Skolombo, The Story Of Calabar Street Children

Skolombo street children being deployed by politicians during campaign periods in Calabar

STREET children in Calabar, who later metamorphosed today as Skolombo, have been there for years. Initially, they were harmless, but later grew to be known as ‘Isakaba’ in 2007 and 2008 at which period they had become a menace. The major cause or origin of Skolombo could be traced to the family and the church.

In the family, some children are branded witches and wizards through the spiritual pronouncement of some churches. As a result, some parents throw such children into the street, where they grow up and learn the street life.
Some street children are of single parenthood, whereby, the mother is not capable of taking care; hence the child ends up in the streets doing all sorts of criminal adventures.

A social worker in the state, Mr. John Ekpe said, “some parents are running up and down looking for what to eat. Some leave children with housemaids. How they dress or grow up do not matter again to parents. In those days, parents check, but now we harbour anything in our home. These help to spoil our home. All of us are responsible for these problems, including the church. You go there, they will call a child a witch. There is no job and poverty has taken over. There is poverty in the midst of plenty, but there is money in the hands of a few. Some people even sell their children to make money. There is a total breakdown in the family system.”

He argued that the government is not helping matters, as jobs are not there.
The most notorious of street children are Skolombo boys and Lakasara girls. These children are found clustering around major streets like IBB, Ekong Ita, Murtala Mohammed Highway by Flour Mills, Marian, Calabar road and others.
They are within the ages of 8 and 15 years, and just loiter the streets, fending for themselves in tattered clothes. Often, they hang besides vehicles in traffic, begging for alms. Some of them even engage in petty stealing and robbery.

Dr Esther Victor Ita with her Ergerly home inmates during an outing

How We Got Here- Skolombo Children
RECOUNTING their experience with The Guardian, some of them claim they were abandoned by their parents and do not have anywhere to go, while some others were accused to be witches and wizards.
“For me, I don’t have anywhere to go. For 10 years, I have been on the streets fending for myself. I live a street life and I don’t know my father and mother,” so declared one of the boys who simply gave his name as Edet.

Another boy, who gave his name as Gideon Okon, aged 13, said, “for the past three years, I have lived in the park (Etim Edem Motor Park) and I earn my living by loading passenger buses and running errands. On a good day I make N200 to N400 a day. We live and rise up with the big boys, thieves, but I don’t steal. When they ask us to go for robbery, they will beat us when we resist. My father is sick and diabetic and my mother has since ran away. I now fend for my father and myself. In most cases, I go to places of ceremonies to get remnants of food, especially at the Cultural Centre and the State Library Complex. Occasionally, I sleep in the park.”

Obioikot Ita, 10 years; Effiong Victor Okon, also 10 and Ubong Asuquo Nyong are from Akpabuyo Council of Cross River State. They suffer similar fate. For close to three years, they have lived in the park and sometimes join the big boys to steal. The street is their life.
In most cases these Skolombo children move in groups. Initially, they operated like beggars, hanging around street corners, but later they started carrying guns and getting dangerous as they grew bigger and matured with street life. They operate with different kinds of crude weapons, collecting phones, money and other valuables from people. There have also been reports of robberies carried out by this group of street children.

SOME months back, a gang of daredevil robbers, who operated in a commando-like style, engaged the police in gun battle, held the city hostage for about three hours. They were suspected to be Skolombo boys.
Worried by this menace, which poses a threat to the peace of the state and its development; the State Governor, Senator Ben Ayade has put in place a security task force codenamed “Operation Skolombo,” to rid the state of criminals. This was in addition to an already existing Quick Intervention Squad and Rapid Response Squad in the state.

Brig. General Mannix Nyiam (rtd.) was appointed Chairman of the taskforce alongside four others, Mr Lawrence Alobi, a retired police Commissioner, Colonel Ekanem Ikpeme, a retired Deputy Police Commissioner, Bassey Inyang and Inyang Yibala, a Security Consultant, to tackle the Skolombo threat.

While inaugurating the team the governor said, “You are aware that we have great ideas in key signature projects. The intention is that those projects will create a new economy that can sustain our people and give us independence. All of those things in our plan, political and economic, would amount to nothing if we don’t have the right security in place.”

