A Glimpse into the World of Almajirai in Northern Nigeria

I first met Hannah Hoechner in May this year, at the Oxford University Pan African Conference. I was outside the conference hall, getting some fresh air and chatting with several people when this friendly long haired brunette came to us and said hello in Hausa. Fascinated, we proceeded to ask her how come she could speak the Hausa language, to which she replied, that she had lived in Kano for some time, doing field research for her DPhil, as a student at the Oxford Department of International Development (ODID). We chatted briefly before she left.

Fast forward to October 2012, as a new DPhil student myself at ODID; I met Hannah again, and I learnt about her DPhil research on Traditional Qur’anic Schools in Kano. The research “aims to understand the experience of Qur’anic students (almajirai) in Kano State in Northern Nigeria”. One of the most interesting things she said during a presentation of her field research findings to ODID a few weeks ago is that not all almajirai in northern Nigeria are beggars and not all child beggars are almajirai. Infact if one comes across an almajiri (singular) who isn’t begging, it’d be difficult to identify him as such. Think about it!

During the course of Hannah’s 13-month field work in Kano, she produced a docu-drama offering an arguably never-before-seen comprehensive view of the life and experiences of an almajiri on celluloid. The movie, titled, “Duniya Juyi Juyi” (How Life Goes) was co-produced by the Goethe-Institut Kano and had some touch of the Kannywood (Hausa) movie industry. What I found quite fascinating is that real life almajirai were fully involved in the movie – nine almajirai from different parts of Kano were trained to write the script for the film, to do most of the acting, to handle the camera, and to give the stage directions.

On set of the Duniya Juyi Juyi movie. Almajirai playing the roles of cameraman and actor. Photo credit: Carmen McCain's Flickr photos
On set of the Duniya Juyi Juyi movie. Almajirai playing the roles of cameraman and actor. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos
Some of the crew members of the movie. They are almajirai. Photo credit: Carmen McCain's Flickr photos
Some of the crew members of the movie. They are almajirai. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos
Some cast and crew. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos

Watching the movie at ODID, several strong emotions — mainly of gratitude and guilt — coursed through me. I was grateful that first hand stories of these young boys, involuntarily enmeshed in the complicated traditional-Qur’anic system (whose present utility is hotly debated) have been shared. These boys are often vilified and even demonized by society. For instance, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka inaccurately described almajirai as the “Butchers of Nigeria”, depriving such boys of their humanity and agency, depicting them as would-be arsonists, killers and terrorists who in his view are “deliberately bred, nurtured, sheltered… ready to be unleashed at the rest of society”.

I was also grateful that Hannah’s in-depth and highly analytical research provides new information and sheds light on the almajiri system – the truths, the stereotypes around it and confirms what many have pointed out, that is a system in dire need of urgent reforms. At the same time, a streak of guilt flashed through momentarily, that Hannah, from Germany, is the one providing an insight – and she does it brilliantly – into one of the most contentious socio-cultural issues in Nigeria.

I obtained Hannah’s permission to share the absolutely amazing work she is doing with her research and the fascinating first hand story of these boys on this blog. Due to technical (in)compatibility issues, I couldn’t embed the Duniya Juyi Juyi video directly here, but find below two links to the video posted elsewhere:

To view the video in small format, click on this link HERE
To view the video in medium format, click on this link HERE

The movie is just about one hour in total. Enjoy!!! …and please leave your comments and/or questions below, I am sure you will have many!

Advertisements

A People in Terminal Decline

For a while now, I’ve had reason to believe that the people of Northern Nigeria, especially the (in)famous “dominant” group, the Hausa-Fulanis seem to be in terminal decline. Could this conviction have stemmed out of the aftermath of the 2011 Nigerian general elections and the rampage of the Northern youths against the so-called Northern leaders or the recent spate of Boko Haram attacks in the northern cities of Kano and Kaduna? Perhaps it is the intensification of the unfair media bias and the recent vitriolic, virulent and hateful diatribes against the mostly Muslim Hausa-Fulani Northerners in the mainstream and social media or the serial decline and retardation of the economy in the north and/or the region’s growing political irrelevance in the scheme of things in Nigeria. This conviction is coupled with a growing realization that little or nothing is being done by us, the victims, of our mostly self inflicted problems to salvage our future which is in dire jeopardy.

