Coaxing a malevolent genie – The Almajiri question

by Oluwole Olabanji

It is easy to quickly lump in the murderous violence that exploded across northern Nigeria after the presidential elections with the series of senseless and unprovoked attacks regularly meted out to southerners and Christians by northern Muslims, but certain curious details of this season of anomie may suggest that we do not rush too quickly to such an emotion-fueled conclusion. We must not allow the flow of tears to blind us to the fact that certain prominent Muslim northerners including no less than the revered head of the caliphate was attacked in the orgy of violence. This season, in addition to the usual senseless murder of innocent people, it appears that a certain malevolent genie has been let out of the bottle.

Please permit me to skirt the political context of this violence which many other commentators have copiously and competently addressed. Let me instead dwell on the subject of the massive population of illiterate, unemployed and maladjusted young men in northern Nigeria who I have come to believe are just as much victims (offensive as it sounds at the moment) as they are culprits.

Many have tried to deflect attention from their own failings in comporting themselves properly during this electioneering season which can be directly linked to the violence we subsequently saw, by accusing Government of not educating and providing employment for the hordes of youth involved in the violence. Such ideas are reinforced by ideas like the one propagated in the text of a recent speech credited to Sanusi Lamido Sanusi which has now gone viral online, and which made a strong and reasoned case for the elimination of primordial proclivities within the Nigerian State, but also includes a comment about the education of northern Nigeria which demonstrates a certain inadequate appreciation of the challenge or even refusal to take responsibility. He seems to lay the blame for the low literacy level in the north on the colonialists who he asserts had a deliberate policy to exclude the north from being educated. One has to say to SLS, that his argument is Dead on Arrival: it is 50 years on and while it is unfair for someone to bequeath you a torn pair of trousers, it is a testament to one’s shamelessness to wear it around without mending it.

I can hardly find any empirical basis to suggest that government has done more to educate southerners than it has northerners. Statistics from UBEC/NBS on primary education for instance is very telling. The total number of public primary schools in key northern states dramatically dwarfs those in the south as follows: Kano – 3066; Sokoto – 1,985; Kaduna – 3,034; Lagos – 906; Enugu– 1,108; Akwa Ibom – 1,093. Enrolment figures from the same source also show that in 2005, while Kano had 544,823 enrollees in public primary schools, Lagos had only 183,354.  These figures suggest that if the south has any educational advantage, it is not conferred by government policy or actions. I suggest therefore that we explore a more reasoned perspective of the problem.

A census conducted in 2006 found that there were 1.2million Almajiri boys in Kano alone; recent national estimates put the total number of such boys at 10million (about the population of Tunisia). These are children in the age range of 6 and the mid-teens who have been effectively abandoned by their parents to Quranic ‘boarding schools’ which are often hundreds of kilometers from their homes. The children in return for the Islamic education provided by the Mallam are required to provide support for him even as they fend for themselves usually by roaming the streets to beg for alms: a UNICEF researcher found that 60% of these kids never return home.

These kids are then from an early age schooled in Islamic knowledge; in certain instances of a radical bent. Put that together with the fact they are not given any other knowledge or skills that will enable them participate in the economy and what you get are young adults who have lived deprived of parental love; who are excluded from the economic life of the society; and in many cases indoctrinated with radical, negative ideas about people who are different in some respect from them. However, this on its own may not necessarily translate into a long term grave problem; what does is a far more sensitive and insidious reality.

When the average 13yr old Southern Nigerian Christian female child is preoccupied with Introductory Technology as a school subject, her northern Muslim counterpart is condescendingly discussing the upcoming introduction to her prospective in-laws with her envious mates (she is going to be the fourth wife). Trace the trajectory of their lives and you will find that when the southerner is entering university at 18, her counterpart is in the third trimester of her fifth annual pregnancy. When the southern girl is getting married at 27, it falls on the same date as the wedding of the first daughter of her northern friend, such that nine months later she is a new mother and the northerner is a grandmother – they are now generations apart.

As ‘Nollywoodish’ as this sounds, it is everyday reality. The combined lifestyle choices of early marriage, multiple marriages and high birth rates in the north become an explosive mixture when you add the inevitable tinder of low literacy levels, poverty and political opportunism. A reality which features 10 million (and rapidly growing) ‘misfits’ whose only recollection of love was the scant attention they got from a mother who was hardly more than a baby making machine; who had started fending for themselves and others since they were 6; and whose view of the world is shaped largely by one man who himself is sometimes a dangerously mis-educated exploiter.

The growing menace of anarchist groups like Boko Haram and the recent attack on prominent northerners hitherto considered untouchable institutions may be a dire warning that we are nearing the tipping point and the Muslim North as a people must now decide whether they want to evolve into a more progressive society or gradually become a ‘Somalia’ that will conceivably, ultimately be hived-off from Nigeria.

I have no doubt that the required lifestyle choices will not be easy to make because the status quo is viewed largely as a religious privilege or even imperative and even in some warped minds, a political advantage. However, the north must now realize that growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell and ultimately, cancer cells die with the patient – they literally grow to death. It is critical for the Muslim north to recognize that reproductive choices must be made with sustainability in mind. The fabric of society ultimately breaks down when children are birthing children to be raised by the streets.

This war for survival is not going to be led by a southerner headed government at the centre; as all things southern, some incorrigible propagandists will  sabotage the efforts by spreading false rumours of a southern Christian agenda backed by the ‘imperialist west’ as we saw played out in the polio vaccine absurdity.  The charge has to be led by the northern political class and intelligentsia.

We need a few good men. We need men who are bold enough to stand toe to toe against the mullahs who will inevitably emerge to defend ideas that guarantee the implosion of the region. This genie won’t be coaxed back into the bottle by half hearted wishes or lashing out defensively at phantom conspirators.

Your time starts now!

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