Since the taskforce was put in place, and to a very large extent, the activities of the boys have reduced, though pockets of them, especially the younger ones, are still to be found in areas like the Murtala Mohammed highway and Marian Road, loitering around.
It is on record that Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 and domesticated it in 2003 as the Child Rights Act. Since then, 23 of Nigeria’s 36 states have adopted the law to protect children. The law specifies the rights and responsibilities of children and the duties and obligations of government, families and the authorities to uphold children’s rights.

Previous Interventions
Mrs Obioma Imoke and the Street Children
The immediate past first lady, Mrs. Obioma Imoke, using her Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), Mothers Against Child Abandonment (MACA) and Partnership Opportunities for Women Empowerment Realisation (POWER) in collaboration with others had tried to rehabilitate many of the street children.
Today, over 200 of such abandoned children have been rescued and sent to schools. Some have even graduated from skill acquisition programmes and are working decently. Single mothers among them are not left out.

Recalling her first encounter with street children, Mrs Imoke said; “My first experience was when one of my staff said they just found a baby in the trash can. I was a bit confused. I had never experienced that before. And I said bring the baby to my house. She called me back and said the baby was dead. I made investigations and found out that it was something that was common and that some of the girls that got pregnant hide it from their parents for fear of being kicked out. So, once they have those babies, they throw them away so that nobody knows. I don’t think that any child is a mistake. I don’t believe that God made a mistake by bringing a child into the world. So I thought of how to stop people from killing children because if you don’t get to the children in time, they die.”

She reached out to young girls, teenagers and young adults and talked to them about how to take pride in children and not engage in casual sex or premarital sex, saying “It was really difficult for me. So we said what do we do with them? Do we kick them out? The answer was no! So, we found a way of rehabilitating them.”

Despite that, the street children keep coming and Mrs. Imoke lamented that, “for every one child that MACA has taken into rehabilitation, three more children are out there. New street children continue to roam the streets. Most of these children are from neighbouring states, but we agree they are all Nigerians. One major reason why children are still on the streets despite our intervention is because there is an enabling environment for them to thrive. Street children are gradually taking over the length and breath of the streets of Calabar because of the addictive activities in which they are engaged. There are adults, who use or take advantage of the street children for their own selfish gains. This group of people will stop at nothing to ensure that there are always children on the streets for them to use for their businesses.”

COMMENTING on the situation, the immediate past Commissioner for Social Welfare and Community Development, Mrs Inyang Enderly said, “201 children had been removed from the streets and reunited with parents and families. For the Skolombo boys, the good thing we tried to do is like we are getting adverse result. We rehabilitate them holistically, send them to child centres and reintegrate them. When they are taken off the streets, we stabilise them.
“The challenge is that, when you interact with these children, it is impossible for you to get the truth from them. Usually, they will give you false names. Sometimes they claim they are all from Cross River State, but later when we ascertain their true states of origin, we do referral through a formal letter to the state concerned. The ones that are Cross Riverians, we try to reunite them.”

Enderly disclosed that 90 per cent of the street children in Calabar are from Akwa Ibom. “They bring them in at night and dump them at ‘8 miles’ and disappear. I do not see them as criminals, but a break down in the family. In some families, men have not faced their challenges or responsibilities.”

Essien Ayi (right), rehabilitated and empowered street boy receiving his work tools from a philanthropist

Engaging Calabar Street Children
THE Tinapa Project has been a failure in terms of meeting the objective of youth employment. Had the goals of the project been achieved as planned eight years ago, many youths, including street children would have been gainfully employed.

However the NGOs that rescue these vulnerable children off the streets have endeavoured to engage them in skill acquisition programmes.
For instance, seven ex-street children and ex-housemates of the DCC are now business owners. There are George Ebong, Emmanuel Ekpenyong, Essien Ayi, Etim Asuquo, Henry Okon, Francis Tuma Felix and Effiong Okon.
George, Emmanuel and Francis were trained in Auto Mechanics, Essien and Henry trained in Air Condition/Refrigerator repairs, while Etim and Effiong trained in Electrical installation, Repairs and Maintenance. They are currently running their various trades, while exhibiting the skills acquired.

