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Coronavirus fears over children in northern Nigeria

28 April 2020

As the number of COVID-19 cases steadily rise in Nigeria, there are growing concerns over the fate of children who’ve left home to study Islam in northern Nigeria — and are roaming the streets amid the pandemic.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there is no evidence of any special attention, either by Nigeria’s federal or state governments, to the plight of the Almajirai children. 

Almajiri (plural Almajirai) is a system of Islamic education that requires children to be sent away from their homes to study the Quran. It is mainly practiced in northern Nigeria.

With no place to call home — they survive by begging in the streets — a practice that has put them at a high risk of contracting the coronavirus.

A’ishatu Muhammad Alhassan, a children rights activist in Niger State, is worried about the children, who, according to a UNICEF report, make up about 9.5 million of Nigeria’s population.

Travelers from densely populated Lagos have been blamed for spreading the coronavirus to northern Nigeria

“It is disheartening to see children of this nature. Some of them under the age of 5 are roaming the streets in search of what to eat without any protective measures,” Muhammad Alhassan, told DW.

“Most of them don’t know anything about COVID-19. I think the authorities concerned need to do something urgently to safeguard the lives of Almajirai, especially in northern Nigeria.”

Almajirai children sent back home

Some states in northern Nigeria have begun to deport Almajirai to their respective regions of origin due to the increase in COVID-19 cases. States like Jigawa and Katsina received the young pupils and, after that, put them into isolation centers to undergo medical screening before handing them over to their respective parents.

Nuhu Dembo, a local authority official in Katsina State, told DW, they had recently handed more than a dozen children to traditional rulers after completing medical check-ups. The traditional rulers then take the children back to their parents. “We will also follow [up on] them and ensure that all the parents have quarantined themselves for at least 14 days,” Dembo said.

According to Abdullahi El-Okene, a political scientist at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, politicians are to blame for ignoring the Almajirai children and robbing them of their human rights.

Boarding houses as potential virus clusters

“The Almajirai are taken from their various local boarding houses, some of which are definitely free of COVID-19, and then merged with others  from different boarding houses which may have been infected by the virus and transported together,” El-Okene said.

“This can be a reason to further make COVID-19 spread to where it was not before,” El-Okene added, calling on sincerity on the part of the government to treat the Almajirai with dignity and grant them their constitutional right.

As COVID-19 ravages parts of Africa, international bodies have called for concerted efforts to pay attention to the vulnerable and minority across the continent.

State border closures breached

Meanwhile, the states’ border closure may not be that effective after all, because some security officers are being compromised. Several motorists admitted to DW that they could still move passengers from Kano to other states in the region,despite the inter-state restrictions on movement.

Abdullahi, a resident of one of the border villages in Kano State, told DW the authorities are fully aware of what is going on. “We witness how motorists are maneuvering to gain entrance or to go out of the state,” Abdullahi said.

Activists accuse Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who hails from northern Nigeria, of neglecting the Almajirai children

“There are some [motorists]who pay money to security at the border. If the government is talking about closing the borders let them know the borders are not closed.”

Ambassador Moses Kyari, a political analyst, blamed the increase in coronavirus cases in northern Nigeria on cross-border travel. “Certainly the migration of our people from Lagos, from Abuja and from Kano, has greatly contributed to the high number of suspected COVID-19 patients in northern Nigeria,” Kyari told DW.

He appealed to the residents to be responsible and adhere to government health directives.

This report first appeared on DW, the German public service broadcaster.

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