It has become worrisome that in some parts of the federal capital territory, beggars and destitute, who were once upon a time, exiled from the city, are visibly making a comeback. In this report, GABRIEL ATUMEYI looks at these places and examines the issues behind their return
Every day, around the Kubwa pedestrian bridge, a group of young boys, usually between the ages of five and 18, are scattered in every corner. Their mission is to wander from one end to another, looking for any alighting passenger needing help with their luggage or anyone willing to part with their hard earned money in the name of charity.
The sight of such group of young boys looking for alms can also be seen around Abuja in strategic places and at peak hours, when the residents of the city are either in the course of going out for their daily activities or returning back to base, after a day of hard work. These young people are not the only ones looking for alms from sympathetic passers-by. There is another category of persons who also engage in the solicitation of alms and they are the handicaps, usually cripples and the blind.
While the former can move easily because of their lack of physical defect, the latter group are relatively confined within a given area, and it is supposed that this group make the most money because of the sympathy their condition can elicit from the public.
However, recently, there have been reports of a swelling number of this category of persons in the city of Abuja despite the laws of the city proscribing their activities. So many reasons have been given for this.
According to some group, the surge may be because the government of the day is headed by a northerner. This, they say, gives the beggars, who are mostly from the northern part of the country, the boldness they need to come all the way to Abuja in search of a better fortune.
Another group of people attribute the present rise in the number of beggars in the FCT to the rising poverty in Nigeria, especially in the north, where the lands are not fertile and sufficient enough to cater for the growing population. Some analysts, however, say that, like other Nigerians, this group of people are coming into Abuja because they believe that they can earn better here.
But some residents and officials of the city have continued to register their displeasure and fear that such elements de-market their beloved capital city and that they could also give rise to the surge in criminal activities within the city of Abuja.
Some locals have even gone as far as attributing the in-flux to the season of election. They believe that the beggars are hoping to also gain from the electoral season especially as thugs, providing support to any willing politician.
LEADERSHIP Weekend investigated the story by speaking to a range of individuals.
Speaking in the Hausa Language, one Nuhu Auwal, a young man of about 18 years old, who claimed to be an Islamic student, also known as Almajiri, described in details, the purpose of his coming to Abuja. “I have spent just two weeks in Abuja and I came all the way from Zaria in search of prosperity. I engage in all sorts of jobs. I am here with some of my brothers. The day I came to town, we were brought in a truck, and there were more than 50 of us, all boys, in the truck.
Also speaking to LEADERSHIP Weekend in pidgin English, one Sunny Kerfe, explained that he had observed the massive inflow of predominantly local boys around Kubwa and Zuba areas of Abuja. “They come in large numbers in trucks. They usually offload at the express roads where they make their way into the city of Abuja. I have been seeing them lately. I don’t know what is pursuing them from their states but maybe they just want to hustle and make more money in Abuja.
Another resident of Abuja, Gambo Abubakar, attributed the influx to bad governance and pervasive poverty in the northern states. “During the tenure of Bala Muhammad as minister of FCT, he banned these beggars from Abuja but they are back daring the authorities. Because I don’t see any reason why a law laid down by government can be broken so easily. They were told to stay out of the city of Abuja because Abuja, as the federal capital, reflects the image of the country. They come here hoping to make money, they believe that one person can give them thousands of naira because Abuja is a city of abundance. They have been trooping in en-mass because there is poverty around. There is no infrastructure for them in the states. The state governments are not doing much to help the matter. If they were doing much, they would have been the ones to stop the influx. They would have built rehabilitation centres for all the people with challenges, the blind, the cripples and others. You create a place like vocational centre where they won’t be nuisance to themselves and to the society. But the states are not doing that.
“When we were growing up, there were vocational centres for the blind and vulnerable. Today, those places are nowhere to be found. So they are come to Abuja because this is where the money is. There is abject poverty in the north. If a state like Kano has 70 per cent poverty level, it means that Zamfara will have 100 per cent mark. The problem with the north is overpopulation without a vibrant economic base.’’