The most obvious problem is the serious leadership deficit in the North which became magnified before and after the 2011 general elections. There is almost a general consensus that Northerners who were at the helms of affairs in the country for several decades did little to better the life of ordinary people in the region in terms of provision of healthcare, education and other infrastructure, direction of useful investments and creation of economic opportunities for the population. The leaders are seen to have enriched themselves and their cronies while using an adept mixture of religion and ethnicity to keep people subjugated in the shackles of illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, and misery. Few leaders have utilized accumulated wealth towards establishing profitable enterprises that employ people, philanthropic organizations that empower others or other productive ends. Rather accumulated wealth is squandered in consumerist behaviour, in opulence in the midst of absolute and abject poverty. Interesting exposés on the leadership deficit have been written by analysts such as Dr. Hakeem Baba Ahmed and the columnist Adamu Adamu amongst several others.

While the deficit of transformational leadership is not exclusively a Northern phenomenon, it is more magnified in the North. It is these leaders who are perceived by many to have “sold out” the north during the 2011 elections hence the rampage of the youths against various emirs, a former speaker of the House of Representatives amongst others. Consequently traditional, religious and political leaders who used to command tremendous respect from people have lost their credibility, and to an extent legitimacy to speak on behalf of the people. Certain enigmatic “geniuses” have been de-robed of their toga of mystique. The people in turn are plagued by frustration, helplessness and hopelessness in the wake of un-inspiring leadership. The newbreeds like Nuhu Ribadu and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi who are viewed with suspicion or seem more interested in embroiling themselves in political controversy provide virtually little solace.

Closely following the heels of the leadership deficit is the economic decline and retardation of the region. This economic decline has been accelerated by the Boko Haram insurgency, thanks to which the holy grail of foreign investments will now become ever so elusive. Once the basket of the nation on account of its agricultural productivity – the legendary, towering groundnut pyramids of Kano come to mind –   and its budding industrial activity, the north is now plagued by rapid de-industrialization. 

Buildings housing hitherto bustling factories lay derelict and abandoned in ominous gloom in Kano, Kaduna and Zaria. Poor incentives to farmers, lack of storage facilities and access to credit has led to a decline in agricultural productivity as state governments are embroiled in one fertilizer corruption scandal or the other. With the exception of Kano and to a lesser extent Kaduna, few businesses, and enterprises especially SMEs are owned and managed by Northerners. In many state capitals, the bulk of the labour force engaged in the formal sector are civil servants. The neglect of agriculture, manufacturing and other economic activity for easy oil money coming from the federal government by the state governments has aggravated this situation as the allocation is hardly directed towards reviving infrastructure, capital projects, empowering the populace or investment in non-oil sectors of the economy. The CBN governor recently stated that many states, especially in the North are economically unviable without such allocations. Instead, monthly allocations which run into billions of naira each month are expended towards recurrent expenditure and unproductive ventures such as subsidies on annual Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage trips mainly to reward cronyism. This dependence on oil revenues which has done little to benefit the ordinary Northerner has created an impression of the North as an unproductive region, a “liability” which contributes virtually nothing to the nation’s kitty but consumes so much because of its population and its size. Though a cursory look at history deflates this impression since the proceeds from agricultural produce of the North virtually sustained the nation before the discovery of oil.

A socio-cultural aspect of our numerous problems and which lies at the heart of it is our mind set as a people, especially amongst the Hausa-Fulanis . We have developed a mind-set that paradoxically makes us feel culturally superior when infact we are progressively retrogressing in many aspects. We look down on fellow Northerners of a different religion and ethnicity, we feel our own brand of Islam is better than the Islam practiced by a Yoruba man, an Igala or a Tiv such that you’d forgive anyone for thinking the Holy Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Hausa language somewhere in Kano. We feel many career choices especially those which involve working our way to the top are demeaning; our educated youths have been brought up with the mind set to only aim for the ultimate “secure government job” or bust, and as a result many an enterprising and creative youth’s dreams have died at stillbirth by the patriarch’s final fiat.

