I hope all is well with you and your family. I would like to begin by commending you for all the great things that you have done since you were first elected Governor of Lagos State almost two thousand and eighty-eight days ago. During your tenure in office, you have transformed Lagos State. You have worked hard to improve the educational sector, while your vision to turn Lagos into a mega city is attracting praises from the four corners of the world. Your Midas touch can be seen in the transportation sector, the environment, housing and the hundreds of infrastructural development projects that your administration is currently implementing or has already implemented. Through your actions, you have proved to Nigerians that it is possible for elected government officials to work towards improving the lives of the governed. So far, so good.
Lagos, like other large cities around the world, plays host to people on different rungs of the economic ladder. The State is home to the ultra-rich, the rich, the middle class, the poor, and the very poor, including beggars. In recent years, the Lagos State Government has tried to resolve the problem of people begging on the streets through a number of initiatives. One initiative that your administration has adopted is to rehabilitate beggars by relocating them to the Rehabilitation Centre at Ikorodu. This centre also offers the beggars vocational training to enable them live independent lives. This is a good initiative by your administration as it is meant to help the beggars derive a source of livelihood. So far, so good.
However, since the commencement of your second term in office in May 2011, your administration appears to be waging a war against the poor, the marginalised and the downtrodden. In short, to borrow a phrase used by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, your administration appears to be embarking on a Kosovo-style cleansening of the poor.
Due to the lack of progress with the rehabilitation initiative, your administration has turned to some drastic measures to eradicate begging in the State. Shortly after your second term inauguration in May 2011, it was reported that the Lagos State Government had deported 3,029 beggars to their state of origin in the last couple of years. In justifying the state’s action, Mr. Dolapo Badru, the Special Adviser on Youth and Social Development, suggested that beggars and the destitute constitute a social nuisance, which threatens the Lagos metropolis’ status as a mega city. Mr. Badru also warned in a press conference that “Lagos State frowns on giving alms to beggars. It is punishable under the law and you can get up to two years’ imprisonment for giving money to beggars.”
In August 2012, a number of beggars protested against harassment and forced removal from the streets of Lagos. They explained that they were being forcefully removed from the streets and taken to the rehabilitation centre in Ikorodu. According to the President of the Physically Challenged who spoke on behalf of the protesters, “No fewer than 600 beggars had been arrested by the government without providing adequate alternative for them.” Another protester stated, “Our movement within Lagos State metropolis has been restricted such that anyone caught roaming on the road will be taken to Majidun.”
In February 2013, the Government took this war against beggars to another level by charging a number of them with “constituting a nuisance in public by begging for alms” and for conducting themselves as “disorderly persons without any visible means of livelihood”. Of the 39 beggars charged, 30 of them were sent to Kirikiri and Badagry Prisons for one month pending the final judgment by the judge.
While I understand your desire to make Lagos clean; while I understand your desire to make Lagos a mega city; while I understand your desire to make Lagos safe; while I understand your desire to eradicate poverty from Lagos; while I understand your desire to rehabilitate beggars; while I understand your desire to provide beggars with vocations and shelter; while I understand your desire to make Lagos attractive to foreign investors — in some respects, your administration is going about achieving these aims in the wrong way. In the process of ensuring that Lagos is clean, safe and a mega city, the Government is adopting immoral means in order to achieve a moral end. As Martin Luther King once said, “Ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means.”
