- Organisation busts syndicate, launches all-out war against menace
By Tessy Igomu
Daily, during rush hours, they sit at vintage points within the Lagos metropolis, cuddling identically-dressed toddlers whom they portray as twins. With the kids, they attract the attention of passers-by.
On most days, with the sun blazing, these infants, usually aged between three months and one year, are seen fast asleep. They are never protected in any form from the scorching sun, which mercilessly beats down on them.
While some people would feel disgusted at the sight of these able-bodied women, engaging in such trade to presumably feed themselves and their infants, others would, expectedly, react with pity.
Setting out to beg for alms has become the preoccupation and daily routine of some women in Lagos. According to recent findings, it has become a booming business, with more and more women taking part in it.
While these women beggars appear distressed and look on pitifully at potential ‘customers’ to drop money into any form of contraption that they provide, the sleeping toddlers are usually displayed like merchandise on any boisterous Lagos street where the women-beggars choose to ply their trade.
Despite the Lagos State government’s law outlawing street begging and putting in place steps to curb its menace, the number of women beggars with toddlers seems to have grown amazingly.
With this vocation thriving, especially in Lagos slums and other densely populated areas, an association, Centre for Empowerment for the Physically Challenged and Human Rights Defence (CEPCHRD), said it decided to dig into their activities, to ensure that the ugly trend was nipped in the bud. And what was discovered, according to it, was shocking and horrifying.
Members of the organisation said they were determined that never again would the trend be allowed to continue, maintaining that the activity was giving the country both a bad name and a bad image. The body stressed that it was more concerned about the future of the children used as a ploy by the women, adding that their being taken out daily to beg, made the kids to miss out on basic education and nurturing.
According to the organisation’s coordinator, Comrade Mohammed Zanna, in the course of investigation, the organisation discovered that the women operated as a syndicate, alleging that one Amina Yarkasa was their leader. He also noted that the children, who are usually rented from their mothers, are dressed alike to pass as twins, adding that they are also drugged so as not to arouse any suspicion.
His words: “Our members have apprehended many of these women in the act and handed them over to the Nigeria Police. They work as a network. After the day’s work, they would return the children to their original mothers and also pay them. The danger in it is that the children are drugged throughout the day and are exposed to the elements. The greatest danger is that before the initial drug wears off, they are given another one. We have information on toddlers dying from the act. This is a crime against children.”
Zanna was, however, quick to note that those whose responsibility it is to apprehend, investigate and prosecute the women, seem not to be interested. He alleged that on several occasions, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP) and the Nigeria Police failed to act appropriately to ensure that those apprehended faced the consequences of their illicit act.
Citing the case of one Hauwa Ibrahim, whom he said was arrested with three toddlers and handed over to police officers at Area B Command, Apapa, in December 2015, Zanna alleged that the policemen demanded N20, 000, to prosecute the case. He noted that members of her group were initially shocked, but since they were bent on ensuring that the women’s activities were stopped; they later paid N5, 000 to the policemen.
He also noted that two out of the parents of the three toddlers arrested were invited and detained at the police command but were later granted bail.
The coordinator said the association was shocked when the investigating female police officer, simply identified as Kamdi, produced only Hauwa Ibrahim, the woman arrested with toddlers, when the matter came up for hearing at the Agbo-Malu Magistrate Court 4, Apapa. With the magistrate unable to make it to court, Zanna noted that the matter was adjourned and the woman remanded in prison.
“We registered our displeasure at the development with the Investigating Police Officer (IPO) because the woman and the mothers of the toddlers were meant to appear together in court. They committed the act together. We were shocked the more when the police officer and the prison warden, meant to convey the woman to prison demanded for N5, 000, before they would do their job. We made them to know that the matter before the court was a criminal case but we were ignored. We decided to pay N2, 000 but unknown to them, they were being recorded, as they received the money,” he alleged.
Unsatisfied with the way the matter was handled in court, Zanna said the organisation wrote a letter to the office of the Assistant Inspector General of Police (AIG), Zone 2, Onikan, Lagos, to recall the case file for proper investigation.
According to a petition dated January 13, 2016, the organisation noted that besides the fact that only the woman apprehended with the toddlers appeared in court, the charge sheet bearing the names of her accomplices was missing.
“These other women are the evidence in this matter. They are Hauwa Ibrahim’s accomplices and without them, she might end up walking free for lack of evidence,” Zanna said.
He further alleged that despite orders from both the AIG’s office and that of Ado Lawal, a deputy commissioner of Police, mandating the Special Anti-Fraud Unit, Panti to properly investigate the matter, the group was yet to get any feedback. He also noted that when the matter later came up in court on February 3, it was only Hauwa Ibrahim that was brought to court, making the petitioners to believe that the police didn’t make any attempt to re-investigate the case as mandated.
“We still went back to register our displeasure with the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Ado Lawal, and he ordered for the case file to be brought. The officer handling the case was also arrested. But till this moment, the officer kept calling and threatening us. He has been asking us what our interest in the matter was,” he narrated.
Zanna noted that along the line, the group also arrested two ladies fighting over a begging spot in Apapa, alongside five children. He said when the Area B Command, Apapa, was called and informed about the incident, one officer called Sale warned that such matter relating to the women beggars and children must not be brought to the police again.
Zanna explained that he was just acting as a good citizen to stop what he saw as an evil deed towards Nigerian children, adding that he was sad that institutions set up to protect vulnerable members of the society was adding to their pain.
He disclosed that the group later reached an agreement with NAPTIP to always alert CEPCHRD any time NAPTIP made any arrest. But he lamented that NAPTIP was not cooperating with his group.
Despite hitting a brick wall in their quest to ensure that justice was done, Zanna said the association later apprehended a woman with 12 children. He said while the women were being conveyed to the NAPTIP office in Ikeja, the woman and the children escaped.
“We later arrested a woman and handed her over to NAPTIP but were shocked to discover that the woman was later released without being prosecuted,” he alleged.
“At this point, we have found ourselves to be helpless. If the only people we believe in have failed us, how can we safeguard these children? We believe the law must act to deter others from plying this trade. We are calling on the Federal government, the police hierarchy and other relevant agencies against human trafficking to help ensure that those involved in this ill face the full wrath of the law.”
When a call was put through to the investigating police officer in charge of the case, she initially refused to speak. But when prodded further on the issue, she noted that while investigating the case, she diligently and professionally carried out her duty as an officer, stressing that those found culpable were presently in court. She further noted that the said Hauwa Ibrahim and two other women involved were charged to court. She added that the organisation later approached the police, asking that the matter be withdrawn.
“I have done my job but these people keep complaining. Today, they would say they want this and tomorrow, come up with another decision. These people know themselves and it’s like a case of infighting among these physically challenged people,” she said.
When Sale was also called on his mobile phone, he denied knowledge of the matter, stressing that he never told anyone not to call the command to report any matter.
And when she was contacted on phone too, Amina Yarkasa, who was described as the head of a syndicate within Apapa that rents out toddlers to women beggars for a fee, denied any knowledge of such activity. She admitted knowing Hauwa Ibrahim and said she was also aware that she was presently remanded at the Kirikiri Prisons. But she insisted that they were just neighbours.
When Daily Sun contacted NAPTIP office via its toll free line, a lady who identified herself as Sachima, promised to get back to the reporter before the end of the day. But she never did.