This paradoxical superiority complex has pitched us against other “minority” groups in the north who used to be our brothers but now regard us with contempt and derision and has been played upon by mischievous people to ferment ethno-religious tensions.  Many are quick to blame Islam or the mixture of religion and politics, but a comparison of predominantly Muslim societies who are doing relatively well-off such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Malaysia and Indonesia for instance shows Islam is not the problem, rather a crude cocktail of ignorance, and the perversion of religious teachings and cultural prescriptions. While in Iran, women outnumber men in Universities as many are highly educated and articulate, female literacy in Northern Nigeria by contrast remains abysmally low, one of the lowest in the world and ditto women empowerment though attitudes are positively changing at snail pace. The problem appears as a friend once stated that we haven’t found the right interface between culture and religion in the North.

Lastly is the all-out media war and propaganda against the North. From the mainstream media to social networks, online forums to blogs, it is hunting season for anything Northern (in this context, synonymous with the Northerner of Hausa-Fulani extraction but also any of the predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in the north: Kanuri, Nupe etc). At most you need an advertorial on the pages of the numerous dailies, at the very least, you need an internet connected mobile phone and you are set to begin unleashing your full arsenal against “Northerners”. The activities of Boko Haram which have claimed more Muslim lives, wreaked more havoc to Northern cities than anywhere else are attributed to desperate Northern politicians who lost out in the political chess game, a view peddled around even by erstwhile respected intellectuals; sectarian crises and conflict which abound in every part of the country, but more frequently in the North are mostly attributed to the Hausa-Fulani Muslims who are seen to be the culprits even in situations where they are victims; even the lacklustre performance of the Jonathan administration is attributed to the “evil Northerners”. The problems highlighted above: leadership, economic decline and socio-cultural challenges have rendered us a voiceless people in this media war and propaganda, we are unable to tell our stories strongly from our own perspective while others do it for us, and they paint their version of the truth in whatever colour hue they deem fit.

Alleged Boko Haram Members Arrested in 2009

We are a people bedevilled by so many challenges which of course, this writer has barely scratched the surface of. The leadership deficit has aggravated our economic decline and retardation, and threatens not only our social cohesion but our very identity as a people. In times like these, a strong and transformational leadership is what is required to mobilize our abundant human and natural resources for us to realize our full potentials, but this deficit forms the bane of our problems. Paradoxically, while we acknowledge the failure of leadership, and the incapacity or inability of the present crop of leaders to do much to salvage our pathetic situation, we are still waiting on them.  Obviously our leaders cannot do much because they are constrained, because they are not interested or because it is a Frankestein’s monster has turned on Dr. Frankestein situation. While we “wait”, Boko Haram seems to be the only force filling this leadership vacuum in a very destructive and warped sense by co-opting the vast number of idle, unemployed and frustrated youths as willing recruits to its campaign of death and terror. Gradually, Boko Haram could become the only thing that defines us as a people, if this leadership vacuum persists and by then we WOULD BE DOOMED!

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau

To further buttress my point, when I googled “Northern Nigeria” and “Arewa Nigeria”, at least 50% of the images that came up in the search results were of Boko Haram, scenes of its attacks or images of its victims. That speaks volumes.

Whatever the case, it is our generation which will suffer most because the present crop of leaders have little to lose; we will live with the consequences of their actions while our children’s future becomes increasingly uncertain. Perhaps the tone here is a tad too pessimistic when this writer concludes that the numerous problems we face in the North crowned no less by Boko Haram’s deadly insurgency gives a gloomy premonition of a bleak future . We are in a terminal decline, the question is are we doing enough to address this? What can we or should we do to reverse this certain reality?

Boko Haram Attacks: a Literature Review

SubhanAllah! What! I think another bomb just got detonated in my area. It shook the living daylight out of my house which is close to police headquarters, Bompai. From my room I can hear fierceful gun battle.” Friday 20th January, 5.13pm local time

Another bomb just went off, shaking the very foundation of our house. Now I see walls cracking and ceiling loosing grip. Gun fight is getting intense.” Friday 20th January 5.40pm local time

Rains of bullets and tornado of explosions…! We’re in a war zone! I’ve never experienced anything close.” Friday 20th January, 6.09pm local time

These were some of the frantic messages posted on Facebook Aisha Mohammed (not real name) on Friday evening in the city of Kano Nigeria as the Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram unleashed a series of bomb attacks in one evening and engaged in fierce gun battle with security forces. The deadly onslaught on Kano city claimed over 200 lives with estimates by medical personnel placing the figure at a much higher lever. While this is just one of numerous other onslaughts by Boko Haram in recent times, it is so far its most vicious, deadliest and most sophisticated yet. The numerous attacks it has unleashed in the last few months, each one more deadly and daring than the previous have made it quite difficult to keep track. It would seem examining the latest spate of attacks, the surrounding circumstances  and making comparisons with previous ones to find out the missing pieces of the puzzle would be in order, just like a literature review of sorts to find out what key points we are missing.

