Some state governors in northern Nigeria are shipping off street children, some infected with COVID-19, to neighbouring states to lower their case count and avoid prolonged lockdown, in violation of the constitution and extant laws writes ISAAC ANYAOGU.
I could hear the terror in her voice over the telephone, it was laced with desperation.
“They are bringing them to our land, those Almajiris – they are smuggling the virus into our land!”
“Calm down,” I appealed though I could feel the start of panic gnawing at my innards.
She works at a local government office in Abia State, south eastern Nigeria, my source for news in that part of the country, since I am based in Lagos, the commercial capital. That evening, her terror was real. I could smell it, the way you smell a thunderstorm just before it hits.
The discovery on May 5, of dozens of destitute children from northern Nigeria, hidden in cattle trucks and covered by food produce, en route to the state of 3.1 million people has many in the state on knife’s edge.
State government officials acting on prior intelligence intercepted a truck laden with local produce and found the children hidden in compartments of the truck beneath vegetables and fruits. They looked like they had been exhumed.
Further investigation shows that this paranoia over the infiltration of states by street children possibly infected with COVID-19 is alive in many states in Nigeria. In Ondo State, South West Nigeria, the governor is calling on residents to report unusual large population of young people believed to be secretly ferried into the state. Rivers State government, in South-south Nigeria, has ordered all vagrants and street children rounded up and deported.
Many states in Nigeria are now on high alert, not against a marauding enemy, but against children, some still suckling a thumb on the fear they may spread the pandemic in their state. These children, are called Almajiris, rejected by own parents, scorned by society and abused by their tutors.
After months on lockdown, Nigeria’s COVID-19 infections has risen above 3,000 and keeps rising in an economy tilting towards prolonged recession due to fall in crude oil prices and burgeoning government debt.
So governors, eager to show they have properly managed the pandemic and reopen their economies, are shipping street children, including those infected across state lines, in violation of social distancing rules and provisions of the constitution.
Nigeria’s Almajiri problem
In northern Nigeria, many children as young as five are brought by their parents to learn at the feet of an Islamic scholar in a different town or city as part of their Islamic education.
Prior to British colonialism, a system referred to as Tsangaya, modeled after the Madarasahs existed in the Kanem-Borno empire where Islamic values were taught young children. They also acquired skills including masonry, fishing, farming and trading.
But over the years, the system has been eroded and what emerged from its ruin, represents a path to our demise. It has become a cover for parents to shirk their responsibilities towards their children and how to groom an army of infamy.
“The Almajiri system of education as practised today in the northern Nigeria is a completely bastardised system compared to the form and conditions under which the system was operating and its output during the pre-colonial period,” said Idris AbdulQadir, a university scholar while giving the 21st convocation lecture of Bayero University in 2003.
Western education was a major threat because it provided the clearest route to white-collar and civil service jobs. Wealthy northern parents sent their children to Western schools while the poor depend on the failing Almajiri system.
Now, this is where it gets disturbing. Since the poor can procreate and offload the resulting children onto a Mallam in another state, contraceptives was viewed as an affront to their egos. Islamic clerics, angry about the substitution of their values by Western ones, provided theological justifications against everything from birth control measures to vaccines.
But without state funds to finance the Almajiri system in very poor societies rife with rampant corruption by government officials, the clerics, without the means to cater to the needs of the hordes of children sent to them, unload them to the society to beg for alms for sustenance.
It gets worse. These Mallams, impose a form of weekly fees called ‘Kudin sati’ to the students giving them the option of either begging or stealing. These children are then let loose on the society like a swarm of locusts on a maize farm.
But securing enough alms to get by from an impoverished society is like searching for crude oil in a decommissioned well. According to a World Bank report on Advancing Social Protection in Nigeria, 87 percent of Nigeria’s poor are in the north. Begging for alms in a society where squalor has too many company was never going to be sustainable.
