In this Akwa Ibom State community called Iwukem, a border town on the fringes of Abia State, is a camp for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The people there are victims of two years of a bloody war of militants who shut down Etim Ekpo and Ukanafun Local Government Areas of the state.
That war cost several lives and displaced thousands of people. Children of those killed in that war and others disowned after being labeled witches, now mill the streets of Uyo, the state capital, scavenging from one dump site to another in search of food and hope.
Checks by Saturday Tribune revealed that these frustrated children are sheltered in primary schools, shopping complexes, especially the Ibom Plaza; churches and other awkward places.
“From these places, they would move very early to refuse dumpsites to scavenge for valuable things like used plastics, clothes, bottles, iron rods and other items where they usually sell to eke out a living”, Chief Atang Essien, a community leader in Uyo, told Saturday Tribune.
“If you go to these major dumpsites along Uyo Village road, University of Uyo, Ikpa road by Saint Joseph Primary School and other refuse dumpsites, you see children between the ages of five and 11, scrambling for valuables for sale”, he added.
Out of poverty, children were abandoned by parents who labeled them as “child witches” as an excuse to justify their actions against the children.
“Some parents would take a critical look at their children, perhaps for any unusual sign that he or she may not have come from the family genealogy because while the parents are black, he or she is an albino. Therefore, such persona is an evil child meant for the street or evil forest.”
This crisis has remained in the front burner of societal issues in Akwa Ibom State for a number of years now. During the government of Chief Godswill Akpabio, the development became a major issue for which the then government worked hard to control. Former Governor Akpabio had to ensure the domestication of the Child Rights Act, which he signed into law in 2008, making it an offense for parents to abandon their children.
‘Govt not aware of kid scavengers’
When the government of Governor Emmanuel Udom came on board, it also took up the matter with a view to bringing the crisis under control, among other development needs of the state. Udom’s administration, according to the state Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Sir Charles Udoh, “has taken up the challenges of development plaguing the state.”
Udoh, who spoke with Saturday Tribune, said: “I am not aware of kid scavengers at dump sites and kid beggars at streetlight points,”
The administration, he explained, is committed “to spreading the dividends of democracy across all the nooks and cranny of Akwa Ibom”, adding that “between now and when the administration will leave in 2023, over 30 industries will be established to change the civil service status of the state.”
He promised to take the matter of kid scavengers and other social problems in the state before the Commissioner for Women Affairs and Social Welfare, Dr. Glory Edet.
“I am not aware of these problems of kid scavengers and beggars in the state but I will take it up with the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Welfare”, Udoh assured, adding that the government of governor Emmanuel would not leave any stone un-turned in addressing core issues of education, health, infrastructure, physical empowerment and job creation towards peace and sustainable development of the state.
“The government of Emmanuel is trying to do away with Yem Mkpo Noo (find something for me) mentality of some Akwa Ibom people”, he explained.
In the same vein, the wife of the governor, Mrs. Martha Udom Emmanuel, joined efforts with her husband’s government in tackling the problem through an initiative she started. Through the programme named FeyRep, Mrs. Udom Emmanuel took over much of indigent children’s burden.
A source at the office of the First Lady said “the governor’s wife has undertaken several responsibilities to assist the less-privileged children, pregnant and poor women, widows and the orphans in Akwa Ibom.” The source said “Mrs. Emmanuel has built houses for widows to accommodate the children left behind at the death of their husbands; feeding the indigent children at the orphanage and offering scholarship for the deprived children to get access to functional education.”
These efforts notwithstanding, several children still roam the streets during school hours with most of them found begging at major traffic points. It is needless to say that the Child Rights Law is a toothless dog.
The National President of the Network Advancement Programme for Poverty and Disaster Risks Reduction (NAPPDRR), Hon. Emem Edoho, in explaining the problems, said “what is bad about what our policy makers do every year is that they would budget billions of naira every fiscal year to even include their hair cut, but no appropriation to address children’s issues.”
