For a long time, I have desired to write this article, but I have lacked the courage to do so, especially as it touches on religious issues, particularly one which I am not an adherent of. However, I overcame my inertia when I heard that the Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi had attributed the cause of Boko Haram in the North, specifically the North-East and North-West, to improper wealth distribution or income inequality between the North and the South. I later saw someone on Twitter trying to justify that claim by comparing per capita income in Rivers State and Jigawa State, with that of Jigawa way less than that of Rivers, despite having a much smaller population. This inspired me to do a Twitter ranting, which for the benefit for those not on Twitter, I will write down in this article.
In a way, I agree with the fact that income inequality has something to do with the emergence of Boko Haram, especially in creating the conditions for them to thrive. However, it is an incomplete picture. It is more important for us to discover the cause of that inequality. Is it that the governments in the South have been more responsive to their people over time, or less corrupt? This, we all know, is not so. Misgovernance and corruption cuts across Nigeria irrespective of region.
The setting of the stage for the emergence of an extremist religious sect like Boko Haram didn’t commence in recent past, but rather decades ago. Since the demise of true leadership in the North in the person of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier and Sardauna of Sokoto, all we have had are opportunists and power-mongers. These unscrupulous fellows formed the class of elites in the North, and comprise of politicians and a lot of clerics. They realized that the best way to continually hang on to power and wealth was to keep the people suppressed, illiterate and uninformed; and what better way to do it rather than use religion. Let me state here that the two regions mainly under focus is predominantly Muslim, except in states such as Adamawa and Taraba, and large parts of Gombe and Kaduna South. Thus began the twisting and politicizing of Islam for their own aims.
It started with the misinformation that family planning was against the tenets of Islam. The argument went that if God in His infinite wisdom gave the woman the privilege to have children till menopause in her 50s, then who was man to limit the number of children she could have. Also, that there should be no worries about how the children and family will get by as God wouldn’t allow them to go hungry. Hence, the poor butcher ends up marrying 3 wives and siring 22 children, way above what his finances can support. In stark contrast, the elite give birth to just about the number of children that his finances can support, and gives them the best he can.
Also, as children, these poor children are denied polio immunization as a result of another misinformation that polio vaccines are targeted at making the Northern Muslim child infertile in future. While the lower class swallowed this hook, line and sinker, the child of the elite receives vaccination and goes on to live healthy live. His poor counterpart stays with the risk of the crippling disease, and when Lady Luck doesn’t smile on him and he gets polio, he ends up on the streets a beggar.
Beyond that, the political class, through successive governments in the North, has totally abandoned education. This means that the only means of getting quality education was to enrol one’s kids in private schools, which are out of the reach of the poor butcher and members of his class. The alternative becomes to take his male kids to mallams, who then turn them into almajiris. These mallams sometimes take these kids, as young as 6 in some cases, to as far as Maiduguri from Kebbi, in the name of giving them Koranic education. However, most times, these kids spend their entire time roaming the streets, begging for change and scavenging for left-overs to feed themselves. In the process, they are exposed to innumerable hazards and risks, not to mention being deprived of parental love and care at such young ages. The female children are turned to hawkers with all its attendant risks, and eventually married off in their early to mid-teens. This situation practically forecloses the chance of the poor butcher’s child going to school and using that education to escape the throes of poverty.
The children of the elite, however, enjoy the benefits of modern education, parental care and love and still receive Koranic learning, sometimes at home or at the neighbourhood Islammiya (Islamic school). The girls enjoy the benefit of full secondary education and even tertiary schooling before they get married, mostly to the child of other elite.
While all these ills would have been solved with the ratification of the Child Rights Act as passed by the National Assembly for the protection of the Nigerian child, no legislative assembly in the North-East and North-West has done so. Their excuse? Your guess is as good as mine – it is against the tenets of our religion, not minding the fact that the same tenets they claim to be preserving does not apply to their children.
This is the main reason we have been unable to deal with the problem of almajiranci in Nigeria. We are the only Muslim country with this problem as no other country, not even in Africa, not even poor Niger Republic has this problem. In the end, we have an estimated 15 million children roaming our streets under this system that is long overdue for reform. Let me put this in perspective for you: the number of almajirai on our streets equals the entire population of Niger Republic. Mainly, there has been no political will to put an end to this, as those with the authority to do it are the direct beneficiaries of this system.
The worst part of all this is that the elite have successfully brainwashed the people into always accepting whatever that is done in the name of Islam, whether rightly or wrongly. They have put into them the fear of not being able to speak out against this misinformation, for those who are able to discern it as such. This is the main reason that despite the fact majority of Northern Muslims are not in support of Boko Haram, they have been slow to condemn it and also weak in their condemnations.
How do the elite benefit from all these? The end result is not just a fast-growing population in these places, but also that the bulk of that population would be poor, diseased, illiterate and uninformed – the definition of poverty. They then become willing tools in the hands of the elite, either it be from influencing them to vote or support a candidate or policy based on religious sentiments via demagoguery, or using them to rig elections or carry out violence, political or religious.
This isn’t just a conspiracy theory. There abound many stories of the collusion by the elites to create this situation. For example, during the Second Republic tenure of the Kano State Governor, Late Alhaji Abubakar Rimi had a mass literacy programme so successful that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) gave him an award. However, Kano elites were said to be displeased with this program. They were said to have asked him to discontinue it, as they preferred their masses illiterate and uninformed, obviously for easy manipulation. Also, it is said that in the early 1970s, Western education was not encouraged in the Borno Emirate, because as they said, that if everyone was educated, then who will cut grass to feed the horses of the Shehu of Borno?
However, what they did not factor into that calculation was the fact that as these poor kids grew up illiterate and as almajirai, they gradually became frustrated at their poverty and lack of opportunities. This frustration gradually grew into resentment, especially as the children of the elite flaunted wealth before them. They saw themselves being used and dumped by the elite, and then in years to come, by the children of the elite too. They turned more and more into religion, being the opium of the masses, as Karl Marx put it. It then became easy for any firebrand preacher who made the government and the rich the constant target of his rebukes and sermons to amass huge popularity and a large following.
The soil had overtime become much fertilized for religious extremism to be planted and produce fruits. As Barack Obama wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope, religious extremism thrives most in societies where there is economic and politic oppression. What is supposed to be a class war or fight against dictatorship is then redirected to become religious warfare and the anger channelled in this direction. This also shows that military force alone is not enough to quash this terrorist activity. It will only work in the short-term. This is because when Boko Haram is exterminated and these conditions not changed, it would only be a matter of time before another extremist sect starts and rapidly recruits frustrated, disgruntled and brainwashed young men into their ranks.
The solution to this terrorism in the long-term is for the Northern elite class to do a lot of soul-searching and commence the de-politicisation of religion. Clerics must prevail on their adherents to take modern education extremely serious, while governments make sure schools are available to every child. Every house of assembly must ratify the Child Rights Act and make sure it is being followed to the letter. And the biggest of all, we must reform the almajiri system. It is time to dust up the bill introduced by Senator Tafidan Argungu of Kebbi State in 2009, during the last legislative session of the Senate and re-introduce it. Not only that, religious leaders, from imams to sheikhs and emirs must be in the front of championing this reform, else it will die a natural death.
This is the only way that we can guarantee ourselves long0-term security in Nigeria as a whole, and in the North in particular. It is through the power of education that the South and the Middle Belt has been able to pull itself ahead of the North, where dependence on government is way less than up here. That is also the reason that religious extremism is unable to find roots in the South, unlike here. Let us look way beyond guns and tanks and even intelligence to dealing with this situation. They are merely curative.