As someone who grew up in the north, I am very much at home to discuss this burning topic which has become inevitable with the needless stoking of the embers of divisiveness by the information Minister Lai Muhammed, Senior media assistant to the President Garba Shehu and a motley crowd of religious extremists who carpeted the Bishop of Catholic Diocese of Sokoto Reverend Doctor Mathew Hassan Kukah over a Christmas Day message.
This is the kernel of the message: “Annus Mirabilis or Annus Horribilis? The roads to the graveyards are busier than those to the farms. Amidst the wails and laments, I hear the congregants saying; the world is coming to an end, it has never been so bad. Yes, people are dying, but they are not dying more now than they did in recent years. It is the social media and its connectivity that has given us a sense of greater urgency and added to our seeming despair with the way things are. The social media is value neutral. It depends on what we make of it. Its instantaneous impact is often times dizzyingly traumatic, but the other benefits more than compensate. In a way, the choices we make will help us decide whether this year is our annus mirabilis or annus horribilis.”
Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah went down memory by asserting that: “When Isaac Newton, at the age of 23, made the spectacular discoveries in the areas of Calculus, Motion, Optics, and Gravitation, the year of those discoveries, 1666, was referred to as, annus mirabilis, the year of joy. On the other hand, in 1992, when the marriages of three of her children collapsed, Queen Elizabeth in her Christmas address referred to that year as her annus horribilis, the year of horror. As such, notwithstanding all the earth shaking impact of the Covid-19, our own individual, communal and national tragedies, it is not just a choice between annus mirabilis and annus horribilis. At various levels, there have been grey areas of hope, flickers of light, achievement and so on. It to these flickers of hope that we must cling tenaciously. For our son, Anthony Joshua, the loss of his title to Andy Ruis on June 1, 2019 after 25 fights without a loss, that year was his annus horribilis. When he pummelled Kubrat Pulev, this year became his annus mirabilis. Things change and, joy or sorrow, we must know that nothing lasts forever. What matters is how we handle failure.”
The reverend gentleman also carpeted President Muhammadu Buhari for serially violating the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental principles of federal character in top appointments which favours only the Northern Moslems. Kukah said were it not that Muhammadu Buhari hails from the elitist Northern oligarchy that dominate the military establishment in Nigeria, if it were to be a Christian that did half of what Buhari had done, that person could have been kicked out through a military putsch.
However, the Message by Reverend Mathew Hassan Kukah which otherwise should have been welcomed by president Muhammadu Buhari as a constructive effort by a concerned citizen to graphically point out areas of governance that need immediate remedial mechanisms, the media spin doctors of the president misinterpreted it to mean an effort to invite the army to overthrow president Muhammadu Buhari.
Garba Shehu later introduced a dimension that goes to accuse Bishop Kukah of annoying many Moslems by criticizing president Muhammadu Buhari and then some religious fundamentalists represented by a so called Moslems rights concern and another unknown quantity in Sokoto castigated Bishop Kukah and asked him to apologize for insulting Moslems or leave Sokoto.
The usually moderate body of Moslems in Nigeria led by the sultan also joined the fray by also misinterpreting Kukah’s criticism of Buhari which came few days after the sultan of Sokoto similarly carpeted the federal government for failing to provide security to protect lives and property of Nigerians. The sultan of Sokoto went as far revealing that armed bandits and kidnappers move about in the north carrying AK -47.
Millions of Nigerians even from the core North also shortly defended the human right of Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah to express his opinion lawfully.
The first African Nobel laureate in Literature Professor Wole Soyinka had also backed Bishop Kukah and accused religious extremists for seeking to undermine the enjoyment by Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah of his Constitutional rights to freedoms of expression and his right to life.
However, Bishop Kukah’s issues with the northern ruling elites dates back to his activism and his avowed passion to end child poverty in the north. Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah has also been a social justice advocate and someone who refused to enjoy the privilege of his contacts and exposure but had chosen to side with the oppressed and the disadvantaged. This unusual exemplary tendency in the oasis of consumerism and selfishness is not a welcoming attitude to the elite.
The Bishop had blamed the Elites in the north for marginalizing and abandoning their Kids to wonder around in the street begging for arms. This effrontery of Kukah is not to be welcomed in a region whose political class derive lots of benefits by impoverishing a greater percentage of kids whom they recruit for all kinds of dirty jobs including rigging National elections.
The Northern Elites see Bishop Kukah as the “John the Baptist “ who has done so much to herald an end to their serial abuses unleashed on these kids who are left to their cruel fate on the streets soon after they are deployed for one dirty political job or the other.
