For most families in Nigeria, especially from early 90s to 2014, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, is practically the biblical Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. It is the land of bountiful opportunities and land of splendour; it is a city where wealth, ostentation and power are acquired with little or no effort.
The opulence in the streets of most city centres in Abuja bears eloquent testimony to that fact. World’s most expensive cars are driven and magnificent buildings kept springing up. Politics, supply contract, construction company job opportunities and buying and selling business do not only absorb most of the unemployed but also serve as a stream of income for many hitherto poor families.
In reality, the FCT really was a hub for one form of job opportunity and the other for everybody. Then, while husbands were gainfully employed in construction companies- the most effective employers of labour, their wives would be engaged in trading; resulting in many families basking in glorious mouth-watering monthly take homes.
Then many husbands raked in streaming jumbo millions of naira at the National Assembly as legislators or enjoyed the bounty of politics in appointive and or elective positions, while their wives would be engaged in contract supply business. There were countless opportunities for everybody.
Although many families in Abuja then found succour in the “Promised Land”, there was little or no provision for the city centre to accommodate the poor. There was legislation against begging and hawking, which has always been the highest employer of labour.
Even as the wealth and opportunities were threatened by rising population explosion in the FCT, there was efficient transportation system for those living in the suburb.
The indiscriminate springing up of shanties everywhere in the city centres and undeveloped settlements then made accommodation a secondary challenge. However, when the standard of living first cartwheeled in early 2000, it came as a misfortune and setback to many unprepared families.
The demolition of houses at the city centres resulted in acute accommodation challenges to many. The proscription of certain categories of transport services compounded the woes of many forced out of the city centres into the suburbs.
As years rolled by, many families were caught in the harsh web of one anti masses government policy or the other. The contracting businesses became unattractive, impoverishing many with several years of arrears of unpaid debts of prosecuted contracts or supplied goods, construction companies engaged in massive staff retrenchment due to economic meltdown.
Things continued to fall apart that most families clutched at one form of survival strategy to the other. Even many of them that took up hawking as means of survival were at the mercies of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), that impoverished them with the continued seizure of their wares.
The harsh realities got many of them entangled that even when survival became so difficult, the shame of returning to the village was an unattractive option. For many, the alternative was to thicken their skin and exploit every survival opportunity.
When hawking became a risky venture, they shifted to willing agents of political protest, praise singers for politicians or engage in all forms of menial survival jobs to provide for their families.
As the hostilities continuously made survival a daunting challenge, begging provided the needed succour. To exploit the opportunity to fullest, cases of women begging for help at bus stops became rampant.
Most recently, many Abuja women and young men have taken begging for survival to the next level. They simply jump from one big event arena to the other, collecting and packing foods served them and the leftovers by the guests into the handbags they came to the events with.
Big hotels, gardens, political and church gatherings, birthday bashes and event arenas are always their hotbeds and targets. Moving from table to table armed with big handbags, they shamelessly inquire from the guests if they are through with the foods and or drinks served them. And without any iota of shame, they would rush the content of tables vacated by the invited guests.
‘Why we survive on food from event arenas’
A middle aged mother of four residing at Mararaba, Mama Mabel, narrated her ordeal in tears to Daily Sun that though she is not comfortable engaging in such demeaning means of survival, she has no option than to do it, confessing that Abuja has visited her and her family with unfair treatments:
“I came to Abuja in the early 2000 to join my husband doing very well then with Julius Berger, a construction company. I started business in second hand clothing, popularly called ‘okirika.’ We enjoyed every comfort of life money can provide. We even built a house in Lugbe, bought a car and financed the training of our children in a very descent school in Abuja.
“We never lacked anything for years because things were really very rosy for us. It was so promising that villagers arrive our home in droves in search of comfort and fortune. We had enough to help as many of them as possible until we were visited with one calamity after the other.
“My husband first lost his job with the construction company, converted our car into taxi but had accident that rendered the vehicle unusable. He tried his hands on other things, but could not make any headway. When things became tough for him, the whole family depended on my ‘okirika’ business for survival.
“It actually sustained us for some time until the wave of demolition swept us off our feet. Government first demolished our only house in Lugbe, leaving us with no option than to seek accommodation as tenant at Mararaba where we can afford the rent. It did not take long when my shop was demolished too.
“At a time, survival became very difficult for us, paying the school fees for the children became a Herculean task. We would have continued to manage the situation but for the death of my husband.
“I tried my hands on many other things but the burden of shouldering the responsibilities of the entire family continue to be unbearable. We have to survive.”
‘AEPB pushed me into this situation’
For Theresa Ike, former banana hawker, the alleged hostilities of the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA), forced her into begging to survive: “I was making fortune selling banana. I sustained my family with the business and even when my husband lost his job, the proceeds from the banana business cushioned the effects of it. We trained our children from the banana business.
“But problem started for me since the beginning of the current administration when the AEPB constantly seized my product, forcing me out of business. I tried renting a shop, but the challenge of disposing the product before it perished was enormous.
“We sell more and make more gains moving from place to place or better hawking along the road. But the AEPB has made it impossible for us to be in business again. When their heat started giving me high blood pressure, I had to quit to remain alive.
“And since I cannot watch my family die of hunger, I have to swallow the pride and provide for them especially as my husband is no longer strong enough to do anything. Most of the women you saw here have one pathetic story or the other to tell that forced them into opting for this kind of shameful survival measure.”
Typical of Nigerians, Abuja residents seem to be divided in their perception of the new survival trend. While some condemned their actions, others argued that it is better than returning to the village to farm or worse still die of hunger.
For a respondent who identified himself as Emmanuel, nothing can be more demeaning than such attitude: “No matter the situation, I cannot allow my wife to engage in such dehumanising thing regardless of how harsh our situation may have degenerated.
“Initially, when you see somebody packing leftover foods at events, you can easily conclude that they were meant to feed their dogs. But the situation is entirely different today. The most annoying is that they do it with impunity, moving nauseatingly from one table to the other with their handbags. I know it is certainly not deliberate but they cannot continue like this.”
However, for a mother of three, Halima Usman, it is better than dying of hunger: “I don’t support their action but you should know that when somebody shamelessly engages in such, their situation must have gotten out of hand. Some of them have been frustrated and left with no other option. Will I do such, no but will I support their actions, yes because they are at the mercies of hunger.”