The Street Children of Nigeria

by Olusegun Fakoya

Kids separated from love
Separated from discipline
Separated from themselves
Sometimes walking
Sometimes running
Sometimes cursing
Sometimes dead…Obododimma Oha (Aug, 2008)

A foolish nation ignores them at its own peril. These are the street children. They roam the garbage-filled street of Mumbai and abound in thousands in most cities of many Third world countries. They represent the face of hunger, insecurity and social neglect. And here in Nigeria, roaming in their thousands and portraying the decadent social order are the street children of Nigeria.

That the Nigerian youth is in crisis is an underestimated social problem whose magnitude is reflected by the sheer number of youths involved, its dynamics and diversities and the significant neglect accorded it by various governments in the socio-political history of Nigeria.

It has been estimated that there are about 300 million children less than 15 years of age in Africa, representing almost half of Africa’s population. There are no known statistics for street children in Nigeria, but it is known that children of under 18 years of age made up nearly 48% of the estimated country’s population of 120 million in 1996 (World Bank). This estimate remains undiminished with the passage of years and associated increase in Nigeria’s population. Massive corruption coupled with legendary mismanagement of natural resources has made the provision of social amenities impossible in Nigeria. Not exempted is the faithful provision of compulsory education to Nigerian children. The United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported in May 2005 that over 7.3 million Nigerian children of school age were not in schools. This ugly trend has its own social consequences, one of which is the spiralling proportion of street urchins in the major towns and cities of Nigeria.

Two different categories of street children are found in Nigeria. There are those who live and work on the street (children of the street) and those who work on the streets full or part time, but return to their homes each night (children in the street). The point of demarcation is often nebulous, as both categories of children meet and interact on the streets and it is often easier for children in the street to fully graduate to children of the street. The two categories constitute the leprous arms of the same alarming social problem that most times lead to the production of adult social delinquents in the form of the “alright sir boys” or “area boys”, armed robbers and so on. The social menace constituted by the area boys to businesses and the civil society remains one that has defied logic and solution. They use persuasive and often coercive tactics to demand for money and are often involved in petty and sometimes violent crimes. The phenomenon of street children has transcended the urban exception, being both an urban and rural phenomenon in present day Nigeria. While it might be difficult to assume a reflective figure for the dimension of this problem, suffice it to say that the phenomenon was rare in the mid eighties. There were an “estimated” 8000 of them by the early 1990s. By 1999, children were reported in over a hundred street locations in Lagos alone. The problem, rather than abating, is worsened by the persisting social climate of poverty subsisting in ignorance and political mismanagement. Furthermore, a current estimate puts the number of children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS in Nigeria at around 700,000. This is another potent source of street children as such children have no tangible social provisions to tackle their needs.

The aetiology of this phenomenon appears multifactorial. A socio-political view expanded by Ebigbo (1989) explained Nigerian children were caught up in the struggle for survival occasioned by the dearth of technological and infrastructural development in Nigeria leading to mass urban migration with resultant emergence of the urban poor. This situation is partly enhanced by the disintegration of the extended family system which hitherto had promoted the concept of brotherhood and shared responsibility. The resultant chaos has led to the balkanisation of the sacred ethos of the value of children to the average Nigerian. This social malaise is reflected in many ways. One distinct manifestation is the “Almajiri” system in Northern Nigeria. This is a system of Islamic education that has grown to become a social problem. Young boys bearing bowls are seen in most towns and cities in northern Nigeria in tattered clothes begging from house to house in order to survive. Many of them live in slums, have little access to health facilities and are therefore vulnerable to various diseases. The Koranic form of education encourages Islamic tutors to send their pupils to the streets to beg. A few of such are found in southern cities although in a different form, usually as guides leading physically handicapped adults to beg on the streets. In Eastern Nigeria, children as young as eight or nine years are out on the streets early to trade as less premium is placed on education in this part of the country as compared to trading activities.

Other causative factors include marital problems or instability in the home, poverty, hunger, insecurity, abuse and violence from parents, displacement caused by clashes in the community, insufficient parental care, death of one or both parents, inadequate family income, unemployment of one or both parents, lack of (or limited) opportunities in education, abandonment by parents, housing difficulties, drug use by children, and peer influence. Unicef accepted that physical abuse accounted for greater that 27% of children forced into the street, 24% by family financial problems, 8% by family misunderstandings and 5% by emotional trauma. Another growing cause that should not be discounted is the cult of child witches currently actively sponsored by so-called Christian evangelists in the South Eastern and delta regions of the country. This is a growing social cause that has recently attracted international criticism. Also, the concept of destitute families, another significant social problem representing extreme deprivation, is becoming an increasing problem.

