Dr. Aliyu Tilde
Begging in Northern Nigeria and its Solution
There has been growing concern about the preponderance of beggars in Northern Nigeria. For the visitor, it's an eye opener to how deep poverty has eaten into the fabric of the Northern society. To the Northerner generally, it is a source of shame which his southern brothers are quick to remind him of. To the Muslim Northerner, the feeling of shame runs deeper, for even in the North he has the uninviting position of monopolising this demeaning practice which cannot be found in such a disgusting scale among adherents of other religions in the country.
Now, other Nigerians are becoming more practical about the solutions. They are gagging these beggars and deporting them back to the North. Lagos did that recently and dumped them in Kaduna, an action that prompted the latter to deport its beggars too to their home states. It is difficult to fault the two states. I wish other states would do the same. It is time the Muslim North confronts begging head on. There cannot be anything in Islam that allows the shameless display of poverty by the lazy in quest for the hard earned penny of others. In this article, I have tried to examine what we generally consider as begging, its varieties and solutions.
To start with, we need to classify beggars according to the nature of their begging for ease of analysis. I have identified two classes: beggars of necessity and beggars of choice. Beggars of necessity are those who are victims of circumstances that are beyond their control and require the intervention of other people or government for survival. The circumstance could be urgent, on a large scale, mostly an emergency that engulfed a nation or a town, like war, flood, hunger, fire, epidemic, etc. In this case, we will designate this form of beggars of necessity as group or collective beggars.
We can cite examples of Europe after the great depression of the 1930s, Germany after the war in 1940s, Biafra after the our unfortunate civil war in 1969, Ethiopia, India and Niger after the draughts of the 1970s and 1980s, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, America in the ongoing recession, etc. Under these circumstances, nations will beg; individuals will beg, out of necessity. People may react to their predicament differently: some as extreme as committing suicide as we are noticing today in America under the current recession; but majority will resort to seeking assistance if government emergency relief is not sufficient or forthcoming. Begging under this category is usually brief because as soon as the emergency is over, people eagerly return to earning their bread by their sweat, dispensing of the humiliation associated with begging and reclaiming their dignity through hard work.
Usually under emergencies, governments would do their best to cater for the affected citizens. But more often than not, even with the additional intervention of other countries, hardly are things fixed quickly and the need for mutual help becomes indispensable. The individual here is called upon to do his best by giving out in charity whatever he can which will bring succour to others as one of the best ways to attain piety and achieve the pleasure of God: "Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent is! (It is) to free a slave, and to feed in the day of hunger an orphan near of kin or some poor wretch in misery." (90: 12-16).
The second begging of necessity is associated with afflictions at the level of individuals: it could be a stranded traveller short of fare; the sick, the orphan or the old in need of care. Both cases represent individual emergencies engendered by pecuniary reasons of birth, age, accident, disease, death, etc. Under this category we have orphans, the old, the physically challenged, widows, destitute, etc. Their situation is chronic, long term and if they are found begging it is largely due to negligence of relations or their governments. If they have to beg, their begging is considered legitimate.
This category of the needy has a special place in Islam, more so when the Holy Prophet (PBUH) himself grew up as an orphan. In one of the early chapters to be revealed, amidst the hardship the Messenger was facing before the Meccan aristocracy, God told him not to lose hope. He reminded him of his childhood days and instructed him to treat the orphan kindly and not to turn away the beggar: "Did He not find thee an orphan and protect (thee)? Did he not find thee wandering and direct (thee)? Did he not find thee destitute and enrich (thee)? Therefore, the orphan oppress not; therefore, the beggar drive not away." (93:6-10). We bear witness that the Prophet has throughout his life remained committed to this instruction. When he was parting from this world, he entrusted us with feeding and clothing the needy as we will all stand to account for our wealth before God. His companions also obliged, amidst the hardship of economic sanctions imposed by the Meccan aristocracy to the extent that they gained the public commendation of God: "Far removed from it (Hell) will be the righteous who giveth his wealth that he may grow (in goodness). And none has with him any favour for reward, except as seeking (to fulfil) the purpose of his Lord, Most High." (92:17-21).
If the needy under this category have to resort to begging in the streets out of necessity, then their families, relatives, governments and other Muslims stand indicted by the standards of our African culture, Islam and even modern civilisation. For example, by the precepts if Islam and of our African culture to cater and share, as much as possible, a son is called upon to cater for his aging parent or even uncles, his widow sister, and his crippled, blind or orphan brother or sister. In fact, even where the parents of an orphan cannot be identified, he is not allowed to roam the streets looking for food; someone adopts the child and drafts it into his battalion of children. This is the reason why despite the woeful failure of government even in the far North that is plagued by a chronic poverty, not all the needy – in fact only a small percentage – are seen on the streets. It is this African principle to share that is responsible for the absence of beggars in the East, West and Northcentral part of the country. We must salute them for this.
With this I will turn to us, the Muslim North, our individuals and governments. I will use the standard of Islam to judge our shameful failure.
