By: Joel Nwokeoma
Nigerians have in recent days been inundated by the heartrending spectacles of human cargoes of mainly dishevelled lads surreptitiously packed like sardines in articulated vehicles and lorries from the North headed for the southern parts of Nigeria.
The unsightly spectacles are splashed all over the pages of newspapers, online news portals and TV, with identical banner headlines like, “Ogun intercepts truck carrying 30 almajiris, (Ripples Nigeria)”; “Two truckloads of 120 almajiris intercepted at Gakem border in Cross River, sent back to North, (Daily Post, May 11)”;
“Another 189 night travellers from Katsina arrested in Abuja (thewhistler.ng)”; “COVID-19: Residents panic as truck dumps almajiris from Sokoto in Ondo (May 5, Daily Post); “Enugu govt intercepts 9 buses relocating almajiris from North (May 8); Police intercept 200 Lagos-bound almajiris from Katsina (SaharaReporters, May 10, 2020);
“Security operatives intercept truckload of almajiris to Abia”, (BusinessDay, May 5, 2020) and, “15 men hidden on floor of trailer loaded with cattle intercepted in Enugu, (The Guardian, May 13.)”
This development forced a worried Pan Niger Delta Forum, a pressure group, to demand an explanation from the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime over the influx of persons especially almajiris from the North into the Niger Delta region despite the ban on interstate movement by the state and federal governments.
The group, in a statement by its national chairman, Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga (retd.), wondered how the almajiris, with all the subsisting lockdown rules on the ground, were “still transiting across the country in long vehicles, without being detected and stopped by security agents.”
Days ago, in a comment to a trending social media post on the matter, Oduche Azih, a renowned US-trained mechanical engineering and material scientist, was left without any doubt that “the new invasion has truly commenced.
All earlier encounters had been expeditionary probes.” He asked: “By the way, can we assume that these almajiris were able to pay for their passage? If NOT, they must be under the charge of an invisible but traceable commander. Of course, Buhari’s security agencies would have no interest in following up this line of enquiry.”
Similarly, Kenechi Chukwumere couldn’t comprehend “what’s behind this northern desperation in exporting almajiris to southern Nigeria by all means. Is there something we need to know about this move before we are caught unaware?
Nonetheless, methinks two factors make the southward movements of scores of disadvantaged northern youths strikingly disturbing. One, the movements occur simultaneously even when there is a subsisting presidential order authorising a ban on interstate movements as one of the measures to check the spread of the coronavirus pandemic across Nigeria.
I extensively examined this development in an article, “From Lagos to Kaduna by road during lockdown”, (See, The PUNCH, April 30). The piece X-rayed how institutional incapacity to execute rules and compromised security agents combined to make the ban on interstate movement during the lockdown a nullity.
Two, the movements followed quickly on the heels of the resolutions of the 19 Northern Governors’ Forum, at a meeting on Tuesday, April 21, convened via teleconference by the Governor of Plateau State and chairman of the forum, Simon Lalong, to, among others, never “allow the (almajiri) system to persist any longer because of the social challenges associated with it, including the perpetuation of poverty, illiteracy, insecurity and social disorder.”
The northern governors resolved thereon to “totally ban” the almajiri system in the region because of what they termed the “risk that almajiri children are exposed to because of the coronavirus disease” and unanimously decided to “…evacuate the children to their parents or states of origin.” One may therefore be forced to ask if the southward movements are the abodes of the youths’ “parents” or their “states of origin.”
It is worth pointing out that in 2014, the United Nations Children Fund put the number of almajiris in the North at 9.5 million, with the North-East alone accounting for 2,711,767 of them, representing 25 per cent of the total number.
However, the term, almajirai, (the plural form of almajiri) is conventionally used to refer to beggars, or people who cannot provide for themselves and thus roam the streets in Northern Nigeria’s towns and cities.
Unfortunately, it has become the defining feature of Islamism in Northern Nigeria, with the political elite manipulating them for political gains. Even a N15bn educational project by the Jonathan administration to improve the well-being of the almajiris was abandoned by Northern leaders. (See, Jonathan’s N15bn almajiri schools rot away, The Guardian, October 5, 2019)
In pursuit of the “total ban” of almajiris, three northern states almost immediately started its implementation, with Kano State taking the lead, and returned 419 almajiris to Katsina; 524 to Jigawa and 155 to Kaduna, totalling 1,098. Weeks later, Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State admitted returning some 30,000 to their “own states”, with 40 going to Kebbi State while Benue State returned 17 to Bauchi and 42 to Katsina State.
That is where the problem evolved. No sooner had the human cargo dispatched from Kano to Kaduna arrived than el-Rufai disclosed that 65 out of the 169 almajiris tested positive for the coronavirus. Other states announced similar findings too.
Incidentally, as of Thursday, May 14, aside from Lagos, the epicentre, with 2,041 out of a total 4,971 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the next five biggest cases are from the North (FCT included): Kano 707; FCT 370; Katsina 224; Bauchi 206 and Borno 188. Obviously, the almajiris have become indeed vectors of coronavirus as feared.
But the day the northern governors resolved to “evacuate” the almajiris to their “states of origin” without as much as apologising to them first for the decades of neglect successive leaders from the region meted out to them is when they shot themselves in the leg. They will be forever haunted, if not hunted, by the growing shadows of these abandoned youths.