By Dr. Aliyu Tilde
Government and the Almajiri
This is the last article in the series of six that started with Begging in Northern Nigeria and Its Solutions. I promised my readers last week that today we will conclude the series by examining the role of government in tackling the issue of almajirci in the country after we have dwelt on the roles of individuals –including the parents, malams, the public – and non-governmental organizations.
The role of government is paramount in the regulation of any social phenomenon and almajirci cannot be an exception. The thought of our founding fathers was that the almajiri tradition by now would have been completely wiped out, having worked hard during the formative years of mid-1940s to mid-1960s to introduce modern education to the masses in the Northern part of this country. If they were to return today, the likes of Sardauna will particularly be surprised to see the almajiri still parading the streets of our cities, laying ambush at strategic places – like filling stations, restaurants, traffic junctions, etc – for the rich who live in areas beyond his reach. "What has happened to our dream", the Sardauna would ask. But it will not take long for him to realize that not only in the field of education but also in all other areas we have abandoned it for greed, laziness and individualism. From our previous discussion, we have discussed the reasons, why this antidote against almajirci – modernization of our educational institutions – cannot by its very state of failure salvage itself, let alone triumph over a system of learning that is as old as the first Borno Empire.
Nonetheless, while individuals and organizations play their role in ameliorating the hardship of almajiri, government still has a decisive role to play in making his life more tolerable, human and hopeful. There have been attempts by virtually every Northern state government in this direction. Though many of such effort are now dormant, some are active especially Kano and Zamfara. There is also a bill before the Senate – which has passed through the second reading of the distinguished members – that seeks to pass a law that will clear the way for Federal Government's intervention
Government must realize its commitment to the conventions it signed regarding child protection. Every child, almajiri or otherwise, is entitled to a healthy growth, shelter, basic education and protection from abuse. These are responsibilities that governments all over the world share with parents in their discharge. In this country, governments at various levels have abdicated them. They have abandoned them at the door steps of parents who due to biological reasons cannot but try their best to discharge them. Every responsible parent today has to cater for the health, water, food, education and security of his child without government's assistance. If he would make the mistake of banking on government in any of these, the future of his child will definitely be in a regretful state. I have, therefore, in a quick reflection committed below ten possible areas of government intervention. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it will definitely add fresh ideas for any government willing to discharge its responsibilities to this neglected group of our children.
1. Protection of almajiri from abuse. Government must enforce relevant laws that protect the child from abuse. We raised the issue of underage almajiri last week, those who are launched into almajirci below the age of seven. This is criminal. Government must arrest those children and return them to their parents. In addition, their malam and the parents must be warned against receiving or sending any such children and be punished appropriately in future if any of such students on recurrence. Local government welfare departments should specifically be called to enforce this in conjunction with the Police. This must also form part of any federal law on almajirci.
2. Agency for almajirai. The almajirai form a greater part of our rural child population. There are more almajirai attending Qur'anic schools than are children attending modern schools in rural areas. It is, therefore, only appropriate if governments take their welfare seriously. An independent agency is required for this, something as serious as those established by Kano and Zamfara States. Many others are unfortunately just a whitewash, a pipeline for stealing public funds. This agency will guarantee that there are committed public servants constantly addressing the issues of almajirci. It must be well funded and managed by people who are both desirous and competent. An agency in each local and state government where almajirai abound will be required. As we established an agency for nomadic education, another for almajirai will not be out of place at the Federal level, especially to tackle the issue of integrating Qur'anic and secular education at the child level. I am glad that the bill before the senate has included this. Such agencies will handle issues of statistics, sensitization, provision of facilities, disbursements of funds, curriculum and educational materials, monitoring, etc. The agency must also recommend malams for sanctions once they are found wanting in the custodianship of their pupils.
3. Assistance to almajiri schools. Given the subhuman environment under which almajirci takes place, government should assist in the provision of structural facilities for both the teachers and students of almajiri schools. Such structures can include a hand-pump, dormitories, classrooms, electricity, toilets, housing for the malam, etc. Criteria can be set for eligibility depending on the environment and how deep and non-porous is the government's pocket. All governments – Federal, State and Local – must share this responsibility. The federal and state governments can even make compliance to certain standards and integration of curriculum a precondition for assistance in order to facilitate compliance. What I do not support, however, is the payment of salaries to the malams. This will corrupt them, make them lazy, and place on government a perennial expenditure well beyond its capacity. They can, nevertheless, be supplied with commodities like grains and fertilizer at rates lower than those sold to the public, but not completely free.
4. Vocational training facilities. There is the need for governments to establish vocational training facilities for the senior almajiri who is about to graduate. The location and number of such facilities will depend on the governments but one for each local government will not be too many in almajiri-prone state. In those centers, the senior almajiri will be trained especially in farming, trading, building, carpentry and such other basic skills that do not require sophisticated instruments or highly technically qualified personnel. He could even be given free tools at the end of the training. A boarding facility and feeding is necessary here. Also necessary is the need for government to check our greed, we the elite, by making such exclusive only to the almajiri who has completed his memorization of the Qur'an; otherwise, we will invade the centers with our children and make them inaccessible to the bona fide beneficiaries.
