Generations upon generations, there is no end to the sight of young children of school age roaming the streets in a quest for survival. As an age-old tradition, these kids are popularly called ‘Almajiri’ – children from poor homes usually sent to Islamic boarding schools. Formal education remains a far cry for thousands of these children.
Put into perspective, Nigeria has about 13.2 million out of school children. In West Africa, Nigeria accounts for 45 per cent of out-of-school children. 69 per cent of the out-of-school in Nigeria are from Northern Nigeria, with 60 per cent of them comprising of girls. The number of out-of-school children in Nigeria has increased from 10.5 million in 2010 to 13.2 million in 2015. Some of the contributive factors to this issue is the protracted violent conflict in Northeast Nigeria. The destruction of schools by insurgents, forced displacement, and the volatile nature of the region has grossly impacted accessibility to primary education in the area.
Over the years, the Almajiri programme has co-existed alongside the formal school system; it has failed to be subsumed into the formal education sector. For instance, Nigeria’s former president, Goodluck Jonathan, reportedly spent about N15 billion in building Almajiri schools in an effort to integrate basic education into the almajiri system. There have been reports that are the structures built for the purpose have either been used for conventional education or lay waste because its pupils have gone back to the old ways of street begging.
Conflict experts hold that having vulnerable children in cities across a nation that is fighting an ideological war is a terrible risk. For instance, it has been widely reiterated that the reason Boko Haram insurgents has continued to wage war against the Nigerian state is as a result of a robust recruitment source. The almajiri system has created a mass of vulnerable younglings who are susceptible to the antics of conflict promoters upon the promise of material reward or psycho-social brainwashing.
The deportation of the almajiri children in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic has cast more light in the dark. For the many years the almajiri system has existed, it has been perceived by many as constituting public nuisance. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, where free movements have been banned and social distancing greatly promoted, the almajiri way of life is greatly threatened. Hundreds of almajiri children have been deported from across different states of the federation; in a bid to flatten the spread of the Coronavirus. In some cases, some of them have tested positive to COVID-19. Nigeria’s House of Representatives has also called on the Federal government to stop state governments from repatriating almajiri children.
Beyond COVID-19, the almajiri system requires collective action. This should involve both the federal and state governments to map out a holistic policy action to address the issues around almajiri system. Also, traditional and religious institutions have a vital role to play, considering that the practice is deeply rooted in cultural and religious sentiments. Governmental actions can only provide the capacity for reforms; it will require the collaborations of relevant stakeholders, including the Northern elites, for meaningful impact to be achieved and sustainability guaranteed. Without a comprehensive policy initiative, the almajiri children remain the evidence of dearth of social security for citizens of the country.