#YNaijaEssays: Beggars are all around us but do you really see them?


Lagos is besieged by beggars

There is a slight wrinkle in Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s plans to transform Lagos into mega city beggars. Nigeria has seen a steady influx of refugees from virtually every part of the continent due to political instability and economic difficulties in many African countries.

They are especially drawn to Lagos, sold tales of its possibilities and opportunities through Nigeria’s behemoth of an entertainment industry, which has fully subsumed the local industries of several African countries.

However, unlike Angela Merkel’s open door policy for asylum-seekers from war-ravaged Arab and North African countries in Germany, neither Nigeria as a whole nor Lagos as a constituent part can afford to take in refugees. This is because although Nigeria loves to refer to itself as the “Giant of Africa”, in truth, there is hardly any substance to that highfalutin title.

In a country populated with over 160 million citizens (and growing by explosive numbers daily), Nigeria cannot even cater to her own people, most of whom live on less than a dollar per day (according to the World Bank). Oil, the mainstay of the economy took a drastic hit last year, spiralling downwards from $100 per barrel to $40 per barrel.

Soon after, Nigeria was plunged into a recession which it managed to crawl out of by the end of the third quarter of 2017. In spite of this, there has been little or no improvement in the standard of living of Nigerians. Meanwhile, the country continues to suffer from targeted attacks by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen in strategic areas of the country.

This state of affairs has left the poor and destitute, both migrants or citizens, with no other means of income but begging. Lagos is particularly attractive for this purpose, being the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria as well as boasting unmanned borders to other African countries.

It is, therefore, not an unusual sight to find scores of child beggars from nearby Niger Republic in heavily populated areas like CMS or the semi-beautiful gates of Lekki Phase 1, clinging to strangers arms, speaking in halting pidgin and gesticulating rapidly as they plead for small change so they can feed while their parents egg them on from a distance.

Nigerian beggars take a slightly different tack. They are either bridge sweepers, windshield washers, traffic stop/gridlock regulars, itinerant preachers in parks, workers or ‘lost’ travellers who’ve run out of cash to take them to their destination, mothers with twins or triplets, burn victims…there’s no end to the creativity Nigerians bring to the business.

How safe is begging?

Lagos is the only state, it is said, that does not proclaim its welcome of visitors with huge banners. Instead, as you approach the city, a billboard warns: “This is Eko. Shine your eye.” The message is clear: it’s every man for himself here and only the strongest and smartest can survive.

It’s a volatile city, this Lagos; filled with angry, hungry, restive residents and trigger-happy policemen who run the streets in cahoots with agberos who man the underground (motor parks, under-bridges, slums, markets) that things can go from zero to hundred in a split second.

For instance, last year, Ikorodu was besieged by the infamous Badoo gang, who embarked on a killing spree for months until the intervention of the Police and the state government, after residents of the area had taken the law into their hands by defending themselves.

The streets are therefore no place for human beings to make a home, especially not with children, who easily become victims of rape and sexual assault, violence and disease. But in the absence of available shelters for the homeless, the streets with all its attendant dangers are the only alternative.

Feeding into a culture of reciprocity

Why do our streets crawl with beggars in spite of its possible dangers? Money.

One cannot deny that street begging has always been a profitable business for those involved in it. Mostly known as professional beggars, these set of persons feign attacks and medical conditions, putting up public performances to ensure passersby part with some change. Street begging has evolved over the years, from people who have expended all means of survival or the physically-challenged.

Beggars were mainly those who were either disabled or grossly indigent. Able-bodied men were shunned and asked to work. Alas! able-bodied, healthy men and women can now be seen roaming the streets in search for generous Nigerians, blaming the economic situation in the country. They now see begging as a better alternative to manual labour.

These 21st-century beggars are well branded and can be seen soliciting for alms at popular junctions and traffic situations. Well dressed, they approach with stories of misfortune which befell them, especially a stolen wallet. Of course, they ensure to look the part, perhaps to give the impression that their stories of misfortune are true. This also helps to pass a message about the Naira denomination commensurate to how they present themselves. However, you find them at the same spot every day if you are a frequent user of that route.

It is also not uncommon to see youth attend religious gatherings where the rich worship with the aim of begging for money, and sometimes jobs. They rush towards owners of flashy cars, cook up tales with the hope of getting assistance or at least some Naira notes. Big parties also attract these beggars, who see another opportunity for business.

There are even street talks that the begging business is also highly but informally regulated, and that many of the full-time beggars have to either seek protection from the hoodlums that control choice spots by remitting some form of commission back to these ‘guardians’ at the end of every workday.

These hideous activities might have been forgivable if some of them do not involve kids and minors. Some beggars reportedly hire or use children in their care for these ugly activities. Some of them roam around with kids they rented to evoke more empathy from road users. A large percentage of these kids are however left alone on streets to beg for alms and submit money made to their masters at the end of the business day.

