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COVID-19: Expulsion of almajirai re-echoes restructuring of Nigeria 

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Apparently, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has brought the entire world to its knee, is one of the factors compelling leaders in Northern Nigeria, especially the governors, to come to terms with the social and security menace posed by the army of out-of-school children (almajirai). They have therefore taken bold steps to return them to their various home states within the region.  

In all its ramifications, this implies a paradigm shift in a governance system that re-echoes restructuring that has far-reaching implications not only for the north but also for the south politically, socially and educationally.  

The decision has since been criticised as being contrary to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which grants every citizen the right to live, travel and have a basic education in any part of the country. However, prominent northerners, including the deposed Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi II, had seen into the future and sounded a note of warning over the shenanigan of depriving many children in the region their rights to basic education.

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As northern governors have finally made up their minds to expel these street urchins under the guise of containing the spread of coronavirus, to which the almajirai are vulnerable because of their low level of education and abysmal living conditions, southern leaders have raised the alarm that many of the affected children are being transported (smuggled) into the south since the northern governors began the process.

On April 22, state governors in the north began the deportation of students of the almajiri system in their states to their home states as the region battles growing cases of COVID-19. Derived from the Arabic ‘al-Muhajirun’, an almajiri is a person who leaves his home in search of Islamic knowledge. Although the controversial system has enjoyed popularity, spanning centuries, the pandemic has caused a major interruption in its operations. 

Not fewer than 435 of such vulnerable children were returned by Kano to Katsina State were, received by the state government, just as another set of 40 were returned to Kebbi State after being deported by the Kaduna State Government. The reason adduced by the governors was that their action was to safeguard public health and stem the spread of the pandemic.

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The exercise, which would be a continuous one, which would affect states like Katsina, Kaduna, Jigawa, Yobe, Bauchi, Zamfara, Gombe, Nasarawa States and Niger Republic, has been strongly defended by Governor Nasir el-Rufai, who said, “The governors are ready to confront anybody that wants to stop them.”

President Yoruba Ronu, Akin Malaolu, said the development has again raised the issue of whether the current Nigerian system of government should be tinkered with since the action of the northern governors clearly contradicts the constitution. He noted that the situation has compelled some leaders in the South to vow not to fold their arms and allow the children dumped or smuggled into their domains amidst the danger of COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to him, “One of the reasons advanced by the leaders of the north for their action is the COVID-19 pandemic, but when it comes to a situation where the north itself is rejecting its people (children) and citizens of Nigeria, should the south, under the excuse of compliance, accept ‘liabilities’ and ‘looming health hazards? This is a constitutional matter.”

He said the governors’ decision was against the constitution but then the south could not fold its hands and allow these children on it.

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Part of the critical measures to contain the spread of the virus by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 include the closure of all borders linking states and Abuja to the rest of the country except for the transportation of persons on essential duty, food, fuel, manufactured goods. However, since the northerner governors took the decision, southerner leaders have expressed worries over the influx of almajirai into the region while alleging that various security agencies have compromised movement along the borders.

In a joint statement yesterday, Southern and Middle Belt Leaders Forum (SMBLF), which include Chief Edwin K. Clark (South-South), Chief Ayo Adebanjo (Afenifere - Southwest), Chief John Nnia Nwodo (Ohaneze - Southeast) and Dr. Bitrus Pogu (Middle Belt Forum -North Central) expressed outrage at the complacency of security forces that allowed the invasion of their areas by teenagers rejected by states in the north and hidden in containers and trailers in large numbers, in the same manner, cattle are transported, in spite of the ban of interstate movement by President Muhammadu Buhari. They have pointedly accused the Northern Governors Forum of dumping the problem they created on the south and urged the Nigerian Governors Forum to wake up to its duty.

They wondered the type of country Buhari was leading and expressed dismay that the president and the laws of the country were being selectively obeyed or ignored by some citizens without consequences while others are compelled into obedience.

The statement reads: “This ominous development is coming after Boko Haram threatened openly three weeks ago that they were going to take their battle against Nigeria to the South East and South-South. Very worrisome in this development is the quietness of the National Security organizations, the National Covid-19 Committee and the Presidency since this story broke out.

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“This development has brought about very strong suspicions amongst the people regarding the aim of the deployment of these young men. Their capacity to escape all border security checks until they reach many states in the south and Middle Belt and nearly the whole country points to a strong collaboration. SMBLF asks all Nigerians at the receiving end to be vigilant.