Already the United Nations believe that the north of Nigeria harbours over 10 million out of school children, a statistic that was very recently relied upon by the minister of education Adamu Adamu who is an insider under the current administration who is also a core northerner.
So, Kukah’s problem is not just that he criticized Buhari but that he is determined to bring about pragmatic change in the political demography of northern Nigeria which the political Elites think if allowed to blossom and succeed and the kids are taken off the streets and educated, then the politicians will no longer have easy recruitment grounds for their political thugs and under-age voters at National elections.
Recently, the media were awash with Kukah’s advocacy against child poverty. The almajiris in Northern Nigeria have been “sinned against” and denied opportunities for social progress by the region’s Muslim elite, Catholic cleric, Hassan Kukah, has said.
“The Almajiri has become a scapegoat for the multiple sins of the Nigerian state in general and the Muslim Umma in particular,” Mr Kukah said in a paper shared with PREMIUM TIMES on Monday. “As usual, as of now, the northern elite will do what they do best: hide in the sands of self-deception, knowing that this will blow over and soon, no one will remember again.”
The almajiri system (or almajiri) is the over a century-old practice of poor rural parents who send their children to live with mallams in pursuit of Islamic knowledge, which the children now receive under violent and torrid conditions. It is seen as providing an environment for recruits into violence in the north, apart from the system’s socio-economic implications.
Governors in the region have announced steps to end or reform the practice, with Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai saying “it has not worked for the children, it has not worked for northern Nigeria, it has not worked for Nigeria. It has to end.”
“The Governors indicted themselves when they said that it is time to act now because the Almajiri has outlived his usefulness,” said Mr Kukah. “At least they have admitted their complicity and the fact that the Almajiri system had always been a tool for political and economic forms of transaction.”
“Here is my thesis: With regards to his condition today, the Almajiri is an object, not a subject, is a victim, not a perpetrator, sinned against rather than a sinner.”
Mr Kukah is the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Kaduna, and has made blistering remarks aiming at northern Muslims whom he accuses of perpetrating the “domination” and “persecution” Christians in the region.
Stating further in his paper, he said, the almajirai (plural for almajiri) and their mallams (teachers) are blamed for “being dirty and unkempt, miscreants, delinquents, nuisances to the society, petty thieves, prospective Boko Haram recruits, a stigma, an assault on our collective social sense of decency.”
“Their Mallam is charged with many sins including child abuse, abduction, human trafficking, exploitation, physical abuse, hard labour, enslavement, etc. So, we identify the Mallam and his Almajiri more by their crimes than their names. They are spoken about and not spoken to.
“In the media reports, no one bothers to give them a voice of their own. They do not speak for themselves. If they had a chance, for example, they might say: Everyone calls me, Almajiri. No one has asked me my name. We are in the millions but have only one name. I have no name. I have no father. I have no mother. I have no home. I have no town. I have no tribe. I have no address. The streets are my home. I do not know if I have brothers or sisters. I am an Almajiri. No one knows if I have feelings. No one has ever asked me what I want to be in life. I live for today and for the sake of Allah. I have no tomorrow except Allah gives me. Tomorrow is in the hands of Allah,” he added.
He said the almajiri system was ordinarily good and “much treasured” part of Islamic history and found similarity with it in Christianity, giving an example of the role of catechists in the Catholic Church.
He said, “The challenge for the Muslim Umma in northern Nigeria is to answer the question, where did all this go wrong? Where was the Almajiri supposed to go at the completion of his studies? Was there a career path? How and why did the Mallam and his Almajiri, a much-treasured part of Islamic history, deteriorate to the status of the scum of the earth? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I wish to raise a few issues for the attention of the northern Muslim Ummah.
“First, the northern Muslim ummah must accept full responsibility and see the Almajiri as part of the huge baggage of their failure to prepare for a future for their people.
“They left their people in the lurch as the modern state emerged, providing no further rung on the ladder of progress for the Almajiri as part of the future for their children.
“With both he and his Mallam left behind in the cave of ignorance about the modern state, they grew to fear life outside the cave. They have remained trapped in time. The new world of modernity was presented as a contaminant to the purity of Islamic knowledge.
“So, while the modern elite equipped themselves and their children with the armour of western education, the Mallam and his Almajiri were left behind in the twilight zone of ignorance, fear, anxiety, disorientation and discomfiture, treating those outside with veiled contempt.”
