GUEST COLUMNIST BY FEMI FALANA
In a recent intervention on the illegal deportation of beggars and the destitute by Lagos, Anambra and some other state governments I demanded a new urban renewal policy that provides adequately for the rehabilitation and resettlement of all displaced people in the beautification of state capitals. The demand is anchored on the fundamental rights of disabled people guaranteed by the Constitution.
Although 135 beggars from Osun State were deported from Lagos between April 2010 and July 2013 Governor Rauf Aregbesola cautioned his Anambra state colleague, Mr. Peter Obi, to desist from politicising the expulsion of 14 beggars of Anambra state origin from Lagos. But Governor Aregbesola would have added value to the debate if he had disclosed that the poor state of Osun does not expel beggars and the destitute but rehabilitate and resettle them in recognition of their right to dignity.
However, in defence of the involvement of the Lagos State government in the deportation saga the State House of Assembly Speaker, Honourable Adebayo Ikuforiji, threatened that the exercise would continue until the state was rid of people who are “considered as illegitimate burden as well as serious challenge to the State”. With respect, the threat is totally uncalled in the light of the several progressive laws enacted by Lagos state to protect disabled people, neglected children, abandoned pregnant women, victims of domestic violence and persons living with HIV/AIDS in Lagos State. Incidentally, Honourable Ikuforiji was one of the legislators who passed the relevant bills signed into law by both Governors Bola Tinubu and Babatunde Fashola SAN from 2003-2013.
One of such legislations is the Disabled Persons Welfare (Enhancement) Law of Lagos State, 2004 that defines a ‘disabled person’ as “any physically or mentally disadvantaged person.” Since the deaf, the blind and crippled people as well as those who are non compos mentis are either physically or mentally challenged they are entitled to the protection of the law, regardless of their states of origin.
The law has specifically mandated the government to set up “rehabilitation centres for disabled persons and vocation centres in each Local Government Area of the State” and make provisions for the enhancement of “the placement of disabled persons in suitable employment or vocation” and assist them “financially or otherwise.” As the law never contemplated the deportation of disabled people from Lagos it has imposed a duty on the government to promote interaction between them and their able colleagues “within and outside the State”.
Convinced that the law has not adequately addressed the challenges faced by persons living with disability in Lagos State government enacted the Lagos State Special Peoples Law on June 24, 2011. Section 23 of the law requires the government to “ ensure that persons living with disability have good standards of living for themselves and their families, including adequate food, clothing and housing and continuous improvement of living conditions”. In particular, they are entitled to free tuition in all public schools and free medical treatment in all public health institutions in the State. Equally guaranteed are the rights of disabled people to freedom of communication, participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sports. The convenience and safety of persons living with disability shall be provided for in public and private buildings, vehicles, trains or aircrafts and at parking lots.
An Office of Disability Affairs has been created by the law while a Disability Fund has been established to cater for all disabled people. A governing board made up of seven members including a blind man and three crippled persons was inaugurated on July 9, 2012 by Governor Fashola SAN. On the memorable occasion the governor said that “The society has always responded to the challenge of physically challenged people by giving them alms but that what they need is a level playing ground – level enough to give them the opportunities to be able to carry on with their lives.”
Apart from setting the pace in the inclusivity of persons living with disability in Nigeria the Lagos State government promulgated the Law Against Abandonment of Pregnant Women 2013 on August 9, 2013. The law has criminalised the callous and irresponsible conduct of some men who impregnate women and abandon them. If enforced by the government the law is going to curb the incidence of indigent pregnant women and nursing mothers begging for alms on the streets.
Another relevant legislation is the Lagos State Protection Against Domestic Violence Law, 2007. The law has vested the courts with the power to issue prohibition orders to stop acts of domestic violence and make appropriate orders. Parents and guardians are obligated to provide for the welfare, care and education of their children and wards. It is on record that the human rights community has taken advantage of the provisions of the law to reunite a number of street kids and other abandoned children with their parents.