Tales of beggars turning out to be fraudsters, kidnappers and ritualists are also not uncommon. Examples of beggars caught using fake wounds to solicit alms abound. Recently, a fake beggar with a doctored wound on his stomach escaped being lynched in Enugu. The fraudster was asked to remove a cotton wool he plastered on his body, revealing that he had no wound.

The place of religion in encouraging begging cannot be overruled. Nigerians are religious people who naturally adhere to instructions by religious leaders, one of which is to always give alms. Our religious leaders preach about and emphasise on the act of giving, opening doors for these beggars to continue their activities.

Virtually every religion in the world encourages alms-giving, though the degree may vary from religion to religion. Alms-giving was common in many early Christian societies. Zakat or obligatory alms-giving is one of the pillars of Islam, which seeks to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. There’s also Sadaqa which is not as compulsory but is frequently practised by the faithful who have been conditioned to believe that to expect reciprocity from their deity, they must sacrifice a worthy equivalent to a party much lower down the rung. According to the Quran, Zakat is payable to only individuals or groups who fall into any of these eight categories.

Indeed, [prescribed] charitable offerings are only [to be given] to the poor and the indigent, and to those who work on [administering] it, and to those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to [free] those in bondage, and to the debt-ridden, and for the cause of God, and to the wayfarer.”

These may be why Islam is so closely linked to begging. Islam encourages generosity, making people believe the religion promotes begging. The religion believes that it is the sacred duty of the wealthy to fulfil the needs of deprived people in the society.

However, Islam abhors begging as means of livelihood. The Prophet stated that it is permitted to ask for something for only three categories of people. The people who are indebted because of acting as a guarantor for a person or a community and cannot pay their debts; people all of whose property was destroyed in a disaster; and people who became destitute and whose poverty is acknowledged by people who know them. It is not regarded permissible for people other than those who have a day’s food and the strength to work for livelihood to beg. But the pace of our lives and the indifference that comes with migration to urban cities like Lagos removes us from the lives of our communities and allows the sufficient distance to go through the motions of religious piety without ever truly ensuring that our acts of selflessness are truly beneficial to our recipients.

And so we perpetuate the cycle.

Begging has gone digital

In the age where communication has been simplified thanks to the influence and power of social media, we can hardly deny its inherent curses, and begging has become one of the strongest ones.

Riding on the power of what we’d describe as e-begging, social media users now find pleasure in shamelessly seeking financial aid from celebrities and other unsuspecting users. E-beggars pick their victims wisely; they have, over time, mastered the art of appealing to the sensibilities of their prospective benefactors. The scam is simple, their requests are always time sensitive and either personal or for immediate family. Common scams include requests for others to underwrite school fees or buy handouts. Then of course, the fan favourite of immediate family members at death’s door, their potential benefactor’s gift of money the last hope they have of forestalling death. For those who are hardly in need of money, it’s some form of goodwill or another – shoes, clothes and as recently discovered, even used wedding gowns.

While some celebrities are wont to budge to these requests, others boldly call out the act without hiding their disdain for these e-beggars who often will swiftly transform into trolls when their requests are not granted. The e-begging culture has become so ingrained that these daredevil perpetrators resort to disrespecting, abusing and publicly shaming unyielding persons as ways to force them into parting with some money.

While the celebrities endure their fair share in their comment sections and DMs, other social media users mostly tend to fall victim of crowdfunding scams. The most popular crowdfunding platform, GoFundMe has consistently offered itself a go-to for intending scammers who want to rip off other people using sympathy.

Notorious Twitter user, Pablo Ayodeji infamous for social media trolling and more recently, scamming is an archetype for the e-begging culture. In December 2017, Ayodeji created a GoFundMe account where he raised funds for a fictional younger sister who according to the pitch on the GoFundMe account was battling a terminal ailment. He assisted the account with a Twitter page that he ran as a lady and used to further guilt trip users into paying ‘her’ cash under the guise of unemployment.

A few users whose Pablo’s previous 5k bae antics remained fresh on their minds quickly linked the WEMA bank account number ‘she’ provided to the one in which he received the N5,000 refund from his no-nonsense date, Oyebola only a few months before.

His cover had blown, he was again being pilloried by Twitter users and with nowhere else to hide, Pablo Ayodeji admitted scamming people and arrogantly vowed to pay back everyone who fell victim.

The Internet is the perfect breeding ground for this kind of beggar, the relative anonymity it provides, as well as the opportunities for reinvention, means that many of the active beggars on popular social media sites are able to run massive networks of interconnected fake accounts, each providing a layer of credibility for the next, each dormant social media profile a sleeper account that an internet beggar can simply slip into once one of his other accounts is discovered and flagged to be fraudulent. The consequence is that there is a general distrust for persons who take to the internet to seek aid, and with the poor state of our country, it is disheartening just how many people with legitimate needs will lose out on much-needed goodwill because of internet beggars like Pablo Ayodeji.

