Four-year-old Ali Bello is caught in the daily battle for survival on the streets of the Sokoto Metropolis in Northwest Nigeria. He moves from place to place, begging to survive.
Awkward circumstances forced the little boy to endure a lost childhood that came from the pressure of too-soon struggle for sustenance in early childhood, which experts describe as critical to cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development.
“Early childhood offers a critical window of opportunity to shape the trajectory of a child’s holistic development and build a foundation for their future,” points out the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“For children to achieve their full potential, as is their human right, they need healthcare and nutrition, protection from harm and a sense of security, opportunities for early learning, and responsive caregiving.”
Concerns are rife over the disturbing sight of street children, whose populations have swelled with an increasing number of girls proliferating across many northern states.
The Consortium for Street Children (CSC) describes them as one of the world’s most invisible populations, overlooked by the government, law, policymakers, and many others.
CSC, a global alliance that acts as a voice for these children to promote good practices, challenge, and change the system that causes harm, speaks to street children in Nigeria.
“Research suggests that street children in Nigeria exist primarily because of poverty in their families and communities. They may have also experienced family disintegration, maltreatment, violence, or displacement or been attracted to the urban areas,” CSC discloses.
“Many Almajiri face challenging living conditions and spend a portion of their time begging and hawking to survive. This can leave them vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and recruitment into armed groups.”
Pundits note the Almajiri system as a bastardization of an old method of Islamic education acquisition, where parents send their children to distant locations to gain knowledge of the Holy Quran.
An Islamic scholar, Mallam Abdullahi Muhammad, observes that “the surging wave of child destitution that typifies the present Almajiri reality is an explicit departure from an old system reputed for its scholarship.”
Today, many children who travel out of their communities to live elsewhere with a local teacher, popularly known as Malam, for knowledge acquisition, end up on the street, begging, with their parents not following up on them.
Several children end up in the streets begging to cater for themselves and support their teachers, many of whom ironically rely on the handout from these underaged for livelihoods.
President-General Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs Sultan Muhammad Saad Abubakar had swayed at parents who relinquished their responsibilities of catering to their offspring. He clarified Islam does not allow abandoning children to beg.
A former Emir of Kano Sanusi Lamido Sanusi stresses, “if a child is found on the street, the father is responsible. Justice means that everyone is given his or her rights.”
“If a man takes the privilege of being the head of the family, he takes responsibility for being the provider of the family. You cannot take the privileges and abandon the responsibility.”
But Ali and several others of varying ages continue to flock to business areas, traffic points, schools, and other public places to beg for existence.
They live in the most vulnerable context, exposed to sexual and other forms of assault, kidnapping, drug abuse, trafficking, violent crimes, health and other hazards.
According to UNESCO data, over 20 million children are out of school in Nigeria. The country has domesticated laws aimed at guaranteeing children’s rights and protection, such as the 1999 Constitution, the Child’s Rights Act, Child Protection Law, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). The government has also implemented various programs such as the Universal Basic program, Better Education Service Delivery for All (BESDA), and the Alternate School Programme, among others, to improve access to quality education. However, the implementation of these laws and programs remains a challenge, with many children still on the streets or out of school.
The Child Protection law signed into law in November 2021 by the Sokoto State government was hailed as a significant stride for children’s rights. Despite this, Abdul Ganiyu Abubakar, Chief Executive of the Save the Child initiative, expressed dissatisfaction with the situation of children, noting that many are still abused, molested, and exploited, while a lot more are still out of school.
“We must use the whole–of–the–society approach to address the issue. And that would include more engagement with religious leaders. Many of these children in northern Nigeria are Muslims, so the religious leaders should educate parents on their responsibility of parenting,” he said.