Arresting, scapegoating and deporting beggars all in the name of creating a so-called mega city is unjust, immoral and unfair. It is shocking that the beggars were arrested in the first instance and it is sickening that they were sent to Kirikiri Prison, which happens to be one of the worst prisons in the world. Furthermore, unlike those who steal billions of Naira and are still walking freely on the streets of Nigeria, the beggars whose only crime is “asking for alms” have been sent to prison because they do not have the money, clout and resources to properly defend themselves. Some may argue that the beggars contravened the law of the land and so deserve to be put in jail for begging; but as St. Augustine said many centuries ago, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Admittedly, some beggars may not be genuine and may be trying to take advantage of people’s charity. Yes, some beggars might be taking advantage of people’s religious beliefs; yes, some beggars might be pretending that they have disabilities; yes, some beggars may make more money than some people who are gainfully employed; yes, some beggars may engage in petty crimes; yes, some beggars may view begging as an easy alternative to working. However, we cannot use one brush to paint all beggars as lazy, opportunistic and deceitful people, just as we can’t paint all state governors, legislators and politicians as evil, opportunistic and deceitful people even though some governors and state legislators loot the treasury.
Rather than wage war against beggars, the Lagos State Government could make more progress toward the eradication of begging if it were to instead wage war against the structures that cause a man, woman or child to go out onto the streets to beg. With unemployment at elevated levels and with able-bodied graduates and post-graduates unemployed for years, what chance does a beggar living with disabilities and with little education have of being gainfully employed? In a society that discriminates against people with disabilities, it is an evil logic to accuse beggars of being disorderly people just because they do not have any source of income. Yet your administration deems it rational to charge beggars with “conducting themselves as disorderly persons without visible means of livelihood”. Trying to eradicate begging without putting an end to the conditions that causes a man to beg is like trying to stop a gas leak without addressing the source of the leak.
Instead of throwing beggars into prison, your administration should concentrate on making its rehabilitation programme more effective. One of the reasons why some beggars keep on leaving the rehabilitation centres for the streets is because of the deplorable conditions in these centres. Perhaps your administration should try to build more rehabilitation centres with conditions that are more conducive for living. After all, I am sure that no member of your cabinet would want his or her family members to live in a congested room housing 40-60 where people urinate, excrete and sleep in the same place.
Besides adopting immoral means to achieve a moral end, your administration is also dehumanising a group of people because of their economic circumstances and their physical challenges. The saying “beggars have no choice” should not be used as a justification to deny beggars their human rights. They deserve to be treated with dignity for several reasons: first, they are creations of God Almighty; and second, the Nigerian Constitution conveys to all Nigerians -- the rich and the poor, the able and disabled, the non-beggars and beggars, the employed and unemployed, the accommodated and homeless -- the right to dignity as human beings. The Nigerian Constitution also grants Nigerians the right to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part of the country. So when the State Government deports beggars to their states of origin and restricts their movement within the State because they are begging, the State is denying them their fundamental human rights. Furthermore, Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states: “Every person with disabilities has a right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity on an equal basis with others.”
In addition, your administration’s attempt to rid Lagos of beggars is not only immoral and dehumanising, but it is also unrealistic. As a widely-traveled governor, you must have noticed that most cities have their share of beggars. I know you are eager to transform Lagos into a mega city, but if you critically examine other cities like New York, London, Paris and Barcelona, you will notice that these cities are not exempt from the phenomenon of people begging on the streets. If these cities which offer their citizens a social safety net can still have beggars, how can a city like Lagos, which does not provide adequate social safety nets for its citizenry, expect to remove beggars from its streets?
So if one is to give an honest assessment of your administration’s attitude toward beggars, one is likely to arrive at the conclusion that the key reasons for their ill treatment is because they are Nairaless, jobless and homeless, rather than the official line that they are nuisances, disorderly and lazy.
Governor Fashola, you may not realise it, but your administration’s attitude toward the beggars suggests a Kosovo-style social cleansing of the poor. If you think that this is an exaggerated claim, I would like to draw similarities between your administration’s actions and some of the stages identified by Greg Stanton in his 1996 paper titled “The Eight Stages of Genocide”. The first stage that Mr. Stanton of Genocide Watch describes is the classification stage, in which people are divided into the categories of “them” and “us”. An example of this can be seen in the utterances of some of the State government officials such as one of your Special Advisers when he said, “We still rehabilitate some of them, but most of them don’t want to be rehabilitated and them don’t want to work. They feel more comfortable preying on people with superstitious beliefs.”
