That Almajirci Bill (I)


Mustapha Shehu


Reading Adamu Adamu’s “That Almajirci Bill (I)” which appeared in his column in the Daily Trust of Friday 18th September, I could not but remember the day of my unusual encounter with a boy over a year ago.


That day, I saw the boy lay in a foetal position under a shrub on the bare and damp earth like an abandoned puppy. He looked not more that five years, young enough to rock in his mother’s lap.  Instead, there he was, rocking from the spasms of that scourge – malaria. I could have passed when I saw him, but I stopped.  I have always seen him. He is the Almajiri.  I have grown with him but I had never been confronted with the sight before me. He had a leg out of this world, and if I passed, I realised I would never forgive myself if he died.


The Almajiri is a boy from the age of four sent by his parents to a distant land to memorize the Qur’an under the tutelage of an Islamic teacher known as a Mallam. He does not attend formal western school. While his peers go to formal western schools in the morning, play after, then learn the Qur’an at home or in an Islamiyya (evening Qur’anic School), the Almajiri, thrown into an early adult world devoid of parental care, spends the whole day after a few hours of Qur’anic memorisation at his Almajiri School, to fend for himself (what he would eat) and also provide for his Mallam. He and his fellows number not less than half a dozen millions (more than three times the population of The Gambia) in Northern Nigeria alone. The only other places in the world where there is the Almajiri are Chad, Niger, Benin, Togo, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal and Ivory Coast. He has existed for more than a century.


Where I saw him, there were more than four dozens of his fellows, hanging around a public square half begging, half playing and oblivious of their pathetic situation. One of them saw a ‘prey’ in me and came bowl in hand to beg. His shirt, tattered, hung around his shoulder, he could be mistaken for a prey pursued by a hyena which had missed a bite of him and instead got a mouthful of the shirt. As we faced each other, an idea began to form in my mind. On inquiry, I learnt that the sick child’s name was Saminu.


“He has been ill since yesterday,” the fellow said. “He has fever.”


After getting him medication, I took Saminu back to his “school” along with some of his fellows. The open-air school is in front of the Mallam’s house. It has one room though, which is the entrance to the quarters where the Mallam’s four wives and his own children lived, and where the Almajiris kept their wooden boards on which verses of the Qur’an are written for them to memorize. Seated on a sheep’s hide under a tree in front of the house is the Mallam wearing an Arabian gown and a large turban. He held a rosary in his right hand which he counted as he whispered incantations in prayer.  He paused when he recognized the boys as they alighted from the car after I had parked.


Between the road where I parked and the school, a stagnant sewage gutter emits a rancid odor. In the sewage, a colony of mosquito larva competed for space as they swam. To the right of the seated Mallam was the “classroom.” It had a circular arrangement of felled tree trunks used as seats on the dusty earth with no desks. Firewood is burned at night in the middle of the circle to provide light for studies. To his left, is the thatched “dormitory” where Saminu and his fellows sleep on raffia mats. I noticed all these before the Mallam met me half-way to welcome me. The idea forming in my mind finally crystallized. I knew I had failed as a journalist if I did not take the case of the Almajiri.


We are too occupied with our little individual problems that the problem of the larger society eludes us. I thought that even a life threatening individual situation should not overshadow the stark and pathetic one of more than half a dozen million children. I thought of our politicians’ misplaced notion of greatness. They pillage the treasury, they accumulate and pile wealth, but I have never in my knowledge of history known anyone judged as great for just being rich, worse still, when the source of the wealth is questionable.


The Mallam smiled while we shook hands. Either he was a hell of an actor or he was ignorant of the societal menace that he was. Either way, I thought the underlying issue that sustains the Almajiri system is lack of political will and corruption in public office. I asked myself, in taking up the case of the Almajiri, should I as a journalist attack these two issues? The answer I thought was “no.” Journalists of my ilk must have done so. That they have failed proved to me the problem is beyond attacking the political class. The failure of the political class on deeper reflection led me to conclude that the operators of the Almajiri system being religious leaders and known to have the capacity to trigger public uproar against governments, must have resisted change.