Children living and/or working on the streets experience harsh and hazardous conditions. They are unprotected from extremes of weather conditions and also prone to various forms of abuses such as sexual abuse, vagrancy and kidnapping. Life on the streets is far from pleasant, necessitating ability to cope with and an unwritten pact with dangers and vicissitudes of life. Children work as vendors or hawkers, beggars, shoe shiners, car washers and watchers, head-loaders, scavengers and bus conductors. Often times, majority are boys but an increasing army of girls is becoming a recent development. It is not uncommon to see street children and destitute families living under bridges, in public buildings, uncompleted buildings, markets and major streets and alleys.

Survival in the street

This is aptly illustrated by words from Ayo Vaughan, a male street child and bus conductor in Lagos, Nigeria. Ayo Vaughan was 13 years old in 2001 and had this to say (report quoted from “A Civil Society Forum for Anglophone West Africa on Promoting and Protecting the Rights of Street Children”, 21-24 October 2003, Accra, Ghana):
“I ran from home (Ondo State) to Lagos State because my father separated from my mum and remarried. Since his new wife came in, my dad no longer had time for me, although I was then in school. He wouldn’t pay my school fees, wouldn’t buy my needs or even visit me. To worsen matters, when I found my way home on holiday, my stepmother and father couldn’t tolerate my mistakes. Home was no longer home, and so I ran away, and became a bus conductor sleeping at a motor park near stadium in Surulere (Lagos).”

The pathetic story of these kids was further highlighted by the “Voices from the Street” programme in December 2007, a brain child of the Child-to-Child Network (a non-governmental organisation) but fully supported by UNICEF. In this programme, the plight of Isaiah, 15, further illustrates and provides meaningful insight into this untamed social problem. Isaiah has spent 5 of his 15 years living on the streets of Lagos, Africa’s second largest city. Like hundreds of other such children, he spends his days and nights in this sprawling metropolis trying to fend for himself.

“It is not easy living on the street but what can I do?” asked Isaiah, one of 25 children who have told their stories on Nigerian national radio through the UNICEF-supported project.

Isaiah“I have two sisters that I have not seen in five years, I have smoked Indian hemp like other boys of my age, got beaten by bigger boys, robbed of my money, took my bath in the canal and slept under the bridge,” Isaiah said in one broadcast. “The good thing is that I am alive!”

Isaiah during the recording of the programme (Unicef, Nigeria)

At the age of 10, Isaiah left his home in Ogun State. A friend, who turned out to be a child-labour recruiter, invited him to Lagos along with 11 other boys. “We left home without telling any of our parents,’ Isaiah said. The recruiter paid the boys’ bus fare to Lagos. Then he took the boys to the city’s biggest market and motor park “to sell them,” according to Isaiah.

“The more people he brings, the higher his ‘rank’ goes and the more money he gets paid,” Isaiah added. “I was eventually sold to one man for a fee of 5,000 Naira [about $40]. The man took me to a place I do not know; my duty there was to be a housekeeper.”

Isaiah decided to run away. He met up with other street children who showed him how to survive on his own.

“I started to sleep under the bridge or inside any of the buses parked under the bridge,” he says. “If mosquitoes are too many, I sleep inside the boot of the vehicles.”

Some of the children in the series told of escapes from unhappy homes, while others recall travelling to the city in search of adventure. They ended up selling water packaged in plastic bags (pure water) or washing the windshields of vehicles in heavy traffic. Some, apparently the most dangerous, roam the streets with the intention of stealing money or jewelleries. These are popularly called ‘pick-pockets.’ They told of the anguish of survival in a relentlessly merciless environment, open to the dangers of the elements and the risks occasioned by absolute lack of security or protection and also open to physical violence and sexual abuse. It is a tale not decent enough to be rehearsed in a decent society, not the least in the 21st century Nigeria. But alas, this is the reality!

What is the way forward?

