Zakat to the rescue: How Sokoto State is solving problems by taxing the rich to pay the poor

AISHA Aliyu is only 38 years but she looks like a 60-year-old woman. A widow, she lives alone in Tudun wada area of Sokoto. Her two sons work as apprentices to local artisans in different parts of the city, and only come to see her once in a while. She had been suffering from an “unknown” illness that made her feverish and weak, and had carried on using local herbs that always gave her short relief. The illness got worse whenever she ate certain kinds of food.

With no family member educated or wealthy enough to help her seek medical care, she had suffered in silence and endured her pain, which took severe toll on her health. Then one day, a neighbor who had heard a radio jingle about help for sick and indigent persons advised her to visit one of the medical centres. That was when she found help.

She left her house and went to the nearest Primary Healthcare Centre, PHC, for consultation. She was directed to see a doctor who advised her to go to the Women and Children Welfare Clinic (WCWC) in Kanwuri area of Sokoto. There, she met the hospital’s Zakat Committee, which ensured she saw a doctor and ran all tests free of charge. She was diagnosed with diabetes and hypertension and given a list of drugs to buy and take according to prescriptions.

The Zakat Committee of the hospital asked her to take the list of prescribed drugs to Binji Pharmacy, a private medical store in the city. There she received all the prescribed drugs that would last her for a month. The pharmacist also told her to come back every month for more drugs.

Aisha Aliyu

“I started taking the drugs two months ago,” she told The ICIR in Hausa when she came to Binji Pharmacy to collect her drugs for the third month. “I am grateful to God and to the people paying my bills because I feel better now.”

Muazu Maifada is a technician who specializes in electrical/refrigerator repairs also recalled how he came back from the brink of death six years ago after falling from an electric pole and sustaining multiple fractures He could not pay his surgical bill until a relation asked him to seek help from the Sokoto State Zakat Commission.

“After more than two months of excruciating pain, trying to raise money to operate my leg to save it from amputation, a relation suggested that I should approach the Commission. My initial request for financial assistance was rejected because, they do not entertain prescription or bills from any private hospital, until I brought another bill from Dala Orthopaedic Hospital, Kano,” he narrated in Hausa, adding that the Commission paid N127,000 for his medical care.

Not only was the bill settled, but he was empowered financially to start his own business. “Today I thank Allah, I have my own shop and I can feed my family,” he said as he attended to a customer.

Aliyu and Maifada are part of the staggering poverty statistics of Northern Nigeria, which has the highest poverty rate in the country. According to the 2015 report of the United Nation’s Global Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index, apart from Kwara and Kogi which recorded 23.7 % and 26.4% poverty rates respectively, no other state in the North falls below the national average of 46 %.

Zamfara State has the highest poverty rate of 91.9 percent followed by Yobe, 90.2%, Jigawa 88.4 % and Kebbi with 86.0 %. Kebbi is followed by Sokoto 85.3%, Katsina 82.2%, Taraba 77.7%, Gombe 76.9, Kano 76.4 and Borno 70.1 %.

Lagos State has the lowest rate of 8.5% followed by Osun 10.9% and Anambra State with 11.2%

But the Sokoto State government appeared to have found a way of addressing the poverty and health challenges of the people. The state is using Zakat, a form of Islamic tax imposed on wealthy Muslims, to invest in health and poverty alleviation for the underprivileged. Islam has made it mandatory to set aside 2.5 percent of annual savings of every Muslim as Zakat to be given out to the poor and needy.

Secretariat of the Sokoto State Zakat Committee

Through the state’s Zakat Commission- an autonomous Islamic body set up to collect and distribute Zakat in the state, the state government is giving the poor in the state a new lease of life.

Sick and poor people like Aliyu are getting access to medical care through monies given to the Commission by well-to-do- individuals and corporate organizations. A sub-committee of the Commission is established in all major hospitals, clinics and pharmaceutical stores to provide services to poor and needy patients. Each of the sub-committees is allocated a certain amount of money monthly and maintains a record of expenditure and list of beneficiaries for screening and approval.

In 2016 alone, a total of 20,520 needy patients benefitted from the scheme which gulped a total of N66.9 million. The 2017 annual report was not yet ready when the reporter visited the Commission’s office in June, but Lawal Maidoki, its chairman said the number of beneficiaries has been on the rise.   