Children of SYDRI Are Trained In Various Art Works
Dominic Edet Inyang, 18 and former street child, said, “I thank God I was picked up and trained by SYDRI. I thank God for this organisation. I am now in JS 3 in New Government Secondary School, Lagos Street, Calabar. My life before now was bad. I was a street tout, but I thank God, SYDRI has changed my life. Dr. Onoyom  Ita brought me up like a parent would, which nobody gave me in the street. There are still many children out there and my advice to them is that if any organisation comes for them, they should not miss the good chance to bring change.”

Another former street child is Emmanuel Inyang Edet. He said, “In the past, we fight, smoke, gamble and do all manner of evil things in the street. Fortunately, God favoured me and brought me to SYDRI. Though I came here with some of my colleagues in the streets, some of them ran away. I wanted to run away, too, but I determined to be different. This is because life in the street is terrible and I don’t want to die there.
“I had encounters, especially with the big thieves, which we call Aqua Ino. When you hustle all day long, they will come and rob us. I was not feeling comfortable staying there. Now, I am in my mother’s house and while passing through SYDRI, I am learning to be a fashion designer.”

Roles of NGOs and Development Partners
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) have for years tried to rescue these children from the streets. Some of these NGO’s include, Girls Power Initiative (GPI) that focus on training the girl child. In extreme cases, it does referral to DCC and POWER. We also have SYDRI, Passion Universal and African Child Network Nigeria (ACNN).
Street urchins anywhere constitute societal embarrassment as children of school age are seen hanging around street corners begging and doing menial jobs to survive, while their mates are in school. At night they turn to criminal actvities.

Challenged by these situation, the Chief Executive, Society for Youth Development and Rescue Initiative (SYDRI), Dr Esther Victor Onoyom Ita took to the streets on a rescue mission. Currently, she runs a home for the rescued street children at 3, Bennette Street, off Ergerly road, Calabar, a place provided for them by Dr. Ita. However, feeding and bedding has been the greatest challenge.

The home has 10 children and Dr Ita said, “I don’t keep more than 10 because I don’t have support from government or outside and I believe an African mother can have that family size.”

Narrating her experience and challenges, She said, “I have a passion for them and that led me to start outreaches. I was going round the different nooks and crannies, where these children stay in Calabar to get them. I go out to feed and clothe them and take care of them medically, when we had funds. It was not done regularly. At times, I do this twice a week. Initially, it was difficult to assess our work because some of the children relapse to old habits. Some of them told us that if they could find shelter, they would stay and change.
“Since we registered with the relevant government body five years ago, when we started this transit home project, no government agency has attended to us. The property we are using now is an inherited property from my late father, Chief Michael Ekpenyong Iso, which I donated to the organisation to take care of the homeless street children; feeding is our greatest challenge. It was when we started that the then first Lady (Obioma Imoke) sent her team to see what we were doing. She donated some items like mattresses, but they are gone now. The children, as I speak, do not even have mattresses to use.
“She gave a few items and that was the only government presence we ever had in this place. Nothing has come from anywhere. We have applied for subvention from the Cross River State Ministry of Social Welfare. We still have the letters stamped as received in our file, nothing has come.”

On how she manages the home without support or serious private sector involvement, Dr Ita said, “for quite some time in the first three to four years, the Board of Trustees handled most of the financing and neighbours come in with a few things. We are beginning to get support from some people outside, but as you know donor agencies do not fund everything. They fund a particular project and it ends there. So, there is so much room for support from anybody, who shares in our vision. Like you can see, the lives of the children in this home have been changed tremendously. Our kids are in primary schools, we have one in secondary school and they are doing well. In fact, one of them topped the class and another, when he was in primary school, was made the senior prefect of the school. I thank God for what He is doing with us in this home and I give Him all the glory. The cost of feeding a child per day here is as high as N500 and I am appealing to well-meaning Nigerians to come and help us.”

Children at SYDRI displayed various art works they had learnt in the home and Dr. Ita said, “here, they learn everything a child should learn at home with his parents. They do domestic chores, learn arts and craft, receive moral instructions, values and anything that would change their mind set and make them better people in life.”

On the health condition of the children, she noted, “we work in partnership with Federal Psychiatric Hospital in Calabar. Some of the children have been diagnosed with conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which is still giving us problem today because a child, who is so bright goes to school and cannot really concentrate and the performance of a child starts dwindling. The Federal Psychiatric Hospital has been helpful, but it wants its services paid for. The children are improving, but now that they want us to pay some money, I wonder where we will get the money to pay because the mental health of these children is important. We cannot just house, feed and clothe them and their mental health is deplorable.”

