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Promise, potential and perdition of almajiri schools in northern Nigeria

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Almajiri, Children in school

It is not just northern Nigeria. Every region of the country’s education system is in the crucible. The education system in the north, however, is the worst hit. The staggering number of out-of-school children had forced the Goodluck Jonathan administration to establish about 200 almajiri schools across the north. That once-laudable step now seems to be a pipe dream as the President Muhammadu Buhari administration expressed its disdain for the educational system intended to keep the army of disillusioned children off the streets. The almajiri schools will soon be proscribed. Head, Education Desk, IYABO LAWAL explores the twists and turns.

Last June, the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration said it would proscribe the almajiri schools – Quranic learning primary institutions associated with begging on economic and religious grounds peculiar to many northern states in Nigeria. The Federal Government is not, however, doing so immediately.

According to the Presidency, while the administration is committed to free and compulsory education as a long-term objective of bringing the out-of-school children phenomenon to an end, the ban on almajiri would follow due process and consultation with relevant authorities.

President Buhari, in the meantime, wants state governors to rally their council chairmen to ensure that schools in their areas offer the right opportunities and provide the needed materials and teachers for basic education.

“If we are able to do this, the benefits will surely manifest themselves,” he said.

Buhari added: “Indeed, the Federal Government wants a situation where every child of primary school age is in school, rather than begging on the streets during school hours. At the same time, we don’t want to create panic or a backlash.

“Free and compulsory primary school education is a requirement of the Nigerian constitution and any individual or group not in compliance with this is violating the law of the land and liable to be punished.”

The Federal Government in the last four years has come under critical scrutiny over the issue of falling standard of education across all levels. As an indication of admission of the criticism, the government has repeatedly announced that it would declare a national emergency in the education sector. It did not elaborate on what that would entail.

State governments have, it seems, not been on the same wavelength as the government at the centre. Considered guiltier in this regard are northern governors whose states boast of more out-of-school children and almajiris than any other regions of the country.

The north has always struggled to meet up with its southern counterparts in terms of education standards. While it is true that things are falling apart in the education sector nationwide, the northern region of the country is the worst hit.

It was so bad that at a point, the former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and current Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, bluntly called for the conversion of the ubiquitous mosques dotting the northern landscape into schools. His call sounded outrageous –radical –but the underbelly of the unschooled northern children is obviously a disaster happening in ‘slow-motion’.

At least, seven million children in northern Nigeria are in the almajiri system, according to figures from the National Council for the Welfare of Destitute (NCWD). That figure is three times the population of The Gambia. Often, the children are lopped off at thousands of Quranic schools that dot cities in many parts of the north where they learn five days in a week and attend classes four times a day. They are also expected to earn a living by begging and sometimes provide for their teachers’ upkeep too.

On Fridays, they are let loose on the city where they beg for alms to feed, or run errands. The notorious ones get their preliminary introduction into fundamentalism and terrorism from rabble-rousing street preachers. Placed in this context, the call for the conversion of mosques to schools sounded like the words of a sage.

Sanusi had challenged northern governors to build a giant remedial college to accommodate all northern candidates, who fail to secure admission into conventional universities and for the use of mosques as schools.

To convince his audience that his ideas were not impractical, the Kano emir cited the example of Morocco where this model of education was obtainable. He argued that this remedial institution would improve literacy rates in the north, which is playing –sluggishly –catch-up with the south.

However, the debate about the much-touted educational backwardness of the north is often starved of the benefit of a background. Prior to the infiltration of foreign cultures, both Western and Islamic, indigenous Nigerians had functional education systems.

There existed well organised ancient city-states across the various parts of what is today known as Nigeria. Prior to the arrival of the British colonialists, the almajiri system was founded to perpetuate Islamic education. Pupils lived with their parents, the schools were within their vicinity, institutional funding was provided and even an inspector reported to the emir on progress.