Islam has obliged us to cater for our close relations as noted in the above quoted verse from Suratul Balad. The needy in our midst have no cause to beg on the streets if we are truly believers in the teachings of Islam because it religion has made a number of provisions to cater for them. First, there is Zakat, the compulsory charity that should be taken from the rich and distributed among, or expended for, the needy. To establish its importance, Zakat is not given by the rich but taken from their wealth – generally 2.5% of it annually. And to prevent any chuwa-chuwa, God specifically listed the categories of people that are entitled to it: "The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free the captives and the debtors, and for the cause of Allah, and the (for) the wayfarer; a duty imposed by Allah…" (9:60)
When Shariah was recently introduced, I thought Shariah commissions will be preoccupied with the implementation of the institution of Zakat. They would, I thought, appoint honest people as members of the commissions who will use it to solve the problems of the needy among us. The Shariah commissions were formed in various states but they are far away from meeting of our expectations. Nearly a decade after the introduction of Shariah beggars still abound our streets. Have they been collecting the Zakat? Have they been distributing it accordingly? Or has the Nigerian factor crept into this holy duty? If a governor of a Shariah state declares an asset of N45billion at his inception of office (you know him, I don't have to mention his name), how many times has the Shariah Commission of his state approached him to collect the Zakat of the declared amount, which will be over a billion naira annually? It never did. Not for once!
Yes, corruption has also crept in. When a government decided to assist religious organizations with buses, many members and workers of its Shariah commission quickly registered fictitious organisations in order to corner such buses. Recently, when a member in a Shariah commission was transferred from Zakat department to Planning department he vehemently protested and the matter to the Secretary to the State Government who directed his reinstatement as the commissioner in charge of Zakat. You wonder why the member protested in the first place. With this, who will be willing to pay his Zakat into the hands of such corrupt officials or a commission set up by a governor who himself does not pay Zakat? Shariah would have solved the problems of our needy but we restricted it to chasing away prostitutes and banning alcohol. After getting tired, we now lost both: alcohol and prostitutes remained; but more importantly, we have not solved the bigger problems of corruption and the dire need of the less fortunate among us.
The second provision is the need for redistributing wealth through additional charity to the needy, especially close relations, apart from Zakat. This is the overwhelming position of commentators on this verse of the Qur'an that speaks of "… and (he) giveth wealth, for the love of Him (God), to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth poor due…" (2:177). In his Fiqhus Sunnah, Sayyid Sabiq said, "And if Zakat is not sufficient to cater for the needy, it is obligatory to collect from the rich another right apart from Zakat. This right should be as much as would be sufficient for the needy." This is the view of Qurtabi, he said. Then he cited the tradition of the Prophet that said, "There is a right (for the needy) in wealth other than Zakat" which is reported in the sunan of Ibn Majah and the Jami' of Tirmidhi. Finally, he concluded that, "the Ulama have agreed that if Muslims are visited by a need which cannot be met by Zakat, it then becomes compulsory to spend public funds on it." This is also the view of Ustaz al-Imam, Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, who sees the additional right as compulsory "as Zakat when an emergency arises before or after Zakat is dispensed… without any restriction to amount except what is sufficient."
This challenge is to governments as it is to the individual. The most exemplary of this was Caliph Umar bin Abdulaziz who tirelessly rid his government of corruption and improved the economic fortunes of the caliphate to the extent that it was difficult to find a needy person anywhere. However, our governments today prefer to spend our funds on lavishing their supporters with seats for hajj and umrah without giving a damn to the requirements of the needy. Not even the ulama would call them to order. Instead, the scholars struggle to partake in the loot. Why would a government indulge in free distribution of hajj seats when there are people in dire need among its citizens? In some states every malamin fada – establishment scholar – is allocated as many as ten seats, amounting to N5million, with a cash gift of $10,000.00! In return, the scholars are ready to penal beat any verse to justify the corrupt practice of the governor. Subhanallah. The total of this expenditure runs in billions for the entire Muslim North that ironically is the poorest in the country. So entrenched is this wasteful culture that even government of Muslim minority states like Plateau and Benue have joined the queue. I am glad that Sule Lamido has scrapped this practice in Jigawa.
How would these leaders compare with Umar bin Abdulaziz? Has he used public funds to perform hajj? No. In Rijalul Fikr Wal Da'awah, Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi told us how once Umar intended to perform hajj but he had nothing. After some time, his servant came and told him to prepare for the journey because 17,000 dinar has just been paid from the tribe of Bani Marwan. Umar promptly told the servant to place the money in the public treasury. And of recent, Usman Danfodio did not perform hajj throughout his life; not also his brother Abdullahi or his son Muhammad Bello because of their preoccupation with the welfare of their subjects. The wealth was there, but they did not abandon their responsibilities to partake in the pilgrimage, unlike our leaders who render their ministries and government houses empty every hajj or umra season. How can the needy disappear amidst this recklessness? How would our state governments cater for the needy when some of them award contracts of N50million at N774million? And the ulama are silent on this; in fact they are waiting for their own share of the loot to build mosques, multimillion naira houses, buy jeeps, etc. Shariah is now confined to the statute books. Obasanjo was right when he said it will wane with time.
