• Monday, June 17, 2024
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BusinessDay

The street-dwellers of Nigeria

The street-dwellers of Nigeria

Anybody visiting any of the urban centres of Nigeria would be accustomed to the sight of large numbers of people – men, women, and children, living rough on the streets, and making a living mostly from begging and petty crime. A large proportion of them are children of school age.

Nigeria has been estimated to have the largest population of out-of-school children in the world. A figure of fourteen million has been bandied about.

Most of these childhood beggars are attributed to the almajiri system in Northern Nigeria. Young children are sent by their parents from an early age to ‘teachers’, ostensibly to receive religious instruction. There, they are armed with begging bowls and sent out on the streets. Whole generations of this ilk have grown up in the land lacking literacy, numeracy or any other skills with which they could make a living or contribute positively to society. They constitute a pool of disaffected hoi polloi from which mobs are drawn to fuel any conflict – from riots to Boko Haram terrorism.

Q: “Whole generations of this ilk have grown up in the land lacking literacy, numeracy or any other skills with which they could make a living or contribute positively to society.”

Sadly, the problem of a burgeoning street population of destitutes is not limited to children, and is not always a sociological menace confined to its area of provenance. Lagos State has, virtually since the inception of the Nigerian nation, been the destination of relentless migration for street dwellers from all over, but most especially from the northern part of the country.

Forty years ago, this writer, out of professional curiosity, carried out a classification of the residents at the Majidun Rehabilitation Centre, on the outskirts of Ikorodu, shortly after a series of ‘raids’ carried out by Social Workers on various pockets of street dwellers across Lagos. The street dwellers were herded into vans and conveyed to the Centre, ostensibly to be ‘rehabilitated’ and ultimately returned to society as useful, productive citizens. The Centre was equipped with various human and material resources for the training of artisans in trades such as tailoring and basket weaving.

Lagos was the only state at the time that was making a professionally led effort at rehabilitation and reintegration of destitute based on their needs and newly acquired skills. There were laws against street begging in the state and the legal stipulation against ‘wandering’ technically proscribed living on the street.

The results of the analysis were interesting. A significant percentage of the residents were ‘lifestyle, professional’ beggars. Another group had various physical disabilities – blindness, post-polio mobility impairments and congenital limb deformities. A small number showed evidence of intellectual disability. But the real surprise for you at the time was that a huge percentage turned out to have evidence of treatable psychiatric illnesses. Spread among all the different categories was a high incidence of abuse of various drugs.

The story of Destitute Rehabilitation, as you heard it told, started from the time of FESTAC 77 when the incumbent military government decided to remove the unsightly spectacle of hordes of beggars, many of whom did not speak the local language, from the streets of Lagos. The Majidun Centre was built and equipped.

Despite significant expenditure, very little rehabilitation, and virtually no reintegration, were achieved. Psychologically, most of the destitute were content to be on the streets. After all, the average beggar in Lagos earned more income in a day than the average civil servant. The ‘lifestyle’ adult beggars, male and female, would regularly break walls and attack staff at the Centre, eager to escape. Sometimes they were aided by an organised syndicate on the outside.

Concerning the disabled, there were cultural differences between the local Yoruba community, who still struggled to send their vision-impaired or mobility-challenged children to school or to learn a trade, and others who ‘came in on the railway’, who saw disability as an automatic consignment and entitlement to a life of begging.

Forty years on from your early encounter, the problem of roadside destitution, in Lagos, and Nigeria at large, is much worse than ever, as is evident from the sordid sights on the Lekki-Jakande axis and Iba-LASU road.

Latter-day public discussion on the subject is, unfortunately, attended by sensationalism, ethnic sentiment, and frank ignorance, instead of professional knowledge.

Take almajiri children. There is talk of special ‘Almajiri Schools’. But there is no talk of the concurrent massive Social Casework that would be required to make such education impactful. Every child, to be properly educated, needs to be ‘parented’. If biological parents, who should be legally sanctioned for abandonment, are not available to ‘parents’, the State, through properly empowered Social Workers, must take up the burden, child by child.

And what about the internationally acknowledged fact that socially dislocated people are most effectively reintegrated close to their native environment, even if it requires a handshake between social workers across state boundaries? A Nigerian politician who would later contest for the presidency went ballistic and threatened to sue Lagos State for ‘billions of naira’ when a destitute person from his home state was repatriated by social workers. And the recent repatriation of some destitute to Osun State was remarkable for the hot air it generated.

It is a no-brainer that the laws on vagrancy and street begging need to be strengthened and enforced and that school-age children trading or begging on the streets should be apprehended and their parents prosecuted. Responsibility for unparented minors should revert to the state. Charity contributions for the upkeep and improvement of the less privileged should be made through churches, mosques, and NGOs instead of giving alms on the streets. More of everything will be needed, including social workers and rehabilitation centres that actually rehabilitate instead of serving as long-term custodial centres.

A new understanding and a paradigm shift are required of street dwellers in Nigeria. The citizens’ natural generosity must be channelled to elevate other Nigerians to a life of dignity and not used as an excuse to keep them down and out on the streets.

It is a long journey of tough choices, but it is a journey that must commence.