22 January 2013

Nigeria: Almajiri - Albatross of the North


Leadership failure may be the trouble with Nigeria, but the woes of northern Nigeria, especially the Muslim north, have been worsened by poverty and total recklessness on the part of its latter-day leaders. Indeed, the failure of the almajiranci is at the root of the north's peculiar problem.

The institution of "almajiranci" is as old as the coming of Islam to Nigeria. At the beginning, it was part of the governance structure of the Islamic state -- the aspect that took care of the moral and social education of the youth towards the advancement of the society. The institution of almajiranci goes beyond student -teacher relationship; it is an education system with the additional responsibility of being the custodians of history and knowledge-propelled development of the people and the society at large. One example of the accomplishments of the era was the development of the "AJAMI" script, which was an adaptation of Arabic scripts to Hausa language. This enabled the Caliphate to keep records of milestones, history of the people, and general administrative procedures and processes especially in the administration of shari'a laws and taxes (the zakat). When the colonialists came, they met a well-organised functional society with all the necessary structure of a modern feudal society that provided the machinery for indirect rule.

"Almajiranci", which is the school itself, was structured along three tiers: "Kolo" was the equivalent of primary school age; at this level the kids are aged between 7 and 13 years. The "Titipiri" was the secondary school equivalent. And then the "Gardi" is the equivalent of the tertiary level.

At the level of the "Kolo", the child, especially a visiting one, has a woman guardian called "uwar daki" for whom he runs trivial domestic errands in exchange for his feeding and welfare. By the time he has moved into the "Titipiri" stage, he has begun to seek minor jobs and vocations to take care of himself and fund part of his education. By the time he reaches the "Gardi" stage, he has not only completed the study of the Quran and hadiths but now has complete responsibility for himself. Armed with knowledge and a vocation or trade he learned in the course of his education, he is expected to make landmark decisions with regards to his life. He may choose to go further in search of more knowledge or develop and grow in his chosen vocation. However, there were two compulsory elements in this education: you learn the Quran not in abstraction but with practical application of all it entails, which includes the ethics of living in any given society. Before you are through, you must have learned a skill and or a trade that can sustain you and enable you to make productive contribution to society.

With the coming of western education, the custodians of the society decided that, upon completion of this form of education, one may have formal education in western schools, based on the assumption that the graduate of the system would have attained enough wisdom and fundamental moral and ethical education to appreciate the differences and commonalities of both kinds of education and bring this to bear on the society. The great minds who made the modern north - Sardauna Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa, Aminu Kano, Saadu Zungur and countless others - all went through this system in one way or the other. This also is possibly responsible for their ability to think and plan for the future.

The "Almajiranci" system started collapsing with the proscription of the "zakat" and other welfare practices that stemmed from Islamic laws. The attempt to restructure the society to conform to the colonialist script was partially responsible for the collapse of the system. The failure to adapt to the challenges posed by the advent of colonialism and the onslaught of westernisation must be traced to the Muslim northerners themselves.

Every year the "northerners" gather in Arewa House to pay glowing tribute to our fallen heroes, particularly the Sardauna. Then, promises and pledges are made to bring back the glory that is gradually fading into oblivion. The colossal failure of the north lies in the inability of its leaders to appreciate the enormity of the task before them and muster the political will to tackle the problem.

The failure of the almajiranci system and its attendant negative consequences are upon us. They pose a greater danger to us than we can seemingly appreciate. The Taliban movement, for instance, has its roots in the same system: "talib" means pupil which is translated into Hausa as "almajiri". The movement started with a Muslim cleric, Mohammed Omar, who after helping to rout the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, decided to cleanse the Afghan society of the very obvious corruption that engulfed the ruling class after the war. He was a hero and the people looked up to him to sanitize the society by reestablishing Islamic jurisprudence. What started well and was initially applauded by the western world gradually turned into an abominable nightmare the world is still contending with.

Power is intoxicating and, when threatened, can create unimaginable mayhem. Every strategy is employed by those who want power and control in order to keep it, regardless of how much society stands to lose in the quest. But the use of the most effective intoxicant is the most dangerous to the immediate and larger society. The spillover of religious intoxication is what we are witnessing around the world today. They call it fundamentalism; we see it as a collective failure of society to take care of its own.

The almajiri issue in northern Nigeria is further compounded by other ills of a society led by incompetent people. Either out of ignorance or for self-serving purposes, there is a deliberate maladministration of Islamic laws in marriages and divorces. By and large, the Muslim north has failed to apply shari'ah laws properly. The consequences are high rates of divorce and an army of children who are products of dysfunctional families. Most of these children end up in the streets especially in the rural areas. Then, there is the issue of poverty and mindless corruption that make scarce resources even scarcer.

What this portends for us as a people is that we have allowed ourselves to create an army of ignorant youth with all that ignorance entails in an environment filled with corruption and impunity, grotesque display of ill-gotten wealth and celebration of decadence. They are ready recruits for mayhem and destruction. These armies of abandoned youths who have known little comfort in their lives have no idea of the worth of human life and are thus a danger we cannot just wish away. They are the north's albatross, and, unless the problem is tackled holistically, there is nothing to expect but a storm.

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