Just like in Adamu’s claim that addressing the Almajiri system as canvassed for in the bill would endanger the Ulama (the Mallams), whenever there are talks to address the Almajiri system, these Mallams also come out vehemently to oppose it on the pretext that it is an attempt to ban the memorization of the Qur’an. However, is it even possible to ban the memorisation of the Qur’an which is the basis of Islam? I realized that the Mallams who defend the practice are doing so because they are products of it and it also favours them economically. There is thus a vicious circle of Almajiri graduating into a Mallam then also exploiting the Almajiris that come under his care. This would continue until eternity if left unchecked.


The Mallams tax the Almajiris to make daily returns of certain amounts to them, in the process, the Almajiris have to beg and/or do menial jobs. If they fail to make the returns, they are thoroughly beaten and tied to a tree trunk. In many cases, they run away, and afraid to return to their parents who will chastise them further for absconding, end up in cities as praise singers or riffraff or team up with other dangerous elements in society whose warped understanding of Islam is based on its total misunderstanding, to constitute a socially dangerous menace that gives rise to the emergence of quack clerics. This happens repeatedly and has been happening for over a hundred years that questions come to mind as to what type of society  is ours, that harbours and condones such? How could governments, headed by Muslims for most parts of the post independence history of the country, let the system thrive?  The system has become an enterprise that has done much harm to the dignity of Islam and Muslims. It has produced quack clerics, undisciplined and morally bankrupt citizens, because, the products, devoid of the right moral upbringing by both their parents who have abandoned them and their Mallams who only exploited them and their labour, literarily grew up on the street as destitute.


On further reflection, I pondered why the government apparently turns away. I wondered whether it is due to the cliché that those in glass houses should not throw stones. Corruption, both economic and political, has been the trademark of most Nigerian public servants. They lie, they cheat, they steal, and they rig elections. The Mallams, perpetuators of the Almajiri system, who through Friday sermons in the mosques can stir the people to rise against the politicians, know this.  A solemn silent balance of silence is thus struck. Where is everybody? Why does nobody care? Is there nobody of good conscience? As a journalist, these questions haunted me, and if I can’t answer them, I must fill in the gap because whenever I watched my little son at home play his video games under the watchful eyes of his parents, vivid vision of sick Saminu under the shrub assaulted my conscience.


I thought of proposing reforms in the system as opposed to banning it. How would it fare, if the status quo is maintained but basic primary school subjects along with feeding are introduced?  This approach has two potential problems: The Mallams’ fear of going out of ‘business’ and the parents’ fear of the Christianization of their children which has its roots in the early days of western education in Nigeria when Christian missionaries dominated in its provision. I thought with the right political will, the fears of both parents and Mallams could be allayed. In today’s Nigeria, that the Government, at all the three tiers, is the biggest provider of education can be made evident to the parents. For the Mallams, I thought a federal legislation, which will among other things, provide some remunerations to them, would help the situation, but first, I thought it necessary to do a journalistic investigation into the system. My first resource was a cleric, Ustaz Idris Abdulaziz in Bauchi, who opposes the system.


I learned from him that it is obligatory on all Muslims, male and female, to seek for knowledge in Islam. In the days of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), his companions who later became the Caliphs, came to him to take lessons in Qur’an and fiqh or jurisprudence, then went back home and taught their dependants and pursued their legitimate livelihoods.  With time, after the death of the prophet, people started approaching scholars with published books on his teachings to learn. In some cases people travelled far to meet such scholars, but in all cases, they pursued their legitimate trades by the side. There is no history of anyone demeaning himself by carrying a bowl to beg as Islam abhors lack of self esteem.


To memorise the Qur’an, one does not have to be an Almajiri. The system is non-existent in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, the citadels of Islam, yet there are thousands of those who have memorised the Qur’an and learned the Hadith (teachings and practices of the Prophet) there. Parents or the government sponsor learning, which is in the formal school system. The Almajiri system is basically a Hausa culture found only in Northern Nigeria and spread to the other countries in West Africa.


The Almajiri’s life is best described as a misery in childhood, full of hopelessness while growing up and mostly unsatisfying in adulthood. For a society that does not even recognise primary school leaving certificate for employment, this description is apt.  Products of the Almajiri system cannot even dream of finding a formal job let alone participate in seeking elective offices. They are disenfranchised for life from contesting any elections as the constitutional provisions of a basic minimum of a certified secondary education limit them.


