Almajirai in Paradise

Almajirai in Paradise

Monday, May 11, 2020 7:42 am


Sam Omatseye

The almajiris of northern Nigeria

By Sam Omatseye

He has been a person without a place. As a boy, he knows no father, no mother, no home. He is a canonised wanderer, anointed to beg, to scavenge. He has grown to have no state, no boundaries. He is weaned to be a student. He ends up a stooge.

Bowl in hand, mastery in the chants of the supplicant, his face an eternal suppliant. His feet, shoeless, have logged in miles. He is a holy boy this morning, a soldier tonight. He inspires pity from one, instills fear in another. He is nurtured into a belief but this faith tortures with the weapons of blood and death.

He is the almajiri, the boy who was once a saint. Now he is a worry. He is not a worry because we pity him. It is because we fear him. Before, the almajiri was left to his own devices. We condemned his fate with the rhetoric of sympathy. We did not want him to suffer. We wanted to give him schools. What school? Just tokens here and there. It turns out that we are hypocrites. We love to be seen or heard to love the boy child. Such hypocrisy is self-exculpatory. It makes us free from guilt. The French writer puts it succinctly. The writer and essayist, Francis Duc La Rochefoucauld said, “hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.” We hide our evil because we want to be like the good.

 They were born a flood. They were not just a throng of beggars. They were an electoral machine. Videos show them as multitudes of voters, enhancing the fraud of a candidate they neither know nor love. When it is convenient we make the almajiri the masses. He becomes an elector, a model citizen, constitutionally backed. At other times we make him a scoundrel, an avenger on the street. Today he is the people, tomorrow he is the mob. We fail to conflate them, but we preserve the illusion.

So, when they were carted about from state to state in the north in their truckloads, they became a scandal. Governors in the north started to act as “statists.” My almajiri is better than yours. To your tents, all almajirai.

Suddenly, we pretend we love the almajiri by saying they should go to their very homes. We now know that family trumps the evangelical. He now has a father and a mother. He has become not a specimen of human beggary, but a human with the full complement of ambition. Government has not worked so that he can benefit from the dividends of democracy.

But all those who peddle ethnic lopsidedness in appointments in this country should ask the poor. The almajiri in the north who does not benefit from what we have seen as appointment favoritism.

We had this anxiety in the Jonathan era. The Otuoke man had come with an image that he was very close to the Igbo. He recalled that his middle name was Azikiwe. He did well to appoint many Igbo into sensitive positions. He made one the virtual prime minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. He also elevated an Igbo man the chief of army staff, the first since the end of the civil war.

 He did the same thing with some folks in the Niger Delta. He was a warrior for the minorities. He never looked up, though, to see the suffering minorities up north.

But after his tenure, the rich were happy. But what of the poor in those communities? Any progress on the roads, the farms, the gullies, projects of empowerment, schools? The kidnapper and militant had to take advantage of class divisions to launch terror on fellow citizens.

Yet in the Jonathan era, the streets of London knew no rest. The buying cards slid into machines for purchases that ran into fortunes. London media noticed and serenaded Nigerians with peculiar hats and generous pockets buying up vanities from the luxury shops.

Yet Ogoni remained Ogoni. The creeks were poor, the schools in bad shape when they were not washed into the sea or oil-clogged rivers.

Yet, they snagged Louis Vuitton in London while the man and woman in the creek had no shoes.

Today, the same way the almajiri up north does not understand it when a Kano or Zamfara man clutches a hot ministerial portfolio or agency directorship. The almajiri does not fly with them. He is not in the airport except to beg. Or if older, he serves as assistant to convey bags.

What follows is herd mentality. The leaders invoke the masses to fight for ethnic solidarity. When it’s time to reap, the poor are absent at the table. Philosophers and political scientists have identified two major ideologies that have remained resilient over time. They are those based on economic inequalities and the others on race or, in our case, ethnic thinking.

Inequality was the basis of Karl Marx’s ideas. But when Europe erupted with anti-semitic rage, especially in France with the famous Dreyfus trial, Marx as a Jew himself was accused of ignoring his own race. Race thinking is innocent until it becomes racism. Ditto ethnic thinking. Rene Descartes had said “I think, therefore I am.” In these parts, it will be, “I think, therefore I am Afemai, or Yoruba or Ijaw, etc.” But it is the economic warriors who deploy such ethnic shibboleths to stir up division and entrench themselves. This is the cynicism of the ages.

So, the almajiri is not the problem but those who made them, the feudal elite of the north. The former Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi, in spite of his personal contradiction, could not survive putting it to the test of its own morality. It is the same hypocrisy elsewhere in the country.

The crime though is that the political class is not worried about the hypocrisy.  The same almajiri become Boko haram, riot in elections, commit pogroms, slaughter political enemies. They are sent by masters hiding in cosy ramparts. The big men are not arrested or even accused, but the almajirai are locked up. Some of them die. It is two moralities. Just as 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli noted, “What is crime among the multitudes is only a vice among the few.”

Meanwhile, the almajiri’s case will continue to haunt the whole country, especially the north, because any almajiri who bears a bowl and chants in the rhythm of hunger, is like the scarlet letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of that name.

-The Nation

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