How do you beg in a Mega City?

Begging is not peculiar to Lagos; it is a nationwide phenomenon and indeed a national embarrassment. However, the geometrically growing frequency and inflow of beggars in Lagos should become a cause for concern and, at least some of the responsibility for ensuring that the city’s homeless and disadvantaged, forced into the streets by circumstances beyond their control, are considered by the government.

On a particular Wednesday in 2015, July 8, the Lagos Government in a statement signed by the Secretary, Tunji Bello took a hard stance on street begging, saying that some unscrupulous persons hide under the guise of seeking alms to rob unsuspecting members of the public. To this end, he said efforts will be made to rid the state of street beggars.

To tackle the menace of street begging, reports suggest the Lagos Government has established a community for beggars in different areas of the state – alms villages of a sort that have functional schools, free books and free education. It is a novel idea, one that we are yet to see implemented. Outside of press releases and sponsored newspaper articles.

What we can confirm the government has done is scrutinise the wide gap between residents in the state. In response to surveys, Governor Ambode decided, in 2016, to provide financial support to residents of Lagos, for job, wealth creation and to tackle unemployment, through the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF), launched by The Lagos State Employment Trust Fund Law 2016.

LSETF serves as an instrument to inspire the creative and innovative energies of all Lagos residents and reduce unemployment across the State. The Fund has the mandate to directly invest 25 Billion in helping Lagos residents grow and scale their Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) or acquire skills to get better jobs.

That is a commendable move to say the least but will that really help?

Like most cosmopolitan cities in the world, Lagos, no doubt, is challenged with diverse problems. While some of these beggars are honestly in need, others simply want to cash in on the legendary open-handedness of Lagos residents to eke out a living. There are simpler ways to get the results we need without chasing beggars out of the state or carting them off to their home states.

To start with, just like some other cities in the world, the ‘open-handed’ individuals who fall into the trap of some of these beggars can be dissuaded from giving out their hard-earned money to these beggars (in the case where we can differentiate genuine beggars from relative beggars) and the money should instead be sent to charities.

A programme of street management – not ban -, with a state’s outreach team, NGOs can be asked to increase their efforts to connect beggars with social services. More resources, just like the 25 Billion from the state government, which offer social support to youth, and for those out on the street helping people in need are also concrete solutions to the problem.

The older residents should not be left out. We’ve had and still have many older Lagos residents who have served as civil servants or worked with private companies and at retirement are left with nothing. Although, orientation on how to save for the future is needed here. The State pension scheme is long overdue another restructuring, and there is no time like the present to do it.

These might be pressing concerns, but there are others that those who genuinely survive off the goodwill of others are starting to portend. The world is going digital, and Nigeria with it, and in this new digital world, there seems to be no place for the complex structure that is the begging industry as it currently exists.

In a few years, it is estimated that only one in four payments will be made by cash.

And so, while the shift to a cash-free existence might feel like an inevitability, there are people on the fringe of civilised society who are so reliant on our current cash heavy economy that have to come to terms with the reality that the world is slowly disappearing, and they will have to renegotiate what it means to be a beggar in the one that replaces it.

A cashless society, on the one hand, is a welcome development, especially as it reduces looting and disincentivises violent crime, but there are significant societal barriers going cashless will create which need addressing urgently – especially how to integrate those most vulnerable in society into this new order; the elderly and the non-digital savvy.

There are more fundamental problems, also, about proof of residency that should be necessarily discussed. Many legitimate beggars are also homeless, and with the new credit system that will accompany cashless banking, not having a fixed address renders getting credit facilities impossible, and managing a bank account incredibly difficult. It’s not like people who are beggars are going to start accepting Bitcoin from passing strangers, and/or carrying POS machines in their wrappers. And, a lack of cash has the potential to keep one on the streets.

The mind-boggling question really is: “How do we ensure that people on one of the lowest rung of society are able to live, work and have good relationships?”

The only answers we can really foresee is innovation in cheap technology. Apps like Venmo and Paypal are already making the transfer of funds between persons near seamless and even in Kenya the MPesa system of mobile phone-based banking is currently in direct competition with traditional banking. We foresee a proliferation of these kind of services, and a push to make them even more seamless. They will also force beggars to become accountable to their benefactors, as they will no longer exist outside of the grid and can have their own finances easily accessed and scrutinised. It might sanitise the community but if Pablo Ayodeji and the proliferation of beggars on the internet prove anything, they will find a way.

Begging will always exist, as long as inequality, greed and opportunity thrive, and maybe that is not such a bad thing.

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