“The British invaded the region and killed most of the emirs and deposed some. The emirs lost control of their territories and accepted their new roles, as mere traditional rulers. They also lost fundamental control of the almajiri system,” explained Prof. Idris Abdulkadir, former Executive Secretary of National University Commission (NUC).

Many thought that the British deliberately abolished state funding in respect to the system arguing they were regarded as religious schools and with the loss of support from the government, its immediate community and the helpless emirs, the almajiri system collapsed like a pile of cards.

Karatun Boko – western education – was introduced and funded instead. The pupils now turned almajiris together with their mallams, having no financial support resorted to begging and other menial jobs for survival. This is certainly the genesis of the predicament of the almajiri system in Nigeria. In the end, there are more mosques than schools in the north.

The proliferation of mosques in the north and the failure of the almajiri system have led many to believe that the system has morphed into a fertile ground for recruiting extremists.

“As the system is currently being practised today, lots of the children never made it.  Some are lost through violence in the streets and some remain as untrained armies available to anybody poised to foment trouble.  They have their own axes to grind against their parents, authorities and the society at large,” Abdulkadir stated.

A large population of illiterates coupled with an army of unemployed northern youths bruising under the weight of a corrupt political system is among the conditions that gave birth to Boko Haram in 2002 in Maiduguri, Borno State, by 32-year-old Mohammed Yusuf.

Yusuf, a preacher, gave scathing sermons against the Nigerian government, which resonated with the people who hold a searing grudge against the establishment and western education. When he was killed by security forces in 2009, hardliners in his organisation led by Abubakar Shekau spearheaded a bloody insurgency whose embers still burn to this day.

This is in sharp contrast with the south where a church is springing up at every block but does not experience any sort of extremism. It was against this backdrop that Sanusi made the call with an explanation that mosques could serve as alternatives pending when the government can provide a conventional school structure.

He said historically mosques were used for the accomplishment of lofty things other than worship. They had been used for instructions, meetings, arbitrations, policy planning, and education.

The statistics are grim. The realities are even grimmer. The future of the current education crisis in northern Nigeria – if not resolved on time – can snowball into a mess of national proportion. Already ravaged by illiteracy and a growing sense of extremism – apart from the already devastating Boko Haram insurgency – the rising number of out-of-school children in the north is giving prominent figures like the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, and Sanusi, some sleepless nights.

These men understand the value of education and the danger of lack of it in the north. Judging by the figures, there is fire on the mountain in northern Nigeria. Sixty-nine per cent of out-of-school children in Nigeria are in northern states. Bauchi has the highest number with 1.1 million and Katsina follows with 781,500.

It is little wonder then that Sanusi, at the northern Nigeria traditional leaders conference on out-of-school children held recently in Kaduna State, told the governors in that region in unmistakable terms to deliver on education or quit government. That speaks to the growing frustration and, perhaps shame, welling up in the heart of the emir – a man who has had an illustrious career because of the education he had received as a child. He wants the same, if not more, for other children of northern origin. He was not alone in that thought.

The sultan was of the same view at that event. As the chairman of the conference, he had stated: “As we look forward in our quest to revitalise the education sector, we must build the requisite courage to tell ourselves the truth.
For several decades, our investment in education, human capital formation and development fell far below expectation and cannot move us to the optimal level we all desired as a region and as a nation.”

Yet, Sanusi believes that Nigeria can only fix the problems facing education by addressing issues of misplaced priorities and accountability exhibited by those responsible for delivering education, healthcare, nutrition and development.

The recent uptick in children dropping out of school or not being enrolled in school at all is associated with the ongoing insurgency in the north-east. He further pointed out that the world can only address the problem of out-of-school children, if Nigeria plays its role in addressing the scourge of Boko Haram insurgency.

