The almajiris in Northern Nigeria have been "sinned against" and denied opportunities for social progress by the region's Muslim elite, Catholic cleric, Hassan Kukah, has said.
"The Almajiri has become a scapegoat for the multiple sins of the Nigerian state in general and the Muslim Umma in particular," Mr Kukah said in a paper shared with PREMIUM TIMES on Monday. "As usual, as of now, the northern elite will do what they do best: hide in the sands of self-deception, knowing that this will blow over and soon, no one will remember again."
The almajiri system (or almajirci) is the over a century-old practice of poor rural parents who send their children to live with mallams in pursuit of Islamic knowledge, which the children now receive under violent and torrid conditions. It is seen as providing an environment for recruits into violence in the north, apart from the system's socio-economic implications.
Governors in the region have announced steps to end or reform the practice, with Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai saying "it has not worked for the children, it has not worked for northern Nigeria, it has not worked for Nigeria. It has to end."
"The Governors indicted themselves when they said that it is time to act now because the Almajiri has outlived his usefulness," said Mr Kukah. "At least they have admitted their complicity and the fact that the Almajiri system had always been a tool for political and economic forms of transaction."
"Here is my thesis: With regards to his condition today, the Almajiri is an object, not a subject, is a victim, not a perpetrator, sinned against rather than a sinner."
Mr Kukah is the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Kaduna, and has made blistering remarks aiming at northern Muslims whom he accuses of perpetrating the "domination" and "persecution" Christians in the region.
Stating further in his paper, he said, the almajirai (plural for almajiri) and their mallams (teachers) are blamed for "being dirty and unkempt, miscreants, delinquents, nuisances to the society, petty thieves, prospective Boko Haram recruits, a stigma, an assault on our collective social sense of decency."
"Their Mallam is charged with many sins including child abuse, abduction, human trafficking, exploitation, physical abuse, hard labour, enslavement, etc. So, we identify the Mallam and his Almajiri more by their crimes than their names. They are spoken about and not spoken to.
"In the media reports, no one bothers to give them a voice of their own. They do not speak for themselves. If they had a chance, for example, they might say: Everyone calls me, Almajiri. No one has asked me my name. We are in the millions but have only one name. I have no name. I have no father. I have no mother. I have no home. I have no town. I have no tribe. I have no address. The streets are my home. I do not know if I have brothers or sisters. I am an Almajiri. No one knows if I have feelings. No one has ever asked me what I want to be in life. I live for today and for the sake of Allah. I have no tomorrow except Allah gives me. Tomorrow is in the hands of Allah," he added.
He said the almajiri system was ordinarily good and "much treasured" part of Islamic history and found similarity with it in Christianity, giving an example of the role of catechists in the Catholic Church.
He said, "The challenge for the Muslim Umma in northern Nigeria is to answer the question, where did all this go wrong? Where was the Almajiri supposed to go at the completion of his studies? Was there a career path? How and why did the Mallam and his Almajiri, a much-treasured part of Islamic history, deteriorate to the status of the scum of the earth? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I wish to raise a few issues for the attention of the northern Muslim Ummah.
"First, the northern Muslim ummah must accept full responsibility and see the Almajiri as part of the huge baggage of their failure to prepare for a future for their people.
"They left their people in the lurch as the modern state emerged, providing no further rung on the ladder of progress for the Almajiri as part of the future for their children.
"With both he and his Mallam left behind in the cave of ignorance about the modern state, they grew to fear life outside the cave. They have remained trapped in time. The new world of modernity was presented as a contaminant to the purity of Islamic knowledge.
"So, while the modern elite equipped themselves and their children with the armour of western education, the Mallam and his Almajiri were left behind in the twilight zone of ignorance, fear, anxiety, disorientation and discomfiture, treating those outside with veiled contempt."