Ibrahim Binji, proprietor of Binji Pharmacy, said his medical store receives the sum of N500,000 every month from the Zakat Commission. He disclosed that once a patient comes to his pharmacy with the doctor’s prescription from any of the designated hospitals or clinics, the pharmacy dispenses drugs. However, a patient is not allowed to exceed N5,000 per month.

He said over 90 percent of the patients who come with doctors’ prescriptions are the poor, adding that over 80 percent of them are 50 years old and above. And the most common ailments are diabetes, hypertension and hepatitis. In the month of May alone, he said 140 patients came to his pharmacy with doctors’ prescriptions.

At the WCWC, Fatima Abu, chairman of the hospital’s Zakat Committee, said there has been an increase in the number of patients coming to the hospital due to the free care given to the poor. She disclosed that the hospital’s committee receives more than 400 patients every month-a far cry from the less than 100 patients per month recorded before the scheme.

Fatima Abu, Chairman, Zakat Committee, Women and Children Welfare Clinic (WCWC), Sokoto State.

“Many people now come out to seek medical help because they know it is free,” she said. “ Many of these people would never have come to the hospital if they had to pay out of pocket because they can’t afford it.”

She also disclosed that hypertension is the most common illness among women coming to the hospital. The hospital also treats children’s diseases such as measles and diarrhea, among others.

The services of the Zakat Committee are replicated in 23 General Hospitals in the state-one for each local government. In Sokoto metropolis, the list of hospitals include: Uthman Danfodio University Teaching Hospital (UDUTH), Sokoto Specialists Hospital, Noma Hospital and the WCWH.

All the hospitals, clinics and pharmacies used for the scheme received between N200,000-N500,000 monthly, depending on size and services offered. 

In additional to general health intervention, the Commission also facilitates treatment and rehabilitation of needy patients who have neuro or psychiatric problems by paying their medical bills at the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Kware. The number of mentally ill persons treated and rehabilitated has also been growing. In 2014, over 1,849 outpatients were treated while more than 865 were placed on hospital admission. The cost to the Commission for that year was N28 million.

But by 2016, the number of outpatients increased to 8,632 while 408 were admitted. For the year 2016, a total sum of N36.7 million was spent on this service.

For the year 2016, a total of N286.1 million was spent on health services-a quantum leap from about N150 million expended in 2014.

Poverty alleviation, which is the primary purpose for the payment of Zakat in Islam, is also one of the focus areas of the Zakat Commission. Two committees of the Commission namely the Human Resources Development and the Orphans and Needy, are charged with providing working capital and tools to the less privileged to establish small-scale businesses. Some, especially the youths, are given training in skill acquisition.

In 2014, over 2,500 individuals reportedly benefited from the scheme. Apart from provision of working capital to the tune of N72.2 million, various items were also distributed to beneficiaries to enable them set up small businesses. The items include: 80 deep freezers, 450 sewing machines, 420 grinding machines and 560 goats for breeding. In 2016 the working capital provided for the indigent rose to N84 million.

Street leading to the Palace of the Sultan of Sokoto.

To discourage begging for alms on the streets, the Commission, working through its committees in all the 86 districts of the 23 local government areas of the state, identified the physically challenged people and placed them on a monthly allowance N6,500. In 2014, 6, 979 persons were enlisted for the payment. But by 2016, the number of beneficiaries has decreased to 6,866 persons.

According to Abubakar Sadeeq, the media adviser of the Commission, some of the beneficiaries stopped begging for alms and are engaged in some micro businesses such as selling groceries, kolanuts, fruits and other farm products. He mentioned one Yahya Amadu from Asara Ward of Gwadabawa Local Government who now has a flock of 21 goats and two bulls, and no longer receives any allowance.

Although it started as Zakat Committee in 2012, its mandate was expanded when Governor Aminu Tambuwal came into office in 2015. The Commission was established by law No. 11 of 2016 to perform among other duties – require, accept and approve zakat declaration from persons eligible to pay zakat, and make policies, plans and regulations necessary for the realization of the objectives of zakat.

The Commission is headed by a chairman, has a secretary and 15 other members who’re not government officials. The only government official who is a member of the committee is the Commissioner for religious affairs. It operates through sub-committees for each category of intervention. The sub-committees report to the secretariat which has only three permanent staff namely:  Director, Zakat, Deputy Director, Zakat and the Accountant. Other staff of the secretariat are ad-hoc staff seconded from other government agencies in the state.

In a state where the population is said to be 99.9 percent Muslim, the new administration saw an opportunity in expanding Zakat collection from wealthy individuals and organizations and using the money to help the state solve critical challenges. The Commission established Zakat committees in each of the 86 districts of the state to collect Zakat from those eligible to pay, including state and local government officials.

