INVESTIGATION: Modern slavery, torture of Almajiri children expose dehumanising practice in Northwest Nigeria
Most cities and seminaries in northern Nigeria are populated by itinerant pupils in Qur’anic schools known as Almajirai. The image of shabby-looking street children, primarily young boys between the ages of three and 12, has become a blight on the Nigerian nation. This investigation looks at the increasing incidence of child abuse, molestation of children, and the practice of the Almajiri school system across Kano and Kaduna states in North West Nigeria.
The brood roams the street clutching plastic bowls as they beg for alms from one stranger to another.
In the evenings, they return to their masters (Mallam) to remit what was made for the day and rest to continue the same routine the next day. These are Nigerian children, popularly known as Almajiri.
The uncertainty of street life has predisposed the Almajirai to delinquency for self-survival. In the urban spaces, the Almajirai mixed up with several youth demographic cohorts and delinquents such as the Yan-cirani (seasonal migrant youth), Yan Banga (criminal gangs), and Yan daba (violent youth delinquents). Some of them have resorted to theft and other crimes due to poverty.
Shettim Ahmed, an orphan from Katsina State, was brought to Kano by his mother at the age of 7, and since then, he has not gone back to see her. He has remained on the street of Kano, begging to survive.
“I only know my mother, who is too poor to take care of me. I want to grow up studying the Holy Quran, attend a formal school, and become successful. Ahmed hopes to go back to school and own a farm in the future.
“I see myself owning big businesses and providing help to younger ones in my community back in Katsina State to help discourage their involvement in crimes,” he said.
Filled with so many painful experiences, Ahmed, who is now 12 years old, has yet to interact with formal education. Instead, he is left to beg on the streets of Kano and make remittances to his teacher (Mallam) Idris at Makaranta Islamiyyan Dakata in Kano State.
“We are more than 30 in number under Mallam Idris. We would wake up as early as 5 a.m. and immediately after our prayers, pick up our plates and begin to beg. We knock door to door and return by 6 p.m. After that, we submit everything to Umaru, the most senior. He then proceeds to remit it to Mallam Idris,” Ahmed said.
That is not all. Ahmed and other students of Mallam Idris Islamic schools are known objects of modern slavery. They are used as sexual slaves and asked to work for people under Mallam Idris’s instruction without getting paid and missing their primary purpose.
“There is this woman staying at Bukavu Army barracks. I have always gone there to work for her under Mallam Idris’s instructions. She asks me to come every day, but whenever I go there to help her do her laundry, she used to ask me to touch her breast and also touch her private part, she used to give me food and then give me money to give to Mallam Idris, I have never seen her husband, but I believe he is not around in town,” Ahmed added.
Too scared to reveal some of the maltreatment they face as Almajiri students under Mallam Idris for fear of being tortured, Ahmed’s colleague, Ibrahim Allkasim, narrates how some are used as labourers on a farm downtown.
“We are often made to work on farmlands owned by influential people. They would have made payments to Mallam Idris. We are also instructed to do house chores for some women. This was how I first saw a woman’s nakedness. There was this woman that has the habit of walking around naked whenever I am around,” Allkasim said.
A teen, Allkasim, who does not know his age, hopes for a lifestyle change but doesn’t know when it will come.
“One sad event was when we lost three of our colleagues due to the food they ate. This was the food someone gave them when they went begging, and when they returned, they started vomiting blood. They later died because Mallam did not take them to the hospital. They were buried, and since he is a Mallam, no one questioned him, and the families of these boys were never contacted,” he added.
Child sexual abuse is an activity that a child does not fully understand and cannot give informed consent to. The child is unprepared and cannot yield consent or violate society’s laws or social norms. The abuse occurs between an adult and a child, between a child and an older adolescent or relations; it can happen between trusted, known or unknown or relations. The abuse may occur serially or once, and in most cases, the abuse remained undisclosed because of fear. When it is disclosed, it happened as a process, not as an event (Lipppert et al., 2009; Priebe, 2009; International Rescue Committee, 2012; Cashmore and Shackel, 2013; Townsend and Rheingold, 2013; WHO, 2015; Greijer, 2016)
When this reporter contacted mallam Idris, he refused to respond to questions but commented on his local language.
