, the unenviable trophies of the highest illiteracy rates, third most terrorised country and high poverty rate can only stall development.
Those who assume they can retain the almajiri system for political expediencies ought to realise that when the chips are down, both the kings and the peasants become casualties.
The dialogue continues…