News Feature: The Almajiris And The COVID-19 Scare

Almajiri children
Almajiri children

By: Israel Umoh

Like a leprous finger, the COVID-19 is sticking out its scary head. The pandemic has thrown open the vacuous systems of developing and developed countries. For the developed countries, the pandemic has been randomly decimating their citizens, thus making their arrival mentality in the health-care system nonsensical. For the developing countries, the virus has shown that they are little pawns in the health-care chessboard and the people are surviving on the mercies of God.

Nigeria, the hitherto Giant of Africa of yesterday has become the Lilliputian of today in the comity of developing ones. The health system is in life support. The poverty profile of its citizens is worsening. The unemployment rate is stomach-turning. Its public academic institutions are awry. Unlike some developing countries that are preparing for the moon, Nigeria is at the base of life grappling with the dying Almajiri system.

Almajiri System

Almajiri began in the defunct Kanem-Borno Empire in the 11th century, when many rulers practised Islam. In the 19th century, more than 700 years later, Islamic scholar Usman dan Fodio founded the Sokoto caliphate and advanced the cause of Islamic learning. The term Almajiri is a Hausa word for pupil or student and emanates from the Arabic word ‘AlMuhajir’ meaning a seeker of Islamic knowledge. Its origin can be traced from the migration of Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina (Wikipedia).

This is a direct form of child abuse. 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. At present, estimates reveal that Nigeria has between 13.2 million and 15 million out-of-school children, most of them in Northern Nigeria.

Goodluck Jonathan’s War Against Almajiri

What ex-President Goodluck Jonathan saw, beneficiaries and fans of the age-long Almajiri system did not see the challenge. From December 2010 to May 2015, the Goodluck Jonathan administration promoted the Almajiri Education Programme which saw to the construction and equipment by building165 Almajiri schools Tsangaya (Almajiri) Model Schools across Nigeria worth N15 billion. The schools were built in the North-West states of Sokoto, Kaduna, Katsina, and Kano.

COVID-19 and Its Scare Among States

Jonathan’s effort seen as a political ploy by the opposition to win re-election was disparaged. Yet, the successive administration instead of consolidating on the gain of the schools abandoned them, forcing the Almajiris to return to their familiar terrains- streets- for begging. The novel virus caught many aghast, including governments in Northern Nigeria and the vulnerability of Slmajiris made them become major victims and disseminators of the virus.

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Feared of a wider spread of the virus, Kano State Government banned street begging in the state, arrested, and repatriated more than 1,500 Almajiris to their states and countries of origin. The spokesperson of Hisbah, (the Kano state’s moral police) Lawan Fagge, confirmed the arrests and repatriation to such states as Katsina, Kano, Zamfara, Kebbi, Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe states including neighbouring countries of Chad and Niger Republic.

Unhappy Mallam Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, Nigeria’s Kaduna State Governor, in the Mu dan Arewa spirit got his share of the Almajiris. On Monday, he tweeted that 50 repatriated Almajiri children from Kano State tested positive which makes a total of 59 active coronavirus cases in Kaduna.

Down Southern part of Nigeria, it is a different ball game as an inter-state movement among people who are not essential duty during the pandemic lockdown is forbidden. Upon this premise, Nyesom Wike, Governor of Rivers State vented his anger on the purported relocation of Almajiris. He accused the President Muhammadu Buhari government of playing politics with the relocation of Almajiris to their various states in the North.

While speaking at the Government House in Port Harcourt, when he received traditional rulers on Tuesday, he noted “When they started relocating the Almajiri in the North, the Federal Government said nothing. Immediately they heard that we have relocated some Almajiri, they came up with the declaration that it is against the inter-state movement. Why this double standard?”

It was another surprise package for Abia as a group of Almajiris loaded in cattle truck was intercepted in the state on Tuesday. Abia State Homeland Security agents led by the Commissioner for Homeland Security, Prince Dan Okoli intercepted the Almajiris hidden in cattle trucks at Enugu-Abia border, along the Enugu–Aba Highway.

The Abia Commissioner for Information, Chief John Okiyi-Kalu, explained that overnight, several trucks conveying food items with several Almajiris hiding in them were turned back at the same border until the interception on Tuesday.

Okiyi-Kalu said the government has directed that more homeland security agents be deployed to one of the borders with Akwa Ibom State as well following the interception of another truck conveying Almajiris alongside goods destined for Akwa Ibom State.

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Abia State Government had earlier on Monday alerted citizens that it received intelligence reports on the planned movement of a group of Almajiris into the state within the next 24 hours. Some residents of Aba, the commercial hub of the state who spoke to our reporter pleaded with the state government to quickly do the needful to beef up the security within the state especially at the borders.

From Akwa Ibom, the fear of the Almajiris coming in to spread the deadly pandemic scare among the people is a different tea. The fear of COVID-19 has sparked off row among the people. Some radio callers in some privately-owned radio stations on Tuesday alleged that truck drivers conveying cows through Iwukem-Azumini Road Federal Highway have been coming into the state with many youths in the truck suspected to be Almajiris.

In Eket, some traders conveying cows together with some youths from the Northern Nigeria extraction said to be intercepted were suspected to be Almajiris. The Akwa Ibom Police Public Relations Officer, Nnudam Fred in a telephone interview with Straightnews publisher confirmed that the youths were not Almajiris but were youths who accompanied the truck driver to offload the cows to their customers.

As the deadly virus defies some medical solutions but is spreading wildly, governments of any hue in the country must not directly or otherwise fuel the fire of the pandemic by ‘exporting’ people whose status cases are not properly tested and ascertained to their states for fear of compounding the community transmission. The people, on the other hand, must comply with the pandemic lockdown regulations by avoiding the interstate journeys to avoid spreading or contacting the virus.