Forced, Stigmatized and Misunderstood Almajirai and Boko Haram beyond the Victim-Perpetrator Binary

Widespread begging within almajiranci, combined with lower prospects for alms-giving due to a constrained local economy, leads to almajirai being out on the streets for longer. This, in turn, leaves them vulnerable and prone to exploitation by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram.

Almajiranci, a social caste of boys in northern Nigeria, is a tradition of parents sending their sons to big cities to learn the Qur’an under the care of an established malam (teacher). Over time, the system has been neglected. Instead of spending most of the day learning, almajirai (members of the caste) have become urchins and street beggars. Many have become delinquent and vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. But should such almajirai who, faced with hopelessness, joined Boko Haram be viewed as perpetrators or victims?

Many feel the system is the problem; that in failing to keep basic standards of child welfare, almajiranci leaves the students vulnerable. Others are more sympathetic, referring to almajirai as victims. Some argue that the boys are not terrorists, but victims. Nevertheless, it is necessary to look beyond the victim-perpetrator binary when trying to understand the place of almajirai in conversations on Boko Haram’s insurgency.

An Overview of the Almajiri System

The term ‘almajiri’ (plural: almajirai) is a Hausa word rooted in Arabic. It is, as Mahdi Garba writes, a linguistically corrupted version of Al-muhajirin, the Arabic word for a person who actively seeks Islamic knowledge. In Hausaland, almajirai are young boys, typically between the ages of three and 12, who are sent off to Islamic centres in Maiduguri and Kano to study the Qur’an under a malam or alim (teacher). It is a time-worn practice, as Idris AbdulQadir points out, going as far back as possibly the 11th Century. However, the system has been neglected and is currently failing. Almajirai—who are meant to be in the classroom reading, writing and reciting the Qur’an—are, instead, spending seven to eight hours on the streets, begging for food and money. Worse, a popular narrative dictates that the almajirai are a key source for Boko Haram when recruiting foot soldiers. How did this once-prestigious Islamic learning institution deteriorate? The destruction was gradual and took several decades. As Yusufu Abubakar, a researcher at the National Defence College in Abuja, and former almajiri, who I spoke to in 2012, explains:

[Almajiri system] it’s a tradition that has survived over a period of time […] The time I’m talking about now in the early, maybe 1930s, 40s, a Malam may have about 10 to 12 children working with him; that is, learning from him. In the neighbourhood, everybody [tries to give the malam and his pupils] something in terms of food for upkeep. But poverty continues to increase in our society. People no longer give the small arms food or grains or any form of assistance; to carry out—for them [malamai] to survive, and all that. The malammai [plural for malam] then find themselves in very tight positions; they have children who are learning but they have no food to eat. And the malam himself, he does not work; he does not have a farm. All he does is teach these children. So, he finds himself in a very tough situation, where he has to survive and now pushes these children out to go and look for something to eat.

The Impact of Bara

Over several decades, the failing system of almajiranci has turned young boys to beggars who can be found on major streets from dusk to dawn when they should be reading, writing and reciting the Qur’an. The lucky ones among these boys may have a few hours of Qur’an recitations at their Islamiyyah (Islamic schools or tsangaya). However, this privilege does not extend to most. As one UN expert observes:

Youths are supposed to study under malams that are catered for by the zakat of every Muslim. Westernization has crept in and not many Muslims paid zakat. The malams started fending for themselves by keeping farms and livestock, which their wards helped tend to. When droughts came, and poor harvests followed, begging for alms [bara] began to become a way of life.

Bara, begging for alms, is a practice in the almajiri institution that has contributed significantly to the negative development of almajiranci, eventually leading to the stigmatization of the system. As AldulQadir writes, this ‘phenomenon [bara] represents a scar on the face of Northern Nigeria. Nothing could be more degrading and further from the truth. Islam enjoins man to work, to use his brain and hands in order to eke out a living for himself. It is when all this fails, that one could resort to begging. For any person, who is hale and hearty, it is Forbidden “Haram” to beg’.

This widespread begging practice within almajiranci, combined with lower prospects for alms-giving due to a constrained local economy, leads to almajirai being out on the streets for longer. This, in turn, leaves them vulnerable and prone to exploitation by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram. For such reasons, almajiranci, which is ubiquitous across northern Nigeria, is often viewed as failed. 