Executive Secretary, Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) Ahmed Boboyi had made this telling statement: “Following the Boko Haram crisis in the north-east, how many pupils have left school? Over one million have been displaced. At the end of the day you have over 11 million and some are going back to school. We keep running away from the reality. A lot of statistics are being bandied around but let’s get something that can be relied on…. Part of the problem we’re having is conflicting figures. Let’s get something that can be reliably used.”

Therefore, analysts urge the Federal Government to employ a multifaceted approach to resolving the out-of-school children crisis before it snowballs into a menace beyond the grasp of the country. Some will want the government – state, local and federal – to embark on a five-year advocacy and enlightenment campaign for families to let their children enjoy the benefits of primary and secondary education.

That, they said, should be done simultaneously by providing educational facilities and human resources to support the campaign, with the needed funds adequately and timely provided.

On her visit to the country, education activist, Malala Yousafzai, meeting with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (then Acting President) had urged the Federal Government – in her little wisdom – to declare “an education state of emergency in Nigeria”.

The government re-echoed that sentiment several times. It is yet to be seen how seriously Nigerian governments take education and the future development of the Nigerian –particularly those in the north.

In September 2016, a northern state caught in the web of terrorism, Adamawa State, had complained about the expensive legacy the former President Goodluck Jonathan’s government bequeathed its people: a N700 million almajiri schools. The state government publicly moaned it was too expensive to run.

When those schools were established back then, they were considered the next best thing that could have happened in the north. After their inauguration with pomp, the government said, to the dismay of some that the schools had yet to become operational because they were too expensive to run.

If education was expensive, Adamawa is probably trying ignorance.

The government claimed that it spent not less than N100 million in constructing each of the seven schools with a combined enrolment for only 420 almajiris but which also have been lying fallow since their establishment in 2012.

“The feeding of the almajiris is also a big problem. I think the enrolment we intended was only 420 and the American University educated 22,000 in one year. It was expensive, capital intensive and the beneficiaries were very few. So they (schools) are there lying waste,” a government official had said.

“We have asked the USAID to give us money so that we can start the schools but they refused except we come with a performance indicator.”

Jonathan’s regime in its determination to modernise the almajiri system of Islamic education had built and commissioned some model schools across the north, some of which were also built in Adamawa. The Federal Government at the time devoted N15 billion to realise its objective of integrating over 10 million almajiris into the formal educational school system.

It is hoped some people in high places are not making a feast of the money meant for the almajiris’ future.

Last May, the Governor of Kebbi State, Atiku Bagudu, claimed N900 million would be disbursed to almajiri schools to ensure every child in the state acquires both western and Islamic education.

“My administration will continue to provide assistance to all almajiri schools in the state. Over N900 million will be disbursed through the Ministry of Basic Education in the state,” Bagudu said.

He added that financial support would also be provided to teachers and pupils in addition to the building of toilets, accommodation, teaching and making available learning materials to almajiri schools.

That is not all. The almajiri children will be taught English and Mathematics to give them a chance to further their education up to colleges of education, polytechnics or universities in line with the nation’s education policy.

Laudable objectives; but what will become of all that when Buhari phased out the system? Would billions of naira have gone down the drain in the north? What alternative is the current Federal Government proposing? Why are northern scholars not talking about the issue? Is it a fait accompli?

President Muhammadu Buhari

In the matter of the almajiri school or system, the Jonathan administration was said to have built 165 integrated model schools. This was necessitated by the worsening standards of education in the north and the spiralling number of out-of-school children.

Even though he claimed to get the least number of votes in the region, Jonathan felt the illiteracy and underdevelopment there had become a fertile ground for terrorism and extremism.

The former president said: “In Nigeria, there were 10.5 million (about 15% of the population) out-of-school children who were of school age, going by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) figures, as at the time I became president.

“Over 80% of these children for which majority are known as almajiris came from the northern part of Nigeria, where I recorded the least votes in the elections I contested. Knowing the value of education, I could see that the ugly situation was limiting the opportunities of these children and negatively affecting the development of my country. That was why my administration decided to build 165 Almajiri Integrated Model Schools, which combined both western and Islamic education in their curricula.

