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Beggars have existed in human society since before the dawn of recorded history. Street begging has happened in most societies around the world, though its prevalence and exact form vary, according to Wikipedia.
Historically therefore, begging is as old as the world. In ancient Palestine and Greece, beggars were people who had been examined by the authorities and certified that they cannot help themselves, they cannot help their situations to improve in any form by themselves or family members, and finally, the authorities cannot help them either.
The authorities, after certifying them helpless, gave them permission to stay on the street corners and highways to beg, with official uniform – literally called garment (begging garment or cloak). With this, passers-by knew them and could throw a coin or two at them as the spirit led. This set of people included the blind, cripple, those with leprosy and other contagious ailments.
One thing was common with the beggars, once they were free from the ailment or their situation changes for the better, they were expected to drop the garment or cloak of begging, and the authorities must be notified.
In recent times, begging has been restricted or prohibited at various times and for various reasons, typically revolving around a desire to preserve public order or to induce people to work rather than beg for economic or moral reasons. Various EU nations ‘poor laws’ prohibit or regulate begging from the Renaissance to modern times, with varying levels of effectiveness and enforcement. Similar laws have been adopted by many other nations.
Enough of this boring history. The issue at hand is brought about by the lamentation of a young reporter BusinessDay sent to cover a programme in Cote d’ iVoire. Giving account on his return, he painted a pathetic and shameful way our uniformed men and women at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, beg. “It is now almost a culture that the job of an Immigration or Customs officer is not complete until he or she asks a passenger to buy them tea,” he said.
Tea in this instance is a corporate way of asking for stipend for doing the job they are paid to do. Thus, the act of begging by some officials in Nigerian airports has become an issue for travellers who continuously make it a subject of discussion at the boarding and arrival gates.
“From the entrance of the airport to almost the last person you see before boarding your flight, everyone wants something from you, the rate at which they beg is alarming,” a foreigner departing Nigeria from Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos who asked not be identified, said.
Although, the rate at which this act happens at the arriving end of the airport is quite different from the departure. The officials at the arriving end do not beg as much as those encountered by passengers when leaving the state or country.
The fact that the arriving passengers are tired from a long flight and are not wearing smiling face like those who are just about to embark on a journey, coupled with the rush at the arriving end as the passengers hurry to pick their luggage are some of the reasons that may be adduced for this.
What has become a near normal begging tradition in Nigerian airports is not the same in other African airports, as visits have revealed that the officials in Togo, Ghana and South Africa airports do not use slangs and different methods to beg but however collect when they are given of your own free will.
On the other hand, the constant gridlock in Lagos, and I am sure, in many other states, is a major and daily avenue for some police officers to beg. Most sadly, some of them even carry their duty riffle by the side to beg.
Daily, commuting through Amuwo Odofin from Festac to Mile 2 through the Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, there is a permanent police checkpoint between the Oshodi-Apapa Expressway and the diversion going to Badagry. Yes, the officers are there to help control traffic, but their other major pre-occupation is to beg. From afar they easily spot fine vehicles, they get up and go near to chat with the driver and occupant. What you hear is, your boys are loyal; anything for your boy, even for pure water, etc. as they do this, the traffic they are supposed to help ease is gradually building up behind.
The Police officers in Apapa now make fun out of it. The other day, a colleague on his way to the office was stopped and asked by a Police office – Why is your tyre rolling? He stopped to realise that the officer was only joking; because he wondered, if his tyres do not roll how can the car really move? the officer laughed as well as my colleague. At the end, my colleague parted with N500 when the officer asked him to – just buy him water. At times, they tell you straight – your boys are hungry. What a disgusting way of making extra income. It is so all over Lagos.
I know in Nigeria nobody ever agrees his/her take home is ever enough, but to wear a uniform representing the Federal Republic to beg should be seen as an aberration from normality, especially to those of us who have been fortunate to have visited other nations.
The recent Presidential directive on Apapa gridlock was seen as a welcome idea, but shockingly (as I conclude this write-up) I was trapped on the bridge – inward Apapa – where traffic from Ijora and Island meet on the bridge, with the right route to Mobil Road. What was the problem – the Police officers were negotiating with a truck driver not minding passers-by, while the FRSC officials looked hapless, making the whole essence of the directive misplaced.
I remember a children programme I once watched. The presenter asked the children what they wanted to be and why. A child said, “I want to be a Police officer to collect money on the road (this is a paraphrase of the actual response).”
From the modus operandi of these officials begging in uniform it clearly shows they joined the services to collect money, just as that little child said years ago.
The time has come for these beggars to realise that the uniform they are in confers on them the collective responsibility of all Nigerians. Begging in it desecrates our collective responsibility to ourselves, nation and the future generation that may grow up to think that begging in uniform is a norm. As somebody once said, Nigeria has good laws but lacks the will to enforce them.
The authorities, as a way of preserving public order, should induce uniform personnel to work rather than beg for economic or moral reasons. This should be followed with varying levels of effectiveness and enforcement.
OSA VICTOR OBAYAGBONA