Street begging is illegal in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city, and carries fines of around N15,000 (£38) and up to three months’ imprisonment. Those who fail to pay the fine are incarcerated until they are able to pay up.
But due to poor medical support, the people begging on Lagos’s street are disproportionately made up of mentally ill and disabled citizens, and human rights activists say tens of thousands of vulnerable people have been detained over the past five years as a result of the ban.
Megan Chapman, a human rights lawyer and director of the local NGO Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI), said the “scale of human rights violations is massive and extremely concerning”, and added the treatment may be illegal under the country’s constitution.
Though campaigners from JEI acknowledged that begging is also banned in other cities across the world, they claim the ban is policed brutally and without transparency in Lagos. “It’s hard to find a city enforcing the ban in as inhumane a way as Lagos is,” Chapman said.
Despite widespread calls from NGOs and activists for the state to reconsider its policy, the Nigerian senate is now considering a bill to ban begging nationwide.
The bill, proposed by Senator Isah Misau, has substantial backing in the senate, with lawmakers claiming the increase in begging is caused by criminal exploitation rather than poor economic conditions in Nigeria, which is now officially in recession.
Speaking in support of the proposed legislation, Misau said: “Street begging affects not only the geographical and social structure of urban areas; it also portrays the country in a bad light to tourists and foreign visitors.”
Lagos state’s governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, has backed the crackdown on street begging. “We’ve had security reports on the activities of persons who pose as beggars, especially in traffic, but their sole aim is to perpetrate evil,” he said in July.
The state government said in April that 1,340 beggars, destitute and “mentally challenged persons” had been “rescued” from the streets of Lagos in the past year. During this period, it said 590 “rehabilitees” had been released and reunited with their relatives for re-integration, while 1,228 people were rehabilitated at what it referred to as a “rehabilitation and training centre” in Majidun, on mainland Lagos.
In addition, according to a leaked memo cited on the Nigerian site PM News, 413 beggars and “lunatics” were reportedly evacuated from Lagos’s streets by government officials between March and July this year.
Most of those detained for begging are taken to the holding facility by the so-called “rescue team” from the Lagos State Youth and Development Ministry, which enforces the ban.
The centre was opened as part of a drive to clean up the city in the 1970s. State officials claim it is used to help and treat beggars and people who are physically or mentally ill, yet reports from former detainees paint a different picture.
Men and women held there have described torturous conditions, claiming to have been denied basic rights and medical attention, held in confined spaces, often for years, without a fair hearing.
“We have met dozens of people arrested for begging who have been made to pay a hefty bribe, who have been deprived of their liberty for months or even years. Not one of them has ever been taken before a court of law. It is a serious violation of their rights under the Nigerian constitution,” she said.
“What we’ve been pressing the state government to do is to have a root and branch overhaul of the system; stop the mass incarcerations that impact on the health and well-being of the beggars.”
Workers from JEI, along with the Physically Challenged Empowerment Initiative (PCEI), a grassroots organisation campaigning against the detentions, have looked after several people after their release from the centre.
Among them was 25-year-old Yakubu Idris. After his arrest and 20-month detention at the Majidun facility, his health deteriorated. Interviewed hours after his release, he said: “Now I cannot walk – I cannot even stand up from the floor.”
Despite suffering from extensive infections and a respiratory problem, Idris said he was denied medical treatment by officials at the facility. “In the cell I totally forgot how long I was there because I was never let out. Then one day theoga [boss] took two of us and released us,” he said.
A week later, tests for tuberculosis came back positive, but Idris died before he could receive treatment.
Chapman said calls for change by local NGOs were slowly being heeded, but the proposed bill threatened to undermine years of work to change attitudes towards beggars.
“We have pointed out that current practices are completely unconstitutional and fail to address the social problems of destitution and street begging. The focus should be on helping the poor and people living with disabilities to find alternative livelihoods,” she said.
Under the previous Lagos state governor, scores of beggars were routinely deported to their states of origin. In 2011, 3,029 people were deported from Lagos. Dolapo Badru, a state government spokesman at the time, defended the measures, arguing that “beggars and destitutes constitute a social nuisance towards the development of Lagos as a mega-city”.
Muhammed Zanna, one of the founders of the PCEI in Lagos said negative perceptions of the poor had led to widespread apathy about the way they are treated by the state.
“Governor Ambode wants to create a modern city and the poor don’t fit into that vision,” said Zanna.
“The state doesn’t see beggars as real people, just as people to hide or to send away. People who have no interaction with the poor or disabled have this idea that they are really criminals and drug dealers, so even when the state services maltreats them people don’t show any concern,” Zanna said.
State officials at the youth ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Officials at the facility in Majidun denied detainees were kept in harsh conditions indefinitely or denied basic rights, and claimed a doctor was available to provide treatment. They also say it is merely “a temporary holding site” until fines are paid or a hearing takes place.
Forty-year-old Binta Muhammadu was arrested in February with her two children, aged two and four. When she couldn’t pay the fine, she was detained at Majidun for nine months, with her children held elsewhere. “In that time I only saw my children three times,” she said.
According to Binta, “there were about 50 of us in the same room, where we bathed, ate and slept. We were never let out,” she said.
“I don’t know what I will do now that I am free,” she added. “I don’t have anything and I can’t walk well any more. This has just made things worse for me than it was before.”