SIZE AND SCALE OF ATTACKS

On this occasion, one discernible difference is the size, scale and magnitude of the attacks. Over 20 bombs were reported to have gone off in different locations in Kano city, which several police stations, the Immigration headquarters, the Department of the State Security Service (SSS) and other government buildings. As if the deadly bomb blasts were not enough, the attackers are reported to have engaged in fierce gun battle with police officers especially at the SSS headquarters and at  the Police headquarters Bompai. The blasts were reported by witnesses and many living in the vicinity of the targeted building to have been heard within a radius of up to two kilometres. Such buildings in the vicinity of the attacks, were said to have shattered, ceilings of houses caved in, walls cracked. The level of sophistication, precision and co-ordination is incredible as well as hair-raising. Attacking Kano, the commercial and cultural heart of the North surely struck a nerve. If the aim was to strike fear, terror and indelible emotional and psychological scarring, then mission fait accompli.

BIG SPONSORS AND BIG FINANCIERS

It is also clear that substantial resources were invested in carrying out these attacks. Not only was this in terms of the level of sophistication, planning and coordination in the onslaught on major security installations in the city, but also in terms of the calibre of army-grade weapons and explosives used. Eye witnesses reported the use of rocket-propelled launchers by the attackers. The way Boko Haram was able to stake out its targets – security installations to be precise – plan and strategically place explosives begs the question as to how come there was no prior intelligence or inkling that alerted anyone of such plans, least of all the security agencies.

The explosives used were obviously not the locally-made, home-made Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) used by the group in its previous campaigns. These bombs whose impacts were heard and felt within a reported 2km radius are neither cheap nor easy to come by. When all these are considered, it raises the question of whether Boko Haram as we know it (what little is known of it anyways) an isolated group that abhors western education and all trappings of modernity can on its own afford such expensive gadgets and logistics. What comes to mind is that there are big financiers and sponsors behind this group – certainly people with enormous resources, clout, influence and a bloody vendetta. President Goodluck Jonathan himself said this much when he confirmed what many have long suspected: that the group’s sympathisers have infiltrated his government. If so the key question remains, who are they and what do they intend to achieve with this bloody campaign?

 

BEYOND SECURITY AND RELIGION, A POLITICAL MATTER:

In light of all this information, it is clear that the Boko Haram sect and its activities have clearly gone beyond being a mere security challenge by a group which aims to “impose the adherence to strict shariah law”. This is clearly a deeply political problem which requires appropriate political solutions. This perhaps explains why the security measures adopted so far to contain the insurgency have proven futile: attempts at negotiation have been blatantly rejected by the group’s members; the deployment of a Joint Military Task Force to Borno state, the group’s stronghold, has simply resulted in arbitrary killings and other human rights violations of the civilian population and the recent state of emergency declared in states regarded as Boko Haram strong hold have similarly failed as it neither stopped random attacks in Maiduguri and Bauchi nor did it prevent the Kano blasts from occurring. All the group’s top members who have been arrested have either been murdered or have escaped in mysterious circumstances.

Consequently, the recent appeal by the National Security Adviser (NSA) General Andrew Azazi, encapsulated in his article in the Washington Times for US assistance in tackling Boko Haram has been viewed with scepticism. This is because there is only so much the most efficient police organizations and intelligence agencies in the world can do in a terrain where little information and little intelligence has been gathered. M15 or CIA can do little in an environment they are not familiar with or where they will stick out like sore thumbs.

After conducting this literature review of sorts, the underlying fact here is that there are deep underlying political issues that need to be resolved. The top echelon of the government clearly has sufficient information to work with, apprehend these sponsors/sympathisers and deal with them accordingly. Whether this means negotiating and sorting out the deep political problems which are clearly bedevilling Nigeria, or apprehending and prosecuting them, ordinary Nigerians simply want an end to the carnage, mayhem and bloodshed lest the looming anarchy descends and prevails.