“Duka yaran na, kowa lafiya sa da ba su da lafiya ko ba na kula da su, da gomneti ta ne me ni, shi ne abu da zan iya giya maka” which means “All the children under him are doing very well that if they are not doing well, the government would have come after me, that is all I can tell you,” Idris said.
Danlami Rimin Gado, secretary of the Almajiri Evacuation committee in Kano under the Ministry of Local government and the deputy director of school monitoring and evaluation department of local government, ministry of local government, Kano state explained the government’s plan to fetch out the bad Islamic teachers in the system.
“We have received several alerts of Almajiri children being used as slaves and often or regularly molested by some of their teachers this is not Islamic and will not have a place here, thank you for bringing this to the notice of the authority, we will conduct a proper investigation and make sure all these evil teachers are punished, and these children are given a good life,” Danlami said.
While parents may believe they are fulfilling their obligation to provide religious and moral education to their children and provide the learning free of charge, Almajiri children are often forced by their teachers (Mallams) to carry out undignified work and beg on the streets to fund their education.
Disadvantaged and often lacking in decent upbringing, Almajiri children are compensated for overstretched family resources while hiding under the guise of sending them to an Islamic school to be with a teacher.
Regrettably, the Almajiri culture has since outlived its purpose and has become a breeding ground for child begging and, in extreme cases, potential materials for recruitment into terrorist groups. The pupils who were meant to be trained to become Islamic scholars now struggle to cater for themselves.
Inside Kaduna Secret Almajiri School.
Despite the ban of Almajiri schools across Kaduna State under the present administration, Mallam Suleiman Gambo still runs a secret Islamic school attended by Muhammad Balarabe and many other young boys.
Balarebe, who could not tell exactly when he left Zamfara state for Kaduna, is one of the students of Mallam Gambo who run the secret Islamiyya at Rigasa.
Balarebe was sighted around Dadin Kowa plaza in Rigasa, begging with four other young boys between 10 and 12.
Balarebe, whose hands were filled with injuries, narrates to the reporter how Mallam Gambo maltreats them and subjects them to torture when they do not meet his target or bring substantial remittances.
“We used to walk from Rigasa to Kawo, a distance of about six kilometers. Going to these communities between Rigasa and Kawo helps us achieve our daily target of at least N500. So some of us go to Kawo Park, and we help people to carry their load, and they pay us.”
Balarebe said Mallam Gambo had warned them sternly not to disclose his name or the school’s location.
Findings by PlatinumPost showed that the school operated by Mallam Gambo is located in Kunchi line, in Rigasa. When the reporter asked one of the random young boys sitting at the school entrance about Mallam Gambo, the kids quickly gave a chorus response denying knowledge of the school.
Binta Ibrahim works for the state government as the Director, Public School Reform under the education ministry. When contacted, she lamented the state’s resistance to the Almajiri reform plan by a section of the citizenry, adding that she is not aware of any secret Almajiri schools.
“The Almajiri practice is still cherished by the Muslim community. According to current realities, the system has been subjected to abuse and needs to be reformed. We plan to develop a training and retraining framework for all Almajiri teachers in the state. This is expected to develop the appropriate scale to be used in placing and integrating the teachers into the formal education system,” Binta added.
“You know there will always be rebels to policies among any groups, and the issues of religion require sensitivity. We will make sure all Islamic teachers comply using all measures to stop the modern slavery, molestation, and abuse children are subjected to all in the name of Islamic education,” She added.
What does the law say?
The National Human Rights Commission notes that the primary purpose of government is the security and welfare of its citizens in line with Section 14(2) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999.
Conscious of its mandate to monitor, promote, protect and enforce human rights of everyone in Nigeria in line with the national, regional, and international human rights instruments to which Nigeria is a party, the Commission has always spoken against the inhuman conditions children are subjected to under any guise.
Nigeria has ratified and is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which has been domesticated as Child’s Rights Act (CRA) 2003.
The CRA is a comprehensive human rights instrument that seeks to protect the rights of children in Nigeria and to put in place policies and programs for the development and survival of every child in Nigeria.
