Last Saturday, the Kwara Police Command announced the interception of a truck conveying 200 ‘Almajiri’ children about to be off-loaded in the state. “When the driver of the truck was interrogated, he said that they were coming from Funtua in Katsina State, despite the inter-state travel ban,” said Ajayi Okasanmi, Kwara Police spokesman who added, “the truck and the 200 Almajiri were escorted by fully-armed policemen to the Niger-Kwara boundary to where they will return to Katsina.” One can only imagine how that large number of children survived inside one vehicle for such a long journey from Katsina to Ilorin and back. But then, does anyone care? After all, they are only ‘Almajiri’ children!
Two days earlier, the Taraba State government refused to take delivery of their own ‘consignment’. Hundreds of ‘Almajiri’ children reportedly arrived Jalingo from Lafia, escorted by officials of the Nasarawa State Ministry of Women Affairs. The children were restricted to the vehicle that brought them for several hours without being provided food or water, then eventually ‘deported’ back to whence they came. Mr Sunday Maiyaki, Permanent Secretary Political Cabinet Affairs and General Services, provided justification in a letter he handed to Nasarawa State officials: “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.”
At about the same time in Zaria, Kaduna State government officials arrested a cleric who was running an ‘Almajiri’ business. The Commissioner for Human Development and Social Services, Hajiya Hafsat Baba narrated what they found: “Young girls of not more than eight to 10 years were mixed up with these boys. We were able to evacuate 327 out of the 500 children in the house. We also understand that he (the cleric) gives out these girls for marriage.”
Since the first COVID-19 index case was identified in Nigeria seven weeks ago, we have witnessed numerous defining moments in our uncoordinated response to deal with the pandemic. Governors are creating borders on federal roads and enforcing such illegalities while some, like Nyesom Wike of Rivers, are using the restrictions to whimsically trample on the rights and liberties of residents. The role of Pentecostal churches is increasingly called into question as a result of unhelpful utterances of some otherwise respected clerics at a period when the Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) has offered all its 425 health facilities across the country as isolation centres for COVID-19.
While the nation was on lockdown last month, we also witnessed dozens of fire incidences. Notable were the Maola shopping mall in Ebute Ero, Lagos, (3rd April); ‘Treasury House’ Abuja which houses Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation (8th April); Itire-Lawanson branch of Access Bank in Lagos (10th April); Ngala Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Borno which claimed the lives of about 20 persons and left dozens of others critically injured (14th April); headquarters of the Corporate Affairs Commission, Abuja and Dugbe Market, Ibadan (15th April); Muda Lawal Market, Bauchi (16th April); a section of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) headquarters in Abuja (17th April); Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) office in Jos, Plateau State (21st April) etc.
Meanwhile, the news that Madagascar has found a ‘cure’ for COVID-19 developed from traditional herbs has excited a number of African countries, including Nigeria. Chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on combating COVID-19 and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, announced last weekend that President Muhammadu Buhari had directed him to send a plane to Guinea Bissau to pick up a consignment of COV Organic remedy donated by the government of Madagascar. While the Madagascar Institute of Applied Research (MIAR) indeed announced developing herbal tea using artemisia (which is available all over Nigeria) and other local herbs to treat malaria, how it suddenly developed into a COVID-19 cure is not the work of scientists but that of a smart politician and businessman. From the World Health Organisation (WHO) to the Africa Centre for Disease Control, no recognised scientific body within or outside Madagascar has endorsed this ‘miracle cure’ of which President Andry Rajoelina is the sole promoter, producer and marketer. In fact, the National Academy of Medicine of Madagascar (ANANEM) is sceptical about this ‘preventive and curative’ drug that our officials are now so excited about. For those who may not know Rajoelina’s background, he was into event management, show business (like a certain Mr Donald Trump), advertising and media before becoming president. When politicians are in the forefront of what is essentially a scientific process, it calls for concern. Enough said on this matter, at least for today.
We really do need to interrogate a number of issues that have been thrown up by efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria. But of most concern to me today is the ‘Almajiri’ challenge that has festered for decades. If indeed the true measure of humanity is how a society treats its weak and most vulnerable – and there is perhaps no group more vulnerable in our country today than these unfortunate children – then it is clear how we have failed as a nation. Aged between four and 18, these neglected children who roam the streets without any discernible means of survival except begging, have long been a social problem that both the government and communities in the North have refused to deal with. But COVID-19 and the danger these children pose to the health of the larger society has now compelled action.
