North can revive its agriculture by engaging Almajirai in farming — Varsity don
Professor Tukur Muhammad-Baba, Head, Department Of Sociology, Federal University of Birnin Kebbi, suggested that one of the best ways to productively engage street children roaming Northern states is through modern farming. The University don told ABDULGANIYU ALABI that Northern Nigeria, which once fed West Africa long before the emergence of Boko Haram should not have its children begging.
Has the Almajiri system always been like this or was it done differently in the past?
The Almajiri system had been under a lot of restraint. It used to be a functional system, which served the society. The system has, however, failed to reform and adapt to modern techniques, especially in area of being organised and formalised.
First, the Almajiri system has remained informal. There are certain aspects of the Almajiri system that have now made it very dangerous to the society and the Almajiris themselves; in the sense that they are forced to go and solicit for alms and food. This soliciting has become problematic to open society because the Almajiris are abused.
Secondly, the living conditions of the Almajiris, even without the current Coronavirus pandemic are hygienically bad, with different diseases and so on. Aside this, they are open to sexual abuses, molestation and sodomy, among others.
Thirdly, there is the issue of population explosion. This means more Almajiris are going to the cities. This also compounds the problem, as it again exposes them to exploitation and worsens their condition.
Now comes the Coronavirus pandemic. This is one of the most virulent diseases that can be spread by lack of hygiene. The Almajiris in their squalid living quarters cannot observe social distancing and that is a time bomb for the spread of Coronavirus.
Another thing discovered by researchers is that having been neglected by society, the Almajiri system is also contributing to the problem of rural-urban migration. Over 90 per cent of Almajiris you see in the cities are from rural areas. They are sent to the cities by their parents, who sometimes send these children at the age of three or four to the cities. Such parents only give birth to children without willing to take up the responsibilities attached to it.
What is your view on the Northern governors’ deportation of Almajirai, due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
The system needs reform. Parents must take responsibility for their children. The repatriation is in the interest of parents and the Almajiris. They should return to their families. But I would like to see a situation where if they are repatriated, they are made to go through a rigorous quarantine in their states before joining their families. I won’t even recommend a two-week quarantine. Rather, I will recommend three weeks.
Government can afford to feed them within that period. After this, government can now send them back to their parents, with a warning and enlightenment that they are endangering everybody’s life.
Do you think the governors sent the children back to their states to cut cost, aside fears of spreading Coronavirus?
The main reason the governors are sending them back now is because the Coronavirus pandemic has exposed a lot of rots in our system. Government is not doing enough. There is no enlightenment and you cannot just send people home like that. We were all caught unprepared.
I have always said you can’t solve the problem of Almajiri outside a
regional strategy. Kano State cannot do it alone, if Katsina, Kaduna and Plateau are not enforcing it. Of course, government cannot do it alone. The Almajiris’ population is just too much. And you have to also add the corruption and misuse of public resources. Until now, we did not pay much attention to the Almajiri menace, because people could still manage to make a living.
So, how can state governments handle the large number of Almajirai?
The number of repatriated children can be handled by government, if we put good governance and accountability in place and block the leakages. The COVID-19 pandemic is good in the sense that it is exposing us to what we have been neglecting. Although government cannot do everything, we need to take assessment of who are the most vulnerable. How can they be identified without corruption?
The oil economy we have been depending on is at a standstill. My fear is not even for now. Rather, my fear is for the coming two years. Even if we are able to deal with this Coronavirus in two months time, the world economy is in serious distress. What will be the implication on us that have been operating in the periphery? People have to be prepared for it.
Now that these children are returning home en masse, how can government use them productively?
We only have the Almajiris en mass because they are aggregated in one place. The truth is that when you look at the Northwest region for example: Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara and Katsina, the Almajiris in those states are from tiny villages of maybe two or three households, which when combined run into hundreds.
So, if you repatriate them, they will reunite with different parents. We can now deal with the issue at the community level. We shouldn’t look at the state aggregate level.
Once the quarantine is over, you will return them to the tiny number of households they came from and also conduct census to able to identify and involve traditional rulers, who will be on the lookout for them from their respective hamlets.
This is a Northern problem and the traditional institutions are very strong in identifying who is who. Who is coming from where?
There is need for government to formalise and find a way of utilising these institutions and directing enlightenment through the religious and traditional institutions. As a matter of fact, if you go to the neighbourhood mosque, they will tell you which household has more hungry people, which therefore need more help.
They know in which household there is a widow with five children or more, the wife whose husband has died and is catering for herself?
Our major problem is lack of utilising and formalising the data collection system.
Northern Nigeria is unarguably the major food-producing region in the country. And with the fall in the price of crude oil, government should engage Almajiris in its various farms as to revive the economy. We can do that.
We can organise the Almajiris and youths into cooperatives and show them it is not just about the rainfall agriculture; there is also off-season farming. We can teach them about water management and how to utilise and preserve food crops. They can also be taught how to grow vegetables. A lot of the strawberries we eat are planted in Abuja by organised farmers from Plateau State. They look for sellers, who sold their produce for them and credit their accounts.
The best strategy for us is to focus on agriculture, using these young energetic men and channelling them in the right direction. We must also organise modern education for them.
You cannot promote farming without popularising modern science and technology that things can be done through improved seedlings. We should move away from traditional agriculture, import some labour saving devises from China and Thailand, so that farming is not backbreaking. The Almajiri children have tasted city life and you cannot force them to go back to village life with all its drudgery and hard labour.
I am not calling for provision of massive farming device like tractors, because they will break down. But by equipping them with some appropriate low-scale technology, just like we are now importing massive number of irrigation machines they put on donkeys and take to farm.
Now, we need other labour saving devices that will make farming less laborious and more attractive. Then we teach the Almajiris how to improve harvest and reduce losses. We can begin to build on that.
There are machines that can even use kerosene to function and so on. You think that can restore the North as the food bank and rejuvenate Nigeria’s dying economy?
Yes. We can do it. One of the ironies I keep pointing out to my students is that the North that prides itself in agriculture, is also the part of the country that has small boys (Almajiris) begging for food, which shows that distribution and utilisation are the problem. I can’t be growing food and have my children on the street begging for food. It doesn’t make sense!
We were once feeding West Africa before Boko Haram came. Farmers from Wurno grew garlic and this produce would find itself in Dawanau Market in Kano and in trailers and trucks into Baga in Maiduguri. The produce went as far as Ethiopia. We can revive that.
How long will it take Nigeria to revive its economy through all this?
I think if we go slowly and carefully, a five-year development plan will work very well for us. But we must be determined and convince ourselves that it can be done, if we deal with the corruption problem.