Thus, in 2014, the sum of N128.1 million was collected as Zakat. But by 2016, the figure had risen to N461.6 million-an increase of more than 400 percent. The state government has also increased its subvention to the Commission. In 2014 only N45.8 million was contributed to the Zakat fund by the state government. But by 2016 it had climbed to N845.2 million.

According to Sadeeq, this was achieved through sensitization of the people on radio and television on the importance of paying zakat and what the Commission was doing with the fund. But more than these, the Sultanate was critical to the expansion of the revenue base of the Commission.

Abubakar Sa’as III, Sultan of Sokoto

Sultan Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, the Sultan of Sokoto, used district heads in the state to transmit the Commission’s messages and held series of consultative meetings with market and business associations in the state.

Political and traditional leaders in the state have also been paying their Zakat to the Commission, including Governor Tambuwal, senators, House of Reps members, commissioners, local government chairmen and others.

In other predominantly Muslim populated states Zamfara, Yobe, Jigawa, Katsina and Kano, Zakat presents a unique opportunity to address poverty and health challenges of the people. But while all of these states have Zakat Commissions, there have been no committed effort to have a standardized collection and distribution mechanism. Also, unlike what is happening in Sokoto, these states are yet to integrate zakat distribution towards solving critical societal problems like lack of access to health and mass poverty.

In Kano for instance, which has the highest population of Muslims in Northern Nigeria, the Kano Zakat and Endowment Commission had existed for more than a decade and millions of people have reportedly benefitted from handouts given by the Commission. But the performance of the Commission has been poor because it depends largely on allocation from the state government, which defeats the whole essence of collecting zakat. It also has no trained personnel and no well-established collection channels. It had also done very little to enlighten and mobilize the public towards payment of zakat.

The Commission only mobilizes Muslims to pay their zakat during Ramadan — the month of fasting. Safiyanu Gwagwarwa, Director-General of the Commission, told journalists in Kano last April before the holy month of Ramadan that the Commission had sent out letters to wealthy individuals in the state to pay their zakat.

“The letters are meant to remind our people of the importance of paying the alms as and when due as enshrined in Sharia to enable the Commission to distribute same in good time.”

Moreover, the Kano Commission has no people-oriented policies or programmes of its own to which monies collected could be channeled. The funds collected are only given out in little cash and foodstuffs to households of the poor. There is no conscious effort to lift people out of diseases and poverty. Mallam Nasir Abdullahi, a cleric in Kano told the reporter that the Commission buys foodstuffs and distribute to the needy during the fasting period.


According to Mallam Kazeem Abdullahi, a Kano-based Islamic scholar, If Zakat collection is standardized and the society is well mobilized to pay, a state such as Kano could generate more than N8 billion annually from wealthy individuals.  But the state currently generates less than N500 million and depends largely on government subvention which fluctuates from year to year.

The North West and Kano have the highest infant mortality rate in the country, and Zakat funds, if available, could help transform the appalling health statistics. According to the 2017 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 5 (MICCs5), there are 112 deaths per 1,000 live births in Kano. It is followed by Kebbi State -111, Zanfara – 104 , Jigawa – 83, Katsina – 68, and Kaduna 66.

Although ante-natal services are free in most states of the North, including Kano, the services are still limited to government hospitals in the city centres. In many cases the women still have to buy their own drugs. The services are dependent on government budgets.

But adequate zakat collection could provide meaningful intervention in the reduction of infant mortality if the funds are used to build more hospitals, buy medical equipment and drugs, especially for rural communities in the state. Alternatively, it could be used to fund medical expenses of indigent and poor people, most of who live in rural areas and cannot pay out-of-pocket for healthcare.

Sokoto State has the lowest infant mortality rate in the region with only 51 deaths per 1,000 births, thanks in part to the intervention by the Zakat Commission.

While the maternal mortality rate for each of the geo-political zones was not available, the Nigeria Demographic Health Survey 2013 shows that the maternal mortality ratio among women age 15-49 for the whole country is 1.1 death per 1,000. In percentage terms, it means maternal mortality in Nigeria accounts for 32 per cent of all deaths among women age 15-49. These are some of the health challenges that zakat funds can be used to address besides poverty alleviation programmes.

Sadly, even in northern states where Zakat collection has become a norm, it is not really working well for the people as it is either entirely dependent on government funding or used for political patronage.