I then wrote a feature story titled “Almajiris... are they a Perfidy of the Northern Elite?” in THISDAY, the paper I work for. It was the feature story that brought me in contact with Senator Tafidan Argungu, the sponsor of the ‘Almajiri Bill’, through Senator Bala Mohammed Kauran Bauchi. Tafidan Argungu had already drafted a bill against child destitution and a synergy of our efforts led to the formulation of the final draft which is the Bill for an act to “Provide for the Establishment of the National Commission for the Eradication of Child Destitution in Nigeria and for other Connected Purposes 2008” sponsored by him and 39 other distinguished senators cutting across religion, ethnicity and party affiliation. After the bill passed second reading, I gave a copy each, of the bill and senator Argungu’s lead debate to three northern newspaper columnists, including Adamu, to help propagate the reforms contained in the bill and subsequently galvanise Nigerians for the yet to be fixed public hearing. Adamu, though agreeing that there are ills in the Almajiri system, does not support the bill as drafted. He posited in his column that some of the ills pointed out in the bill are just a way of “giving a dog a bad name”. However, anyone conversant with legislative processes knows that a bill hardly passes as it was first presented.


 In a lead debate on the second reading of the Bill, Tafidan-Argungu reminded the senate that the menace of child destitution in our society has remained a disturbing problem in our major cities with their number ever growing by the day. “They are looked down as outcasts, public nuisance and social miscreants by the society and these are children who were let-out by their parents/guardians to learn Arabic and Qur’anic studies, which was later referred to as the Almajiri system” he said.


He further argued that “the scriptural meaning of the Almajiri system is being misconstrued by the practitioners who by way of omission or commission get themselves involved. Whilst some of the Mallams engage these kids for Islamic knowledge, empowerment and good morals to become good citizens in their immediate society and country at large, some do so for their selfish economic gains which are against the tenets of the Holy Scripture and human rights”.  He also noted that the fact that there are millions of these under-aged children thrown into destitution, calls for concern of everyone. Undoubtedly, he said, the problem of child destitution has brought about profound negative effects on our cities and it may have in one way or the other added to the huge statistics of crime and illiteracy in the society. He therefore expressed that it is sad and pitiful that the system has succeeded in inculcating negative traits and influence in those children who were shepherded into cities without proper upkeep to roam the streets begging for alms. This ugly scenario, according to Tafidan-Argungu, will convince any person that the menace of the Almajiri system has eluded the social reforms of the government, as multitude of under-aged children swarm shopping centres, motor parks, petrol stations, restaurants, night clubs, even beer parlours and brothels looking for pittance and handouts to etch a living. In the process he explained, “Bad influence of social vices ultimately creeps into the psyche of these children”.


As a result, Tafidan-Argungu noted, many of them end up as social miscreants taking to thefts, pimping, thuggery and other unwholesome practices as their trade. Without basic education as a tool for survival, these children he said, are readily willing tools of selfish leaders for the destabilisation of any constituted authority and let mayhem on society. He therefore explained that “the bill essentially seeks to provide for the establishment of the Commission to serve as government intervention programme for the eradication of the menace of child destitution from our society. It will also harmonise the system with western and vocational curricula to give the destitute child a sense of belonging and purposeful future in the society, while still maintaining its purposed identity. In doing this, Tafidan-Argungu told the senate in his lead debate that the idea entails the introduction of Primary School Mathematics, English, General Science and Social Studies into such schools. After a period of studies, the Almajiris would then graduate into secondary schools. Those above primary school age would undergo vocational training to give them a sense of self-reliance.


The Bill provides for the establishment for the commission a Governing Board which shall consist of a Chairman to be appointed by the President in consultation with the National Assembly, six traditional rulers to represent the affected areas and a learned, highly respected, decent and patriotic personality to represent each of the affected states. Also included are one representative each of state government, International Aid Agency, Civil Society Organisations, Federal Ministry of Education and Ministry of Justice. Others are those of the ministries of interior, youth and finance. The bill also provides for a Director General (DG), and all Members of the board with the exception of the DG, shall be on part-time basis.


The Bill provides that the commission shall have “power to draw up a general acceptable curriculum of activities (NOT ON QUR’ANIC MEMORISATION) including the maximum length of time each child can stay under the Almajiri system; provide a long term plan on how the Almajiri Qur’anic education will be merged into the western system of education as a permanent solution and disburse fund and monitor proper utilisation”. The commission shall also have power to do anything which in the opinion of the Commission is necessary to ensure efficient performance of its functions.


