The Begging Nation

Nigerian flag waving

The Begging Nation

By Azuka Onwuka

She walked up to me as I tried to open the door to my car. She was in her late teens or early 20’s. Her dressing was neat but funky. A Blackberry phone was in her right hand, which she flashed about as she gesticulated. Her English was good and her accent was that of an American-wannabe.

“Good day, sir,” she said to me. “Sorry to bother you. I came from Victoria Island to Ikeja and lost my purse, with all my money and ATM cards. I would be grateful if I can get some change from you to go back. I really feel embarrassed doing this.”

I was not sure whether to believe her or not. I asked her a few questions. I was not fully convinced that she was for real. But what if she was indeed stranded? It could have been me, I told myself. So I gave her some money. She thanked me and poured some prayers on me and moved on.

A few weeks later, as I made to step out of my car in Maryland, a female voice greeted me. I looked up. It was the same girl. I thought she recognized me and had come to top up the gratitude she poured on me the other day. “Sorry to bother you,” she began again. “I came from Ajah to Maryland but lost my purse to a pickpocket, and ….”

I did not wait for her to finish. “You again!” I exclaimed. “Such a young girl like you, begging!”

She did not wait to hear me out. “Leave me joor,” she retorted in anger and walked away.

The scene changes to the airport. You walk in to fly out or you are just returning. This time around, all the beggars are in the uniforms of the immigration service, anti-terrorist team, customs, airport staff, or airline staff.

You hear subtle begging statements like: “Good evening, Chairman. Happy weekend o! Your boys are here o!” Or brazen ones like: “Oga, your boys are hungry o! Oga, do weekend for us! My chairman, I know that now that I have seen you, my transport fare is guaranteed!”

If you play ball and continue dolling out cash to these beggars in uniform, you will be given express treatment. But if you “don’t cooperate,” they will turn aggressive and search your bags with anger and scatter the contents. And all kinds of hurdles will be placed on your way.

At eateries or banks, it is the same story. The security personnel or those who attend to customers make a show of greeting you. The tone and outlandish manner of the greeting sends the message to you that you should “shake bodi.”

If you patronize the buses plying the Lagos-Benin-City route or Lagos-Onitsha route, once the bus is full or makes a stop at a filling station in Ojota, a man gets on the bus, starts singing Christian choruses, gives a charged sermon and prayer. Then he distributes envelopes and asks for offerings. Naturally, the thought of accidents and deaths flies around the mind of most travellers, which tends to make them more generous at such times.

There is no need mentioning the police and their known begging culture. The ban on police checkpoints by the Inspector General of Police, Mr Mohammed Abubakar, has reduced the incidence of street begging by the police. But the traffic wardens and staff of the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA) still continue the begging while doing their work.

All over the nation, the culture of begging has solidified. Once upon a time, begging used to be reserved for the physically challenged who had no scruples about begging, for there have always been many physically challenged people who will never demean themselves to beg. I remember Mr Benson Oforkaja, who repaired my wristwatch when I began to use one in secondary school. Sometimes while moving about on all fours someone would drop some money by his side. He would either ignore the money and continue on his way or he would take the money and give it to the first beggar he met. For him, it was an insult to ask for alms. It did not matter that he was not educated beyond primary school.

I also remember an interview I had with Mr Cosmas Okoli in 2008 for my book, 20 Success Secrets of Great Achievers. He said he suffered polio at four and was crippled since then. But he went on to acquire education and become an employer of men and women, including those with no physical disabilities. For him, the worst thing one can do to someone with physical disabilities is to give the person alms. Such alms-giving was tantamount to condemning that person to a life of beggary and ineffectiveness. A person with a physical challenge would be better off if helped to start earning a living, he argued.

Therefore, if those with physical disabilities are being discouraged to beg, what should be said to physically fit employees concerning beggary? For me, there is something demeaning about direct or indirect begging. When someone ingratiates oneself to me with a surfeit of greetings, praises and niceties, all in the name to get some naira notes from me, I feel ashamed on behalf of that person.

All sense of decency and worth has been thrown to the dogs. People compete on who would beg harder and who would make higher returns at the end of the day. Funny enough, some people usually claim that it is because of poverty, lack of jobs, and all the defeatist bla bla bla. But it has nothing to do with poverty or low remuneration. It has all to do with lack of self-respect and self-worth. It is the same spirit that breeds fraud and bribery and corruption. It is the desperate and never-satisfied spirit, the spirit of nothing-goes-for-nothing.

While beggary feels disgusting to me as an individual, I feel horrified when such begging attitude is extended to foreigners within Nigeria. You would think that such professional beggars in uniform would respect themselves at the sight of a foreigner, just to keep the shame local. No. At the sight of a foreigner the expectation rises. And when such foreigners part with some dollar or euro notes, they are hailed as great people and waved on, without a proper check.

Begging by men and women in uniform and other workers should be frowned at by all the three levels of government. Just as the IG of Police identified checkpoint extortion by the police as the worst destroyer of the image of the police and consequently banned all checkpoints, so should the three levels of government take measures to reduce begging. A bank has made all its staff, including security officers, abandon begging.

Citizens should also use their camera phones to record and publish such acts for the authorities to take action. Official begging is an embarrassment to the nation. Any society with a high level of workers who beg will also have a high level of corrupt officials and inefficient officials who will be more concerned with what they will get from everyone they attend to than doing their work effectively.

** Published March 25, 2014

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