The second stage is the symbolisation stage. This occurs when the people who have been classified as “them” are given names and symbols associated with the classification. State officials have given beggars various labels such as “lazy”, “disorderly”, nuisance”, “people who prey on people with superstitious beliefs”, “people who do not want to work”, “people who pretend to be blind or crippled”. Mr. Stanton describes the third stage as dehumanisation, in which “one group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases”. The emerging pattern of the treatment of beggars in Lagos State suggests that this stage is in full force.
The fourth stage is organisation. The State Government has been the organiser-in-chief in forcefully pushing beggars off the streets. The polarisation stage, which is the fifth stage, occurs when the propaganda machine is put in force to reinforce prejudice and hate. Very often, laws are implemented to help achieve this aim. This stage is evident in Lagos not only from the utterances of some government officials, but also from the unjust laws which forbid begging and makes giving alms to beggars on the roadside an offence punishable by two years’ imprisonment without the option of a fine.
The sixth stage is the preparation stage. In this stage, victims are identified and separated. According to Mr. Stanton, the victims are “often segregated into ghettoes, deported into concentration camps or confined to a famine-struck region and starved”. While beggars in Lagos State have not been sent to concentration camps or famine-struck regions, they are being identified and segregated in addition to being harassed by government officials because of their begging activities. Many beggars have been deported to their state of origin or other countries. Some of the beggars have been forced against their will to go to rehabilitation centres, which in some instances are not fit for living. In other cases, the beggars are beaten and sent to prison.
While I know that your administration is not intent on committing genocide on the beggars, I believe that it is important to reflect on these stages, as the ill-treatment of beggars in Lagos State appears to be increasing exponentially, starting first with relocation and progressing to deportation and incarceration. Hopefully it will not reach the extermination or incineration stage.
If the State Government is still eager to banish disorderly people who are conducting themselves as nuisances, I can tell you whom to banish. Rather than banish the beggars who can barely afford to eat two square meals a day, your administration can banish the kidnappers, armed robbers and white-collar criminals who are causing havoc in the state. If the State Government is still eager to wage war against some elements in Lagos, I can tell you whom to wage war against. Rather than wage war against beggars who do not have access to top-notch legal counsel, your administration can wage war against those who regard the State’s resources as their personal property. If the State Government is still eager to fill Kirikiri Prison with prisoners, I can tell you whom to incarcerate. Rather than incarcerate the beggars who do not have a voice, your administration can incarcerate those people using political connections to acquire prime land and property at little cost.
In conclusion, I would like to say three things. First, remember that when you were elected as Governor of Lagos State, you were given a symmetric mandate rather than an asymmetric mandate. You were elected not only by the elites of Lagos State, but also by the masses of Lagos State; you were elected not only by the rich people of Lagos State, but also by the poor people of Lagos State; you were elected not only by the employed people of Lagos State, but also by the unemployed people of Lagos State; you were elected not only by the able-bodied people of Lagos State, but also by the disabled people of Lagos State. In short, you are Governor for the whole of Lagos, not only some affluent sections of Lagos; and it is important for your passion, policies and politics to reflect the oath you swore during your inauguration.
Second, although you have a desire to make Lagos a first-class mega city, you have to remember that this can never be the case as long as she has second-class citizens who are stripped of their freedom, dignity and humanity. Finally, if you have not already done so, you may want to take time to reflect on what legacy you want to leave behind as Governor of Lagos State. How would you want to be remembered? Do you want to be remembered as a ruler who built his kingdom on the symmetric foundation of justice and equality, or would you rather be remembered as that ruler who built his kingdom on the asymmetric foundation of injustice and inequality? History is watching.
Eko o ni baje
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
The views stated in this article are personal to the writer and does not represent the views or opinions of any company or organisation with which the author is or was associated.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
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