The Bill provides that the commission shall function as to “formulate policy guidelines and strategies for the successful eradication of child destitution in Nigeria and for the modernisation of the Almajiri System of Education; organise mass sensitisation campaign to enlighten the society of the dangers of the Almajiri system throughout Nigeria”. The Commission will also “advise the Federal Government on the funding and orderly rehabilitation of victims of the Almajiri system; identify and coordinate the activities of Mallams who are directly involved in the practice of Almajiri Qur’anic System of education with a view to bringing it under government control (meaning SUPERVISION to ensure compliance with the reform)”.


Other functions provided for in the Bill are to: “collate and prepare after consultation with states and local governments and other relevant stakeholders, periodic master plans for the total eradication of child destitution including areas of possible intervention in early childhood  care and development centres; make recommendations on the possibilities of developing a separate and unique condition of service for the Qur’anic Mallams in charge of the Almajiri  system of education; and liaise with donor agencies and developmental partners on matters relating to the programme”. The commission shall also prohibit the movement of under-aged children by Mallams from one city to another on the pretext of learning, and make provision for the feeding and proper upkeep of these children.


Initial funding of the commission according to Tafidan-Argungu in the lead debate shall be “an initial take-off grant from the federal government” to the tune of N160,052,281.75 as budgeted in a Compendium of Financial Implication. This amount includes a capital estimate of N60, 335,000 and a recurrent estimate of the balance. Thereafter, the commission will receive annual subvention from the government; counterpart funding from the affected states to be deducted at source at 0.5 percent of their statutory allocation; 0.1 percent of the Education Trust Fund; contributions from the Universal Basic Education (UBE) Scheme; and such other sums as may accrue to the commission by way of Grant-in-Aid, gifts, and other testamentary dispositions, endowments and donations.


The Bill also provides for penalties for offences such as operating the Almajiri system of education without approval of the commission; a Mallam sending out his students for the purpose of begging on the streets or taxing them for the purpose of making returns; and refusal to give information to the commission or providing false information. For any of these offences, the Bill provides that a person found guilty, shall be liable upon conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than two years without option of fine.


Also, the Bill provides that any person who “when required by the commission to hand over his Almajiri school to the commission (in the case of fundamental breach of the reform) himself fails to do so; or wilfully obstructs any employees of the commission in due execution of their duties, shall, when found guilty, be liable upon conviction to imprisonment for a term not less than one year without option of fine.


Some of the penalties are meant to check such practices as witnessed a couple of months ago when a lorry full of starved and ill Almajiris, arranged and compacted in layers not befitting goats, was intercepted by law enforcement agents between Kano and Abuja. While the Nigerian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it is most wicked for constituted authority to sit by and watch adults use culture mistaken as religion to make the lives of innocent kids hellish. The likes of Adamu and those who differ with him should come to the public hearing, when scheduled, with practical solutions to the problems of the Almajiri other than through Zakkat or tasking wealthy Muslims. Wealthy Muslims and payment of Zakkat have existed side by side Almajiris since before Lord Lugard set foot on Nigerian soil. If for all this period the Almajiris have not fared any better, I am at a loss as to how Adamu can enforce his suggestion of using Zakkat and other wealthy Muslims in reforming the system. If also Adamu’s fears that Mallams will be extinct in thirty years if the Almajiris are taught Qur’anic memorisations side by side primary school subjects in a government supervised reform are cogent, then there wouldn’t have existed the likes of Late Sheikh Abubakar Gummi or his son Dr. Ahmed who is both a Mullah and a medical doctor.


I doubt also if there would have been Islamic Scholars like Dr Abba Aji of Maiduguri, preachers and interpreters of the Qur’an like Dr. Bello Maitama Yusuf who also is a politician, or Islamic students like Sanusi Lamido Sanusi also banker and economist. Would young men like Tajuddin Adigun, Imam Fou’ad Adeyemi and Ustaz Abubakar Saddique who preach to millions of Nigerian Muslims on NTA be leading a Pentecostal choir instead? There wouldn’t then be Qur’anic recitation voices like Mrs Hauwa Abubakar Saddique, whose recitation of the Qur’an would turn Imam As-sudais green with envy. I doubt if Dr. Abdullateef Adegbite or Dr. Abdul Kilani were Almajiris, or did Fatima Abbas Hassan, ABU graduate of English, and NTA news presenter, become an Almajiri before she memorised the Holy Qur’an?