It is rather strange that after children of northern elites started going to Western education system, boys of parents from poor homes in the north were still left with only Islamic teachers
Of three major pre-modern cultural practices that had gained national and international attention in the last half century—patriarchy, female circumcision, and Almajiri—the one that has been most resistant to change is the Almajiri system.
Events since the coronavirus pandemic have suggested or are suggesting that the system may soon experience major restructuring or reform.
It has not been for lack of efforts that the Almajiri has not been reformed in Nigeria before now. The concept was not created in Nigeria, but it has enjoyed several mutations while in Nigeria.
The first practice of what is known today as Almajiri occurred in the Kanem-Bornu empire in the 9th century with the name of Tsangaya according to historians. The Kanuri Tsangaya is believed to have been a borrowing from the Arabic Al Muhajirun—a person who migrates to gain Islamic knowledge from famous Islamic teachers.
After the coming of the Fulani to Nigeria, the practice of releasing young people to migrate to other places to learn the Quaran, Hadith, Tawhid, and a measure of Arabic language teaching grew in Fulani and Hausa communities to the point that Kano became the capital of Almajiri education in West Africa, even long before colonialism.
In pre-British theocracies of Kanuri and Sokoto empires, the state supported Almajiri as part of its civil society system. It was then easy for Almajiri learners and teachers to engage in full-time teaching about Islam and Arab culture, perceived by political leaders to be critical to the continuity of the theocracies.
After consolidating its control over Northern and Southern Protectorates, the British stopped support of Almajiri schooling with public funds, and the de-funding of Almajiri under colonial control marked the beginning of changes in the philosophy and practice of Almajiri.
Western education had started taking roots in southern Nigeria through Christian missionary schools long before the 1914 Amalgamation of Southern and Northern Protectorates and free primary education later became accessible to all children in Western Region as from 1955 under the premiership of Obafemi Awolowo.
But in the north Almajiri remained the major school system for most children, even after Western-type education had been introduced to Northern region. And Almajiri school continued in the Northern region with a combination of community support and self-efforts on the part of young boys who had left their parents to receive instructions at the feet of Islamic teachers.
Consequently, Almajiri children started fending for themselves through begging and helping Islamic teachers to assist with chores on farms or in business.
In short, the Almajiri system became increasingly privatized and as the population in the north grew, Almajiri boys started adopting survival-of-the-fittest tactics in the new colonial economic system that was adopted in the years beyond 1960.
After several decades under various military dictators and later elected presidents, the new economy that required literacy in English and various skills to find jobs in government and private sectors started driving young children who had sworn to devote their lives to Islamic teaching into activities hitherto associated with beggars, touts, urchins, thugs, and eventually terrorists.
How did Almajiri grow into a social problem for this long and to the extent of compelling northern governors to bring an abrupt end to the centuries-old tradition? Had the British colonial government not just de-funded the programme without looking for a new way to marry it with the secular education he had promised the whole world to bring to colonized peoples, perhaps things would have been different today.
For example, the Awolowo approach of combining government grant with contributions from faith-based schools could have been introduced at the beginning. Muslims in Yorubaland at the beginning of the 20th century had schools that enjoyed the same government assistance with Christian missionary schools.
And children in Muslim schools were exposed to both secular and religious education. In Ondo, where I grew up, children in such schools also had opportunities for after-school hours to reinforce Quaranic education.
It is rather strange that after children of northern elites started going to Western education system, boys of parents from poor homes in the north were still left with only Islamic teachers.
This piece is not to discuss the politics of Almajiri school system but to celebrate attempts to end the project and, hopefully, bring Almajiri boys into mainstream secular learning that made it possible for members of their age group born into richer and more powerful homes in the north to train in Western school system to become engineers, doctors, bankers, economists, lawyers, and professors of Islamic theology and Arabic language.
The dichotomy between Islamic education and secular education should not have been so pronounced were there political leaders who had enough education to understand the usefulness of what became for long in northern Nigeria two mutually incompatible knowledge systems—Makarantan Boko (Western education) versus Makarantan addidi or allo (Islamic education).
Like the rulers of UAE, current modern governors came to the realization that there couldn’t have been a Dubai without secular and scientific learning, just as Awolowo did in the 1950s when he called on Nigeria to invest massively in education to enable the young ones have a future of work, progress, profit, wealth, and security.
But it is important for Northern Governors Forum to ensure that the rhetoric of change in this respect does not overshadow or ignore the praxis. Since 1976, the federal government had been trying to find solutions to the crisis of Almajiri in a country with ballooning population in a growing global market economy, where employment depends on a menu of skills that expertise only in Islamic or Christian theology cannot replace.
The efforts of the federal government in the late 1970s were washed away because Almajiri was seen by the rulers at the state levels then as internal affairs to subnational governments. More recently under the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, over 100 Almajiri schools (though infinitesimal in the context of out-of-school children in the north) designed to marry the two curricula have been reported as having been left empty.
However, the method of closing down Almajiri by the governors could have been more sophisticated and life-enhancing that it was. Packing Almajiri boys and men into trucks on homeward journey to rejoin their parents in other states at the peak of coronavirus pandemic is tacky.
Rushing boys and young men who grew up in Kano, Jigawa, Sokoto, or Katsina, etc., to their so-called ancestral homes in the middle of a pandemic seems callous.
Worse still are reports from various southern states about smuggling of Almajiri-looking boys in lorries ostensibly supplying essential materials from northern states to their southern counterparts. If it is wrong to move Almajiri boys from Kano to Jigawa at a time of coronavirus pandemic, it is wicked to move the boys to states that they had not visited before and at a time they were in a precarious state of health.
If this report and the claims are not fake, it is important for the federal government to conduct proper investigation into why and how this had happened under the watch of security officers deployed to police inter-state travel ban.
It is not too late for the federal government to intervene in the distribution of Almajiri boys to presumed states of origin or any other state for that matter. A more humane way to end Almajiri is for the federal government to take-over the process and make provisions for Almajiri boys to benefit from free Universal Basic Education programme in their adopted states, after which they can relocate to wherever they prefer to live after having the literacy to function in new environments.
The federal government should build additional Almajiri Education Centers to supplement the 165 that former President Jonathan had built.
Though not much of an optimist about international assistance, I still believe that most of the rich democratic development partners of Nigeria are likely to be happy to assist Nigeria to end a system that they too had complained so much about.
At this stage in the bid to reform Alamjiri, it is proper for lovers of modernity and modern united Nigeria to give as much encouragement as possible to Northern Governors Forum for their courage (if not for the timing and style as I had observed earlier) to confront the specter of Almajiri anti-Boko obsession.
Nigeria needs men and women of piety in all the faiths that exist in the country, just as it needs to buy into the quest for knowledge and trust in science required to build a united federation that is ready to compete in the global market of goods and ideas.
Northern Nigeria has a model to emulate—the United Arab Emirate, where secular and religious education cohere to create the Middle-East’s first country of choice for visitors from across the globe.