TE Editorial: COVID-19 Has Exposed the Almajiri Problem of Northern Nigeria

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SWITZERLAND, MAY 10 – As the COVID-19 pandemic escalates in Northern Nigeria, there are fresh concerns that many Almajiris that have been sent packing from northern states are making their way to the south, possibly bringing the coronavirus with them.

Almajiri is a colloquial Hausa word that literarily means a male gender seeking Islamic knowledge. The Almajiri system practiced across the north for centuries, encourages parents to leave parental responsibilities to the attached Islamic school.

The Almajiris are children, usually from poor rural backgrounds, sent out from their hometowns to study Islamic learning with malammai, teachers of the Quran. Most of these children are usually recruited into the system as early as 3 years old. They learn about the Quran in Islamic schools run by malams and graduate when they are in their twenties.

Most malams were educated in the Almajiri system themselves, and do not receive a salary but depend financially on the alms of the community and the work of the Almajiris under them. The Almajiri system feeds into the Hausa-Islamic practice of ’Sadaka’, in which rich people who seek divine reward and protection give alms to the poor.

Despite the cultural significance of this practice, it breeds homeless children dependent on begging to survive and this makes them exceptionally vulnerable to imbibing extreme religious ideas. Many scholars have blamed the radical ideology that breeds terrorism in Nigeria on the Almajiri system. With the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic in Northern Nigeria, the Almajiri have become extremely vulnerable. Homeless, poor, rejected, lacking parental care and with nowhere to go during lockdowns, they have become easy conduits for the coronavirus. Consequently, State governments began to round them up and repatriate them in droves; but to where?

Asthey battle to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Northern states have repatriated hundreds of Almajiris into neighbouring states that are not prepared to take them.

Today’s Echo gathers that Kano State government repatriated 607 Almajiris back to Jigawa State on April 22. Gombe followed four days later by repatriating 69 of them.

Jigawa currently keeps over a thousand Almajiri children repatriated from other states. By May 08, 40 of the children repatriated to Jigawa from Kano had tested positive to the coronavirus. A dangerous trend also emerged when it was discovered that some of the children had escaped from where they were being kept. In Kaduna State as many as 59 Almajiri children who recently returned from Kano State have tested positive for the virus.

Rejected and hounded in their primary bases in the North, many Almajiris have headed south. Historically, the southern part of the country is seen as generally more prosperous than the north due to its closeness to the sea and a more educated population.

A few days ago, the Abia State Security agents led by the Commissioner for Homeland Security, Prince Dan Okoli, intercepted several Almajiris hidden in cattle trucks at Enugu-Abia border, along the Enugu – Aba Highway. Enugu, another South-Eastern state has beefed up security at its boundaries with northern states.

In Cross-River, a Southern state that has nor recorded any case of the virus, government announced on May 6, that it had intercepted and sent back five trucks with goods and Almajiri children at the same Gakem-Benue border. Few days later on Saturday, May 09 the Cross-River government intercepted and sent back another set of trucks carrying no fewer than 30 Almajiri children at the same border of the state.

In Ondo, a state in the South-West that has seen fewer than 20 cases, fear has gripped the residents after scores of Almajiris were seen at Shasha market and Dangote deport in Akure, the state capital while similar situation is being observed at other towns, including Ikare, Ugbe and Arigidi Akoko. Some residents said they were brought to Ondo state from Kano state by trucks carrying food items and other essential goods. Governor Rotimi Akeredolu has called on residents of the state to report strange faces in their neighbourhood to appropriate authorities for actions.

Over the years, repeated calls for the overturning of the Almajiri system has been met with stiff opposition among northern political and religious leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic has finally shown the northern elite the dangers inherent in continuing this practice. One of the most vocal critics of the Almajiri system is the governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufai, who has recently recovered from the COVID-19 disease. El-Rufai announced recently that the state governors in the are determined to end the Almajiris’ system of education in the north, amidst the spread of COVID-19 among the children.

 It is evident that these children need two critical things: food and shelter in the short term. It is insensitive for the northern states to repatriate young people that had been a part of there society for so long. Rather, they the state governments should provide shelter for them and feed them pending full recovery from the pandemic. In the long term, they will need rehabilitation and education so that they can be able to fend for themselves.

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