Closely associated with Zakat is the institution of waqf – endowments. This is the responsibility of wealthy individuals. Here too, our performance in this part of the country compared to that of our Christian brothers is poor. How many foundations do we have that have built schools to educate children of the poor? Very few. How many of us have established vocational centres for the training of the youth and the physically challenged such that they do not have reason to beg on streets and filling stations? None, possibly. We simply depend on government. For example, a renowned Kebbi businessman resident in Lagos once gave his wife 40 hajj seats to distribute among her relations and friends. He must have himself given out hundreds of such seats. He repeats this annually. Now, if this brother had used just the money for one hajj session to build a foundation, there would not with time be a single beggar left in his home state Kebbi. But where are the scholars who would raise their high to guide the rich when they are themselves busy in the fray of acquiring some of these seats? Foundations are the sort of long term charitable investments that our rich must be persuaded to establish instead of spending over a billion naira on umra annually amidst the poverty of their brethren.
Then come the category of beggars who make the overwhelming majority of the ones we come across in our public places: beggars of choice. These are people who have turned to begging out of choice without any necessity. I will further classify them into two: adult beggars of choice and juvenile beggars popularly called almajirai. I will postpone my discussion on almajirai until next week because they represent an absolutely different genre of beggars in both origin and nature. Adult beggars of choice will be our preoccupation in the final part of the discourse.
The majority of beggars we come across have chosen begging as a profession, a means of livelihood, which they are bent on undertaking as their source of income throughout their lifetime. All of them will often use one form of deformity or another as a pretext. I once offered to sponsor someone in his early sixties a cataract operation on his eyes some ten years ago. The guy declined and preferred to go full blind instead such that he will live on begging. He has been a fulltime beggar since then. Another, at a popular junction in nearby Jos, is known to own commercial vehicles. Whenever asked why he will continue begging, he replied: "Begging is the source of my wealth, so I will not leave it for an unknown fate."
Here, I must admit that many state governments in the North, past and present, have tried to settle these beggars by building camps and establishing vocational centres for their training. But each time such an effort is made, the beggars abandoned the camps, gave up the trade and return to the streets not because they are not catered for but because they make much more outside. Jigawa State has even established a monthly welfare stipend for such needy people. I have no doubt some of these beggars will abuse this and remain on the streets of Kaduna and Lagos. This is unfortunate. For decades now, they have even gone international. There are syndicates that recruit them annually to go for begging in Mecca. So notorious is this trafficking that Saudi Arabia dumps any black beggar or illegal immigrant from whichever part of the world in Kano Airport. Where else in Africa? Wayyo Allah, Arewa!
These adult beggars of choice are the problem. They are not the only physically challenged in the Northern society, but while others are out of our view because they are contented with the effort of their relatives or have engaged in one form of vocation or another, the adult beggar of choice took the streets in ingratitude to our effort and due to his shameful laziness. Such beggars who are over ninety percent of our street beggars must not attract our sympathy or gain our pity. Personally, it is my policy not to patronize of them. And I call on other Nigerians not to do the same.
Going by the provisions of Islam and our African tradition which I have dwelt upon above, we must not have a single beggar on the street. This is my position. I therefore salute the measures taken by Lagos state government or any other one for that matter that would wipe them out of our streets. If the beggars are genuinely needy, their care rests on the shoulders of their relations, state or local governments, not on a far away state government to which they have relocated in search of underserved charity. If we will execute armed robbers from Anambra or Lagos without blinking an eye, we do not have the locus to export recalcitrant beggars to other states.
There is, therefore, no solution to this category of beggars except legislation and forceful removal from the streets. States can give them a deadline to evacuate, find something else to do or deport them to their home states. At arrival, their home states should transport them back to their local governments where they will be supported by their relations or from public funds where necessary. If any beggar is seen on the street again then he should be tried and sentenced accordingly. We just have to stand up to this responsibility. Nothing else. Begging as a livelihood is haram under the Shariah, Sayyid Sabiq has shown. In fact, these pests cannot afford to beg in their villages because of the collective shame that doing so will bring to his family and relations. The whole thing then dies naturally. The End.
Next week, I will discuss the almajiri phenomenon. The problem of the almajiri, par the individual, is transitory. Though he is a beggar by the choice of his parents, his begging is for a temporary circumstance. History, until the last two decades, has shown that he grows to be a very responsible person in the society. No almajiri takes begging as a profession; he leaves it as soon as he starts to mature or graduates from his Qur'anic school. He grows to be a farmer, a businessman, a trader, a scholar, and a jurist, after being equipped with humility that keeps him an economically productive person, in contrast to the failed products of modern education. He is so humble that rather than beg, he is ready to live even by trimming our finger nails. He is not a liability. His origin lies in our distant past and his problems lies in our present failure. We could, if we like, return him to the glory of the past and retain him as a future asset. Let us meet next week, by God's Grace.
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Friday, 25 September 2009