By Abdul Mahmud
“Well, you see, nowadays, people who live a long way away, in Europe and the United States of America, white people especially, are beginning to take an interest in the beauty of our country. These people are called tourists. You know, in the old days these people came to rob and exploit us, now they visit our country for rest and in search of happiness. That is why we have built hotels and holiday villages and casinos to welcome them. These tourists spend huge sums of money to come here, there are even special societies in Europe who organize these journeys. And when they visit the cities they are accosted by beggars and we run the risk of their never coming back or putting unfavorable propaganda to discourage others who might like to come…We are the ones who are responsible for the destiny of our country. We must oppose anything which harms our economic and tourist development”.
This is how Mour Ndiaye, a character in Aminatta Sow Fall’s fictional novel, The Beggars’ Strike, explains the reason for the forced removal of beggars from the city of begging. There is a point to be made here: we experience at once in Fall’s brilliant narrative the fictionalization of officialdom and its despicable policy of forced removal of beggars and how the execution of this policy eventually results in the beggars’ resistance and counteraction.
Simply put, Fall fictionalizes a strike that effectively keeps the beggars out of the streets, that strikes at the very heart of the transactional exchange that underlines the economy of begging. There is a point too to be made on the historical nature of begging. Let us hear Fall: “beggars have been here since the time of our great-great-grandparents. They were there when you came to this world and they’ll be here when you leave it”.
That Fall’s fictional narrative has today been made real by Governor Nasir El-Rufai, who only last week ordered the forceful removal of beggars from the streets of Kaduna state makes the business of removal of beggars surreal, and even more surreal that the reasons for the removal appear quite similar in the sense that they seek to promote certain economy of interests outside the interests of the beggars themselves. While the character in Fall’s novel seeks to promote the economy of tourism by forcefully hiding away beggars, El-Rufai thinks that “the overriding need to secure lives and property of over eight million people that live in Kaduna state is superior to that of those that think they have a right to beg”. Thus, the similarity begins at the point of forceful removal and ends at the backyards of the cities of begging where no tourist or eight million people can have glimpses of them.
There is scapegoating here: while Fall’s character blames the beggars for the downturn in that fictional city’s economy of tourism and foreign exchange earnings, El-Rufai blames Kaduna state beggars for the terrorist attacks on the state he governs. The problematic here is this: both blames merely seek to lay what is purely a product of the failure to understand the dynamics of poverty at the doorsteps of those who are the victims of those dynamics. So, how do we explain the use of law and order instruments to address and stigmatize those who consider begging as the only means of survival, who were denied economic and social opportunities during our decade of economic growth and prosperity, or those who rightly consider begging as an intrinsic aspect of our traditional and transactional economy, after all they also exchange their services- prayers, well wishes and goodwill- for money and kindness?
The reason adduced by El-Rufai is understandable. But, it also raises the fundamental question of what truly constitutes the greater danger to our society or the nation-state. Is it the colony of beggars on our open streets or the beggars who by the ban are barred from harvesting the compassion and kindness of the rest of society, driven underground and far into the bottomless depths of those hideous places of darkness, where no one sees them, only for them to emerge more sinister than the dreadful, bloodthirsty monsters of Boko Haram? Or the poor institutional governance environment that makes nonsense of citizenship by denying citizens’ entitlements to humane housing, good schools, proper education and learning, and affordable health care system? Walk the streets of our country today and you will find the extremely depraved, the sick and the hungry sitting in street-corners and begging for alms.
How do we explain that our democracy has created the underclass, in spite of the tremendous wealth that has accrued from oil sales over the past sixteen years, in spite of the stratospheric economic growth that has only benefited those who pull the levers of power, their friends, acolytes and cronies, the rich and the super rich, widened class and gender inequality, pushed those caught between the strata into the hellhole of privation and misery, the underclass that we pretend does not exist.
I doubt if El-Rufai lacks understanding of all of this. El-Rufai is my personal friend and I am well familiar with his brilliant intellect to nurture the belief that he lacks clear understanding of the problems, yet I am surprised that the initial statement issued by his government banning beggars did not consider the urgency of the problems that confront the poor, including the beggars, beyond playing the blame game. The deep-seated problems that the poor of our country confront today can only be addressed by leaders who show moral compassion for the condition of the poor and who display courage by taking from the rich what they have stolen from our commonwealth. The law and order instrument as we have seen in Aminatta Fall’s novel only goes as far burying the head of the Ostrich in the sand, while exposing the stinking parts.
Beggars go home, a cry which Fashola began in 2010 and which Oshiomhole carried to a despicable pitch when he asked that poor widow who hawked her wares on the street of Benin-city to go and die, appears to have gone with the wind of change until the El-Rufai missteps. Happily, he has retraced his steps. Hear him: “we have to find ways and means to rehabilitate these people by training them to have a skill and then assist them in terms of finance to start their own business…we want to empower our people so that they don’t beg and that is what we are working on as a government”. Fine and good. But, there is the need to go beyond training and rehabilitation. We do know that there is a huge disruption in the social and economic life of the north-east of Nigeria as a result of the war going on there. A serious government must begin the task of planning to accommodate those whose lives have been disrupted by the war and who will be rehabilitated when peace comes. A serious government must also begin the task of building the institutional capacity of the state, social infrastructure, and expanding the economic market to meet the challenges that will come. Kaduna state has an unspoken war of its own, which the invisible “apartheid wall” and the visible “do-not-cross-borders” so painfully exemplify. Some individuals might argue that Kaduna state isn’t in the frontline of the war on Boko Haram. In so far as Boko Haram adopts asymmetric strategies to further its dangerous proselytizing interests, there will be no borders or frontline for the war.
Again, and very importantly too, Kaduna is the former political capital of the old Northern region and for this reason it will continue to lend itself as city of attraction to people from other geo-political regions, like the attraction of light to the moths. Given the collapse of manufacturing in Kaduna state, El-Rufai must quickly begin the task of helping to rebuild the state’s manufacturing capacity, strengthen the weak private sector, so that enough jobs can be created for those beggars who are able to work. “Government is the employer of last resort”, the late British historian, Eric Hobsbawm, once expressed. Yes, Kaduna state must develop its capacity to create decent jobs from within itself.
Finally, the finer point of human compassion is important to keep the poor among us in check because on that day of reckoning, which Marx famously warned, they shall have no compassion and they shall ask no compassion from us. When their turn comes, they shall not make excuses. Please, beggars, don’t go home I beg of you all!