IT is difficult to believe the statement allegedly made by the Special Adviser on Youth, Sports and Social Development, Dolapo Badru, to the effect that there is a law in Lagos state which makes the giving of alms to beggars anywhere in the state, an offence punishable by two years imprisonment without an option of fine.
In the past few years, successive administrations in the state have adopted a number of measures to check the menace of beggars including the establishment of rehabilitation and vocational centres (to provide shelter and skills acquisition opportunities for the destitute), the deportation of beggars from other states of Nigeria to their states of origin, and the demonisation of begging as a way of life. But none of these measures has worked. Lagos is perhaps the only state and city in Nigeria whose population increases on a daily basis in an exponential manner. There is hardly any Nigerian that does not have a relation, close or distant in Lagos, and there is arguably no community in Nigeria that does not have some of its people in parts of Lagos including beggars!
Beggars flock to the city every day, and like others, they have no intention of leaving. Even when they are arrested by the state authorities and shipped back to their states of origin, they still manage to return. Lagos in the popular imagination is the Nigerian city where anyone and everyone can make a quick buck. Since 2007, the Fashola administration has embarked on a robust urban renewal programme. Lagos is now a much cleaner city, with its parks and gardens and with tax payers' money being put to work in many ways. The position of the Lagos state government it seems is that beggars constitute a nuisance, many of them are part-time criminals, and if they would not relocate to vocational centres, they might as well face the wrath of the state government. Having failed to convince or intimidate them, however, the state authorities are now warning all persons to desist from giving them alms. I really do not see how the Lagos state government can win that battle. In the past year, the state reportedly "deported" over 3, 000 beggars from Lagos. NEXT Newspaper reports that out of these, Sokoto State had the highest number of 196 beggars, Oyo State (83), Kano (75), Osun (67), Ekiti (21), Ondo (7), and from other countries- Niger (12), Chad (2) and Cote d'Ivoire (1). The state government should redirect its energies to more purposeful engagements.
There are too many contradictions in its chosen path. One, it makes no sense to "deport" a Nigerian from any part of Nigeria to another, whether that person is destitute, able or not. The Constitution guarantees the freedom of movement, and that right extends to beggars. Yes, beggars wander from one location to another, transporting their nuisance across the city, but wandering is not an offence. The law prescribing a two-year jail term for alms-givers, if indeed it exists, is ludicrous. In a country where those who burn down houses, kill in the name of religion, rape women, kidnap children, and sabotage the state are walking free, in a society where those who loot the treasury collect national honours and chieftaincy titles, it is those who give alms to the poor that we seek to send to jail for two years without an option of fine? That law will be difficult to enforce. How do you identify a beggar? Do beggars wear uniforms, or do they carry identification badges? The Lagos state authorities should avoid the kind of human rights crisis that occurred when a directive was issued that indecently dressed women should be arrested: many housewives, accused of exposing too much flesh ended up in police cells, resulting in public outrage. With regard to beggars and the destitute, the enforcement agents could end up arresting and molesting physically challenged persons who are already badly treated by the Nigerian state, and that will be most unfair, for it is not every physically challenged person that is a beggar.
And can a man be punished for spending his hard-earned money the way he likes? I earnestly await the day when anyone in Lagos will be sent to jail for giving alms to beggars! To give teeth to the law could cause a social uproar for it runs contrary to the people's religious and cultural beliefs. The Lagos state Government could be accused of an assault on the people's faith and belief systems. The two major religions Christianity and Islam encourage their adherents to give alms, to help the poor and the needy in society. This is a sacred obligation in both religions, and that is why the most popular haunts for beggars are places of religious worship. So established is the culture of begging, that in Lagos, there are at least two major beggars' colonies: one in Ebute Meta/Oyingbo, the other in Agege.
But the bigger issue is how the explosion in the population of beggars in Lagos and elsewhere in the country, is a function of the economic dispossession in the land and the high rate of unemployment. In Nigeria, beggary has become a way of life. It is one of the easiest occupations in the land. In part because of the religious belief that beggars should be assisted, it has become one of such occupations where investment is low and return is high. Often on Lagos streets and elsewhere you are likely to run into able-bodied men and women, neatly dressed, soliciting for alms as the traffic crawls. Then you have the so-called "corporate beggars": he or she tells you he just lost his purse, his English is impeccable, he is a University or college graduate, he is so persuasive, he wants you to assist him with "a widow's mite" and he asks God to bless you abundantly. He may even entertain you with an informed commentary on the state of the nation, with stinging criticisms of the Nigerian dilemma.
Out of pity, you'd be tempted to part with some money. A few days later, you may run into the same fellow again. He knows you. This time, he would change the story and even struggle to give you a copy of his resume: if you could help him get a job. Confused, you give him some money just to get him off your back. Or is it the woman with twins or a baby, her flattened breasts hanging loose, bearing all the worldly scars of deprivation and the wickedness of men, running after your car and begging you to help her child or the "ibejis" – you give her money and go to jail for two years? Or it could be the physically challenged, blind like a bat, lame like a possum, assisted by a younger man, who should be in school, the two of them joined together by a long stick, navigating crazy Lagos traffic, and there you are in your air-conditioned car, wondering why this world is so unfair to some people, and then you take a N50 note, moved by the entertaining prayers being showered on you and your future descendants, and you go to jail for that, for being human?
The Lagos State government should leave the beggars alone. Lunatics are also being chased off the streets. Why are they on the streets in the first place? This is the question to ask. When beggars are taken to vocational centres, they run away because it is more profitable to be on the streets. They have no faith in the Nigerian system. They know that they could be treated as if they were prisoners. They know that government officials could turn the maintenance of the centres into a source of livelihood, and an opportunity for looting state resources. What Nigeria needs is to address the distortions within the system. Beggars may never disappear completely from our streets, but if the factories can begin to function again, if the government can check the misfortune of de-industrialisation, if those trucks which used to ferry workers to and fro in the 70s and 80s can return to our streets and the warehouses that have been turned into churches can become warehouses again, the population of beggars should reduce. Nigerians love to work. But when there are no jobs, they become desperate, and constitute themselves into colonies and families of beggars.
The Lagos State government is targeting the beggars on the streets: has anyone considered the army of beggars that exists in every extended family? If you have a job in Nigeria, that job does not provide for you and your nuclear family alone, it compulsorily takes care of beggars within the extended family who monitor your movement and the salary payment season; often they lay ambush by your door, sometimes as early as 5 am, or very late in the night, with the plan to sleep overnight: eat, disturb your peace and still collect your money. Like the beggars on the streets, these family ones are also very good at praying. By the time they finish telling you all the wonders God has decided to do in your life, you will be tempted to take a loan to help them sort out their long list of problems!
Nigeria needs a strong social security system that provides for the poor, the weak, the needy and the aged. Nigeria needs a functional healthcare insurance system that can take care of the army of the poor, who go onto the streets with distended scrotums, blood-soaked breasts, broken and rotten legs, smelly injuries, soliciting for alms and pushing their wounds in the faces of decent people. Nigerian beggars are the children of a system that has gone awry and is in need of urgent repairs. When next I see a beggar, I will give alms as a good Christian. A two-year jail term? What kind of vexatious law is that?
Reuben Abati Writes