System Failure and Boko Haram’s Insurgency

Bara reflects an unhealthy social care system and prompts questions around socio-economic failure and poor governance in Nigeria. However, as those youths are vulnerable and can be exploited, it must be expected that such social negligence might have consequences. 

Weighing in on this issue, Abubakar asks, ‘what do you do to the over eight million almajirai on the street? What do you do to that population? It is very important in this context. As at 2011, we were told that we have over eight million almajirai’. With numbers on this scale, if even a fraction participates in the insurgency—whether by kidnapping, coercion or wilfully—the Nigerian government has a major security problem. Indeed, many have now made a connection between the sheer scale of the almajiri problem and Boko Haram’s intractable insurgency. This is insofar as Boko Haram appear to have an endless stream of recruits who fit the profile of almajirai: young, male, physically unkempt, limited English-language skills, limited to no knowledge of the Qur’an, no belongings, no socio-economic prospects and no homes or family close to where they were found. Expressing concern about the role of almajirai in Boko Haram’s insurgency, journalist, Eliza Griswold, observes that:

Boko Haram’s swelling ranks are filled with boys and young men who attended almajiri schools, West African madrassas […] in the slums, many of these boys sleep with their begging bowls under their heads for safekeeping. To make money, corrupt teachers rent out their students to commit acts of violence. In this way, many have become foot soldiers for Boko Haram. 

If indeed Boko Haram recruits almajirai that have been taken off the streets to act as foot soldiers, then, even though these youths may have guns and suicide vests, they should not be regarded as terrorists. There is an underlying issue here: almajirai, like other vulnerable youth groups in northern Nigeria, are marginalized. They are angry and so, many will join insurgency because, as I point out elsewhere, society has neglected them and the traditional Islamic system, like state governments, have failed them. Speaking with Senior Fellow for Conflict, Security and Development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Virginia Comolli, she highlighted that:

The socio-economic grievances that form the basis of the emergence groups such as Boko Haram have not been addressed. Unless something that is more than just a military strategy is put in place, then there would always be a constant flow of people who might be willing to join Boko Haram; or whatever the next [radical] group would be called. Grievances in terms of marginalization, that seems to be quite pervasive [in North-East Nigeria]. I am also talking about the sense of social exclusion marginalization and lost opportunities. One thing that I have heard from a number of northerners is that they feel forgotten by the Nigerian government.

The Nigerian government alone is not to be blamed here. The traditional Islamic system in Nigeria and traditional rulers who are well-respected and within whose remit the almajiri system should feature are culpable. They have not done enough here. As Abubakar states, regarding this point, the emirs in northern Nigeria, have lost sight of their own responsibilities. When you now see children clustered around a particular Malam [Qur’anic teacher] and are becoming uncontrolled — some of them sleeping in the mosque, which is not supposed to be. Most of these children […] do not own any property [belongings]; nothing. Apart from the clothes they are wearing at that particular time and the plate they are holding to beg [in the streets], they have nothing. Many times, they have to sleep on the streets, wherever they find themselves. Most of the time, in the mosque. Every mosque has its own elders; how come no one is asking questions: ‘why are these children sleeping here?’ So, the traditional institutions have failed.

The issue here, however, is also not a traditional issue alone. The challenge of social care and child welfare is one that is evident across Nigeria but particularly prevalent in the northern region, at least in part due to the Almajiri system. Traditional rulers might be able to help (to some extent) by encouraging better practice within the system. However, these rulers have little if any constitutional powers—they serve at the behest of state governments. 

In northern Nigeria, as an example, Muhammadu Sanusi II, one of Nigeria’s most influential Muslim traditional leaders, was unceremoniously dethroned ‘for showing “insubordination” to the authorities in the northern state of Kano,’ and specifically to the office of the state governor, Abdullahi Ganduje. Governor Ganduje had earlier split the Kano emirate into five emirates, appointing four more emirs who are all state-funded and subordinated to the office of the governor. Such incidents are reminders that, whereas traditional systems are powerful and locally respected, they nevertheless fall under state government remits.