In the wake of the lockdown, Northern Governors decided that all ‘Almajiri’ children be relocated back to their states of origin. “We’ve been looking for the ways and means to end this system because it has not worked for the children, it has not worked for Northern Nigeria and it has not worked for Nigeria. So, it has to end and this is the time,” said Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna who confirmed that the parents of the ‘Almajiri’ children returned to his state “have been tracked and would be properly trained on parental responsibilities. It is a long process, but the children must go to school.”
I am encouraged that the irresponsible parents who ‘throw away’ their children can be located. The Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar II, has on several occasions said “Almajiri does not represent Islam, but hunger and poverty. Islam encourages scholarship and entrepreneurship and frowns at laziness and idleness as exemplified by itinerant Almajiri. Therefore, attempt must be made to stop the practice.” But perhaps nobody has expended as much time and energy in fighting the menace than Muhammadu Sanusi II, whose repeated advocacy on the issue irritated power mongers in Kano. “If you can’t feed your family, don’t send your child to beg on your behalf. If we continue to live in self-denial, we will live to cry,” he warned last November while speaking to a culture of irresponsible parenting that is national but more pervasive in what was then his traditional domain.
The swarm of out of school, bowl-carrying children that wander the streets in search of food and alms is a glaring side effect of uncontrolled birth which explains why the ‘Almajari’ issue has again reinforced the argument for family control in the country. Our social security can only be safeguarded if people practice family planning rather than use religion as an excuse to produce children they cannot cater for. While the northern governors have a crucial role to play, and El-Rufai has already laid the groundwork, we require a national effort to deal with the menace. We may not call them ‘Almajari’ but these children also exist in other parts of the country. Wife of the vice president, Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo bears eloquent testimony to this in her 2014 book, ‘They Call Me Mama: From the Under Bridge Diaries’. Inspiration for the book resulted from her experiences to reform street boys on Lagos Island who had been abandoned by their parents. She believed their stories are worth telling if only to nudge the conscience of those who are in a position to help.
With too many parents in Nigeria lacking an emotional connection to their children, I have on several occasions raised questions that are tied to our unproductive population growth. Must we continue to live in denial about a serious social problem that threatens the future of our country? Should men with no visible means of livelihood be allowed to continue marrying several wives who birth children they have neither the capacity nor willingness to take care of? Should adults be allowed to have children for whom they have little or no duty to care? Can poverty be an excuse for parents (including mothers) to abandon their children to the streets or to so-called clerics?
While the primary responsibility of parenting remains personal, only government can create the incentives and environment for limiting family size. Traditional and religious institutions can help with advocacy on the menace of street children as Muhammadu Sanusi II did until he lost his throne in the process. But, as it is in most countries, parental irresponsibility ought to attract penalties to save society from the dire future consequences of children raised without proximity, care or love. These are children more likely to graduate as vicious free agents of evil and serve as recruiting grounds for every manner of criminal cartels.
All said, the confusion surrounding the plight of our ‘Almajari’ children while attempting to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic is regrettable. The Northern Governors decision to return these children to their states of origin is unconstitutional because governors have a responsibility to protect Nigerian citizens who are resident in their domain. The same constitution protects citizens from all forms of discrimination on grounds of circumstance. To ‘deport’ these children either because they are ‘Almajari’ or on suspicion they might be infected with COVID-19 is the height of discrimination.
Recognizing the ‘Almajiri’ problem as a consequence of a cultural feature shared by many northern states should dictate a broad based policy thrust requiring rehabilitation of these children. Allowing them to be tossed around like destitute political footballs is inhuman. As my colleague, Kayode Komolafe (KK) wrote yesterday in his piece on The Almajiri Question, “The class prejudice against these children is highly unconscionable. They suffer this fate because they are poor and destitute.” A broad based solution must therefore encompass free compulsory education, state sponsored feeding and social rehabilitation as well as mandatory counselling for their traceable parents.
Going forward, the affected governments must initiate legislation to outlaw the ‘Almajari’ tradition. On its part, the federal government must now indicate a national optimum family size with incentives and penalties attached. The bottom line is to emphasize the central role of the family in ensuring an orderly society. We must put an end to a culture that promotes what a former First Lady once derogatorily (but perhaps very appropriately) termed, ‘Born throw-away.’
The Productivity of Idleness
If nobody felt sorry for me during recent restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I am certain Mrs Oloruntoyosi Thomas (my ‘Toy Toy’) knew how difficult it must have been for ‘Boda Segun’ to be ‘locked down’ for five weeks. In the first few days I didn’t know what to do with myself so I spent considerable time on the phone. But apparently having noticed that I was behaving like those cranky aunties who spend their days spreading gossip and fake news on WhatsApp, the First Lady of Ekiti State, Mrs Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi sent me a terse message: ‘Don’t tell me you are idle’. And I replied: ‘Very, very’.