The provisions of the CRA are crucial to securing the human rights of Almajiri children. Implementing these rights should be at the heart of any intervention targeting the social and economic welfare of the Almajiri children. Section 4 of CRA specifically emphasized that every child shall have a right to survival, development, and education. Section 9 provides for freedom of child movement subject to parental control, not harmful to the child.
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Other sections provide for rights to private and family life, freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination, the dignity of the child, health and health services, free, compulsory and universal primary education, amongst others.
The vulnerable nature of children has become a burden in the face of an ideological war, more so when they are poorly catered for and lack access to essential services. The proliferation of street children across Nigeria is one that deserves serious policy action.
For instance, in 2010, a total of 157 Tsangaya/Almajiri schools were built across the country by the administration of ex-president Goodluck Jonathan. The effort was part of the National Framework for the Development and Integration of Almajiri Education into Universal Basic Education. The project did not receive local support primarily because of its mixture of secular and Islamic values.
Ineffective Almajiri Reforms
Policy measures to modernize and reform the Almajiri system have been rebuffed. In 2001, UNICEF underscored the need for individual northern states to eliminate the Almajiri phenomenon. Different educational reforms have been carried out by successive state and federal governments but it has been met with stiff opposition by the Ulamas and several influential northerners because of its blend of secular and Islamic curricula. Ulamas are a group of religious leaders with vast knowledge in Islamic doctrine and law. Also, most parents see the hardships associated with the Almajirai as necessary for Islamic learning.
Similarly, efforts by the current Kano state administration to reform the Almajiri system has been opposed by the Council of Ulama. Between late 2019 and early 2020, the Kano State government banned street begging, employed an additional 7,500 teachers, and offered free and compulsory education for all Almajirai across the state.
In June 2019, the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno, said the Almajiri system was a breeding ground for insecurity. Yet, the Almajiri population is growing rapidly in northern Nigeria.
Puzzlingly, Nigeria seems confused mainly on addressing the problem despite the 2003 Children’s Rights Act. A 2017 survey in Kano State estimated 3 million out-of-school children in the State. According to estimates of the United Nations, Nigeria is home to about 8.7 million to 10.5 million out of school children.
Dr. Abubakar Kawu Hassan, one of the 2020 National Almajirci conveners organized in Kaduna state, has disclosed the current position of clerics and Ulamas on the issue. While kicking against the move by the state government to abolish the Almajiri education system, Hassan said practitioners had shown readiness for a good reform to integrate both formal education and the Almajiri system.
“There are proper ways to achieving such a goal. Issues of religion are sensitive to people as this is what they inherit. So, abolishing what the people believe in requires patience,” he said.
Sheikh Sulaiman Bello, a cleric, told PlatinumPost in an interview, “This is not a good omen as most of these children have nothing to do apart from obtaining Islamic education. Abolishing most of these Isllamiyyas will also tell on the system, but establishing a system that will incorporate them into a formal education setting will help the system come out of so many evils already befalling the system,” Suleiman said.
“There has been so much horrible news about some Islamic teachers called (Mallams) and how they used to take advantage of these boys, abuse, molest and also use them as slaves. This is totally un-Islamic, it is evil and demonic. Anyone caught in such practice must be punished according to the law.”
Child rights activists, experts reveals possible treats
Many Nigerians have called for the abolition of the Almajiri system, saying it has become a breeding ground for insurgents and religious extremists.
Mr. Fred Amakolo, is the media officer of civil society organizations (CSOs) and activists under the aegis of Human Rights Agenda Network (HRAN). He explained the possible threats the society is exposed to with the abuse and maltreatment of Almajiri children and the wrong practice of the Almajiri school system in some parts of northern Nigeria.
“Seeing a child been abused should bother anyone with a conscience. Some of these children are innocent. They want to learn Islamic teachings and find food to survive. Let us put things in the right context, most Almajiri children are products of a failed system. Assume all things are rightly done, their parent provides food, and even pay their school fees. Do you think these children will roam the street begging? They won’t,” Amakolo said.
“The government can abolish the Almajiri system, but until the real problem is addressed, we will still be moving in a circle without a solution. When you ask most of these kids begging on the street, I am confident to tell you, they all want a good life, they all admire and desire to be like me and you, wearing nice clothes and looking all fresh, but their situations and financial incapacitation condition them,” he added.