In the past week, the right to alms received a shot in the arm. It was Senator Shehu Sani’s shot at Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai. Sani supported almsgiving and clobbered Rufai as an anti-revolutionary.
I was already contemplating this second instalment of my last week’s comment when Sani’s broadsides hit the news waves. I expected something new, sudden and even rigorous from his cerebral mind. He has been a mainstay of the civic battles of the North and has managed to present himself as a fighter not only with dignity but also for the dignity of others.
We recall with gratitude his interventions in the tempestuous days of Boko Haram when they hoisted flags and burned towns and slaughtered human flesh and skewered virgins. He earned the people’s right and other Nigerians’ nod in his election as senator.
But his words on El-Rufai’s policy on beggars reflect what happens to men when they swivel from activists to partisans. They lose the virtue of evenhandedness and fall into temptation. He said El-Rufai’s policies were anti-people, and the governor had decided not to appoint his (Sani’s) loyalists in office. Cutting bureaucracy, bringing faith rather than fraud to hajj, pruning expenditure and other El-Rufai policies cannot amount to anti-people policies.
I expected his take on the almajiri issue to come with the candour of detachment and reflect legitimate logic. But the partisan wars between him and El-Rufai will unveil in the coming years. But my concern here is the almajiri hobgoblin.
The El-Rufai take brings to mind the crises of change, and the way we effect change determines whether it works or not. It invokes Wole Soyinka’s play, Death and The King’s Horseman, a play some critics regard as the best work of his career. I think differently though. But it is a matter for another day. In his introduction to the play, the Nobel laureate ribbed commentators who reduced the theme to a “clash of cultures” and he described them as lazy. He, however, saw his work as embodying various themes relating to the tension of transition, and that is how I have seen that great play of audacious experimenting, poetic flourish and luminous characters.
In the play, the royal is on his way from the world of flesh to paradise. A seductive beauty entraps him. So paradise can wait.
Whether it is decadent or draconian, societies are often unwilling to accommodate the demands of change. That is why sudden revolutions are bloody and often fail. The French, Chinese, the so-called revolutions of the Europe in the mid-19th century did not rise up to the idealisms of their foot soldiers and dreamers. The American Revolution was not a revolution in the sense of the others because they sought to own their country. The others wanted to overthrow even the magna carta. Garibaldi. Bismarck. Cavour. Metternich.
So El-Rufai had his heart in the almajiri’s place when he wanted them off the streets. He had done something exemplary in Abuja as minister.
But in Kaduna, his action was too sweeping. But everyone, including Shehu Sani, should cavil at today’s incarnation of the almajiri. Ironically, it was the clerics who started it that bastardised it. Thealmajiri were not supposed to beg when it started in the Borno area many decades ago. They were supposed to be scholars. Jesus sent his disciples out to preach. He asked them not to go from house to house for sustenance. But they should remain in the place where they had food and shelter.
The universal beggary of today’s almajiri is an abuse of its original concept. I visited Kaduna a few years ago and studied the system and even spoke with then governor, Namadi Sambo. It was clear he was thinking a policy of gradually getting the boys of the street, and his predecessor also had begun a programme that his wife pursued as an NGO after they left office. I visited one of the schools in Kaduna devoted to some of the boys. It was a full boarding school with laboratories, libraries, etc. Some of the students told me they dreamed of the professions. Pilot, teacher, engineer, etc.
The modest gains then had started attracting some almajiri from outside Kaduna.
It is therefore fraudulent to say that the policy of al majiri does not need expunging. What El-Rufai needs is a strategy of containment and elimination. I also observed that a northern state alone cannot deal with the issue. It is not a Kaduna problem. It is a northern problem rooted in its feudal history. First politicians, then Boko Haram recruited them.
As El-Rufai has noted, they are bomb couriers. Calling them suicide bombers is to incriminate them. They did not know the evil they committed.
The children would rather be an El-Rufai or Shehu Sani than a Jugunu who leads the colony of beggars. That was the shortcoming of Aminata Sow Fall’s novel, The Beggars Strike. It does not interrogate the morality of the priests and almsgivers. If we want to give alms today, we don’t need the almajiri on the street to sate our spiritual cravings. What are the babies’ homes for, the house of the blind, deaf, disabled? What of the scholarships that we need to give to many indigent ones in our midst, and the hospital patients, etc. Such giving ennobles. To give to the al majiri is to stunt their dignity. Soyinka’s Opera Wonyosi shows no sympathy for the head of the colony, and his play looks at both the street and executive beggary. Also, John Jay’s Beggar’s Opera and Brecht’s Three Penny Opera excoriate a capitalism that enriches a few and exploits the poor.
It is the hypocrisy of the wallet against the bowl. The rich and mighty endorse begging out of naivety. The western society found a solution by creating the welfare state, especially in the aftermath of the Second World War when more than half of Europe was flirting with communism. The Marshall Plan created a first crutch, and a well-organised system to cushion the weak followed.
In 16th century, Holland broke out of the hold of Spain when the leaders, including William of Orange, gave their party the symbol of the wallet and the bowl. They had written a petition and a senior Spanish officer said to the woman representing Phillip 11: “Fear not madam, they are nothing but beggars.” The so-called beggars overthrew Spain and reclaimed their country. In the novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo writes an evocative chapter of the revolt of the vagabonds, including beggars and the lame to mock an insensitive society. We have to save and integrate them before they rise. That is when revolutions are sudden. Even if they fail, they carry cargoes of blood and death and years of pain.
So to effect change, it has to be gradual, not the sort of wholesale style of El-Rufai. Yet he needs our sympathy for confronting a great wrong to a generation and a scar on our conscience. The whole North should approach it in concert and as a conscience.