Northern Nigeria also has the most uneducated. According to a UNICEF report, 72 percent or 9.5million out of the 13.2 million Nigeria’s out-school children are in the north and many are Almajiris and girls.
Illiteracy and a culture that favours early marriage and didn’t take kindly to condoms, festers the Almajiri problem. According to the National Council for the Welfare of Destitute (NCWD) the population of the Almajirai in Northern Nigeria was over 7 million.
Since these religious centres of training are neither registered nor regulated, the children have become willing tools for fundamentalists on a crusade of calumny and politicians with doubtful chances of securing victory at the polls. Now with a pathogen that does not discriminate on the loose, the Almajiris present a threat so insidious, the politicians would rather they didn’t exist – at least not in their climes.
Politicians from northern Nigeria control the executive and legislative branches of government. They control two-third of seats in the parliament, head the judiciary and almost all relevant government ministries and departments. But not once has the problem of the Almajiri occupied anyone’s list of priorities.
Ironically, it was the government of former president Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner who began plans to provide structure and cohesion to the Almajirinci. He had already constructed over 100 schools and began the process of integrating them into society. His defeat at the election put paid to the plans.
The dystopian reality of millions of diseased and homeless children festers because it serves a purpose, no matter how sordid. Democracy is a numbers game and victory belongs to the party with the most votes. All the voter needs to have in Nigeria is a pulse, the less they know, even better. Elections in the north are marred by underage voting and the Almajiris play a key role.
Data from census figures are useful for planning but are fraught with irregularities in Nigeria. Figures are weaponised to maintain a stranglehold on power and win the larger chunk of the national resources. Crude oil proceeds are shared according to states and the north always emerges largest. Inflated figures distort national planing and partly explain why the region that gets some of the largest chunk of the national resources also has its worst poverty, literacy and death rates.
“Almajiris will be issued voters’ cards – long before any of us, but access to education and health care for them are not the priorities of the Northern elite – and have never been,” says a public affairs analysts, Chike Chukudubelu in a social media post.
During the 2015 general election, Muhammadu Buhari won the Presidency on the strength of block votes from four northern states: Kano, Katsina and Kaduna and Jigawa.
Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) polled 15,424,921 against 12,853,162 recorded for the then incumbent, former president Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
In Kano state alone, APC won 1,903,999 against PDP’s 215,779. In Katsina State, Buhari won by 1,246,504 votes and in Kaduna State, he won by 643,675 votes, while in Jigawa, his winning votes were higher than the PDP’s by 743,084 votes. These four states gave him over 4million votes higher than his opponent’s.
These four states also account for the bulk of Almajiris in Nigeria. In 2017, Kano State governor said they had almost 3million of the street children in the state following a state-sponsored survey.
Almajiris also serve a more destructive purpose. “They remain untrained armies available to anybody poised to ferment trouble,” said AbdulQadir.
Leena Koni Hoffmann, in a research report for Chatam House International in 2014 found that In the aftermath of Buhari’s third loss at the polls in 2011, demonstrations by his supporters – mostly young Muslim northerners – degenerated into deadly clashes with security forces in Katsina, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau and Bauchi states.
“The homes and businesses of several members of the northern elite who had openly supported Jonathan and the PDP were attacked, for what the protesters perceived as the betrayal of the north’s interests and the failure of democracy to improve their lives.”
Thousands of these street children have become ready armies for religious fundamentalists in northern Nigeria. They are summoned upon the suspicion that their religious values have been trampled upon and they carry out mayhem and wanton killings with the tacit support of corrupt security agencies.
Nigeria’s illicit drug fighting agency, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) said the North-West region has the highest number of drug-related arrests in years, with 2,205 arrests in 2015 alone and has maintained the same trend five years later.
IN 2017, a motion on drug abuse in the north adopted by the Senate disclosed that three million bottles of codeine were consumed by drug abusers daily in Kano and Jigawa states.
Mojisola Adeyeye, director-general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), said that 70 percent of the youth essentially, the young boys, abuse illicit drugs in Kano.
