Munguno and the Ban on “Street Urchins”


Professor Abdussamad Umar Jibia


Some days ago, a friend forwarded to me the summary of a law said to be signed by the Katsina state Governor, His Excellency Alhaji Aminu Bello Masari on the regulation of almajirci in Katsina state. The law tagged “RESPONSIBLE PARENTING/ALMAJIRI RIGHT PROTECTION EDIT” seeks to protect the child from abuse, at least according to its authors.

After the definitions, the Katsina edict provides for a commission or a department to be headed by a director to run as an independent department. The law prohibits any parent from sending their child to a Qur’anic school if he is less than 12 years old. The parent shall make provision for decent clothing and feeding for the child while the Qur’anic teacher shall provide accommodation. The child must not come from outside Katsina state unless the teacher undertakes to take his full responsibility. In addition, no child should be taken to a Qur’anic school outside the state unless he is at least 12 years of age.

The Government on its part shall provide medical facilities to all children in registered Qur’anic schools and make sure that they are registered under the NHIS scheme. Assistance of unspecified amounts shall be provided to all registered Qur’anic schools by the Government from time to time, according to the document.

The move by the Katsina state Government, I would like to believe, was done in good faith. Governor Masari deserves our commendation for it. He has abandoned the futile waiting for Northern Governors Forum or the Central Government to take a decision. I, however, had my humble observations which I didn’t want to make public immediately for two reasons. One, to avoid the wrong notion that I m against everything coming from Government, especially Katsina state Government. Only days ago I criticized the Governor for his approach to security. Two, and more importantly, to wait and see the details of what the Government has in mind.

But just as I was waiting, I saw the National Security adviser on my TV screen making comments about what he called ‘street urchins’. Hear him, ‘The group I spoke about on illiteracy is the almajiri. Ultimately, government will have to proscribe the almajiri phenomena, because we cannot continue to have street urchins, children roaming around, only for them in a couple of years or decades to become a problem to society.’

I was dumbfounded. First, the Federal Government has a big ministry and a litany of agencies in charge of education. It is their responsibility to define what illiteracy is and who is an illiterate. There has been a lot of work, in the past, done by the Federal Ministry of Education and universities like Bayero University and states like Kano on the interfacing of Qur’anic schools with formal schools. But instead of the retired General to refer to the right quarters for the right definition, he decided to opine that anybody who has not gone through the western-style school is an illiterate. The unfortunate thing is that he is in the office he is.

But that may not even be a major problem. Many people understand illiteracy the way the General does. What ordinary Nigerians like me want to hear from the National security advisor and see on the ground are the actions they are taking on the spate of kidnappings, killings and animal rustling bedevilling the North. What are his office and the larger ministry of defence doing about these and about herders moving their cattle into farmlands and destroying farmers’ crops? Even their worst enemy knows that almajirai are not responsible for these crimes. Why would the security team of this administration like to go for soft targets instead of addressing the major security challenges facing the country?

By the way, if these children who are mainly of poor background abandon almajirci where does the NSA want them to go and get the right western education? Certainly since their parents cannot afford private schools the only place they can go are Government schools. Does the NSA know the condition of Government basic schools? Does he know how crowded they are and that majority of children who go to Government schools cannot write a correct paragraph after completing their secondary schools in twelve years?

The products of Qur’anic schools that many of us deride are better than the product of Government basic schools. At least at the end of the day the former can recite the Qur’an the way it is taught in those schools.

Please do not misquote me. I m not saying all is well with Qur’anic schools. There are big problems with our Qur’anic schools, but most of them are part of our greater problem. Northern Muslims have not been able to change our ways in most of the things we inherited from the past. Our method of farming, for example, is as done precolonially. This applies to both crop and animal farming. Our emirs still spend most of their days sitting in the palace as done five hundred years ago and have not changed their approach to cope with new challenges facing their people. The teaching methods in our traditional Qur’anic schools have not undergone any change for over a hundred years.

The problem of begging associated with children in Qur’anic schools is only one of such problems. The last time Bishop Matthew Kukah wanted to establish almajiri centres all of us rose to condemn it. But it ended there. Can’t we even do what he wanted to do, even if we cannot modify it? What is the matter with us that we can only condemn and praise but cannot go a step further to take any positive action to solve a common problem?

The major concern of majority of Northern Muslim elites about Qur’anic schools is the begging aspect but not the promotion of Qur’anic education. I would thus like to call on Governors like Masari who have concern for Qur’anic education to go further and make policies that will improve the contents of our Qur’anic schools and look into more ways they can prevent our children from abuse.

As for the NSA, I would advise him to concentrate on consolidating the gains so far made on security and liaise with Education ministry, state Governors and religious leaders on matters of Quranic schools.