But that message also got me thinking. Since we are likely witnessing a historical moment in our country, I decided I should begin keeping a diary. I increased the number of newspapers I buy every day from four to seven, and started to pick out interesting stories on the COVID-19 experience in Nigeria. That has not only kept me busy, it has meant I cut down on the hours I had for WhatsApp. Perhaps because my messages dried up, Mrs Fayemi quipped last Friday, ‘Are you still idle?’ I explained to her what I had been doing with my time these past few weeks. Then came her reply: ‘That sounds like a great idea! I can just see the title now: The Productivity of Idleness’.
While I doubt my ability to write such a philosophical book, I am hoping that by next year I may be able to come up with a ‘Coronawahala’ book on this period in our history. Meanwhile, I must thank Tolu Ogunlesi for his Tweet which last weekend fired an unusual interest in my book, ‘The Last 100 Days of Abacha’. A cleaner copy is now available on my web portal, olusegunadeniyi.com, for free downloads. The question many readers have been asking me is which Abba Kyari did I list among those who supported the efforts of General Sani Abacha to perpetuate himself in office. I honestly did not know until The Cable story of Tuesday which confirmed that it was Brigadier General Abba Kyari. The renewed interest in a book last published in 2005 (all copies in circulation are pirated because I never reprinted after initial copies sold out) has also led to requests for my other books, including the latest, ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for Grades in African Universities’. Interestingly, there is little or no awareness of perhaps my most serious work, which is also available for free download on my web portal. There is a background to the effort.
In February 2012, a public hearing was conducted by the House of Representatives into the downstream sector of the Nigerian petroleum industry with particular attention to subsidy payments between 2009 and 2011. Those who testified before the ad hoc committee included the then Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; then Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke; then Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke, SAN; two then Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Deputy Governors, (Dr Kingsley Moghalu and Mr Tunde Lemo); then Chair of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Mrs Ifueko Omougui-Okauru; then Director General, Budget Office of the Federation, Dr Bright Okogu; then Chairman of the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission, Mr Elias Nban; and the then Group Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Commission (NNPC), Mr Austin Oniwon. Depositions were also taken from heads of relevant institutions at the time (Nigeria Ports Authority, Customs, PPPRA, PPMC, PEF etc.). Among people who testified from the private sector were former Finance Minister, Dr Kalu Idika Kalu as well as legal practitioners, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN and Mr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN. There were also testimonies from 93 oil marketers and importers, senior officials from the Nigerian Navy, the auditors appointed by the Ministry of Finance to verify subsidy claims, members of the professional bodies in the downstream sector, foreign oil traders, officials of the Nigerian Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress as well as the managing directors of the Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna refineries. By the time their sessions ended, the committee had taken testimony from 130 witnesses and received in evidence 3,000 volumes of documents.
The public hearing was broadcast live on television and captured the attention of Nigerians for weeks. A few weeks after the sessions ended, I asked the chairman, Farouk Lawan and then Speaker (current Sokoto State Governor), Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, for copies of the entire proceedings and after several weeks of back and forth and the kind assistance of committee secretary, Mr Boniface Emenalo, I was eventually provided all the reports. These included raw (unedited) transcripts of testimonies, audio recordings of proceedings and all documents. It took me almost two years and several sleepless nights from June 2012 to March 2014 to sieve through the mass of documents and listen to many of the tapes.
But by the time I completed the work, I had ended up with 772 pages, even after rigorous editing. I knew better than to expend resources in publishing such a voluminous book in a society like ours. I simply put it on my web portal, olusegunadeniyi.com. So, I enjoin readers to find time to download ‘The verbatim report of the ad hoc committee on the management of subsidy regime by the House of Representatives’, here: (https://olusegunadeniyi.com/downloads/verbatimreport.pdf)
With testimonies from principal actors, it is not only an authoritative report on the oil and gas sector in our country but also a compelling story of Nigeria.
Bob Dee @ 60
Right from the beginning of the year, our dear egbon, Chief Dele Momodu began preparing for his 60th birthday which comes up on Saturday, 16th May. COVID-19 has messed up the entire plan. I now hear of a ‘Zoom Party’, whatever that means. Can I secure a plate of jollof rice on Zoom? But as I told him during the week, we are only postponing the Big-Do for his 70th birthday in 2030, by the special grace of God. I wish Bob Dee happy birthday as he joins the sexagenarian club.
• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com