5. Integration. If Muhammad cannot come to the mountain, the mountain will go to Muhammad, the English say. (By the way a reader asked me who the English say build the tallest walls in town as I mentioned in our last discourse. The thieves, of course. Visit the GRAs and you will see what I mean.) Governments have realized that enrolling all almajiris in modern schools is either not possible or detrimental, or both. So they have settled for carrying the most basics of modern education to the almajiri schools. Zamfara is the latest to launch this. In accordance with my suggestion in an earlier article, I will prefer that such curriculum be taught to almajiris who are nine and above, whose brain has already been opened to learning. Our late father and respected Sheikh, Abubakar Gumi, told us how he easily learned how to read English within a week at Nagarta Middle School, Sokoto, after passing through the Qur'anic school in his village of Gumi. Within three years, and especially with a text designed specifically for that purpose, such almajiris will have the ability to learn all the arithmetic and English that modern schools teach (or fail to teach) at the primary level. Readers will recall my recommendation for summarized texts or mukhtasars of Arithmetic and English that are specially designed for Islamiyya schools in an article of 2005. Alhamdu lillah, such books have been written before and published before I left government in 2007, though they came too late for distribution to such schools. The present government in Bauchi can bring them out from the store and use them if it wishes. I will recommend them to other states, if they do not already have theirs. Such students, after completing their memorization of the Qur'an can join our junior secondary schools and I am certain that they will be better than the rubbish we presently produce in our secular primary schools.
6. The Pakistani Model. In the 2005 article, I suggested the adoption of the Pakistani model of integration. The government can establish schools for memorization of the Qur'an in which children, who are exempted from attending secular schools during the first four years, memorize the Qur'an for four years before joining their counterparts in Primary IV in secular schools. The memorization is done in group, a system gradually gaining ground in Borno, our custodian of the Qur'an, instead of the old system of individual learning. The whole Qur'an becomes music and the child quickly memorizes it with much ease. That is how we saw children in Shehu Dahiru Bauchi's house memorize it in 1996 when a WAFF Road Mosque Forum delegation visited him in his Kaduna residence. In fact, we saw and tested a three year old who memorized forty-five parts of the Qur'an. Though the boy could barely speak, you can guess how long it will take him to cover the remaining fifteen parts. Government can establish this type of schools as models only, from which individuals and organizations can copy.
The above suggestions are areas for direct interventions for government. There are four other areas which we will enumerate below through which it can make its impact indirectly on almajirci.
7. Improve the quality of products of modern schools. Governments, not only for the sake of almajirai, need to seriously address the fallen standard of our secular schools. Nothing will phase out almajirci more than this. Unless it achieves this, almajirai will abound our street not matter our effort. The means of achieving that are many, beyond the scope of a paragraph. However, we must mention that to achieve that goal substantially, government must insulate education from corruption, train enough competent teachers, introduce merit in the promotion and admission of students and employ it also in the employment and promotion of teachers, monitor teaching intensely to ensure that goals set are achieved, etc. The present emphasis on buildings is rubbish and misplacement of priority as I have repeatedly said. Most of learning can take place under the shade of a tree. Hardly does it rain in the mornings here. Also, graduates of secular schools must be seen to live meaningful and responsible life through gainful employment. Otherwise, responsible parents who cannot afford secular education will prefer to send their children to almajiri schools.
8. Empower rural communities. Poverty is a substantial contributor to almajirci. Rural communities today are deprived of their federal allocations through misappropriation of governors that operate the so called joint accounts. As poor as the economy is today, for instance, my local government was allocated last month N140million (about $1million) but only about N20million reached it. I cannot imagine how vibrant would my rural community look like had the local government received its N140million share of the national cake monthly during the last five years and used it appropriately. There would have been no cause for any parent to abdicate his responsibility. Also, rural communities need a lot of patronage in infrastructural development as well as government's investment in agriculture. Once this is done, everyone will be happy. The almajiri and his malam will be willing to leave city dwellers enjoy their high walls, restaurants, filling stations and so on.
9. Awareness campaign. I have not seen any serious awareness campaign going on in the area of almajirci. A lot can be achieved especially in rural areas by educating parents on the need for their children to study at home now that Qur'anic schools are found everywhere. They can be educated also on essentials of hygiene, child rights and so on. The mobile film show that we used to watch in the sixties in our villages has been replaced with radio and television stations that are fast losing focus due to preoccupation with corruption and non-patronage by government.
10. Assistance to NGOs. I was surprised to learn that Kano State government has not to date assisted COCFOCAN with even a kobo. More surprising is the inability of the NGO to acquire land for the construction of its vocational centre and building of its permanent site. Yet, the government is daily allocating individuals millions of naira through contracts and plots. Social problems cannot be solved by government alone and the government having an agency on almajirci, commendable as it is, cannot achieve everything without the assistance of public-spirited individuals and organizations. I will appeal to all governments to treat the requests of NGOs with dispatch once they have ascertained their credibility. The individuals who form them are putting in so much from the little resources they have and it will be unfortunate if that effort does not capture the attention of government or gained its recognition.
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Finally, I congratulate all my readers who followed me through this long sojourn which was prompted two months ago by a request from someone I could not turn down, Dr. Ibrahim Hasan Jalo, my senior in Government Secondary School, Ganye, thirty years ago and for a long time now a consultant surgeon practicing in the UK. If my poor treatment of the topic has blocked his admiration, my attempt, I hope, will at least earn me his commendation. As for you my readers, I must say that your company through the hundreds of emails and text messages that you sent was most invaluable. It kept my interest in the challenge alive and continued to open scopes and dimensions of the topic which I never contemplated in the first instance. I appeal to you also to forgive my indulgence in elaboration which arose more from my poverty of ideas than it was from mastery of the subject, for a writer is hardly at his best when put in a position of response. I hope you will find the next series, Foundations of Governance, more appealing because it is "the child of my heart", as classical al Hariri would put it in his Maqamat. In it I intend to dwell on twenty or so Qur'anic fundamentals of good governance in light of the mess that is going on in this country, hoping to make from each a separate topic of discussion. I hope God will be with us as we undertake that journey and bless our nation with good leaders who will work hard to serve our collective, instead of those whose penchant to plunder our resources is growing by the hour.
11 November 2009