Mr Muktar Ibrahim, the head of the department of information and outreach of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) on his part, explained that the activities of the beggars and destitute constitute a big challenge to the authorities but that the authorities are consistently looking for ways to ameliorate the situation.
“The activities of beggars in Abuja is intolerable and illegal and the AEPB, as far as our mandate of removing environmental nuisance is concerned, will continue to remove them from the streets of Abuja the best way we can. I know that there is a claim that there is an upsurge in their numbers lately, but what I will also say is that there have been an increase in our enforcement roles. The collaboration with the Social Development Secretariat, SDF, is also at its best now because they receive beggars from us when we arrest them, then take them for rehabilitation.
‘‘The SDF has a centre in Bwari where they take them for rehabilitation. We also have information that some of them, after they are handed to the social development secretariat, usually find their way back. I want to assure them that there will be no hiding place for them in Abuja because the law does not permit them to come to Abuja to engage in this anti- social act.
‘‘Some people look at begging from a sympathetic social angle, but again, when you look at the set of beggars we are talking about, they are people who have made begging a professional. So it is not as if they are begging because they are in need but because it is a way of livelihood. This is what we are actually against because a society where some people decide to make begging a profession or part of life is not a society that endears itself to the rest of the world. I think it is a stigma when people come to the federal capital territory and they see the place littered with beggars in every corner.
“They also contribute to environmental degradation in terms of the waste they bring about. There was a time some officials of the National Mosque complained about the influx of beggars into the mosque resulting in the damage of their toilet facilities. So you can see that wherever you find them, even though people look at them as downtrodden, some of them operate under some kind of syndicate. They may not actually come with guns but they harass you with their persistence and manner of asking.
‘‘Yes we know that times are hard but it did not just start today. It has been with us, it has become another endemic problem that we really have to rip out of our system if we must be able to exist as a society with dignity. Even some of these beggars can be hoodlums waiting for the right situation to unleash their crimes on unsuspecting Nigerians. So we must be very careful how we relate with them. My advice is that those who need support should go to religious homes such as mosque and church and even there, it should be those who are genuinely in need and not for professional beggars.
“There is also a sensitive dimension to the issue. Some people think that it is a spiritual obligation to give alms and therefore this people should be allowed to operate in some places, so we have to be careful how we handle it. There is also the need for the state governments to partner with the ARPB to handle this because most of them come from other states especially the northern states.
Also speaking on the issue, Mr Hassan Abubakar, the head of the department of monitoring and enforcement of the AEPB said: “We are aware of the situation, even before now, because this is the political era and we are very close to election time so they concluded that this is a big market for them. But as it is, we are not politicians, we are public servants and we have to do our job. We are aware and we are trying to manage them. There have been a lot of security meetings and enforcement everywhere and we are arresting them. Just this morning, if you had come earlier, you would have seen three trucks taking beggars and destitute to Bwari. So we are on it.
‘‘At Bwari, officials of the SDF will get information about their relatives and it is only when their relatives come that they are released after a written undertaken that they will not return. And if they return to the system, we will continue to send them back, that is what we do. We will never get tired. Even the hawkers that we arrest, by the time we take them to court and they pay their fines, they may return to the system, so it is the same problem. Even lunatics, if you arrest and detain them, their relatives come for their release and the next thing is that they are back in the system again.
“I think the public will also have to help us. They are coming to the city because they know they are getting money. If they stay for two, three days without getting anything, they will not come here again. When we arrest them, some are caught with huge sums of money and this money came from the public. So they are being encouraged to come. But we would try as much as possible to see that they don’t come back.
“When we take them to Bwari, some of them may stay there for two to three months before we are able to locate their relatives. That is traumatic for them, so when they know that if they are caught they will be treated like that, they may decide against coming to Abuja next time. Why they are coming enmasse now is because of the political thing, they know politicians are here and they are coming to collect money from politicians and politicians are giving them money. It is a terrible thing.”
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