The term “Almajiri” is a Hausa word for pupil or student and emanates from the Arabic word ‘AlMuhajir’ which means a seeker of Islamic knowledge. Its origin can be traced from the migration of Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina. Those who migrated with the prophet to Medina were called ‘Al-Muhajirrun’, meaning migrants. In Nigeria, the word “Almajiri” means those who left their villages or town, parents, relations, and friends in search of Islamic religious knowledge and scholarship (Kabiru, 2010).
The Almajiri system in Northern Nigeria started around the 11th century in Kanem-Borno and was later replicated in the Sokoto Caliphate after the triumph of the Jihad led by Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio. Both empires not only promoted the scheme but also supported it with public finances. Asides the authorities’ recognition and promotion, the scheme also enjoyed the support of other major stakeholders, such as the community, the parents and the pupils themselves. Later on, the products of the system, were to form the group of elites that controlled various government organs and parastatals in the pre and post-colonial Northern Nigeria (Shittu & Olaofe, 2015).
In 1904, when the British invaded and colonized Northern Nigeria, they manned the treasury and abolished state funding of Almajiri school system, which they saw as mere religious schools. “Boko”, meaning western education, was introduced and funded instead. This development made Islamic scholars unqualified for employment and participation in politics. This further increased the poverty situation, as Mallams (Teachers) lost their jobs because of lack of western education (the only criteria for white-collar jobs) which was only available for educated individuals. With the loss of support from the government, the helpless Emirs and increasing number of students to cater for, the care of the Almajiri became overwhelmingly burdensome for Mallams who were left with no choice but to send these young pupils out to beg for alms (Abdulqadir, 2003, Gomment & Esomchi, 2017).
As shown by Aluaigba (2009), an Almajiri, usually, is expected to be educationally oriented in the tenets of Islam in his early childhood to groom him for a decent Muslim adulthood. But the common norm in Northern Nigeria today has deviated from this practice, giving way to a mob of bowl-carrying children wandering the streets in search of one thing or the other. Begging is the most discomforting aspect of the Almajiri system as it brings the pupils out of the supervision of the Mallams and gives them away to negative habits as they come in contact with morally deficient people such as prostitutes, cultists, terrorists etc. (Taiwo, 2013).
The present day Almajiri, who are victims of neglect and exploitation are seen everywhere singing and begging for food and money, being vulnerable to abuse, drugs, trafficking and various forms of exploitation. Their conditions of living is below average as shown in their torn, dirty looking cloth, hungry stomach, and unkempt body. These Almajiri are mostly found far away from their places of abode in search of Islamic knowledge, which means they do not reside with their biological parents, who for religious permissiveness, marry as many wives as possible and produce scores of children without any sense of responsibility. These children are dumped in Almajiri schools because Islamic education is free; and in most cases, some of the parents never show up again, let alone cater for their children (Gommen & Esomchi, 2017).
A typical Almajiri boarding school consists of the Mallam and his assistant with an average of 40 to 100 students crowded in a small spaced room, in many situations, a hostel without mattresses. The process of tutoring the Almajiris is also very harsh: they are lashed with whips for every small mistake and are often deployed to do herculean jobs for their teachers. In Nigeria, the students are made to believe that English Language or western education (Makaranta Allo) is a nuisance or sinful. They are also taught resentment and antagonism for non-believers, Christians and westerners alike. When an Almajiri graduates, he becomes too old to enroll in any formal sectors, thus becomes a threat to everyone but his own kind. He looks at every one with bitterness and mistrust and consequently, can be called upon on only one service … Jihad (James, 2013).
The contemporary Nigerian society is characterized by violent conflicts over ethnicity and religion, most especially in the Northern states of the country. Widespread violence and simultaneous sporadic and reprisal attacks have culminated into high level of insecurity and uncertainty to the continued existence of Nigeria as a federal state. The most devastating acts of violent extremism has no doubt been perpetrated by the deadly Boko Haram group. The relationship between the Almajiri and Boko Haram is not impossible, as shown by Nigerians. The belief of most Nigerians is that Boko Haram is an Islamic terrorist group who proclaimed that Western education is a sin. This background is justified by the fact that the Almajiri do not attend formal school (Shehu, 2012).
