They move together in groups clutching plastic bowls. In a quest for self-survival, they go from one stranger to the another, pleading for alms. In the evenings, they return to their masters to rest and continue the next day. These are Nigerian children, popularly known as Almajiri. Majority of Nigeria’s 13.2 million out of school children are from the Almajiri system. About 69 per cent of this population are children from Northern Nigeria. As inmates of some Islamic boarding houses, formal education is a far cry. The risks posed by poorly catered children in a country waging war against jihadist fighters is enormous. In June 2019, Nigeria’s National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, described the Almajiri system as a breeding ground for insecurity.
Challenges posed by the Almajiri situation became more prominent during COVID-19 lockdown. Some state governments went into panic-driven policy actions to ensure strict compliance. There were a back and forth deportation of hundreds of street children across some states of the country. However, the hasty moves did not solve the Almajiri crisis. The vulnerable nature of children has become a burden in the face of an ideological war, more so when they are poorly catered for and lack access to essential services. The Northeast Governors’ Forum, a body that has borne the worst of the Boko Haram insurgency, seems to be realising the Almajiri problem. The proliferation of street children across Nigeria is one that deserves serious policy action.
The Northeast Governors’ Forum on Saturday, 8th August vowed to support the federal government’s effort to revive the Almajiri system of education. The Governors also aim to strengthen both Islamic and western education as well as stop street begging. In the past, efforts to reform the Almajiri system did not enjoy local support. For instance, in 2010, a total of 157 Tsangaya/Almajiri schools were built across the country by the administration of former President, Goodluck Jonathan. The effort was part of the National Framework for the Development and Integration of Almajiri Education into Universal Basic Education. The project did not receive local support primarily because of its mixture of secular and Islamic values.
Any people-targeted project without their buy-in is bound to fail. The North East Development Commission (NEDC), state governments in the Northeast, must realise the importance of collaborating with religious and traditional institutions before the Almajiri system can be sustainably reformed. The principle of ‘Do No Harm’ must be adhered to ensure that intervention efforts for the Almajiri do not worsen the conditions it aims to improve. The Northeast states must work with civil society groups and faith-based organisations to identify stakeholders and spheres of influence in target communities. The Almajiri system is an ancient practice that dates back to the 11th century. The system is intricately tied to religion such that sensationalism can ruin policy actions targeted at reforming it.
Governments must throw in the carrot and the stick. The Northeast Governors must move to adopt the Child Rights Act. As of November 2019, Taraba state is the only state in the region to adopt the Child Rights Act. The Act is an effort of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to protect children. Without the law, it is difficult to prosecute violators of child rights. State governments in the Northeast must use the carrot and stick approach in addressing the Almajiri issue. As a carrot approach, government must work with informal structures such as religious and traditional institutions to support and promote reforms of the Almajiri system. The idea is to emphasise the gains of a reformed Almajiri system to the individual, family and society. Adoption of the Child Rights Act across the country will give a legal framework for the prosecution of violators. With this effort, the government can trigger support for an Almajiri intervention and also deter defaulters through the implementation of the Child Rights Act. Sustainable Almajiri reforms must begin with the buy-in of religious and traditional stakeholders.
Recommended Reading: Reforming the Almajiri Syndrome