“I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.” — John Milton
In 2013, a UNICEF Op-ed stated that the prospect of Nigeria achieving education for all by 2015 remains frail. Fast-forward into 2019, the fear expressed by UNICEF has not only become a reality but also, the hope of Nigeria achieving inclusive formal education (western education) for all is still acute. The Global Monitoring Report (GMR) in 2015 revealed that Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children (OOSC) in the world. With approximately 10.5 million kids out of school, plus Nigeria dominating 12 other countries that account for 47 percent of the global out-of-school population, it is an ignoble statistics and a preventable endemic in the 21st century.
Although out-of-school children ‘syndrome’ is an educational malaise that is ubiquitous in every part of the Nigerian state, no region has it more pronounced or holds the record of having the highest rate of OOSC than the northern region of the country. With UNICEF Nigeria pegging the percentage of OOSC in northern Nigeria at 60%, the sight of primary school-age children roaming the streets of northern Nigeria states’ capitals during school hours looks normal to the locals considering their obsequiousness to this portentous phenomenon which an average educated alien in the country would term to be appalling.
Of all the spectrum of factors causing OOSC in nigeria; poverty, early marriage, illiteracy, dearth of competent instructors, inadequate facilities and increase in human fecundity, none contributes to the scalar of OOSC like the Almajiri Education System — A relic educational system that originated in the11th century in the ancient Karnem- Borno Empire that stretched from northwest Nigeria, modern-day Chad, and to the doors of Libya. Almajiri is derived from the Arabic word “al muhajirun”, meaning an immigrant. It centered around the Islamic concept of knowledge and migration that encourages the search for knowledge away from home, if the Islamic knowledge acquired is either insufficient or inconvenient.
Before the advent of the British colonialists in Northern Nigeria, the almajiri educational system also known as the Tsangaya system was established as a comprehensive system of education for learning Islamic principles, values, jurisprudence, and theology. It is a facsimile of Islamic learning centers in Muslim countries. In its apotheosis, the almajiri educational system contributed the largest workforce to the northern communities as they made significant contributions to the economy of the society. It is said that the Tsangaya system provided the British colonialists with the first set of colonial staffs in Northern Nigeria. The system though was funded through the State’s treasury, it was not dependent on the state because the students had the liberty to acquire occupational skills in between their Islamic lessons. They were involved in farming, masonry, trade, tailoring, and other artisanal jobs.
The fall of the almajiri education system began in 1904 when the British invaded northern Nigeria and took control of the state’s treasury. The new colonial administration deemed the indigenous educational system incongruous and thus deliberately abolished its state funding claiming that they were religious schools. This denigration of the indigenous educational system by the new colonial masters irked the Mallams, the students, and the society, thereby causing antagonism and acrimony for the new western education that was used to replace the indigenous format. The animosity shown towards the new educational system was compounded by its Christian origin.
Although, dwindled support from the government and the aptness of the incipient western education in the new colonial administration was a wrecking ball to the structure of the almajiri operating system, the Tsangaya education continued to thrive nevertheless, because local Islamic scholars deemed it a religious piety they owed Allah by continuing to teach in the Almajiri schools.
It is also pertinent to note that the Tsangaya educational system continued to exist not because it had any use in the new system, it never did, instead, the indigenous educational system continued to survive because of the deep religious sentiment expressed by the predominantly Muslim population of northern Nigeria against the Christian origins of western education and the inertia expressed by Nigeria’s northern elites. It is an oblique perspective that survived not only to this day but also has become an impediment to the socio-political and economic development of a significant population of northern Nigeria.
The socio-political and economic developments that ensued during the colonial rule and after the country’s independence to this modern epoch has had profound effects on the current state of the Tsangaya educational system. In equal terms, economic misfortunes and the political travesty of successive Nigerian governments have dealt massive blows to the almajiri schools. Mallams who once accepted the job of being teachers to disseminate Islamic knowledge as an act of spiritual obeisance, religious posterity and defiance against the colonists’ choice of education have turned the indigenous educational structure to an apparatus for satisfying their economic wants. Most Tsangaya in northern Nigeria has become an alternative for an orphanage for parents who can’t afford to cater to their offspring.
Stuck in some sort of time warp, the failure of those conventionally entrusted with the administration of the almajiri education to embrace educational progressivism, metamorphize and find a way to assimilate western education into the indigenous education curriculum, and teach skills that resonate with modern economic niche has helped in creating a long line of indigent Quranic teachers and graduates — both the teachers and the recipients of their teachings lack the major skills to contribute to a formal economy and are hence condemned to the catacombs of the informal economy — the students who refuse to take after their impecunious Quranic teachers occupationally tend to fend for themselves doing menial jobs, thereby continuing the vicious cycle.
From a humanitarian perspective, it would be quite obnoxious to encounter an almajiri and not pity his battered innocence. The alamajiri, deprived of the joys and boon of childhood by the society that was suppose to purvey them, their demeanor accentuate their realities: neglect, acute poverty (cognitive & material), gravely distorted future, shambolic governance, lack of parental care, and of course parentage whose current realities have been misshapen by the rabid shenanigans of successive Nigerian governments.
No country has achieved constant economic development without considerable investment in human capital. Previous studies have shown handsome returns to various forms of human capital accumulation: basic education, research, training, learning-by-doing and aptitude building. The distribution of education matters (Ilhan, 2001, p. 2). And failure to address this national disgrace portends great difficulty to the socio-economic wellbeing of the country’s future. The almajiri malaise will hunt Nigeria on two major fronts: economic and security. The nexus between poverty and terrorism is complicated but foot soldiers for terrorist groups have been known to join terror cause solely for financial incentives. Imagine an impoverished population of 10.5million illiterates under a charismatic leader with a bellicose and violent intent, the outcome would be devastating not just in Nigeria but also in the neighboring countries in the West African region already plagued by the activities of ISWAP and Boko Haram.
Furthermore, the world is well into the fourth industrial age and Nigeria is still very much lagging. In a world that is increasingly becoming data driven and artificial intelligence is being used to drive concise policies in agriculture, finance and public administration, the current almajiri curriculums should be revised and merged with western education which would boost the nation’s socio-economic development index. The educational provisions within any given country represent one of the main determinants of the composition and growth of that country’s output and exports and constitute an important ingredient in a system’s capacity to borrow foreign technology effectively(Ilhan, 2001, p. 3). Formal primary and secondary education will increase workers’ productivity either rural or urban. Although the economic prosperity of the almajiri is not a silver bullet for the country’s socio-economic challenges, and successive Nigerian governments at one point in time have been known to erect school structures to address almajiri education and lifestyle, the truth is that bad governments build schools too. More needs to be done to help the almajiri beyond building schools and effort should be made to measure the cost-benefit of investing in them and KPIs developed to the peculiarity of the situation. A concerned government would see the academic and economic inclusion of the almajiri as a concrete strategy for the socio-economic stability of the Nigerian state in the future.
Upon conclusion, inclusive modern education for the almajiri must be intentional because failure to do so is dangerous to the country’s stability, but a well coordinated effort to educate the almajiri in a highly competitive world lays a sweet spot for Nigeria’s economic development.