By Mohammed Bello Yunusa

NIGERIA is once again approaching another peak of Coronavirus or COVID-19.   It is another chance to reflect on the vulnerable, particularly the minors. The immediate ones that come to mind are the almajirai(Islamic pupils) that populate the Tsangaya schools (Quran learning centres) predominantly in Northern Nigeria. The Tsangaya education has made its mark in intellectual production and teaching in parts of the country.

In the face of the health crises, we cannot afford to be oblivious of the Tsangaya schools and the minors that attend them. In Northern Nigeria, the Tsangaya made its contribution by making the Hausa and possibly Fulani languages the first ever written with known alphabets before the introduction of English alphabets.

That explains the ajami, that is Hausa written using Arabic alphabets, including writings on the Nigerian national currency. This is remarkable and a major contribution to development. When all logics and patriotic appeals were defied and the writings were removed from some of our national currencies, a cogent national historical monument pride was destroyed.

Still, later development saw the use of ajami in public administration, particularly in Northern Nigeria. Gradually, and over time, the use of ajami in public administration even in the North fizzled out. With the development, a good proportion of people from that part of Nigeria became increasingly excluded from mainstream national processes.

With the current debates on the Tsangaya schools and planned criminalisation of Islamic education and knowledge, we are at another precipice of national calamity. Some political elites, particularly those who have been voted to exalted   political offices, are set to roll back the hand of the clock, deny history and civilization based on their infatuation with globalisation coated in modernity and Westernisation.

These elites have contempt and disdain for Tsangaya schools even when it is obvious that they have not grown or improved the Tsangaya schools. Northern Nigeria governors, except a few, during the peak of the COVID-19 wave appropriated the powers of the Almighty, the transient nature of their stay in Government Houses notwithstanding.

This appropriation is a reflection of how public affairs are conducted in the states. In the states, the governors are the law and policy, so much that everything revolves around the ‘Alpha and Omega’ without whom nothing is possible.

Now back to the almajirai under the prevailing COVID-19 situation. The absolute powers of the governors apparently blinded them to their responsibilities and respect for ordinary rights and dignity of citizens, including minors.

Those at the receiving end, this time, are the minors and teenagers who need and deserve utmost state protection. The victims, more specifically, are the young children and youth studying Islam and Islamic books in Tsangaya. Their apparent crime is the choice to attend a Tsangaya.

The outbreak of COVID-19 made this period a tough one for children and youth in our communities, towns and cities. Following the outbreak of the pandemic in Nigeria the Almajirai were literally smoked out of the Tsangaya schools and deported to various states or communities of origin as if they are not citizens of Nigeria.

Apparently, the Tsangaya pupils lost freedom of movement, association and conscience. Personal dignity and respect were certainly violated. The states simply declared them persona non grata     and furthered the pupils’ hunger, poverty and deprivation boundaries. State governments rolled out vehicles and carted the children and youth away in several directions, purportedly their home states and villages!

This is propelled by their earlier conviction that the almajirai are a bunch of beggars and miscreants. In about  2009, the Africa Studies Centre of Leiden, The Netherlands, organised a conference in Abuja. My take home from that workshop was and still is the stereotype of almajirai as street beggars and miscreants.

In my book, Understanding the Almajiri, a copy of which was sent to all Northern states governors and Owelle Rochas Okorocha, then governor of Imo State. I insisted that not all street children are almajirai and not all children that beg are almajirai. The governors never came to terms with this.

When COVID-19 broke out the governors of some states vehemently chose irresponsibility over responsibility in handling the Tsangaya schools and their attendants. The pupils were denied citizenship of their country and basic rights that go with it. The governors based their action on the claim that begging is a menace and an embarrassment to the North and Nigeria. This is intriguing and I was piqued.

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Even if begging is a social menace, it is better to leave the beggars   alone if you have nothing to offer them. Other than interpersonal linkages with the Tsangaya schools, politicians and development policy makers have for years remained oblivious of the schools and pupils. I dare say education is education and your citizens are your citizens.

The Northern Governors Forum and their members must come to terms with these. Children and youth of the North are in more serious circumstances that need state attention. The closed livelihoods and employment opportunities, including inabilities to set up homes are major frustrations that have propelled the youth and children to drug addiction and other social vices. Begging is not an issue; in fact it is an official business.

All federal, state and local government projects are dependent on begging the World Bank, IMF, other lending and donor agencies not to mention the over drawn facilities of domestic banks by agencies of governments.

No meaningful research activities are going on in the universities without proposal writing and begging international agencies for funding. Ask the Professors. In the ministries the best funded projects are products of begging. The shame of executive begging that puts heavy debt burden on impoverished citizens is a perpetual menace and embarrassment to poor citizens. The governors forum must talk to this not the almajiri.

It is open secret that the state and local governments have lost the capacity to own and manage  ordinary public primary schools. Poor people have lost access to elite education. Those that manage to go to school  end up in a closed opportunity system. They have certificates without jobs. With closed access, the poor have really lost interest in elite schools and they should be let alone. The governors must not embarrass the citizens, more so the almajiri during this second lockdown.

To let the people and their type of education be, the governors ought to have seen the opportunity offered by COVID-19. Tsangaya, the cradle of Islamic intellectual development dots all villages, towns and cities in the North. But the modern day policy makers know next to nothing about them and could not have done a thing to sustain them. So it is easy for the governors to blow the opportunity at the first instance.

With the Tsangaya schools all over the place, what could have been done and should be done now? The COVID-19 and the associated lockdown offered the opportunity for locating and enumerating Tsangaya schools, their capacities and pupils.

COVID-19 and the associated lockdown would have been used and should be used to establish the number of Tsangaya schools, more Almajirai in each Tsangaya and improving learning conditions covering learning materials,  sleeping places and sanitary facilities, feeding among others.

The profile should have served as basis for sound policies for state inventions. The state interventions should have be used to dignify  the almajirai and put them on constitutional equity with their mates in primary and secondary schools. Data from the interventions should be basis for welfare policy and projects development including feeding and thereby gradually make begging less lucrative or attractive.

With the Covid-19 lockdown, the state governors should conduct a needs assessment of the schools, feed the most deserving of food and probably provided the learning materials. Most importantly, it was and still an opportunity to monitor and control of Covid-19 spread among this vulnerable populations. These are ways of and how not to embarrass the Tsangaya pupils by treating them like refugees and personae non gratae in their home country, their father land.

The Tsangaya and almajiri need be appreciated for their contributions to national Human and intellectual development. Whenever policies and actions are outcomes of emotions, stereotypes and sentiments, positive opportunities are missed or lost. This is what has happened to policies and actions on Tsangaya schools under Covid-19 first lockdown and should not be allowed to persist.

Hope is not lost. The Tsangaya schools involve millions of Nigerians, this is significant enough for governments to worry about and develop a road map for positive interventions. All state and local governments must create a database on Tsangaya schools for meaningful policies and actions that strengthen the people that engage in it.

Yunusa is Executive Secretary, Socio-economic and Environment Advocacy Centre, Zaria

Vanguard News Nigeria


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