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Almajiri: Confrontation with tradition

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Almajiri. PHOTO: TVC

Apparently, at its wit’s end, in the fight against the insecurity monster, the Federal Government seems determined to confront an age-long tradition. According to the National Security Adviser, NSA, Babagana Monguno, the government is considering the proscription of the Almajiri system – the age-long traditional system of imparting Qu’ranic and Islamic knowledge to the youngsters.

This disclosure, especially the reason for the planned confrontation with tradition, is like stirring the hornet nests. The NSA didn’t merely say the system was going to be reformed to conform with modernity and to provide comfort for both the teachers and the pupils of the Almajiri system.

Maybe the retired general felt the occasion did not call for such niceties so he had to say it as it needed to be said. And that, bluntly. The proscription, he said, is for security reasons. “It is very important,” he said, “to proscribe certain groups running around under the guise of getting some kind of education that is not really formal and then begin to cause a lot of problems for society.”

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Not yet done. General Monguno added for emphasis: “Ultimately government will have to proscribe this Almajiri phenomenon because we cannot continue to have street urchins, children roaming around only for them in a couple of years, or decades to become a problem to society.”

Expecting that he might be misunderstood or the government’s stand misconstrued to mean some harm to the aspirations of these kids and their parents or guardians, the security adviser explained that “ we are not saying that they are going to be contained in a manner…. that would be harmful to them. No. What we want to do is work with the state governments to enforce the policy of education for every child. It is every child’s right, his entitlement so long as he is a Nigerian.”

But the reactions have come thick and fast. DailyTrust in which I read the detailed explanation by the NSA, was as usual, professional enough with its follow-up to the story. It did an extensive job of allowing learned clerics to express their reaction and their understanding of the planned confrontation with age-long practice that dates back to nearly 1000 years. And their reactions, varied as they are from one person to another, were a mix of misunderstanding of the NSA, suggestions of what could be done and, ultimately, a shrug and an acquiescence which I think is a good sign of progress.

Interestingly, the first reaction came from the presidency itself. Cautious of the fact that the proposed proscription with the caveat of a free and compulsory basic education for every child of primary and junior secondary school age might send jitters among some parents, Garba Shehu, presidential spokesman, gave the assurance that the proposed action would not be immediate. He agrees with the views of many learned men and women that the Almajiri system was a blight on the North as a polity. Though there is no outright opposition, so far, but there is suggestion for caution and consultation with various stakeholders.

Sheikh Dairu Usman Bauchi, a reputed cleric, urged the government to find a more credible alternative system of Islamic education to the Almajiri system. What has come out clearly in the exchanges is that the Almajiri system, though with its degrading street begging, had nothing to do with the current state of insecurity. Those who defend the system, and they do so stoutly enough, cannot associate the Almajiri with insurgency and insecurity. Certainly no Almajiri pupil has been found to be involved in any of the crimes that have become prevalent in the last few years.

But if I read the NSA clearly, he did not say that the current students of Almajiri system are criminals. Careful decoding of his statement would suggest that many of them, because of the limitations of the Almajiri system, could graduate into the society jobless, poorly equipped, as they were, to cope with a certificated society like ours with its Western civilisation and culture.

Only dye in- the-wool fanatics would tell you to your face today that graduates of Almajiri system can ever hope to be employed in the civil service, or any service at all, except in the service of Allah, either here or in the hereafter. But while we are here and we are at it, man must survive. And he must marry and raise family. What is his means of livelihood?

They may have graduated with deep knowledge of the Islamic religion with moving and sonorous voice for Qu’ranic recitation but in a secular society like Nigeria, they would continue to depend on charity from Islamic organisations and kind-hearted individuals. Many of our Imams survive on the little money they get from public ceremonies like weddings or naming ceremonies. Many may graduate into alfas, static or peripatetic marabouts and prayer warriors to pander to the wishes of political clients during the various election circles. And after that no more.

Some defenders of the Almajiri system may find this unbelievable blasphemy but the truth is that some famous or notorious thugs that some of us have come across are graduates of some variants of the Almajiri system. Having successfully memorised the Holy Qu’ran to some reasonable extent but have been unable to combine this noble acquisition with western education or they tried but fell out of school at the primary school or secondary school level, they find it difficult to secure reasonable means of livelihood and they have had to resort to other devices.

I am sorry to report that many of them had no choice but to become candidates for recruitment by powerful society men and women into their personal security protection gangs. In plain terms, they became thugs. Some have graduated into hired killers.

The National Security Adviser may have had this unfortunate transformation in mind when he alluded to the fact that some of them in the future would become a problem to the society. With little care and concern for this earthly existence, some of them, after some little brainwashing, take up arms against the larger society seeking to purge it of alleged infidelity.

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When a down-trodden fella gets thoroughly brainwashed, aided and abetted by half education or the chronic lack of it, there is no end to what he can do to turn another page in his life, including kidnaping and signing up for the Boko Haram insurgency.

It is not the Almajiri system that is to blame; the fear comes from what some of its products may do ultimately with their lives. Is this not the right time to begin to worry about the future of such people?  Last week I wrote about President Buhari’s grand vision for the country. This Almajiri project is worth synchronising into that vision.  I suggest that he takes off from where President Goodluck Jonathan left off – he who built modern schools for the integration of the Almajiri into the formal education system.

Or borrow a leaf from the lofty dreams of Ahmed Makarafi, one of the most successful governors of Kaduna State, who had planned to integrate the Almajiri into formal education system. And before we go slam bang into banning the system, we should hear out those who sound a note of caution. One of them is Professor Mohammed-Bello Yunusa of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, a product of Almajiri system but who successfully combined his Almajiri education with Western education to become a professor of Urban and Regional Planning. He has done a scholarly work on the Almajiri system.

And finally before the North embraces the Western Region type of free education programme, something we in the North once took delight in pooh-poohing, the Northern governments would do well to get their figures right.

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