The social media were rife with the news on that day. Beggars were out on the streets of Alausa, near the seat of government in Lagos, protesting.
But it quickly emerged, watching the videos, that what was really afoot was not a revolt by the general population of street-dwellers but a protest by Persons Living with Disabilities (PLWDs). The ostensible reason for their street demonstration was the ban on the use of okada and keke on some major roads of the state. Many of the protesters did not cut the picture of students on wheelchairs struggling through school, the sort Lagos embraced in its thinking, but rode on wheeled platforms generally associated with beggars on the streets.
One of the banners they held up read:
“We can’t beg, ride our keke or trade on the street
But you give us nothing…”
It is appropriate to look at the facts of the matter in the broadest possible context. Lagos State has done far more than any other state of the Nigerian federation, and certainly more than the federal government of Nigeria, in trying to identify and meet the needs of disabled in the community. As far back as 2011, a law titled “Lagos State Special Peoples’ Law” was passed. There is a lot of semantics surrounding discussions about disabled people in polite circles. Descriptions such as “Special People” and “Physically Challenged” are used, presumably to seek mitigate stigma, and there is even talk of “ability in disability”, a popular oxymoron.
The state set up an agency – the Lagos State Office for Disability Affairs (LASODA) and opened a register for the disabled. It enforced building stipulations requiring buildings to have ramps and other access provisions for the disabled. It sought to make special car parking provisions for them. Government itself set an example by employing several highly visible disabled persons, and it encouraged private employers to follow the lead. It introduced some “empowerment” initiatives to assist them to engage in useful economic activities.
Unfortunately, Lagos cannot solve the problem of its disabled population without situating it in the larger cultural and political context of the problem of roadside destitution in Nigeria.
Several years ago, a survey of roadside destitute was carried out from the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital. Surprisingly, many of them were found to be suffering from diagnosable mental illness. A large percentage of the remainder had physical or intellectual disabilities. But the hard core of the population were able-bodied or minimally impaired “professional beggars”.
For the mentally ill, the state became the first state to enunciate a Mental Health Policy, committing itself to looking after the mental health of its citizens high and low, in every corner of the state.
For all the different categories of people who had fallen through the crack and ended up on the streets, it offered a process of rehabilitation which included time-limited training in occupational skills, so that they could ultimately make a living out there in the community.
Unfortunately, most of the “career beggars” were men and women from the north of the country. They saw the proceeds of their begging as an entitlement and had no interest in “rehabilitation”.
It is these “career-beggars” that have now become the predominant danger in the street population. In addition, disabled and able-bodied destitutes are simply shipping themselves down to Lagos in hordes, riding on trailers and cattle trucks. The adults are untrained and uninterested in any “training”. The children are dirty, unschooled, unvaccinated, and ready repositories of communicable diseases.
It is interesting that Kano State, the home state of a large percentage of the roadside destitute population of Lagos, has belatedly announced a ban on street begging. Governor Ganduje can only do this successfully by taking a fresh look at his mentally ill, and developing a proper policy for his disabled, walking the troubled path Lagos has tried to tread, all of this in addition to comprehensively dealing with his almajiri problem educationally and through extensive social casework. Setting high social ambitions is often a thankless job. By raising expectations, government creates demands, and lays itself open to outbursts such as the recent Alausa demonstration.
Technically, the best place to rehabilitate any human being with a chronic impairment is close to their place of origin. Several years ago, Lagos actually received the cooperation of states like Kano in accepting some of their citizens back for rehabilitation. The process of back and forth exchange for rehabilitation across state barriers was going on well until Peter Obi, a man normally esteemed in the public space for calm reason, decided to make a song and dance about a citizen of his state who was sent for rehabilitation in the process, suing the Lagos State government to court for an outrageous sum of money in a public show. From that point on, petty ethnic politics took over, and the staples of Social Work ran for cover.
What to do?
Clearly the Lagos government should work with LASODA to see what it can do, short of breaking its own laws, to continue to improve the lives of its disabled population. They, for their part, should not allow themselves to be used by people intent on shaming government into reversing “Greater Lagos” policies it has no intention of reversing. Other states need to strengthen their Social Welfare operations and collaborate with Lagos so that Nigeria may begin at last to develop the wasted human resources on its streets. Advocacy should focus on getting Nigerians to channel charity donations towards building and maintaining rehabilitation structures for socially or physically disadvantaged citizens, instead of denigrating their humanity by throwing worthless money at them on the streets.
And Lagos would need to “connect the dots” on the structures and processes it has started and bite the bullet on the huge additional investment required to fully implement its Mental Health and Disability Policies, including the “next level” developments proposed for the Majidun Rehabilitation project.