Ben Akabueze in his paper presented at the GOTNI Leadership Summit on November 25, 2006 suggested steps that could help in tackling the social menace constituted by the legion of street children. His first suggestion was towards a value re-orientation in our social life. Ben Akabueze believe that in the presence of crushing identity crisis faced by Nigerian youths, occasioned by uncontrolled exposure to western influences and its vices, Nigerian youths need to engage in soul searching and need to develop the ability to imbibe only the positive aspects of foreign cultures. This, according to him, would lead to contentment and emphasise the traditional values of respect for elders/constituted authority, honesty, fairness and mutual accountability. Additionally, Ben stressed on the need for the inclusion of value re-orientation in the educational curriculum as part of the larger reform of our educational system which actually begs for a change and re-direction. Our current educational system is clearly designed to create an army of helpless youth who must seek employment in government or the private sector to make meaning out of their lives. He advocated for a free, qualitative and compulsory first nine years of education in order to avoid creating a sharp divide in the society. He also touched on the significance of economic empowerment in the concept of job creation by the central government and the creation of an enabling environment for private enterprise to flourish.

Sometimes in the mid nineties, a government approach to solving the menace of area boys in Lagos State was to lock them up at an island called Ise in Lagos State. This was the same notorious island where Chief Obafemi Awolowo was detained at the heights of political disturbances in the first republic. The area boys were kept in a specially constructed building which was surrounded by water. On the face of it, it appeared possible for the detainees to scale the fence, jump into the water and escape by swimming. The sad part was that the water was infested with crocodiles.

My involvement was as a government medical practitioner then serving in the rural part of the state. The detainees were dying and the government wanted a medical opinion. I went to assess the situation and met the area boys in a rather sorry and inhuman state. Malaria was rife and malnutrition was in its vivid glory amongst them. My recommendation was emphatic about the urgency of immediate release or transfer to more habitable environs to avoid a serious human calamity. This report found a listening ear coupled with the empathic disposition of the then Lagos State police commissioner. The area boys were subsequently released. Obviously, this approach proffered no solution either in the short or long term. It was a punitive action aimed at scaring the area boys off the streets. It was never designed to address the root causes of this social problem and of course, it failed to work.

General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s military ruler from 1985 to 1993, established a People’s Bank, which extended micro-credits to many street boys and girls to help them start small businesses. However, the programme suffered from insufficient funding and many of those who benefited from the handouts simply returned to the streets when the bank collapsed in the late 1990s. Ex- Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos State, with the return of democracy in 1999, designed a scheme aimed at ridding the city of the Area Boy scourge. He set up a skills training centre at Ita Oko, a disused island prison in Lagos. The aim was to rehabilitate these street boys by teaching them artisan skills and trades. This laudable programme also went the way of previous government attempts either due to insufficient attention by the government or lack of commitment to its implementation.

Ben’s suggestions remain relevant and strong in a build up of massive social concerns about an escalating crisis. Some non-governmental o

rganisations have risen up to face the challenges created by the street urchins in the presence of an ineffective response on the part of the government. Various programmes of engagement have been initiated, one of the most recent being the Street University concept aimed at engaging these kids in arts and other vocational trainings at no expense to them.

Laudable as these steps may be, the problem of street children in Nigeria would forever remain as long as our governments refused to accept that the future of any country is intricately tied to that of its youths. The problem would continue to remain in the face of pervading and persisting indifference on the part of those who constitute the political leadership. What more, the problem would remain, and probably continue to grow in strength, in the face of our continued failure to find a just, equitable and acceptable political formula devoid of parochial interests. The problem would continue to fester like a growing sore in the midst of severe dearth of a social structure that caters for the needy in the form of organised social security. We cannot continue to deny this, the street children are Nigerians and the problem they constitute is real and great.

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Gloria April 10, 2023 - 9:27 am

This post was made since 2009. However, the story has not changed, it has worsened with as more children are seen living on city streets.
I am currently working on a TETfund IBR sponsored project on “The Control and Eradication of Steetism in Calabar Metropolis, using Carnival Dance Festival”.
The aim is to foster inclusive tourism by engaging the vulnerable and marginalized in tourism activities. Also, to provide enabling environment for street children to discover their hidden talents

Dr Olusegun Fakoya April 10, 2023 - 2:42 pm

Dear Gloria,

It is sad that we are at the same stage in our social orientation and care of the less privileged, especially children in our society. This is very disheartening.
I wish you the very best in your endeavours to provide support and succour to these homeless kids. May the good Lord bless your efforts.

Dr Olusegun Fakoya

Obi Wan Kenobi February 8, 2009 - 2:13 pm

Very relevant discourse. This is a social problem that has defied solutions. It would not go away without serious efforts on the part of the government in collaboration with the organised private sector.

The social orientation of this writer is much commended. Better to portray and begin to tackle our numerous social problems. Thank you, indeed.


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