Deferring the Almajiri ban

WHEN the news broke of the Federal Government’s apparent resolve to proscribe the Almajiri system as part of an attempt to combat rising insecurity across the country, the elation felt across different segments of the Nigerian society could not have been more palpable. A perennial fixture of the urban landscape across Islamic northern Nigeria, Almajirai are young children who, while ostensibly taking Quranic lessons under adepts, are usually to be found aimlessly roaming the streets and importuning members of the public for money. Such monies are transferred to their tutors who accept and justify them as legitimate payment for their “mentoring” services. To say that the economy between the Almajirai and their tutors has always raised some eyebrows is to put it mildly, and relief that the one-sided transaction was about to be terminated accounted in large part for the public elation.

At the same time, there was excitement at the disclosure that, in addition to proscribing the system, the Federal Government was actively considering a mass literacy programme for the whole of the northern region similar to the one successfully initiated across the Western Region by Chief Obafemi Awolowo during his premiership in the First Republic from 1952 to 1959. The National Security Adviser (NSA), Babagana Monguno, at a joint press briefing on the outcome of the National Executive Council (NEC) meeting presided over by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, had said: “If you recall what happened in the Western Region, I think in the 50s and 60s when the Premier made education free and compulsory at both primary and secondary levels, that is what we are looking at.” Furthermore, and clearly anticipating a pushback from a stratum of the northern Nigerian society, Monguno added: “We have to deal with the issue of these children, Almajiri, regardless of how people feel about it. We must work in sync with the rest of the international community. How many countries operate this kind of system? Let’s be very, very sincere to ourselves; we have to look at this issue that we have been sweeping under the carpet.”

Yet, the applause that greeted the announcement had hardly died down when the Federal Government began to reverse itself. Although the Federal Government did not say explicitly that it had abandoned plans to proscribe the Almajiri system, it nonetheless suddenly sounded strangely conciliatory, pointing to a need to reach out to various stakeholders and consult widely with relevant authorities. In the words of Mr. Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to the president, “Indeed, the Federal Government wants a situation where every child of primary school age is in school rather than begging on the streets during school hours. At the same time, we don’t want to create panic or a backlash.”

Which begs the following logical questions: didn’t the Federal Government consider the possibility of “creating panic or a backlash” before mandating a whole National Security Adviser to make such a momentous announcement? Why weren’t the same stakeholders and authorities that the government now seems desperate to sound out consulted as part of official discussion of such a key policy move prior to the NSA’s announcement? During his address to the press, Monguno had tied the proscription of the Almajiri system to concerns that its very existence fuels insecurity by creating idle and disaffected young men and women. Whither that imperative? Or is the Federal Government no longer interested in security?

Despite its protestations to the contrary, it would seem that, yet again, the Muhammadu Buhari administration has developed cold feet at the very moment when official resolve is needed. If it is sincere about curbing this perennial menace, there is no better time than now when the public mood is favourable. Free, compulsory basic education for every child of school age in northern Nigeria is a great idea, one that will help diminish the appetite of many of the region’s young men for terror groups like Boko Haram. The Buhari administration has an excellent chance to inscribe its name in the history books. It should do the right thing and face down entrenched interests who wish to preserve the status quo. It should ban the Almajiri system. Today.