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The ugly spectacle of street begging

Written by Anthony Akinola - Nigeria
Dr. Akinola is a researcher based in Oxford, United Kingdom

Different faces of  begging
Begging is one nuisance common to most nations of the world, including the very affluent ones. The British police warns, "begging is a criminal offence - please report any person begging to the police."

There is moral justification on the part of the British for making begging a criminal offence - the state provides for the well-being of its citizens, especially the very vulnerable ones. The relatively few beggars in the British society could be alcoholics or drug addicts, perpetually begging or stealing in order to be able to feed their anti-social habits.

On the contrary, our government in Nigeria at the state and federal levels lack the moral justification in reproaching begging on the streets. There are genuinely very many vulnerable Nigerians - those suffering from acute disabilities or extreme poverty - left to fend for themselves. In fact, most Nigerians have become beggars of some sort, even when the eyesore of society has mainly been those on the streets.

Begging is a public nuisance, irritating and frightening. Sadly, Nigerians have sustained begging with philanthropic ostentation or pretensions and religious justification. It is, however, a most welcome development that a couple of state governments, especially in the worst affected region of the North, have sought to ban begging on the streets. Those who value public decency would applaud their decision.

From my part of Nigeria, isolated cases of begging were once associated with poor parents who had given birth to twins. They begged for money to be able to sustain their families. "Taiyelolu says I should greet all of you and we shall greet all of you one after the other." There were not just a few women one knew of who prayed not to give birth to twins, if it was one gift of God that would reduce them to dancing and begging for money in the streets!
Unlike my corner of Nigeria, public begging was more or less a culture elsewhere. My first appreciation of how irritating public begging could be came some time in 1966 when driving through Ilorin with my uncle, Professor Akinola Agboola, a horde of beggars besieged us at a petrol filling station. One had never seen anything of such before, but my uncle warned me that the situation could be a lot worse in some other cities of the federation.

Those who have sought to ban street begging must, however, not deny that a serious sociological problem exists. The unfortunate ones in our midst must be rehabilitated, helped by the state to live independent lives.

Firstly, beggars who have no families must be accommodated in hostels or homes. A special ministry of social welfare would have to train personnel who would cater for their needs.
In most of the Western world today, "social work" has become a popular programme in tertiary institutions. Those who have acquired professional skills in handling disability cases, be it mental or physical, are more easily absorbed in job markets than most of those who specialise in traditional subjects. Even those who are less endowed for the rigours of university education, train as "care assistants" and work in numerous "Homes". There is a great future for vocational education in our ever expanding society.

Secondly, while begging is prohibited, a new approach should be adopted for alms giving. Those who genuinely seek to support vulnerable Nigerians should constitute themselves into charitable organisations-not for the purpose of defrauding donors- for the causes they support. If begging in the streets would be illegal, it follows that those who give money to beggars also commit an offence.

Thirdly, there are not a few beggars who can be trained and equipped to live independent lives with the support of governments. The fact that one is disabled should not mean that one has become useless to self and society. There are quite a lot of blind men and women who lecture in universities elsewhere and are even important actors in the governmental process.

Please, if you venture into the United Kingdom and you see a physically-challenged person doing his or her shopping, do not pitifully volunteer to help with the basket; he or she would not welcome your "intrusion"! The disabled ones demand to be respected just like other human beings, not pitied or discriminated against!

Finally, our political leaders must channel the resources of state towards providing for the comfort of ordinary Nigerians, including the very vulnerable ones. This means we must fight corruption and reduce waste. There would, for instance, be no justification for governments to engage in sponsoring pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Mecca, while vulnerable Nigerians die on the streets. The corrupt rich and powerful, on their part, choose to die in luxurious overseas hospitals. Of course, there would also be no justification for the fat salaries and allowances public officials shamelessly corner to themselves while the nuisance of a most sociological problem - street begging - infuriates decent sensibilities, as well as embarrass our nation.

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