“God forbid that the Boko Haram threat is being surreptitiously executed. We will certainly not fold our arms and allow a massive influx of youths who have no reason to flout extant laws on interstate movements, no pressing national engagement in our areas, no verifiable occupation, no tests for Covid-19 and no pre-arranged accommodation, to come and forcibly occupy our forests and perhaps prosecute the threat of Boko Haram.”

The forum said the silence of the federal government in this situation is ominous, adding, “The maneuvers appear deliberately planned and provocative. We will resist any threats to any invasion and the security of our lives and property with every amount of self-help available to us. To avoid further descent to an uncontrollable situation, we call on the federal government to publicly declare this invasion illegal, direct our national security organizations to flush them out NOW and ensure that they do not return.

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“We need to be reassured there is a government here!

Not too long ago General Theophilus Danjuma (rtd) warned us to be ready for self-help. We hope that his predictions have not become inevitable and that our country can be saved a slide into lawlessness and its disastrous consequences. A stitch in time saves nine! We call on our people to be vigilant. How can we endure sporadic killings in the hands of herdsmen in “normal” times and almajirai invasion under pandemic?”

In another reaction, Yoruba World Congress (YWC) said it had taken a studied notice of the recent compulsory evacuation of thousands of almajirai throughout the 19 northern states by respective state governors in the region.

Communications Secretary of YWC, Chief Akogun Tola Adeniyi, said the almajiri educational system is a federally dictated, financed and controlled educational system for usually abandoned and wandering children scattered all over the vast mass of land in the Northern part of Nigeria.

He said the northern governors took advantage of Covid-19 pandemic to give vent to their age-long dissatisfaction with the federal government’s meddlesomeness in the running of their respective primary education system.

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According to Adeniyi, “In sacking the almajirai pupils and evacuating them in hundreds to their respective states of origin, Northern governors ‘vowed not 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. Their statement went further this is for the common good of the states and Nigeria in general.”

The congress said in view of the drastic and bold steps taken by the 19 governors to rid their region of security risks and social and economic malfeasance brought about by ill-digested centrally controlled educational policies, “notice was being served on the heavily loaded government at the centre that time was up for federal government arm-twisting control of educational, state and local government schedules in Nigeria. Each state in the north now determines their destinies.

“It is also a clarion call on all other regions in the country to send non-indigenous people that constitute nuisance and epitomise grinding poverty back to their regions of origin so that each region can properly plan for their indigenous populations and remove the crushing burden imposed on them by Nigeria’s ‘Unitary Government.’

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“Totalitarianism and ruthless over-centralization have been the bane of Nigerian federal system of government which is federal only in name. And its time is over.”

The congress said it was convinced that this is the time to jettison self-serving policies like Quota System, Unity Schools, Federal Character, Education Trust Fund, Universities Commission, Universal Primary Education Board, Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board and several similar self-serving, corruption-laden agencies smuggled into our peculiar federal system of government so that each region can determine their education system, their housing needs, their energy requirements, their roads and transportation priorities and food security requirements and, of course, internal security.

“Covid-19, in spite of its cruelty, has brought about stark and compelling realities and after its departure Nigeria and indeed the world shall never be the same again,” the socio-cultural chieftain said.

A northerner and national chairman of National Conscience Party (NCP), Dr. Tanko Yinusa, knocked the northern governors over the development, saying the decision was a fundamental mistake that might haunt the region for a very long time.

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According to him, “If they hide under Covid-19, what about those aged ones who are also constituting health risks but are not citizens of those states? Why can’t those ones be also expelled and returned to their various home states? While I stand by the need to abolish almajirai education system, the way the governors acted was wrong. The problem the governors are trying to solve by expelling those children would resurface in various states. The governors should have looked for a means to join hands to train the children and integrate them into the system.”

Yinusa said the children are more useful in the north than smuggled them to the south.

But taking a different position with Yinusa, President, Arewa Youth Forum (AYF), Alhaji Yerima Shetimma, expressed support for the northern governors. He said the action ought to have been taken long before COVID-19, “but since they have the courage to do it now, let every state take responsibility for the training and education of their children.”

On the alarm raised by southern leaders over the influx of these rejected and disadvantaged children to their region, Shetimma flayed the security agents for failing to live up to their responsibilities, just as he urged the governors in the south not to fold their hands and allow danger deposited in their domain.

“At all, this is not the time to move (anyone) across borders,” he noted.

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