Shekau: Once Upon An Almajiri…

Last week, Falmata Abubakar, the mother of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, bared her soul in a poignant interview, the first she has ever granted. Shekau’s mum revealed a secret that lent credence to William Wordsworth’s immortal line: ‘’the child is the father of the man.’’

Falmata said her son was thrust out of hearth and home into the harsh existence of an Almajiri vagrant. It was in the course of his aimless wanderings that the founder of Boko Haram, late Mohammed Yusuf, found him on the street, took him under his wings and radicalized him.

This backstory of Shekau’s formative years as an Almajiri tramp puts the intractable Boko Haram insurgency into perspective. His career trajectory serves as warning that the ubiquitous street kids roaming the streets of Northern Nigeria are walking seeds of crisis. The millions of human flotsam within that travesty of a borderless orphanage ought to awaken the consciousness that many of its victims will catch the fancy of terrorist scouts.

Granted, the making of every terrorist is an inimitable and intricate story; special in the nature and shades of circumstantial threads that tangled to make it a real-life experience. No single analysis can capture the particulars of the matrix that induce the metamorphosis of everyday persons into diehard extremists. The rich and poor, the learned and the unlearned, the religious and the profane, all embrace the philosophy and practice of terror. If anything, the diversity of backgrounds of terrorist recruits points to the inherent inhumanity of the human being.

Yet, some conditions tend to prime people to live out their evil instincts. A society that rears its youths on a diet of frustration, starves them of food, shelter and clothing and gives them only a rote knowledge of a holy book and a nihilistic map of meaning, is simply getting ready to turn into a madhouse of potentially dangerous automatons. An environment which places a group of innocent children on a plane of subhuman value and socializes them to thrive as street urchins is preparing itself for an endless, internal attack on its civilization.

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Falmata said that the transformation of Abubakar began in the street. He was an Almajiri boy, a destitute beggar cast adrift in Maiduguri, left to his own devices. He was just another statistic in the loose, quasi-religious street-kid institution…until he encountered Yusuf.

It’s a shame that before Voice of America sought Shekau’s mum out, nobody in the Nigerian press had approached her and teased out an account of his son’s early years. For their own part, the Nigerian security establishment have been fighting Boko Haram without the slightest idea of the climate of influences that shaped its leader. It’s almost laughable that we didn’t know the enemy who has been costing us blood and treasure for almost a decade.

Be that as it may, this exposé has stripped Nigeria of the luxury of fighting blindly. We now know that Shekau was an Almajiri: he was an ideal prospect to be sold the creed that ‘western education is a sin’. There are millions of young Shekaus in the street and that bald fact requires that Nigeria save itself from the Almajiri phenomenon. In its current mode, that system provides a deep talent pool for terrorist recruiters.

The Almajiri system puts the Koran in the heads of children of the poor and begging bowls in their hands. It teaches them piety and the art of begging. It trains them to beg to survive and unleashes them to survive to beg.

The Almajiri institution anonymizes kids with different intelligences and crams them into the begging mold. It robs children of the freedom to dream, the freedom to aspire to lead a life of meaningful contribution. It drives them towards anyone who can replace the begging bowls in their hands.

Over the years, the Northern elite has relied on the Almajiri scheme to perpetuate the advantage of the haves over have nots. The state governments have allowed the system to persist because of moral cowardice. It’s a sacred cow. The Northern politician would rather throw money at the Almajiri horde and have them run after his campaign bandwagon than take them off the streets and give them proper education.

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The Almajiri system steals the child’s natural right to phase of innocence and protection. It exposes their vulnerability to crime and drugs. It offers the underworld the opportunity to bend the arc of their lives.

This is the reason why Boko Haram bounces back from degradation. It swiftly replenishes its fighting force with Almajiris. The boys are everywhere. Boko Haram agents only need to soft-soap them and the Almajiris would trade their alms for arms.

The fight against terror will remain a Canute exercise until Boko Haram begins to suffer a dearth of easy-to-pick recruits. As long as the streets of the North are teeming with hungry, ragged and disoriented Almajiris, Boko Haram will headhunt the boys, entice them with food and raiment and deploy them.

Abubakar might well be her mother’s greatest pain. The knowledge that she gave life to a cold-blooded psychopath who gives death to the world must be a torment. She has to struggle with vicarious guilt, the sense that she gave birth and breastmilk to the child who is now an adult monster. Every kidnap of school girls, suicide bombing, mass murder, cannot but fill her sorrow, shame and self-blame.

The pathos in Falmata’s words is reflective of an estrangement that borders on bereavement. She is a mourning mother. Her son is alive but out of touch and out of sight. He is lost and as good as dead.

Falmata’s longs for an opportunity to mend her adult son. She said she would like to speak with him and reprove him. She would like to tell him to renounce evil and turn towards peace.

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She is hoping against hope that her son is still amenable to correction. She figures that her motherly voice will unlock his heart and reach the twilit part of it that has yet to turn completely beastly. She believes in the abiding humanity of the fruit of her womb. It is this small room in her imagination that is occupied by the dream of the return of her prodigal child that makes her admit she cannot curse him. She said that she still loves him, even though the whole world hates him.

Falmata is in good company. She is just one of the countless women who have lost their sons to the Almajiri tradition. Many mothers in the North send forth their kids and lose them forever. Some women go to their grave never knowing what became of the boy they sent away.

The Almajiri idea is the waste of a generation. It is an appalling arrangement that neither promotes religion nor learning. It is the most backward anachronism crying for abolition in Nigeria today.

There are 3 million Almajiris in Kano alone. Thanks to Nigeria’s huge Almajiri demographic, the country has the highest number of out of school children in the world.

Someone is going to harness their great potential, for better or for worse.


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Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu

Blogger at EmmaUgwu
Emmanuel Ugwu loves human beings. He thinks for a hobby. He writes for a better Nigeria.