He said the organisation has been in the forefront of agitations for a functional system to address the scourge.
According to a recent report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Akwa Ibom ranks second among states with high level of unemployment and poverty in spite of being the second state with the most foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows.
Besides, the recent national HIV\AIDS survey indicates that the state has taken over from Benue to become number one state with the most prevalence rate of the human immunodeficiency (HIV) virus.
“This scary picture is an indication that we don’t have a healthy population and the youths stand the danger of being decimated by the malaise, if urgent attention is not taken to remedy the situation”, Dr. Imaobong Obot, a clinical Psychologist explains.
“And with most homes seriously affected by the scourge, most children have become orphans; especially in rural areas, forcing them to migrate to where they could get help and that is why you see a lot them roaming the streets of Uyo”, she explained.
Akwa Ibom State, about the largest crude producer in South-South Nigeria has consistently earned the highest pay from federal allocations in the last one and a half decades.
For the month of February 2019 allocation shared across the three tiers of government in March, the state got over N17billion, more than any other state in Nigeria.
But indices on the ground paint a bleak future for children, who constitute a sizable part of the about 6 million population.
In Akwa Ibom State, the top class of the society, mostly politicians, control a large percentage of the oil resources flowing into the state from the centre with no commensurate deployment of such huge accruals into strengthening the private sector.
Although the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Welfare led by the Commissioner, Dr. Gloria Edet, is vested with the responsibilities of offering palliatives to cushion the effect of abandoned children, “the fact”, according to Mrs. Eno Inyang, a social welfare officer, “is that this critical sector is not well captured and considered by government.”
“Government is the single largest spender of cash in any economy and that is why I keep advocating that the children who are the so called leaders of tomorrow should be made to be prepared for the eventual takeover from our aging leaders.
“Planning for the children means planning for the future leaders by getting them well bred educationally and vocationally trained to be able to step into the big shoes that would be left for them by our aging leaders so they won’t be found wanting in the succession plan”, she explained.
This moment, he added, “is a clear departure from the old order of doling out freebies to idle youths whose eyes are perpetually fixed on government’s handouts, to the present era where nets, boats and other accessories are given as the necessary enablement to make the task easier”, he added.
In the same vein, Saturday Tribune gathered that the state government has provided several interventionist programmes towards addressing the problem of stigmatised and abandoned children in Akwa Ibom.
Speaking with Saturday Tribune, Chairman of Budget and Appropriation Committee of the state’s House of Assembly, Dr. Usoro Akpanusoh, disclosed that children’s issues were “fully captured in the 2019 budget.”
Akpanusoh, who represents Ibeno/Esit Eket state constituency said “the issues of under-privileged children are captured in the budget under the Ministry of Social Welfare.”
Towards de-escalating the problem of abandoned and out-of-school children in Akwa Ibom society, Mrs. Imelda Effiong, a guidance/counselor, preferred that “government should ensure honest implementation of the Child Rights Act.”
“This regulation was adopted as an article of faith binding on all parents to safeguard their children since 2008. And since then, the law, which was enacted to hold parents accountable for their wayward and straying children, has not been implemented.
“Today, you still find children on school uniforms the roaming the streets during school hours, yet the law was made to catch up and punish parents whose children are allowed to roam the streets instead of being in their classes during schools hours.
“Driving on the streets of Uyo, these children are seen in the brisk businesses of hawking satchel water, groundnuts, pumpkins, banana etc. Some of them, about the age of six, cluster around the street lights at Abak Road, Udo Umana Junction, Ukana Offot and other busy spots in the metropolis.
“Many of them as young as five are seen with buckets of soapy water, soliciting for car owners who would allow them scrub and clean their windscreens for a fee”, she added.
However, Governor Emmanuel, who just won his re-election, has promised to address every socio-economic problem in the last leg of his regime.
The major thrust of his administration would be to consolidate on the five-point agenda of industrialisation, women and youths empowerment; infrastructural consolidation, job creation and political inclusion.