As Thurston (2013) argues, “the violent Northern Nigerian sect Boko Haram draw some of its recruits from the Almajiri. Diverse scholars note that the Almajiri system in the Northern part of Nigeria made the vicious membership mustering of Boko Haram simple (Odoemelam etal, 2014). Linking the Almajiri to Boko Haram should worry every well-meaning Nigerian because this terror group has been rated the latest and deadliest of its kind as observed by Akinbi (2015), who also observed that the violent activities of the sect has greatly affected the economy of Northern Nigeria.
The sect has executed numerous deadly attacks on police establishments, communities, churches, banks, markets, military, media, United Nation Building in Abuja, etc. Car bombs have been a relatively recent addition in their operational strategy. Two Nyanya motor park bombs in Abuja and a Kano motor park bomb in late 2013 are still fresh in our memories. The postponement of the 2015 general elections from February 14 and 28 to March 28 and April 11 on the ground of insecurity in the North Eastern Nigeria shows the gravity of the activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria (Duruji & Oviasogie, 2013, Ahizih, 2014).
According to Abuh (2015), “the rising insecurity in Northern Nigeria creates a threat to the economic and political stability of the region. The spate of violent extremism in the region, has worsened in spite of the opportunities offered by the return to democracy. Onwumere (2013) found that those who are not from the North are worried that while the Almajiri roam the streets in search of support from people, they pose a threat to national security as they could be vulnerable to the re-orientations of the Boko Haram terrorist group. This shows a strong nexus between Almajiri and Boko Haram. In as much as there are over 10 million uneducated youths in Northern Nigeria there will always be a very high tendency for these youths to be used as instruments of violent extremism and ethno-religious conflict (James, 2013).
Nonetheless, it should be observed that, the government in recent years, has displayed remarkable commitment in tackling the issue. One of the most recent efforts made by the government was in 2013, when the Al-Majiri system was integrated into the main stream educational system of the country; and was formally signed into law and presented to the National Economic Council in July 2013. Furthermore, the National Committee on Implementation of Al-Majiri Education Programme was established to ensure that the pupils are provided with opportunities to access Basic Education. This development establishes the fact that the government has not been lackadaisical to the menace of the Al-Majiri system. However, despite the involvement of the government in resolving the issue, much more still needs to be done as some infrastructure in some states are neglected and left in dilapidation by the state governments (Shittu & Olaofe, 2015).
In conclusion, the discourse has succeeded in analyzing the linkage between the Almajiri system and how the Almajiri are used as instruments of violent extremism during ethno-religious and political conflicts by terror groups, which, in return, portrays them as prospective terrorists in the country. To ensure the success of the Almajiri school programme, the following are recommended:
1. Funding should be adequate, regular and monitored. The school curriculum should be planned to include technical; and vocational courses. Its long objectives should be for self-sufficiency and self-employment. Adult and technical education should be put in place to cater for older ones.
2. Special training should be organized for the Almajiri mallams (teachers), to give them a sense of belonging, direction and to absorb them into the formal school system. Opportunities for those among them who may want to further their studies at the tertiary level should be made available.
3. In addition, competent and qualified Muslim teachers should be employed in government owned institutions to reduce the fear of some Muslim parents who are afraid of losing their children to Western ideology.
4. There should be constant supervision and monitoring of the schools’ programs and curriculum so as to check negative instructions and orientation.
5. Lastly, all forms of street-begging and parental neglect should be criminalized by the government while poverty reduction programs be implemented to reduce the juvenile delinquency of Almajiri in Northern Nigeria.
Written by Oge Samuel Okonkwo