The recent move by the Northern Governors’ Forum (NGF) to reform the Almajiri System of Koranic Education in Nigeria triggered a lot of controversies in the polity. In this interview, Leader of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Alhaji Tanko Yakassai takes on his fellow elite in the northern part of the country. He tells ONWUKA NZESHI that the current crisis could have been avoided if those who should take action did so before now
What is you view on the current crisis of repatriation of Almajirai in Northern Nigeria?
The decision to relocate them was not bad in itself but it required a lot of preparations. You have to know them. You have to know where they come from. They come from different places but because Kano is a commercial centre and because of the economic activities there, people come from far and near to live in Kano.
The Almajiri system is an old system that was started over 1,400 years ago. It did not start in Kano or in Northern Nigeria.
It started when Prophet Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina with his disciples and they became guests in Medina because they were not born there. The local people accommodated them by giving them places to build their houses. The word Almajiri came from the Arabic word, ‘AlMuhajir’ which means somebody who relocated from his own place of abode to a new place in search of knowledge.
Later it became a tradition in Islam that when you move to a new place, those who are knowledgeable about Islam will be invited to teach the inhabitants of the new place how to practice their religion. When they go there, they are not only there to look for accommodation, they have their children and these children will go out to beg for food and so on.
It is not practiced only in Nigeria. If you go to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, you will find Almajiri there. It is found in countries where you have a lot of Moslems.
However in places like India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, they have transformed their Almajiri system into a modern educational system where they combine western education with Islamic education. Now it is an established thing. The Koranic schools were converted into multipurpose schools where they learn western education up to first degree, masters degree and Ph.D.
Why have we failed to reform the Almajiri system in Nigeria like these other countries?
The Premier of the defunct Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello started something along this line but unfortunately, he was killed and even the region was divided into pieces. So the new people are not aware of the history and could not continue from where he stopped.
Now the issue is not a new thing and the decision to relocate them was not a decision taken today. The decision was taken some time ago by the government of Kano State. It decided to trace the Almajiris in the State to where they came from and how to take them back home. If an Almajiri is from Bauchi, where in Bauchi? If it is Sokoto, where in Sokoto and how much will it cost to relocate them? But before they could start the process, the corona virus pandemic came into Nigeria.
In my opinion, they could have suspended the operations until the pandemic is over, but they didn’t consider it that way. So, it is not something new. It is something that will be over, with time.
If the Almajiri system has been part and parcel of Islam, why are there no Almajiri on the streets of Saudi Arabia?
They used to do it even in Saudi Arabia but now that they’ve gotten oil in large quantity, they are rich and so they converted the system to something more modern. They went as far as to build houses and give them out free to people who were previously Almajiri. So they did it before. Whoever is practising Almajiri, learnt it from there. It is just because they are rich now and they don’t need help from anybody, they have enough money to take care of them. They provide housing, food and school for them.
Our situation is different in Nigeria because people seek public offices not to solve national problems, otherwise we could have handled the problem a long time ago.
Even President Jonathan who is not a northerner and is not a moslem, revived what Sardauna was trying to do by building some model Almajiri schools. He started from Sokoto but his intention was to do it all over the North. Unfortunately, he did not get a second term. The most unfortunate thing is that Buhari, a northerner and a moslem, who ought to continue with the programme Jonathan started, abandoned it. I think that one day we will get somebody who will continue with it.
Some Nigerians have accused Buhari and the northern elite in general of using these Almajirai as cannon fodder during elections only to abandon them now. What do you think?
Anybody who says that is stupid because Almajiri don’t vote during elections. They don’t vote.
You mean even those that are of voting age do not vote?
How many of those that are of age are still Almajiri? You graduate when you are 17 or 18 and you find your way into trades and professions. Almajiri are children of ages five, ten, fifteen up to sixteen. These are the people that you find on the streets but once they grow up as adults, they abandon the Almajiri system and go looking for different professions.
If a system keeps a child up to fifteen or sixteen years without basic education or vocational training, don’t you think it becomes a breeding ground for criminality?
It doesn’t matter where you come from in any part of Nigeria, everyone has his own system. Let me tell you something, there are so many hundreds of people who started as Almajiri who are now professors, PhD holders and masters degree holders today.
