Mohammed Sabo-Keana of Almajiri Child Rights Initiative say government agencies are shirking their responsibilities when it comes the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable children, the Almajiris who in desperate need of help:
Your group has been working to bring the plight of Almajiri children to the front burner. Yet, it is a problem northern governors have largely ignored. Are your efforts in vain?
I wouldn’t say they are in vain. Of course, we have not reached a point were we can say we have achieved what we want or that our efforts are in vain. But in any case, we have made progress considering the complexities of the issue.
Over the last few years that we have been doing this, four years now, I can tell you that we have had some milestones and achievements to show for it in terms of policies and in terms of actions and commitment to the Almajiri issue.
What we want is a permanent and sustainable solution for the Almajiri issue and it will happen even if it takes 50 years to come. What we want to achieve is for a point to come in our lives where there is no more the issue of Almajiranci, where we have children who are abused in the manner we see in Almajiranci
How many lives have you touched so far?
This is a reoccurring question people tend to ask. Our response is that the concept of small is beautiful is not what we need in addressing the Almajiri issue.
In social issues like this, you don’t have to limit solutions to quick impact strategies that will result in marginal gains.
It is nothing more than window dressing to the problem. We are really not a platform interested in making quick impacts where you will say we have taken 100 children out of Almajiri schools.
We are not interested in that even though we do that. This is because the issue is a problem that needs to be solved in the long term.
It is not for people to be concerned with numbers. If you take 100 off the streets and one million come to the streets, what have you done?
You have done nothing. And this is why the issue of Almajiranci has existed for the past 50 years in this country. Every organization, everybody, all they care about is how they affect a hundred lives and they think that is cool.
That is not cool because if you continue to do that, you limit your thinking to the idea that small is beautiful. I have taken 100 off the streets, that is cool enough for me to say.
But hundreds more are coming to the streets. So, focus is not to take a hundred off the streets and make noise about it.
What we want is a permanent and sustainable solution for the Almajiri issue and it will happen even if it takes 50 years to come.
What we want to achieve a point in our lives where there is no more the issue of Almajiranci. What we want is where we have children who are abused in the manner we see in Almajiranci.
That is our focus. So, our goal is to inspire policy change and a more permanent solution to the issue. In any case, we are working with some children.
We have put them in schools and we have impacted on their lives. But, honestly, we don’t talk about it because they are incidental.
If we want to solve this problem, if we want to be sincere about it; we must be able to determine what should be done to end the system even if it will take a hundred years.
So, honestly, I don’t have an answer to give you on how many people have touched. That is our own policy. Even though we are doing something on it, it is not something we talk about.
It is not our vision. We have people who do it. We applaud them. We also give direct support to them.
Our focus is on how to initiate policy, convene stakeholders and to galvanize citizens to draw up a more sustainable social, community driven welfare system to ensure that in the next 10, 20 years or so, we are not faced with this issue.
The characteristics of an Almajiri child on the streets qualifies them to be called destitute. And regardless of whether they are under a teacher or not, if they weren’t on the streets, nobody would call them destitute
Most of these children are put under the care of teachers. Why do you call them destitute?
When you put a child in the care of someone, what is expected is that that person has the capacity to provide the basic needs of the child.
When a teacher lacks the capacity to provide the basic needs of the children and they are sent onto the streets, they have to beg everyday before they eat.
They sleep in some of the worst conditions imaginable. They don’t have their bathes. They don’t have access to healthcare.
They are exposed to dangers that no child should be exposed to. A number of them die without being mourned. You can paint the picture of an Almajiri child on the streets.
The characteristics of an Almajiri child on the streets qualifies them to be called destitute. And regardless of whether they are under a teacher or not, if they weren’t on the streets, nobody would call them destitute.
If they were being fed or they don’t have to beg to eat, nobody would call them destitute. If they weren’t walking around in tattered clothes, nobody would call them destitute.
If they don’t sleep in the worst conditions, nobody would call them destitute. So, because they are living with the characteristics of destitution, it is what qualities people to describe them as such.
People may want to argue that they have parents, but the fact that they are being forced into the life they are in now, they have to be referred to as destitute.
Right now, they are innocents whose fundamental right to a better life, to childhood, to dignity have been deprived by the very people who supposed to protect them.
That is the so called teachers, the society and the government. Of course they destitute children that need help. In fact, they are suffering the worst form of abuse you can ever imagine in the world.
We have tried to engage NAPTIP and they told us it is not their responsibility. Obviously, they are trying to run from that responsibility because of the religious aspect
No state in Nigeria, not even the Federal Government has a department for social services. So how do begin to document the level of abuse these children suffer and without that, how do you make the laws and find ways to address them?
I am not sure if you are right to say that there are no agencies to take care of social issues regarding children. We have the women affairs ministry.
We have a department for social welfare and protection for children. We have NAPTIP. The also have a department that deals with the protection, exploitation of children, the dislocation and abuse of children.
There are some agencies and government parastatals that have certain responsibilities on the issue of children.
Perhaps, they are not effective or the laws setting them up and their functions are not well defined. So they are not effective in addressing and documenting these issues.
Perhaps they are even turning a blind eye to it because of religious and cultural inclination. We have tried to engage NAPTIP and they told us it is not their responsibility.
Obviously, they are trying to run from that responsibility because of the religious aspect.
Because of the peculiarity of the Almajiri issue, because of the religious and cultural inclination to it, we may as people need to look for another agency specifically for it.
That is what we are hoping to propose to the government at a point. We have seen that these other agencies I have mentioned have failed to address the issue.
Of course it is not their fault. It is the lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the leadership.
We see laws in Nigeria simply ignored, with the police sometimes acting more like community peace keepers rather than crime bursters. So why do you think enacting new laws will help?
I am not sure I have said we should enact new laws. I am only insinuating that perhaps we should amend or initiate a policy that tends to present the best option to address the Almajiri issue.
I am somebody that will tell you that yes, laws to ban Almajiri in Nigeria, laws to address it are good. Because laws are not effective does mean we should not make them.
But in addressing social norms like Almajiranci, laws are not usually the best approach to go about it. Laws are good, yes.
There is only so much the laws can do. The best approach it is to have an alternative that will replace the existing norms over time.
People tend to take norms as their culture and religion which is wrong. In solving social norms, laws are good but only when there is is alternative to the problem they seek to address.
If you provide an alternative and people fail to follow it, then you apply the laws.
But if you don’t provide an alternative and you bring laws, you will a bigger crisis and the law will not be sustainable, it will not be effective.
So, we are not saying there should be new laws. What there needs to be is transparency and commitment from the political leadership, the religious leadership and the traditional leadership in the northern part of the country.
If there is a law that bans it, the law will not be too effective. For me, if they ban it today, it will solve the problem that I want. But it will not be too effective.