“Constitutionally, the Federal Government which I led was not obligated to build primary and secondary schools. It is the responsibility of the states and local governments. But I believed that without providing education to these children, the country would be fated to spend more money on fighting insecurity.

“My administration took education seriously because I saw education as the weapon with which we could break the bond between illiteracy and crime levels. I am a firm believer in education, and just as I had said elsewhere, any nation that does not spend its wealth on educating its youth will eventually spend that wealth to fight insecurity.”

But once he left office, the fortunes of the almajiri schools took a turn for the worse. While some of the schools have been converted to conventional schools others have remained unused; and still others have become dilapidated. In Zamfara, Sokoto, Kaduna, Bauchi, and Kebbi among others the stories are not dissimilar.

Narrating the decline of the almajiri system, Cheta Nwanze said: “With the coming of the British, the capture of Emir Aliyu of Kano and the death of Muhammadu Attahiru of Sokoto, the emirs lost control and accepted their new roles as vassals to the British. They also lost fundamental control of education.”

Nwanze, a public commentator explained that the British abolished the state funding of Tsangaya, arguing that they were religious schools. Karatun Boko, western education was introduced and funded instead. With this loss of support, the system collapsed.

He added: “The pupils, and their mallams, having no financial support, resorted to begging for survival. Animosity and antagonism grew, worsened by the belief that western education was of Christian-European origin and therefore anti-Islamic. Fears grew that children with western education would eventually lose their Islamic identity.

“The mallams increasingly sent their students out to beg. To make ends meet, some of these mallams began to impose ‘kudin sati’, a form of weekly fees, on the students, reassuring them that to beg was better than to steal. The students in their turn swam into society with no bearing. This was the genesis of the predicament of the almajiri system today.”

Nevertheless, he believes there has to be a way to revive the Tsangaya system of old, and that should start with enforcing standards. The system as is currently practised, he pointed out, ensures that many children never make it.

The system is filled with semi-literate mallams, he argued and that means that students struggle to cater for themselves and to support mallams. “Some are lost through crime and violence in the streets, while others are lost through disease and hunger. This is showing up in rising insecurity as the victims of massive indignity have finally, perhaps unconsciously, had enough. It is a natural consequence of a shrinking pot to share, a lack of productivity, and a growing population of people fed by resentment, and with no hope for the future,” he said.

Nwanze’s thought cannot be ignored: Looking back at the basis of the almajiri system, and the years of mistrust that have coincided with its decline and eventual failure, it is clear that proper Islamic scholars in Nigeria have a lot of work to do.

“There is a nexus between Islamic and Western education,” he asserted, “and it is our job to find it, and urgently. The alternative is too chilling to contemplate.”

However, the head of Transparency International, Nigeria, Auwal Musa, said, “We need to eliminate this wicked system that throws children out of their homes and makes them become criminals, and insurgents because they have no parental care. So many children are being violated and abused as a result of this outdated almajiri system.

“If we have a system that cares about the protection of children, there should be an immediate ban on the almajiri system. It has proven to be a system that does not care about the protection of the child as children are exposed to all manner of vices, and made to become criminals. Government should be more proactive and committed to eliminating this system.”

It is vital to situate the almajiri crisis in the words of the sultan, who said during the launch of the almajiri schools: “Islam does not encourage begging. Those children who go begging are doing so because their parents are poor. The almajiri problem is a social problem. If we ascribe it to Islam, we will be missing the point, so that tomorrow, somebody will not come and ask for a solution to a ‘Christian problem’.”

President Buhari has shown his disdain for the almajiri schools. He has decided to quash the last vestige of it. There is no ambiguity about that. What Buhari and his government have not told Nigerians and the growing army of Nigerian youths is the viable alternative.

It is considered curious that the government has not given adequate reasons for the proscription of the system and how it plans to address the nagging crisis of out-of-school children.


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