Last Saturday, the emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, stirred the hornet’s nest when he advocated punishment for parents who neglect their children by allowing them to roam aimlessly on the streets. Citing as an example the children recently abducted from Kano, the emir wondered whether this could happen in other parts of the country.
“Now, make attempt to abduct a child in Onitsha and see if you will find one available. Is this not true? Do they leave their 3 to 4-year-old children roaming in the street begging?” asked the emir who spoke at his palace during the 2019 public campaign organised by League for Societal Protection Against Drug Abuse, (LESPADA).
Perhaps the emir should not have used the abducted Kano children as his example. But the context of his intervention should also not be missed. Knowing he could be misunderstood for drawing attention to a problem that has long festered in the north, the emir qualified his remarks.
The author, Olusegun Adeniyi
“If you can’t feed your family, don’t send your child to beg on your behalf. If we continue to live in self-denial, we will live to cry. I am not saying others are not guilty, I know tomorrow people will start saying I am blaming parents for abduction of their children. I know my statement is always misconstrued. I did not say they are not guilty, but the Hausa man himself observed in a proverb that ‘if the fly is stubborn, the candy is sweet’,” Sanusi said.
As expected, reactions were fast and furious with some literally leaving the ball to kick the leg. The Director-General, Media and Communications to Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State, Mallam Salihu Yakasai, who has recently insulted just about everybody on his Twitter handle, @Dawisu, was the first to react. He wrote: “A very reckless comment to make. I wonder if any of his relatives get kidnapped or stolen, he will act the same way. The kids are not almajiris for goodness sake. SLS (Sanusi Lamido Sanusi) should have kept quiet instead of opening his filthy mouth to make such insensitive remarks. Nonsense!”
It is unfortunate that due to his holding a temporary political position, an otherwise brilliant young man like Yakasai would say that about his emir. But for those who truly care, Sanusi is speaking to a culture of irresponsible parenting that is pervasive not only in the north but indeed all over the country. That he localised it to Kano or the North may have riled some but that is because he chose to address a problem that is so prevalent within his domain. The reality of course is that there are too many parents in Nigeria today who lack any emotional connection to their children. These are parents who allow, sometimes encourage, their children to venture into unsafe spaces.
Against the background of the recent discovery of ‘torture houses’ in Kaduna, Katsina, Ilorin and other northern towns and the fact that these inmates were taken there by parents who were evidently outsourcing their responsibility, shouldn’t we pay attention to what the emir is saying? Must we continue to live in denial about a serious social problem that threatens the future of our country? Should men with no visible means of livelihood be allowed to continue marrying many wives who give birth to children these men have neither the capacity nor willingness to take care of?
While at a rally in Calabar, Cross River state in 2015, the then First Lady, Mrs Patience Jonathan said, “Our people no dey born shildren wey dem no dey fit count. Our men no dey born shildren throw away for street. We no dey like the people for that side.” Northerners were, quite naturally, very angry by such provocative profiling. But a commentator, Yahaya Mohammed from Minna, said as offensive as the remark was, it should compel introspection. “Let’s look at the comment critically and juxtapose it on the reality of the current Almajirai system situation. How can anyone in their right senses have a clear conscience to send a 4 to 6 year’s child away from say, Sokoto to Minna to a certain (un)Islamic school all alone by himself with no guardian? Upon arrival, he is handed a plastic plate for begging to fend for himself. This is worse than a crime against humanity, but the trend continues!”, wrote Mohammed who added: “Ten and a half million children in the northern part of Nigeria are out of school, according to statistics. Neither do they enroll in skill acquisition centres thus, not ensuring their future livelihood. Yet, ‘we’ express anger because a certain Mrs Jonathan called them ‘born throwaways’! But if they are not, how would you call these children otherwise? This comment should be viewed as a wake-up call for all of us to stand up to our duty as parents, community, states authorities and adherents of various religions.”
This is precisely what the emir is saying. Trying to drown his voice with abuse is unfortunate and unhelpful. As I have argued in the past, Nigeria is not in such a bad place today simply because our government is failing but rather because society is failing on all counts. Part of that failure can be glimpsed from the current fad of adults having children for whom they have little or no duty to care. Yet, poverty is not, and cannot be, the reason parents abandon their children either to the streets or to so-called clerics. Many of us were also children of indigent parents who struggled and sacrificed to ensure we went to school and have a decent life.
There are numerous studies regarding what reinforces generational poverty which reveal that it is not always adverse circumstances but the choices some parents make. Perhaps the best illustrations are the contrasting reports by Pulitzer prize winning journalists Leon Dash of the Washington Post and Ron Suskind of the Wall Street Journal, who followed the trajectory of two single women, one with eight children (practically left to fend for themselves) and the other with three (she toiled for) and how they all turned out. The lesson is that when you leave children to their own devices, without parental guidance or care, they are potential victims of the unscrupulous in our society as we saw with the Kano children and the unscrupulous Onitsha merchants. “Crucially too, when the dots are connected, it is obvious that parental neglect leads to huge social problems, not least crime”, according to a December 2015 editorial in Jamaica Observer, which dealt with this same problem in their country. “The point needs also to be made that having children without the means to support them is central to irresponsible parenting. Very often children are neglected precisely because parents—many of whom were themselves neglected as children—have neither material means nor know how to provide support.”
While we need policies that will help reduce social exclusion for the most vulnerable citizens, our experience and that of other countries in South east Asia and Latin America has shown that leaving children with begging bowls create a sort of dependency that ultimately endangers society. “The more money a child makes on the street from begging”, according to a report in ‘Socialcycles’ which dealt with a similar challenge in Cambodia, “the less likely they are ever going to give it up. Which means that there is no chance that they will (be allowed to) go to school…so by the time the street kids hit middle teens, their options are more than a little limited.” The greater problem, the report concluded, is where the money is going: “Almost all of it is for the child’s parents/carers/pimps/mafia, or whoever is keeping the child out of school and on the street. And if the child is making a lot of money for the adults, then the next step is for the parents to create more children for the street, which will make them even more money.”
The basic challenge of Nigeria today is that we have elected to ignore problems eating at the fabric of our society. While focusing on budgets, oversight and bread and butter issues, our parliaments hardly debate or enact social legislation, even when most of our problems are of a social nature. We politicize population or cloth it in religious garb without enunciating any sensible policy. But how can we develop economically if we do not have a hold on how many mouths we’ll be feeding down the road?
On the whole, while the primary responsibility of parenting remains private, only government can create the incentives and environment for limiting family size. Traditional and religious institutions can help with advocacy on the menace of street children as the emir of Kano is doing in spite of the cost to himself. But, as it is in most countries, parental irresponsibility ought to attract penalties to save society from the dire future consequences of children raised without proximity, care or love. These are children more likely to graduate as vicious free agents of evil and recruiting grounds for all manner of criminal cartels.
Whatever may be the misgivings over the manner Sanusi presented his case—and he might have done better by not using the abducted Kano children as a peg—the fact remains that the social menace that provoked his intervention is one we must address. Speaking as a northerner, if we don’t, there will be hell to pay, one day. In any case, it is apparent we are already harvesting the consequences.