Almajiri and violation of lockdown order

AS a rule, pandemics put social and political relations of the affected society under a magnifying glass, and Covid-19 has been no different. In Nigeria, it has revivified knotty social questions around unemployment, education, and youth alienation,the Almajiri conundrum being a perfect encapsulation.

On paper, the Almajiri phenomenon is a win-win for all concerned. It goes like this: a parent willfully hands over their child or ward to an Islamic scholar, with the understanding that the scholar, typically a local Imam or suchlike authority that is well-versed in the Quran and the Hadith, would be responsible for the religious and moral instruction of the pupil. The spiritual authority gains a supervisee, someone who, in theory, acquires enough knowledge to train the next generation; the parent, at least tentatively, is relieved of care for the child, while the society gains a properly groomed and morally grounded citizen. The economics of the arrangement tend to be unspecified, since, at any rate, the local spiritual trainer could always count on the charity of the community for his upkeep.

That this is not the way things have panned out across northern Nigeria, where the tradition has taken root over the past several decades, goes without saying. Negating the basic idea, overwhelmed parents more or less hand over the care of their children to Islamic scholars who, because they enjoy increasingly scanty social prestige, can no longer count on the generosity of their immediate community. As a result, in order to make ends meet, both for themselves and their unlucky trainees, the latter are basically forced onto the streets, where, in an ugly sight witnessed daily across many Northern Nigerian cities, they harass ordinary citizens for food and money.

All of which is to say that Almajiri is a perfect illustration of what happens when a well-intended social programme goes awry, and before the outbreak of Covid-19, there were encouraging signals that northern governors were ready to rein in the problem. If that is the case, the approach adopted by some of them—essentially, round up ‘homeless’ young men and women and deport them back to their states of origin—is proof that the problem is misunderstood. So far, the governors of Jigawa and Kaduna states respectively have followed in the footsteps of Kano State governor,Umar Ganduje, who made the initial move of repatriating more than 1,000 Almajiris to their respective states.

Which raises a very interesting question: who owns the Almajiri kids? Surely, it cannot be the states to which they have been deported since, technically, a state cannot own a child, and no state was responsible for the transfer of the young men and women to their respective Islamic tutors in the first instance. Therefore, why transfer the Almajiri to those states? We are arguing here that, while they should be applauded in their well-meaning desire to curtail the spread of Covid-19 among such an eminently vulnerable population, the individual governors sabotaged their own efforts by not asking about the parents of the Almajiri, since, first and foremost, they were the ones who engaged in a private arrangement with various Islamic scholars for the education of their children. Else, how did those children make the journey from their respective states of origin to their places of apprenticeship?

This is the same categorical error that Shettima Yerima, President of the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, made in his intervention, in which he warned southeastern governors against rejecting Almajiris deported from northern states. Rather than ask why there are many homeless kids roaming the streets of northern Nigeria, and why, crucially, a private programme of religious apprenticeship appears to have unraveled at the seams, Mr. Yerima doubled down on a specious debate about the right to freedom of movement which no intelligent person contends.

Covid-19 or not, the Almajiri problem is one that northern states cannot hope to deport their way out of. It is a multifaceted problem with various religious, cultural, pastoral, and other dimensions. It does require more thought and deliberation than it is being accorded at the moment.



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