Predictably, the Almajiris are also responsible for scary levels of new Covid-19 infections in the north. The message about hand washing and social distance gets drown by the violent rumble of a hungry stomach.
To solve the Almajiri problem in a pandemic, northern governors are now pushing them away from their communities with all the dignity of a discarded tissue paper. The problem will go away, when they do.
On May 3, the Taraba State Government rejected several ‘almajiri’ children transferred from Nasarawa State. The children had to sleep outside the office of the Secretary to the Taraba State Government and were only attended to at 10 a.m. on the next day.
They were later driven to the state border to wait for the state officials. The state officials later came and formally rejected the children with a letter addressed to the Nasarawa State government to take back their children.
“The government of Taraba State wish to return the pupils to you and requests that the pupils should be properly profiled indicating their local government of origin in Taraba State and ‘individual status’ in respect of the pandemic,” excerpts of the letter dated May 4, 2020 read.
The Kano State government in April said it completed plans to evacuate 251,893 Almajiris from eight local government areas back to their states, following upsurge in confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State said 21 out of the 61 Almajiris that were returned to the state tested positive for the novel coronavirus and they now represent the biggest infections in the state on May 2.
But deporting these street children to their states of origin, violates the citizenship rights accorded Nigerians by the Constitution. Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution provides that “Every citizen of Nigeria is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof, and no citizen of Nigeria shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry thereby or exit therefrom.”
Section 42 provides that “A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such a person – (a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject.”
The Secretary to the Federal Government, Boss Mustapha has condemned the action of the governors, urging that minors should be treated better. He heads the Federal task force to contain the pandemic and approves requests for assistance to these states pawning off children across borders.
Rights group, Human Rights Agenda Network (HRAN) in a statement said the deportation of the Almajiris is illegal and unconstitutional because every Nigerian, irrespective of his or her status, is entitled to the full enjoyment of the fundamental human rights in the Constitution.
“These children are entitled to their constitutional right to free and compulsory primary and secondary education. Rather than carry out their constitutional duty of providing for the security and welfare of the people, northern state governors in particular have allowed Almajiris roam the streets, exposing them to exploitation,” the group said.
Since these children are minors, bouncing them across state lines is also a violation of the Child Rights Act (CRA) enacted in 2003 which protects the rights of the child. Curiously, 11 states out of 19 in northern Nigeria have refused to adopt it. They are Bauchi, Yobe, Sokoto, Adamawa, Borno, Zamfara, Gombe, Katsina, Kebbi, Jigawa and Kano. Even those that have added it as part of their laws, observe it in more breach.
It is easy to see why. The Child Rights prescribes, in its very opening paragraph that “In every action concerning a child, whether undertaken by an individual, public or private body, institutions or -service, court of law, or administrative or legislative authority, the best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration.”
In northern Nigeria, children who are yet to see their first menstrual period are married off as child brides, a UNICEF study found that only 45 percent of girls attend school in the north and Nigeria, largely due to child marriages in the north, along with five other countries, accounts for half of new-born deaths globally.
However, condemnation of the action of these governors have been muted by large swaths of human right activists, child right defenders, religious and traditional institutions in Nigeria. Their commentary about the street children are freighted with contempt. The Almajiris are pariahs, a national shame, a festering open sore; we’ve all become inured to its stench.
Painting a dreary picture of the pandemic in the state, El Rufai said that prior to the pandemic, the state had only 20 intensive Care Unit beds in the state and didn’t have a testing facility but it has now built two and is in the process of acquiring new testing facilities.
Many states in the north are financially-challenged and face difficulties dealing with pandemic. Ganduje, Kano state governor has appealed to the Federal Government for support but cannot see the irony of deporting thousands of children while seeking Federal Government support to care for victims.
This, many say, is the missing link in governance of some states in northern Nigeria – governance that tries so hard erase reason.