Former street children learning skills from Ayi

Social Welfare Office
The Social Welfare Officer with the State Ministry of Social Welfare at SYDRI, Mr. Eric Effiom said, “Government has done a lot in rescuing the street children. The state government has a taskforce it uses in evacuating children.
“Government gives support to orphans and the street children, but the issue of street children may not end. Let the religious organisations come in and help, too, because government cannot do everything. The government is also assisting organisations working on street children. Some of these children we take away still come back to the streets. Even at night, I take the risk rescuing these children.”
He said that, “Churches brand children as witches and wizards. The problem starts from the church. They can also assist. We cannot sit down and allow these to happen. Government is giving subvention to registered orphanages that are working in tandem with government rules.
“We can reduce the menace by taking cue from the Destiny Child Centre that has an economic empowerment programme for them.”

Legal practitioner and Executive Director, Basic Rights Counsel Initiative, Mr. James Ibor said; “Social Welfare and others should help NGOs build capacity programmes. For government to ask NGOs to renew their registration is an extra burden on them. If government cannot give them money, it can build their capacity by giving them more space, bed, beddings and other support, instead of tasking them indirectly, otherwise they will collapse and the children will go back to the streets.
Support they get from donor agencies is very small and sometimes it does not come. Government should do a more sustainable programme by giving out deliberate financial assistance for a specific number of children. These will encourage them to do more.
The society, government and parents must start taking responsibility and until we do this, we will not solve the problem.

The Programme Manager DCC, Mr. Williams Arikpo said the centre was initiated by Mrs. Obioma Liyel-Imoke in October 11, 2009 to better the lives of street children; adding that the centre is a resettlement home for the rehabilitation and reintegration of erstwhile street children.
He disclosed that the centre has staff strength of 30 dedicated people, comprising of Nurses, Cooks, Housemasters and mistresses.
The Programme Manager said about 100 DCC housemates are currently in different public schools in the state, while some are attending American Surefoot International School. About 20 are in vocational schools, engaged in auto repairs, welding, and hairdressing, among other skills; while 10 have graduated and gone into mentorship.
He announced that one of the pioneer DCC housemates, Henry Oqua, who trained in auto mechanic, is presently working in a shipping company in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

Dr Okpo Ojah, Department of Public Administration, University of Calabar, reacting on the issue of Skolombo, spoke on the need for mentors and role models for the Nigerian Child.
He said, “It is on record that in spite of government’s concern for Nigerian children in terms of their welfare, there has been a growing spate of parental neglect experienced by most children in the country.

Apart from that, he said, the apparent loss of extended family system as Nigeria’s core socio-cultural value has separated many Nigerian children from their kith and kin.

He added that most Nigerian children are now being subjected to physical and mental violence, sexual abuse, health neglect and all forms of maltreatment, while far apart from their nuclear parents or guardians. Apart from child labour, many Nigerian children have become victims of human trafficking with dehumanising conditions, he said.

A recent study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicated that Nigeria has lost 4,000 children to traffickers. Thousands of them were recently labeled as witches in Akwa Ibom State and exposed to demeaning and dehumanising acts, including premature death.
And apart from deprivation, most Nigerian children suffer moral dislocation and value-disorientation, directly or indirectly fostered on them by adults.

In other words, many Nigerian children tend to live in a society where there are very few mentors and role models to look up to, and this is in spite of the long speeches and fanfare, which often mark the Children’s Day every year.

ON the way forward, Ojah said, “but we must realise that Nigeria’s capacity to compete in a world that is focusing on skills and ability would depend on the quality of its investment in its young population, in fact, through mentors and role models in the society.

Parents as the first socialising unit for children should give them the required attention and impart in them the sound philosophy of modesty, honesty and hard work at an early age. We certainly need to give the children a sound education so that they can compete in today’s knowledge-driven world. We need the right value orientation through good examples, Ojah urged.
He called on states that are yet to domesticate the Child Right Act to have a rethink. Apart from that, adults should stop infringing on the fundamental human rights of children just because they are weak and vulnerable.


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