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RIGHTS-NIGERIA: Keeping Children Out of the "Go Slows"

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Jun 3 2004 (IPS) - It’s a phenomenon that became noticeable in the 1980s, and is now a permanent feature of the urban landscape in Nigeria: children hawking goods on the streets.

Take 10-year-old Bimbo Dada, for example. Last week, IPS found her meandering between vehicles in one of Lagos’ many traffic jams – also referred to as “go slows” – selling sachets of water to motorists. Although the Lagos State government has banned trading in traffic jams because of the dangers it poses to hawkers, the practice continues unabated due to lack of enforcement.

“I no go school. My mama go market, but me I sell pure water to help am. I sell one bag one day (I do not go to school; I help sell sachets of water to help my mother who is a trader. I sell a bag per day),” Bimbo said in the pidgin English spoken widely in Nigeria. A sachet of water sells for less than one U.S. cent.

John Obinna, a 15-year-old school dropout who came to Lagos from the eastern part of Nigeria about two years ago, fends for himself. Obinna and three other friends sell mobile phone recharge cards to motorists. At the end of the day, the four return to their one room apartment rented in Makoko, a slum on the mainland area of Lagos.

“With the money we make from selling in go slows we all contribute to pay for one room in Makoko because we do not have anyone to stay with. The room costs 200 naira (about two dollars) a month. We also feed ourselves from the money we make,” Obinna told IPS.

A wide-ranging Child Rights Bill that was signed by President Olusegun Obasanjo in July last year seeks to check child hawking by prescribing penalties for the parents and guardians who allow children onto the streets. Amongst other things, it states that no child should be subjected to any forced or exploitative labour – or employed to work in any capacity except where the child is employed by a member of their family on light work of an agricultural, horticultural or domestic character.

People who contravene this provision risk being fined up to about 500 dollars, or imprisoned for a five-year term – or both. However, the law has yet to be properly implemented.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), eight million children are engaged in some form of exploitative child labour in Nigeria – the term ‘exploitive’ referring to situations where children are below the age of 15, and paid less than the minimum wage. These children work as domestic servants, and do menial jobs in markets, garages and factories. Some are also used as guides by their beggar parents.

Street trading, especially by children, appears to have started with the introduction of an International Monetary Fund structural adjustment plan in the late 1980s, which led to the devaluation of the currency, a withdrawal of subsidies on items such as fuel, water and electricity – and job cuts.

Parents who could no longer afford school fees withdrew their children from the education system. In an effort to help families make ends meet, some of these children were engaged as domestic servants to wealthy households, as car washers and watchers, bus conductors – and street hawkers.

A ray of hope was cast onto the situation this past weekend, when government enacted a law providing for free and compulsory education for Nigerian children up to the junior secondary school level. (The country presently runs what is called the “six, three, three, four” system of education, which allows for six years of primary schooling, three years in junior secondary school, three years in senior secondary school and four years of tertiary education.)

Senator Florence Ita-Giwa, Presidential Special Assistant on National Assembly Matters, has warned that parents who failed to comply with the new law will be punished.

Peter Ebigbo, President of the Nigerian chapter of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect, says the legislation could play an important role in reducing child hawking: “If made compulsory, it will help to reduce child labour.”

Shina Loremikan, Director of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, also praised government for taking this step.

“It is nice that government is now taking the free and compulsory education seriously, as this will take most of the child hawkers off the streets,” Loremikan told IPS.

He said that life on the streets tended to make many children aggressive. They were then open to manipulation by politicians intent on causing unrest, he added, as they were easily lured into going on a rampage, if paid.

“It is better if they are in school (and) it does not stop those who help boost the pockets of their parents from selling after school hours. Many of these street children become a big liability to the nation when they grow up as they become hardened criminals, having lived their lives on the streets,” Loremikan observed.

“When they grow up as they are likely to drift into deviant activities because of their lowered self-esteem.”

Loremikan also called for government to encourage parents to keep their children in school by introducing tax incentives to this effect.

Although Nigeria is currently the world’s sixth largest oil producer, corruption has prevented this resource from benefiting the majority of the country’s inhabitants. According to the U.N. Human Development Report for 2003, about 70 percent of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day.

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