Northern Nigeria’s Almajiri unstable Islamic educational system leaves children vulnerable to sexual and commercial exploitation and prime fodder for Islamist militant groups like Boko Haram.
“A Scar On The Face Of Northern Nigeria”
In September 2019 the Nigerian police rescued more than 300 boys and men found chained at an Islamic School in Kaduna, Northern Nigeria. The victims—some as young as five—were not only chained, but beaten, with multiple scars and sores on their backs. Reuters reported that some of the students had come from neighboring West African countries, including Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali.
The Kaduna students’ rescue is one episode of many rescues of people—many of them children—from harsh Islamic schools in Northern Nigeria, as Nigerian authorities launched a crackdown on informal Islamic schools and rehabilitation centers in September. Nearly 1,500 people have been rescued in schools in Kaduna, Daura, Ilorin and Ibadan.
In Daura, Katsina State, 300 men, including drug addicts, were rescued on October 14, where they were chained and sexually abused. Other reformatory Islamic schools in Ilorin, Western Nigeria, and Ibadan and southwestern Nigeria were also raided and closed recently.
What’s Behind The Rise Of Nigeria’s Islamic Schools?
Nigeria’s drug abuse and mental health crisis, along with a lack of public, government-funded rehabilitation and mental health facilities, has led to the rise of informal Islamic schools promising social answers to those in need of help.
The Almajiri system of education are Islamic schools with a longstanding tradition in northern Nigeria, dating back to the 11th century. The Islamic revolution of the 18th century solidified the Almajiri system under the Sokoto Caliphate. This system of education focuses on Qu’ranic and Islamic education, where students also learn a trade for livelihood. Under the Sokoto Caliphate, schools were regulated and teachers reported directly to the Emir of their province. Students in the school were raised by teachers, parents, leaders and the community at large. To supplement the Almajiri system, students would farm and bring food for the school. Like Western education, it was a course in the society and culture of the region where students were taught the Islamic and northern Nigerian way of life.
Colonial British Dismantling Of The Almajiri System
Under British colonization, however, British rulers deliberately dismantled the Almajiri system, killing most of the Emirs of the region and abolishing state funding of the system. The dismantling of this system directly created the structural problems facing Islamic schools in Nigeria today.
A 2014 UNICEF report estimated that there are 9.5 million Almajiri children in Nigeria, making up 72 per cent of the nation’s out-of-school children. Estimates reveal that Nigeria presently has between 13.2 million and 15 million out-of-school children, most of them in northern Nigeria.
A Stark Warning If The Almajiri System Isn’t Improved
Nigeria’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Babagana Monguno recently warned the Nigerian government of the future of the Almajiri system, should it be allowed to persist. Speaking at the beginning of December, at the launch of the country’s revised national security strategy for 2019, Monguno laid out the dark future if the system isn’t improved.
“The issue of illiteracy is directly linked to the issue of children not going to school, this Almajiri phenomenon which we have been talking about, we cannot continue to push it under the carpet because what? Eventually, it will come back to bite us in the butt big time. We need to deal with this issue and it is the responsibility of all of us to try and take care of this issue without any inhibition,” he said.
“The issue of insurgency in the northeast is directly linked to the issue of terrorism in the Sahel which is an increasingly volatile neighborhood and the situation is also derived from what is happening in Libya which in turn is affected by the lack of security Syria which derived its own situation ultimately from Iraq,” Monguno continued.
“Now, what the strategy does is to look at our national security objectives and align these objectives with this administration’s goals in fighting corruption, giving access to improved education, taking care of the healthcare problems as well as increased productivity in the agriculture sector. But rooted in the strategy are issues that may not be visible to the naked eye, but issues that have tended to be malignant to cause a lot of greater problems to this society,” he added.
The Almajiri System Is Central To Northern Nigerian Identity
Many Northern Nigerians align their sociocultural identity with the Almajiri school system, because of its long-standing history of involvement with Nigeria’s Islamic heritage and northern Nigerian tradition. Its desecration at the hands of the British created a socio-cultural distrust against Western education that continues today.
Under the Almajiri system today, students are forced unto the streets by their teachers to beg. Facing extreme poverty, parents are unable to care for their children, leaving children and vulnerable adults under the full supervision of Almaraji teachers. Furthermore, the Nigerian government is unwilling to change the system for fear of upsetting northern Nigerians, who would interpret such actions as a move towards Western education.
Facing extreme child and sexual abuse, children under the current Almajiri education system are often angry and abandoned, and become easily brainwashed by Boko Haram and other militant groups. It’s important to face the truth of the challenges facing the Almajiri system. As Monguno stated:
“Fundamentally, if we are going to take care of these problems, we need to try and safeguard the fast-growing young population of Nigeria and guess what? We need to look at issues of poverty eradication and illiteracy. I will tell you one thing. The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari in its pursuit for greater and enhanced security will not allow itself to be blackmailed or handcuffed by the disarming philosophy of compliance with certain aspects that are socio-cultural in nature which people tend to be adverse to dealing.”
Monguno puts it best:
“We must grab the bull by the horn and deal with these issues.”