The Nigerian Federal Government, led by President Goodluck Jonathan, began constructing Model Tsangaya/Almajiri schools across the country in December 2009 as part of the Almajiri Education Programme. This was done in order to help the Almajiri system become more mainstream in basic education.
The Hausa word “Almajiri” is derived from the Arabic word “Almuhajirun,” which means “migrants.” It refers to people who travel far from home in search of Islamic knowledge in Northern Nigeria. Tsangaya, on the other hand, is Hausa for “open learning center.” Both words are now used interchangeably to refer to the latter in various circles.
The Almajiri are primarily found in Northern Nigeria, but there is also a sizable population in the Southwest. Depending on the context, Almajiri schools are also known as Makarantun Allo (slate school), Tsangaya (learning center), and Ile-kewu (Arabic school in Yoruba). They can also be found today in the form of Islamiyyah and Tahfeez (Qur’anic memorization) schools.
According to scholars, the Tsangaya/Almajiri system of education in Nigeria is as old as Islam, dating back over a millennium. In his book “History of Education in Nigeria,” prominent education professor Babatunde Fafunwa claims that when British colonialists arrived in the country, they found over 25,000 Islamic schools in Northern Nigeria.
Back then, the Ajami script, which is used to write Arabic, facilitated literacy in many African languages, including Hausa, Swahili, and Kanuri. Even today, relics of the Ajami script can be found on some of Nigeria’s higher denominations. Before the introduction of Western education, students could read and write using that script.
The Almajiri and their teachers (known as Mallams) benefited from both governmental and communal support during the teaching and learning process in precolonial times. While the Emirs gave grants to Tsangaya schools, communities would occasionally welcome and host the Almajiri.
However, with the British invasion of Northern Nigeria, this would change. Tsangaya schools were no longer supported by the government, and their students were not considered educated. Even though skill acquisition was an integral part of the Tsangaya schooling system, graduates from it were unable to use their qualifications to seek government jobs. Without government assistance, the students were forced to rely on begging and menial labor to make ends meet.
Several attempts were made in the post-colonial period to accord the Almajiri some respect, particularly by communities and state governments. The creation of the Northern Board of Arabic and Islamic Studies (NBAIS) in the 1960s, the establishment of Islamiyyah schools where Islamic and Qur’anic knowledge was taught from the 1980s to the recognition, and the equalization of certificates earned through the Tsangaya school system with those earned by university graduates are just a few examples.
Despite this, traditional Tsangaya school graduates were not recognized as educated in their own right at the national level. This can still be seen in the categorization of students produced by the system as “illiterates.”
The Federal government considers Nigeria’s over 9 million Almajiris to be out-of-school children because many of them received little or no Western education until they completed primary school. As a result, it put in place measures to ensure that the system’s products received Western education. As a result, Tsangaya/Almajiri Model schools were built in various parts of the country in order to achieve the goal of Universal Basic Education.
Nigeria’s legal framework for basic education is the Compulsory, Free Universal Basic Education Act of 2004. Basic education is defined as six years of primary school and three years of junior secondary school education under this law, which aimed to make basic education free and compulsory for Nigerians. Basic education was supposed to be under the control of states and local governments, with federal intervention in the form of matching grants and funding.
The Act also established agencies to perform functions on behalf of the governments. The federal agency providing the intervention is the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), while each state and local government has its own State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) and Local Government Education Authority (LGEA).
The Federal Government handed over the schools to their host states through SUBEBs after they were built through UBEC. There are 157 Almajiri Model Schools in total, with the majority located in the country’s northeast and northwest.