Regulation of any educational systems, therefore, traditional or otherwise, is an administrative issue, perhaps a legislative one; although certainly not a purely traditional one. Likewise, it is at either the state or federal government level that questions around child welfare and social care systems must be asked within a conversation on how to reconfigure a system that is so entrenched in northern society, abolishing it all at once may well be problematic.

Beyond the Victim-Perpetrator Binary

In many ways, both the government and Islamic institutions have failed almajiranci. Yet, it is the almajirai—not the government or Islamic establishment—who are stigmatized as an outcome of root causes that are socio-economic and institutional. In 2012, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka writing for Newsweek presented almajirai as Boko Haram footsoldiers where he argued:

Economic factors have facilitated the mass production of these foot soldiers but they have been deliberately bred, nurtured, sheltered, rendered pliant, obedient to only one line of command, ready to be unleashed at the rest of society. They were bred in madrassas and are generally known as the almajiris. From knives and machetes, bows and poisoned arrows they have graduated to AK-47s, homemade bombs, and explosive-packed vehicles. Only the mechanism of inflicting death has changed, nothing else.

On the other hand, Hannah Höchner, a researcher who lived in Kano for months solely for the purpose of studying almajirai in their local communities, insists that they are ‘not to blame’. And Abubakar, who himself was a former almajiri, was equally circumspect about the culpability of almajirai who find themselves in Boko Haram’s clutches. ‘It is not that simple,’ he said to me. ‘There are too many things that one must consider. One of the most important is why they ended up as [Boko Haram] members and another is how they feel about they things they did’. Abubakar’s views sit well with those of Director Ahmed, who heads the Borno State Department of State Security Services (DSS). Director Ahmed was of the view that ‘Boko Haram members join for a range of reasons. These guys are not all the same; they don’t even all speak the same language. They can be very different, if you meet them’.

The rehabilitation of almajirai who were recruited by Boko Haram should be more robust and inclusive. They, the almajirai who take up arms for Boko Haram, should be seen from a lens that transcends the victim-perpetrator nexus.

Boko Haram members commit terrible acts, yes. Yet, insofar as some of these members are socially disadvantaged and vulnerable almajirai, we might be inclined to absolve or even relieve them of culpability. In helping them deal with overwhelmingly guilty feelings, we may blame outside factors (factors external to the victim, rather than the victim themselves): ‘you were coerced’; ‘you lacked agency’, ‘what choice did you have?’, ‘you knew no better’. This approach, as Virginie Ladisch cautions, underscores the individual’s vulnerability and helplessness such that, rather than feeling grateful or empowered by child victim sympathizers, they may have more negative implications: isolation, stigma, and even disempowerment. These engendered negative feelings may not be helped by sympathy towards the almajirai, just as they will not be helped by branding them as responsible perpetrators. Perhaps, then, the urgent approach would be one of pragmatic action: the task of working with the range of stakeholders in order to fix the almajiri system, and to integrate almajirai into society from its margins.

For such reasons, Boko Haram members with almajirai roots should be viewed through a lens that transcends the ‘victim-perpetrator’ binary. Much in the same way that substance addicts are helped to rehabilitate, we should allow such former Boko Haram members the space to discuss feelings of guilt or remorse. It is important for these feelings to be expressed and internalized as part of a healing process. However, going back to Ladisch’s views, such expressions and acceptance of experiences by former child soldiers should lie within the broader context of structural poverty, war, and insecurity.

The Redemptive Power of Guilt

Where victimhood is front and centre of the reintegration calculus, the complexities of Boko Haram’s participation spectrum—which involves coercion at one end and persuasion via ideology on the other—are overlooked. Failure to abandon the victim-perpetrator binary makes it more difficult for us to understand the spectrum of factors that influence an almajiri’s participation in Boko Haram’s insurgency. This, in turn, stifles the necessary processes of identifying adequate solutions and of former members providing assurances of non-repetition. These processes can be carried out in spaces where they feel safe enough not just to make those assurances but also commit to them. As a start, therefore, reintegrating former Boko Haram members should not only require them to share their experiences, but also afford them space to process feelings of guilt. This approach will enable rehabilitation programmes to better plan these former members’ integration into northern and wider Nigerian society

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