By Thompson Taiwo
In one of my intellectual stocktaking, I stumbled on the Winter/Spring 2002 issue of CNN Traveller. In the illuminating edition which appositely captured various events around the world at the time in not more than 128 pages, the story that fascinated me most was the mind-boggling exposé on a Sierra Leonean rebel warlord done by the country’s foremost journalist Sorious Samura.The instructive piece was another Samura’s investigative high spot in which he sought rare audience with one of the most dreaded rebel commanders, Base Marine, who unleashed gristly history of brutality and sufferings on his compatriots all over the 90s.
Base was only just an unemployed teenager with no proper schooling when he was snatched away by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), an insurgent movement, which declared war on the democratically elected government of Sierra Leone on March 23, 1991. The RUF was able to endear him and other innocent kids to their rebel squadron with the bait that the inability of their parents to educate them and take them off the streets was the fault of the embattled government. Marine did not only listen to them, he believed their words and was eventually abducted and conscripted into the militia family.
Within a short period, he had learnt the ropes of atrocities and floated his own small boys unit. Today, history will remember him and his gang for the thousands of children murdered in cold blood and large numbers of women bestially violated at gunpoint. In Samura’s interview with Marine, the remorseful latter justified the armed resistance carried out by the RUF as this was the only way at the time to challenge and dislodge an elected government that failed to restore hope to the poverty-stricken people of the country.
Marine’s childhood shares some similarities with the most despised and vilified set of people in Nigeria today-the almajirai. According to a 2014 UNICEF report, Nigeria has 9.5 million almajiri population out of the 13.5million out-of-school children in the north. Millions of them have no formal education and are left at the mercy of the streets by their parents and government.
They have parents yet are orphans. Their childhoods are devoid of maternal and filial love except for the fleeting concerns of passers-by who sometimes blame God for throwing up the fruits of marriage that have no place to blossom. Their roads to adulthood are typically marked by frustration, anger, hostility and desperation. They are ready tools for Boko Haram, accessible market for bandits and thugs for unscrupulous politicians. They do not know what it means to love and be loved because they have rarely been treated like humans.
Hardly have governments at all levels paid attention to the risks the almajiri system in northern Nigeria poses to society than this period of the covid-19 pandemic. This attention was arguably not borne out of empathy for the plights of these hapless children or genuine concern to the take them off the streets and restore their deserved childhood. The galaxy of eyes on them, from the north to the south, see them as probable vectors of coronavirus and rightly so, few of them have tested positive for covid-19. Hence, the need to deal with their matter.
It never mattered to both federal and state governments before now that they have always been homeless, run around the streets in worn-out clothes and survive on the kindness of equally poor masses. The only time they ever matter is during elections – they need their votes to win elections yet they are underage. They are merely means to power and not the cornerstone.
These precious God-given kids and teens, who are in their millions, are ‘deported’ within their own country. They are testimonies of the failure of northern political and religious leaders. However, it seems the hard solutions to the almajiri phenomenon begin with northern governors’ on-going action of sending almajirai in their domains back to their states of origin. Every state if ready should carry its cross and be courageous enough to deal decisively with it.
To crack the almajiri conundrum, four stakeholders in the north are very fundamental – the governors themselves, Islamic clerics, traditional rulers and the parents of these children. In this chain, every segment is essential but the police of the chain is government. It has the highest responsibilities.
Parents of almajirai must be made to understand that responsible parenting goes beyond just making babies and sending them off to acquire Islamic education without corresponding parental obligation of tending to their welfare. Also, Islamic education alone cannot fully liberate the mind, hence, the need to also enroll them in formal schools and help reduce to the barest minimum the staggering number of out of school children that the north is notorious for. They should birth the number of children they have the financial strength to tend to as the generation, where a man’s masculinity and a woman’s fruitfulness are solely measured by the largeness of their family, is long gone and buried.
Identifiably, one of the greatest obstacles to the abolishment of the beggarly system are the Islamic clerics who are the chief beneficiaries of the bastardized system. Since the parents of almajirai have passed off their parental responsibilities to the Mallams, the clerics who have many wives and children to feed equally depend on these vulnerable minds for survival, thereby, sending them out on the streets to beg without considering the dangers that may await them. It is a worrying chain where young children have become fathers and mothers unto themselves. Since the clerics are used to this lifestyle, a sudden reform that will take away their source of livelihood will be strongly resisted. Yet, there is no problem without solution. If parents of these children are ready to fund their Islamic education, the clerics will have something to survive on.
The most important stakeholders, whose political will is intensely needed to achieve real reforms, are the northern governors with strong supports from the traditional rulers. They should work with their states’ lawmakers to enact laws that criminalise the use of children for street begging, hawking and other activities that debase their childhood while punitive actions are taken when these laws are violated. The El-rufai administration, which enacted similar laws in Kaduna State, has not implemented them to the letter, according to critics. Parents who desire to send their kids to learn the Quran should be mandated to take charge of their welfare. Similarly, every child’s right to formal education should be further affirmed and any parent that hesitates should be punished using the instrumentality of the law. More so, a child can conveniently combine both Islamic and western education. It is happening down here in the south. Is it really necessary for a parent living in Kaduna to send his child to Kano or Borno to acquire Islamic education when the child can do so within his environment with proper parental guidance?
Thompson Taiwo is a broadcast journalist. He can be reached on Twitter @thompson_taiwo
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