It boils down to two core issues-child upbringing and schooling. These factors will also determine whether the targets-the children-will transform into societal assets or become liabilities in the future. Thus, the two should go in pari passu.
It is not surprising that these two critical issues now tend to moderate the differential responses of the Northern and Southern Nigeria to the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic.
From time immemorial, northern children from Muslim backgrounds were separated from home and ‘deposited’ with a religious scholar for mentoring in Islsmic way of life. Their fathers would pay for their feeding and accommodation. However they kept the girls indoors.
With the passage of time, poor parents could not fulfil these obligations. Therefore, their guardians started encouraging them to fend for themselves by begging for alms and foods. As the population of the kids grew geometrically, they moved in large groups. There is social identification and camaraderie.
Unfortunately, they grew up from childhood to adolescence without a taste of western education.
The pattern is not peculiar to all households in the North. Thd tragedy is only restricted to indigent families. Educated northerners have their ways and methods of exposing their children and wards to Islamic training under their roof. They also enrol them in private and public nursery, primary and secondary schools.
Child upbringing is essentially a cultural practice. Schooling is an imported idea, a product of western civilisation. But, schooling, with the passage of time, has been influential on tradditional, native or indigenous education due to its reform content.
A school becomes an agent of change, not only on the basis of exposure to the imported culture of the western world, but because of its implications for cultural renewal.
Overtime, schooling has become a sub-set of general and wider education. While schooling which has a duration and institutionalised curriculum, may be restricted to the four walls of the citadel of learning, education is a life long affair; from womb to tomb, and from birth to death.
There is evidence to show that African society stands to continually benefit from that mixture of schooling and traditional education in its search for socio-economic, political and technological development.
Under the integrative approach, schooling or formal education is bound to influence child rearing practices. An educated man is expected to be sensitive to the import of birth control, based on the criterion of socio-economic status.
This may be the bedrock of family planning. When a family is not planned, the children may be raised in poverty, squalor, and decay. The children my become destitute.
For decades, the North has been confronted by its self-inflicted cultural practice, while hiding under religious inclination.
The undoing of many parents in the region may not only be their preference for large families which accounts for the population explosion, but poor planning and lack of foresight. Of what importance is the quantity of population without quality?
Also, while the North’s Almajirai system of education was meant to instil religious morality, its defective implementation became a regional albatross. The awful picture and menace of wandering children has become a regional embarrassment that should be corrected.
The North has failed to learn some useful lessons from its supposedly political and economic rival, the South. The West had embraced western education during the colonial days. In fact, education was clearly perceived as a mark of class and distinction.
In the fifties, the Premier of the West, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, institutionalised free education programme, despite the financial constraints.
Children from the West who could not go to school were enlisted for training in handwork. That was in tandem with a Yoruba proverb: an idle hand is a devil’s workshop. Vocational or technical colleges were also established.
The East also embraced education at a huge cost. Those children from the old East who could not make it to school were steered into trading apprenticeships. That became the foundation of region’s commercial advantage and economic power.
But, the children of the North outside nobility were abandoned to wander. They faced a perilous future. With plates in their hands; bare footed, and dirty clothes, they were recruited into the natural association of beggars, moving from one house to the other, soliciting for meals; breakfast, lunch and super.
They grew up on the streets and became travellers without predetermined destinations, moving from one state to the other in the North. During elections, these under-aged were recruited as bonafide voters and thugs.
After polls, they joined available lorries and trailers going to the South; to Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Port-Harcourt; being paired with cows and rams.
Since they can barely raise the transport fare, they were usually sponsored by some unknown elements. Also, they were on their way to a fixed address. Their solace, usually, is Sabo, mostly populated by Hausa-Fulani sojourners.
Many of them see the South as greener pastures. They become “maiguard,” wells diggers, labourers and cart pushers.
They are usually armed with knives and transistor radios. But, generally, they were peaceful, until recently where there were worries over the invasion of herdsmen.
It is worrisome that when they become teenagers, the next thing is marriage. Few among them even preside over young polygamous families.
They embrace early marriage and polygamous system because they are cherished traditions. Although the girl-child may not be among the wanderers, some of them are forced into marriage before the age of 12 back home.
The scenario is different in the South. Southern kids are never allowed to roam the streets. Across the three Southern regions of West, East and Southsouth, children cannot be permitted to travel out of town without a destination.
They are monitored by parents, uncles, cousins and other relations under the extended family system. Even, if they would not go to school, they accompany their parents to the farms, shops and markets.
Awo had called the attention of the feudal lords of his time to the implications of the large number of young illiterates being churned out by the North.
He feared that, since the North and the South had been forcefully lumped together into one country, a section may continue to drawn the other section backward.
In particular, Awo feared that as the South would always send its lawyers, engineers, doctors, and teachers to the Federal Parliament, the North, on the basis of proportional representation, will also send it’s barely literate elements-carpenters, shoe “repairers” and semi-literate, local champions.
Therefore, the gap in education would breed acrimony, misunderstanding and rancor on the floor of the House. In fact, in the House of Representatives of 50s, Northern members who were university graduates were few. In contrast, 95 per cent of legislators from the South were university graduates.
That the Northern legislators were assailed by inferiority complex was debatable. But, the activities of some more educated members from the South were misinterpreted as arrogance by their northern colleagues.
It was one of the reasons Sardauna said he would not come to the federal parliament, despite the prospect of becoming the prime minister.
Awo also warned about the consequence of neglecting the homeless children. The late sage said the neglected children of the poor will not allow the protected children of the rich to have a respite in the future.
Awo believed that the children that were not properly brought up will become criminals who will terrorise society. Now, they are more than that. Fears are rife that they have become vectors of pestilence.
As suspected virus carriers, they now constitute danger to their region of birth. But, as they also migrate to other zones, they are set to wreck havoc on their next point of call.
It is strange that some rabble-rousers and self-acclaimed Lagos-based northern youth leaders see nothing wrong in their orchestrated migration to the South. They even threaten fire and brimstone, saying that there will be war, if the Almajirai are not allowed to entry into the South.
As the South continued to strive for more education, the neglected Almajirai continued to grow in leaps and bounds in the North, even under the military regimes dominated by Northerners.
In the Second Republic, the West built on the achievements of the Action Group (AG) government by implementing freedom education programme at all levels.
The move resulted in increased public literacy, broadened the region’s horizon of political consciousness and paved the way for more economic opportunities.
In 1998, Bola Ige, former governor of Oyo State, who lived in Kaduna in his childhood, observed that for the North to be at the same level of development with the South, development must be at standstill in the South for 20 years.
The North cannot afford to be rigid and static in matters of elementary education. The region must return to the basics. The age-long Almajirai system of education is due for critical examination and review in the light of modern realities.
The North must return to the pre-1955 West and learn from the wonders and long term benefits of Universal Primary Education, which made compulsory school attendance compelling. The population of uneducated kids is a recipe for chaos in the future. It is a time bomb.
The population of Northern children of school age is huge and the existing school facilities may not be able to accommodate them.
The proposed Northern Governors’ intervention may be late in coming. But, it is a welcome development. Almajirai deserve to go to school, although Boko Haram does not want to hear this. The North must increase its investment in education.
But, beyond that, the governors should speed up the sensitisation and enlightenment on birth control, family planning, child spacing and general population control. It is in their own interest. It is also in national interest.