By Tope Templer Olaiya, Assistant Lagos City Editor
Akeem Musbau, aged 13, is a stranger’s delight asking for directions in Oshodi. Having spent five years in Lagos, he knows all bends and corners of the city’s melting port of Oshodi and neighbouring settlements of Mafoluku, Ladipo, Orile-Oshodi and Ilupeju.
Any street name that doesn’t register in Akeem’s memory simply does not exist in Oshodi, a skill acquired after long days of wandering and later hawking on the streets of Lagos. After arriving the nation’s commercial city centre from Abeokuta, he found shelter in the old rowdy Oshodi before Fashola’s demolition squad cleared the market.
He temporarily lost his shanty abode and was forced to pound the streets every night looking for a place to lay his head after a long day joining other truants to pick pockets and engage in petty crimes.
When Oshodi no longer became ‘safe’ to play pranks, he decided to be useful to himself. In 2009, he began hawking sachet water, sweets and biscuits, but returns were not encouraging. He determined to take up a regular job as a sales person, but was rejected when he failed to provide a reliable person as his guarantor.
Akeem braved the odds and hit the streets to clean vehicle windshield in traffic, but after being treated with the rough end of life, which saw some of his street-mates end up in KAI Black-maria, detention or sudden death, he is ready to sign off wandering as a pastime.
According to him, he has escaped being bundled out of Lagos by Governor Fashola’s agents of ‘deportation’ by a tinge of mother luck and being street smart, but he is aware he could exhaust his good luck soon. “I want to get a shop and start something, I am not too old to return to school.”
The presence of destitute children and beggars is an eyesore that does not add any beauty to the environment. On every highway, motor parks, markets and fun spots, many in their prime are seen in different shades of rags, coiling on a spot or loafing around to beg for alms.
They constitute great nuisance to the environment in many ways and are a security risk. In civilized societies, destitute children are usually not abandoned, but confined in places where they are taken care of, rehabilitated and reunited with their loved ones. If they are able to pull through, many of them stage a comeback to add value to the society and enhance the essence of humanity. But this is far from the norm in this clime, where they are left to rot away on the streets.
For every ‘Akeem’ roaming the streets of Lagos, there are at least 19 others who have had their dreams truncated by ending up with wrong companies and are, as the Special Adviser to the Lagos State governor on Youths and Social Development, Dr. Enitan Dolapo Badru, described them, “children in conflict with the law.”
At least, 1,708 beggars and destitute have been expelled from Lagos to their various states and countries since January. Badru told The Guardian that in line with the state government’s policy of ridding the streets of beggars and destitute, his office had consistently embarked on an aggressive raid of beggars, the mentally challenged and destitute from the streets, highways and under the bridges.
“In the last one year, a total number of 3,114 beggars/destitute/mentally challenged were rescued in day and night operations. 2,695 were taken to the Rehabilitation and Training Centre, Owutu, Ikorodu, where the state government has made provisions for facilities to help in turning the lives of the destitute/beggars around, while the mentally unstable are given medical attention.
“Forty-eight children and toddlers were transferred to the Child Protection Unit; another 48 street children cleaning wind shields at traffic lights were rescued and transferred to the Special Correctional Centre for Boys, Oregun; eight were transferred to the Child Transit Home, Idi Araba while 315 Persons (203 male and 54 female) suspected to be criminals were however handed over to the Task Force for prosecution. 403 persons were released to their relatives through written applications.
“We found out that a lot of children on the streets of Lagos come from outside the state thinking that Lagos is an Eldorado. It is unfortunate that many of them are underage and very vulnerable because they can be introduced to so many vices. When we rescue them, we try as much as possible to carry out social investigation to know where they actually come from and why they absconded in the first place,” he disclosed.
According to Dr. James Ayangunna, a lecturer with the department of Social Work at the faculty of Education, University of Ibadan, destitution can be grouped under economic, financial and medical forms. “In this part of the world, what seems to be in vogue is the maxim of ‘everybody for himself, God for us all.’ If the wealthy individuals have failed in this regard, it is because government has failed much more in the area of welfarism for destitute.”
Defending the practice of expelling kids rescued from the streets back to their states of origin, Badru noted that normal international standard requires that the state reunite them with their family. “The end result is to reunite them back with their families. We are not repatriating them out of Lagos. Once we rescue, we cannot as a government hold a child under the age of 18 in custody without parental or guardian consent.
“Once we have them in our custody, we must take a court order to keep them since the law provides for that and we cannot keep them indefinitely, so we still need to send them back to their parents. Once the social investigation is carried out and we are positive about their identity, we get in touch with the social welfare services of their state, which would in turn get in touch with the families.”
Badru’s linked the growing number of destitute children to polygamy. “When a woman goes into another man’s house taking her children along who has been previously married with children, some of the step children end up being maltreated by a hostile step-father or step-mum. Such a child would try as much as possible to escape being abused.
“Motor parks are their first port of call once they arrive Lagos before they now move to under the bridges and uncompleted buildings. We can’t be raiding motor parks everyday; that would create unpleasant signals to those coming to Lagos. A child can travel genuinely and it is no offense for a child to travel alone. We don’t want to start harassing every child we see disembarking from a bus at motor parks when we are not at war.
“However, what is important is for the family to be together and start teaching morals. Parents should shun abuse of children whether biological or adopted, we should not be abuser of children. Once we can deal with issues at the home front, destitution would be drastically reduced. The fewer criminals out there, the better for us; we can sleep with our two eyes closed at night.”
A social worker and CEO of Fair Life Africa Foundation, Mrs. Ufuoma Emerhor Ashogbon, said children are displaced when the fabric of the family is torn. She laid the blame for this rising phenomenon on the breakdown on family values.
“We can’t blame children for the street child phenomenon, any more than we can blame our feet for where we are going. Children are born into a structured world, and try to find their place in it. They need guidance from their parents, other adults and the government to stay on the right path.
“Yes, there are badly behaved children, but not bad children. With proper attention, teaching and discipline, children can learn how to make the right choices and function in their environment. In the absence of these, we will have a problem on our hands. Parents, as the individual leaders of their homes, must take responsibility for the state of their homefront,” she noted.
A social welfare practitioner, Mr. Kehinde Akinyemi, believes that the menace can be tackled with government coming up with legislations that will frown on destitution in the society. According to him, a mechanism should be adopted to evacuate them to asylums where they can be taken care of. “Today, many states do not have welfare schemes or asylums where the destitute can be rehabilitated, which is why there is the lure to come to Lagos to survive.”
He also advocated that the legislation should include certain punishment for families that isolate any deranged member of their family or found to have abused their children. He further queried the Lagos State government’s practice of picking people on the streets and dumping them on their states of origin.
“The approach of evacuation in Lagos is guerrilla-like. They just take the destitute to their various states, dump them on the street in the midnight and zoom back to Lagos, only for the evacuated kids to take another ‘flight’ back to where they had been evacuated from.”
Jiti Ogunye, a Lagos-based lawyer, said such repatriation, as a government policy is not an illegal and unconstitutional act.
“Lagos State, as a responsible government, has the power to encourage, very actively and aggressively, people within the state who are Nigerians to return to their states if they are destitute or beggars,” Mr. Ogunye said.
“It is sheer blackmail for a state to take care of lunatics from another state. No state government that is wallowing in the pit of corruption should be allowed to abdicate its responsibility.”