You mean in Nigeria here?
In Nigeria. Let me tell you, this Tanko Yakassai you’re talking to, started his life as an Almajiri.
You don’t mean it?
Yeah. I’m telling you. I learnt western education from Koranic school. I didn’t go to any formal Primary, Secondary up to Tertiary institution. I learnt what I know on my own because the tradition of going to school has conditioned our minds to learn it. So, a lot of them (Almajiri) after completing their koranic education, go on their own to start learning western education. A lot of them…. and unfortunately, I’m not in Kano now. When I go back to Kano, I will invite you to Kano and I will take you to Professors who started as Almajirai. They are there. I think that they are there everywhere.
So with what Sardauna did, by now we could have transformed the whole system in to something new. Jonathan came and tried to do something, but unfortunately, somebody like him did not succeed him. Buhari succeeded him and has abandoned it in the last five years. If he had continued to develop what Jonathan started, the situation would have been different by now. The Northern Governors should have also built on the foundation laid by Jonathan to transform the Almajiri system in their states. Nothing happens overnight, but gradually people will change.
Don’t you think that sending these children back to their states and to their parents would actually resolve this problem permanently as each family takes up the responsibility of bringing up their children?
Yes, I agree. I told you that it was Kano State that initiated the idea before the Northern Governors’ Forum took it up and but for the corona thing, they could have gone far. If they are taken to their families, it is in order. Their parents will begin to take care of them because they are their children. There is none of them that does not have a home. There is none of them that does not have parents. Even if there is any one among them whose parents are dead, there will be relatives of their parents. All of them are indigenes of Northern Nigerians and they know where they come from in the various states. They have their communities where they can go and build their own houses and live.
In the first place it was their parents that took them to the Mallams. The mallams don’t just pick them from the streets and take them to Koranic schools.
Their parents took them to these Mallams because it is their culture to put these children under their care so that they can learn the foundations of their religion. The reason why they take them to the Mallams is to teach them their religion
When they are through with Koranic education, they can then go to learn different professions such as trading, tailoring, shoemaking, barbing and many other things. A lot of them who passed through this system are rich now.
There is this perception that the Almajirais are mainly children of poor Moslems as we hardly finding the children of the rich among them. Is that correct?
No. That is false. Of course, most of them are children of the poor, who cannot afford to feed them and pay the Mallams. The idea, when it started was that these children should be taken away from home so that they can concentrate on learning what they are asked to learn. I will tell you that I went to a village called Hardawa in Misau, Bauchi State. My father and mother were living in that town at that time. But I was taken there and I was sent by my own parents to the Koranic School to go and learn.
I started in Kano, then they took me there. In fact, I asked that I should follow them and I did and they took me to a school there. But in the school, we used to go into the bush to go and concentrate on the Koran. After understanding my lesson, there was a missionary school nearby and I used to go there on my own to sit down to learn ABCD. By the time I came back to Kano, I took myself to evening classes up to the time one could sit for formal examinations we were given certificates.
Those of us who wanted to get employment, we applied for jobs. Those of us who wanted to pursue other professions also went to do so. I pursued tailoring, I was a tailor and I was a contractor for making uniforms for Kano Middle School (Boys). I also made dresses for important people such as the late Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero and a number of others. Some of them have died but some are still alive.
In your own time, did being an Almajiri involve going out on the streets with a bowl and begging for money?
No. The bowl was originally meant for food and not for money. It was originally meant for the Almajiri to beg for food because the Mallam cannot afford feeding all the students. So, he let them go town and to the market to beg for food. It is only now that they are changing it to begging for money. But originally, it was not for money. It’s for food because the school cannot feed them. The school ought to provide for the pupils but it cannot afford it. So the pupils have to go and beg for something to eat. The parents were not paying the Mallam for the services of keeping the children. The Mallam offered to teach these children, free of charge. He doesn’t collect money from their parents because he feels that that was his contribution to their learning and upbringing. It was his contribution to Islam for which he expects a reward from Allah. Till today, a lot of the Mallams are still doing that on account of that consideration.