The Zamfara State Zakat Foundation, for example, depends hundred percent on the state government. According to Governor Abdul’Aziz Yari, the annual zakat distributed to the less privileged is raised from contracts awarded by the state government. Two percent of all contract sums is given to the foundation to be distributed as Zakat to the poor. Since 2014, an estimated N345 million has been shared annually to about 3,450 needy people in the state. Fifteen beneficiaries are drawn from each of the 230 districts of the 17 emirate councils in the state, and each person received N100,000 to start a business. A Zakat fund that is less than N500 million is not adequate for any meaningful intervention in any of the other critical areas of need of the people such as healthcare and agriculture.

Other categories of beneficiaries such as the deaf, blind, crippled and clerics receive between N10,000 and N20,000 respectively.

Even in Sokoto State, in spite of it successes, the intervention by the Zakat Commission has some noticeable defects and still continues to face some challenges. For instance, even though it pays the medical bills of thousands of people and gives economic empowerment to hundreds every year, the Commission has no monitoring and evaluation mechanism to measure its success against objectives.

The Commission does not keep the contact details of beneficiaries to be able to follow up on them. It has no contact record of beneficiaries of its empowerment programme, which makes it impossible to know whether such people have exited from extreme poverty and are running successful businesses or trades. These all leave the system to all kinds of manipulation.

When The ICIR requested to meet some of the beneficiaries of the Commission’s programmes, Sadeeq said it was impossible to reach them as they had no contact record for them. “It will be difficult to meet them because we don’t know where they are,” he declared. He added that “we don’t have their contact addresses and you know many of these people don’t have telephones.” 

The Zakat Committee at the WCWC also could not link the reporter with any beneficiary of its health scheme. When asked if it was possible to visit the residence of any of the beneficiaries, Abu said it was impossible because “we don’t follow them home and we don’t keep their addresses.” She accepted that it was an error they hope to correct in future.

However, this omission in the programmes may be responsible for some sharp practices said to characterize activities of the Commission. For instance, it was learnt that whenever the Commission does any of its open empowerment programmes where items such as motorcycle, sewing machines, refrigerators and others are distributed to those in need to help them start small scale businesses, some officials of the Commission would arrange to buy those items from beneficiaries at cheap prices. Thus, such beneficiaries end up with some little cash that are spent on buying foodstuffs and some clothing, which defeats the purpose of zakat.

When the reporter visited Salame, a major town in Gwadabawa Local Government of the state, some of the residents interviewed said they had heard about the various interventions of the state’s Zakat Commission, but none could direct the reporter to any of the beneficiaries. They claimed most of the beneficiaries lived in remote rural communities not easily accessible.  But the reporter was told of a widow who received a refrigerator from the Commission but had relocated elsewhere with her children. No one could help trace her new abode.

Dalhatu Buhari, Traditional ruler of Salame

Dalhatu Buhari, the traditional ruler of the town, also confirmed that he had been told of some people in the community who got assistance from the Commission. “But I don’t know anyone here who got anything and brought it here to start a new business. You know they are invited to Sokoto where the distribution of items is done by the governor or Sultan,” he said.

But Sadeeq denied the Commission staff were responsible for buying off items distributed to empower the people. “The Commission does not arrange to buy distributed items from beneficiaries. But it is possible that some beneficiaries may sell the items. That is out of our control.”

In its 2016 annual report, the Commission listed one of its major challenges as “higher demands for assistance in the areas of health, shelter, marriage and small-scale business capital.” It also accused some businesses located in the local government areas within Sokoto metropolis of refusing to pay their zakat, which could have boosted the revenue of the Commission. Other challenges listed are: inadequate manpower and delay in submitting zakat collected from the districts.



    Some opinion leaders in the North believe that states with predominant Muslim populations could take advantage of this tax to address pressing challenges. Dauda Brimoh, a former Minister of Education and frontline politician in Adamawa State said it is possible to address mass poverty in the North by institutionalizing and standardizing collection and distribution of zakat.

    “But this can only be done with the leadership of the Sultan who needs to work with other traditional rulers and governors in the zone. It is not something that only one state should be doing if we want to address mass poverty. We have already seen how the sukuk (an Islamic bond) is being used by the Federal Government to build roads for Nigerians. States in the North can also use the zakat to benefit their people.” 

    He stressed that states must shift their focus from distributing zakat as handout, but turn it into an institution of poverty eradication.

    * This investigation was supported by the Ford Foundation

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