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How Lagos rehab home targets the defenceless

Without speaking to people who have suffered in the Lagos State Ministry for Youth and Social Development’s detention facility in Majidun, it would be difficult to believe it exists.

Without speaking to people who have suffered in the Lagos State Ministry for Youth and Social Development’s detention facility in Majidun, it would be difficult to believe it exists.

The facility was opened the late 1970s, when the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) was hosted in Lagos. Prior to the event, the then government wanted to clean up the streets in Lagos and present a more beautiful city to spectators.

According to the Ministry of Youth and Social Development, Majidun serves as a rehabilitation centre, helping beggars and youths to learn new skills to help their employability. But over the course of the last 5 years the facility has held thousands of people who have been “arrested” by a ‘Rescue Team’ for begging in Lagos state. Many of the beggars are disabled and mentally ill, and detained until they are able to pay the fines of roughly N15,000.

According to the Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law, under which begging is banned in Lagos, the beggars once arrested should go through a due process at the end of which they may be court-ordered to pay the fine, but this is routinely skipped. What happens instead, is that many of them are ordered to pay upon arrest and if unable to, kept in the facility in Majidun and in other similar centres indefinitely, until they can.

The Majidun facility is off limits to journalists, as well as family members of detainees, who are refused permission to visit, but who often pay guards for photographs of their family in order to verify that they are still there. Campaigners from the Physically Challenged Empowerment Initiative (PCEI) have however recovered footage of parts of the centre, as well as documenting the experiences of scores of people who have been detained.

For example, 40-year-old Binta Muhammadu was arrested in February last year, having been found begging along with her two children. Over 10 years before her arrest, she had come to Lagos with her husband who was a businessman. When he died in an accident she was left alone to look after her children. With no support from family, she began selling on some days and begging on others.

Binta spent 9 months in Majidun, living in cramped cells holding up to 50 people. They were made to eat, excrete and clean in the same cells, she says. She was denied visitation and medical assistance. When she was released last November, after a campaign by the Physically Challenged Empowerment Initiative, she struggled to walk. She had developed severe infections all over her body and was unable to move without pain.

According to Binta and campaigners from PCEI, people often die in the cells from medical conditions that developed or worsened during detention. Requests for comment, acknowledging these conditions, both by telephone and email have routinely been ignored. On record, the Ministry of Youth and Social Development have claimed that there is a doctor and nurse at the facility that treat beggars and ‘destitutes’ who are ‘rehabilitated’ at such centres. But Binta’s condition along with those of thousands of others was in fact exacerbated by a lack of medical attention in Majidun.

Yakubu Idris, a 25-year-old man who was also arrested for begging was detained for 20 months. During his detention he became extremely ill and was eventually released at the behest of the PCEI. Just over a week after his release, he died of tuberculosis – a disease that a medical official should have been able to diagnose had he been attended to. Others in the cells have died without their families being informed or their bodies released.

But for a network created by the PCEI, the few cases made public by the institute would be as anonymous as the thousands of other cases – many as horrific but undocumented. Additionally, many of them would have no funds to pay for medical treatment needed after their detention.

One Tuesday in March, around 500 people led by the PCEI marched in Lagos to the State Secretariat, protesting the ban on begging and the way it is being policed in Lagos.

According to the Just Empower Initiative, who work with PCEI, the purpose of the protest was to make it known to the Governor and to Lagos residents, that unlawful treatment and human rights violations of beggars have become endemic. After the protest, the ministry has since released approximately 40 people, but it is not enough. That poor people have been treated in this way speaks to an institutional and cultural climate that allows for it. In rhetoric and policy, the poor are routinely dehumanised and seen as a liability. Paradoxically, Nigeria is a difficult place to get by in, yet one which has a political and cultural antipathy to a mass of people trapped in that struggle.

The ban on begging in Lagos State has been a law for decades, and is a growing feature in cities all over the world. But the way it is being policed in Lagos is cruel. They effect a subset of people who are more likely to be undocumented and who have little to no means of challenging unlawful conditions or practices. In Lagos, the ban on begging should be policed in a way that does not infringe on the rights of anyone, especially those less likely to have the means of defending those rights. More broadly, it should also be policed in a way that acknowledges that the conditions in the country are a huge part of why so many Nigerians break it.

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