Furthermore, the Lagos State Child’s Rights Law, 2006 has explicitly set out the rights of the child, the responsibility of parents towards the child and the duty of government to protect and defend the child. The law has prohibited child marriage and the act of sending children to the streets to beg for alms or hawk goods or subjecting them to any disability or deprivation. Community homes shall be maintained in the local governments to provide care and accommodation for needy children.
In addition, the Lagos State Compulsory Universal Basic Education Law, 2006 has provisions for free and compulsory education for every child from primary to junior secondary school at the expense of the government. It is, therefore, a criminal offence for a parent not to send any child to school. The enforcement of both the Child’s Rights Law and the UBE Law ought to have effectively put an end to the criminal use of children as beggars and traders.
Under the Lagos State Adoption Law, 2003 juvenile courts may authorize the adoption of any child under the age of 17 years who is abandoned or whose parents or relatives and other relatives are unknown. Any child above the age of one year may be voluntarily given out for adoption by his parents. It is a crime for parents to marry their adopted children while an adopted person cannot marry the natural child of his/her adopted parents.
The Lagos State government has equally enacted the Law for the Protection of Persons Living with HIV and Affected by AIDS, 2007. Aside the prohibition of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS the law has provided for the establishment of a fund to facilitate the purchase of antiviral drugs for persons living with the dangerous disease. Under the Lagos State HIV/AIDS Control Agency Law, 2008 an agency has been established to carry out among other things, the removal of “human resources, financial cultural and information barriers to HIV/AIDS prevention”.
There is no doubt that many poor people resort to begging for alms due to poverty and ignorance while the rich who give alms to them do so on religious grounds. But through education, empowerment, public enlightenment and enforcement of the welfare laws those who engage in alms begging would have seen the disgraceful practice. In fact, the enforcement of the Lagos State Sanitation Law, 1984 should have stopped street trading and removed criminal scum from the streets by now. A government which cannot enforce its own laws on account of official negligence or ineptitude should not be allowed to look for scapegoats among the vulnerable people.
It is pertinent to note that the Lagos High Court has upheld some of the rights guaranteed by the welfare laws. Recently, a bank was ordered by the court to pay damages of N250, 000.00 to a physically challenged person who was prevented from entering a banking hall with clutches. Last year, the court set aside the termination letter of an employee who was sacked by her employer on the ground that she was HIV positive. A few months ago, the court also awarded N500, 000.00 damages against the police for detaining an 8- year old boy in lieu of his father who was wanted for his alleged involvement in a criminal matter.
Regrettably, the aforementioned welfare laws have not been enforced due to lack of political will by the government. Indeed, the office of the public defender is specifically tasked with the responsibility to provide legal services “for indigent citizens of Lagos State especially women, children and those with physical disability resident in the State irrespective of tribe, race or religion”. It is submitted that if the office of the public defender had carried out its duty of defending “those with physical disability resident in the State” the embarrassing repatriation of a handful of beggars from Lagos to their states or origin would not have occurred.
However, instead of addressing the issue of illegal deportation of disabled people from Lagos and other state capitals including Akwa in Anambra state a section of the petit bourgeoisie has resorted to mud slinging, name calling and whipping up of primordial sentiments. Let such opportunists be told that this battle transcends petty ethnic jingoism. It demands a commitment on the part of all men and women of goodwill to team up with the human rights community in ensuring the enforcement of the welfare laws of Lagos State in the overall interests of the marginalised masses.
Even though the Lagos State government deserves commendation for enacting a corpus of welfare laws it has itself to blame for violating the rights of the victims of socio-economic injustice guaranteed by the said laws. Rather than persist in illegality in the circumstances the government should stop further deportations and speedily set the engine in motion for the full implementation of the aforementioned welfare laws. It is hoped that other states will enact similar legislations and faithfully enforce them. After all, many of them has created the office of the public defender and established a mediation centre modeled after the Lagos state system.
•Mr. Falana, SAN, is a member of the THISDAY Editorial Board.