Zamfara State governor Abdulazeez Yari recently stated that over 1.2 million child beggars, popularly called almajirai, were roaming the streets of the state. This figure is realistic but frightening. Apparently, it agrees with the figure quoted two years ago by the then minister of state for education, Aishatu Jibrin Dukku.
She had said there were at least 10 million child beggars in northern Nigeria. Other authorities have put the number of the North's children who are unschooled, unemployed, unemployable and hopeless at 15-20 million.
In its original meaning, almajirai is not synonymous with child beggars. It is recognised in Islam. But, in northern Nigeria, the phenomenon has symbolised all that is associated with neglect and destitution. Governor Yari must have felt disturbed that so many people are so disadvantaged in the state he governs. Every northern governor should be equally worried, for it is an indictment on northern leaders.
How would the future of the North be? What meaningful progress is possible when more than 30 per cent of the population is destitute? The North is obviously sitting on a time bomb. If the problem is not solved today, dangers lie ahead in the future. Who would be the leaders of tomorrow? The abandoned children of today will certainly be the criminal adults of tomorrow.
Education is the best weapon against the odious almajirai syndrome in the North. At present, there is talk of building almajirai schools all over the North. However, what will matter most is the skills the children will acquire that will enable them to be useful to themselves and the society.
It is possible to eliminate the almajirai problem within 10 years, if only parents would start taking care of the children they bring into the world. A situation whereby parents pay no attention to the welfare of their children and despatch them to the streets to fend for themselves at an early age is not acceptable in the modern world.
Perhaps the illiterate parents of these children also need to be educated. Non-formal and adult education would make them understand the value of education and parental care. They should be taught to discourage early marriage and have fewer children. Parents who refuse to send their children, male or female, to school should be penalised.
Child begging is already an emergency situation. State and local governments should therefore look for urgent solutions. Good governance entails caring for the citizenry. Politicians should stop using destitute children to cause mayhem, especially at election times.
The North's leaders could borrow a leaf from Lagos State, for instance, which has almost completely rehabilitated street urchins called "area boys". Many former "area boys" now work as bricklayers, environmental workers and painters. Every human being has the potential to be useful, if given the right climate in which to thrive. Creating such environment should be the preoccupation of our leaders now.