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto effort to get millions of children off the streets of Nigeria, despite the objections of some Islamic religious leaders, has further angered some fundamentalists and negative religious conspiracy theorists.
The children – estimated to number between 7 and 10 million – come from all over West Africa to study in Muslim boarding schools in northern Nigeria. They are called the Almajiri, derived from the Arabic word meaning a person who leaves home in search of Islamic knowledge.
The system is centuries old, but fell out of favour in colonial Britain, when western-style education was introduced. This western education is known as “Boko”, and the Islamic militants in the area are known as Boko Haram, meaning “Western Education is forbidden.”
The Muslim schools are poorly funded, and the teachers are usually untrained. The only object of study is the Koran, which the students spend hours a day memorizing. The rest of the time, they are on the streets, begging for food and money.
Announcing the initiative in 2017, Kukah said he wants to take these kids off the streets and help them acquire more sustainable means of livelihood.
“One of the greatest concerns in Nigeria now is to get the Almajiri children off the streets,” the bishop said.
The Kukah Centre (TKC) will work with foreign partners “to make sure that we get the Almajiri children off the streets.’’
But the bishop’s intent has met with opposition from Muslim Rights Concern, MURIC, which claims the project is a method to convert Muslim children to Christianity.
In a Jan. 4 statement, MURIC described the initiative as a ploy for “modern colonialism and a potential time bomb.”
While the organization agreed on the need to do something about the Almajiri children, it insisted that such a project must be in the hands of Muslims.
“We cannot pretend to be so naïve as to entrust our Muslim children to the hands of Christians. As far as we are concerned, Kukah’s Almajiri dream is a Trojan horse,” the statement said.
“The devil we know is still better than the one we do not know and we expect Rev. Kukah to know better. Can any Christian community allow an Islamic organization to take their children away just like that? Whatever the situation may be, we wish to caution Northern Muslims, particularly the elders, never to allow it to happen. Instead of allowing Christian missionaries to seize this kind of initiative, Northern Muslims should empower available Muslim NGOs to cater for Almajiri children,” the statement continued.
But not all Muslims are antagonistic to the bishop’s proposal.
Professor Abdussamad Umar Jibia of Bayero University in Kano has made the case for Muslims to thank the prelate for the initiative.
The academic doesn’t know of any “formidable initiative to solve the problem of Almajiri in the north.”
“All of a sudden, the Christians came up with an idea. That since we don’t seem to care about these our underaged children roaming the streets with plastics begging for food, the Church will create a center for them, in which they will feed, clothe and shelter them. In addition, they will teach them vocation alongside the Koran with whose teaching they will not interfere.”
Jibia said Kukah understands the predicament of the young people because he isn’t only a Christian from the north of the country, he is also friends with Muslims, including the influential Sultan of Sokoto.
He said the bishop fully understands the sensibilities of Muslims and would conceal any “proselytization agenda” at the start.
Jibia chastised Muslim leaders for dereliction of duty and called on them to be thankful to the Catholic prelate for reminding them what they should be doing.
“What one would expect of a responsible people faced with this type of challenge is to thank the Church for reminding them of their responsibility and come up with a more comprehensive program than that of Mathew Kukah. Unfortunately, the kind of sentiments being expressed and the fact that more than a year after Kukah mooted this idea nothing has come up from our religious leaders and our “Shariah compliant” politicians portray us as a people not serious,” he said.
Kukah insists it is morally wrong to allow children to waste their lives in the streets when something can be done about it. The bishop said differences in creed and political bearings should never make Nigerians lose sight of that reality.
Onyeka Onwenu also faced similar Islamist attacks when she was the director General of National Women Centre, an appointment by President Goodluck Jonathan later revoked by Muhammadu Buhari and given to a Moslem Northerner.
According to a book written by Onyeka Onwenu ( My father’s daughter) thus ;
“As we worked hard to improve the functioning of the NCWD , and perhaps as a sign of desperation on the part of those who did not want us to succeed, word came that the erstwhile estate manager had used his position as a most senior officer to declare a fatwa against me . It was alarming and most disturbing that at a time when bokoharam was making incursions into Abuja and there was a general sense of insecurity, someone who would exhibit such recklessness in calling for the killing of another person. The management board took the decision to make it public. We called a general meeting of the staff to openly address the issue. In the end, the opposition coward and could not justify their scheme to their supporters the story fizzled out and work at the Centre continued at an even faster pace. They had energized me. “
*Emmanuel Onwubiko is the Head of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria email@example.com;www.emmanuelonwubikocom;www.thenigerianinsidernews.com;firstname.lastname@example.org