The courage of Mallam Nasir El Rufai, Kaduna State governor, to challenge powerful people and institution into a “fight” or in defence of issues is well known. He fought everyone that crossed his path, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo, President Muhammadu Buhari (at one time), former VP Abubakar Atiku; the Senate and now the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC. He has sworn to fight the NNPC “until it dies”.
A blast started it all But the downtrodden of Kaduna State, the most disadvantaged – beggars – have engaged him in a nerve cracking battle. And they broke him after what can be likened to an eyeball-to-eyeball fight.
It all started when, on June 11, 2015, a bomb went off in a crowd of civil servants carrying out salary verification exercise at the Sabon Gari Local Government Secretariat, Zaria, killing 26 and severely injuring 35 others. It would seem that security chiefs may have confided in the governor that either a beggar or a hawker was used to transport the explosives to execute the gory activity.
Livid and, perhaps, out of concern too, El-Rufai placed a ban on begging and hawking in Kaduna State. He warned beggars to stay away from the streets, saying they, sometimes, innocently, act as courier of bombs for terrorists to attack crowded places. He directed Kaduna State’s relevant agencies to ensure strict adherence to the order. Everyone feared El Rufai, so the order was complied with in the first two days or so.
Calling the bluff
A few days later, however, the Kaduna State Council Secretariat of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, on Waff Road, Kaduna, was besieged by scores of physically handicapped persons who also came with their dependants.
They came to protest the ban on begging – and to inform the governor about a legal battle he had stirred between them and himself.
The spokesman of the beggars, Abdullahi Jugunu, a visually impaired person, said to live in a descent accommodation, owns a car and speaks good English. He told journalists in Hausa that the governor had over stepped his bounds.
Fumed Jugunu: “Apart from feeling insulted, we will be seeking legal redress against the government, first for defamation of character.”
Last week, another group came to the NUJ Secretariat, in Kaduna, and warned the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory that they would destabilize his government.
The beggars, who addressed journalists through the leadership of Kaduna State Beggars Association, said if they knew El Rufai would stop them from begging and would show no care about their welfare afterwards, they would never have voted him in the first place.
Mallam Yahaya Makaho, a visually challenged person, who spoke on behalf of the group, said: “I want to swear on my honour that I personally used my proceeds from begging to canvass for support for El Rufai.
“Now, it would appear that we made a mistake. The new governor wants to bring us down. He does not want us to live. He has chased us out of the streets and has made no alternative arrangement for our survival.
“Look, some of us here have three or four wives and many children. How can you lock such a man, who must resort to begging because he has found himself incapable of doing any other thing?
“We are asking the governor to rescind this decision now or find ways to meet our basic needs.
“If he refuses to heed this demand, we shall make sure we bring down his government.
“What we will do is to hand him over to the Almighty God, and we know He will remove him the same way He removed his predecessor. We are servants of God, and He always hears our cry.
“He said during his campaign that he was going to appoint one of us into his government, we are waiting for that. If he had told us he would stop us from begging, there was no way we could have voted him.
“Look at my colleague (pointing to a man suffering from leprosy), there is nothing he can do other than beg”.
Asked how he had survived since the governor order banning begging on Kaduna streets, he said, “I have refused to heed the order. I have been begging in my traditional area in Zaria. After speaking with you, you are going to give us something also. That is part of our mission here. We need alms from journalists too”.
Two days later, El Rufai announced the inclusion of a blind man among his new aides.
El Rufai appoints blind man SA
A statement by his spokesman, Samuel Aruwan, said Mallam Aliyu Salisu has been appointed as Special Assistant to El Rufai on Disability. Aruwan sad Salisu hails from Sabon Gari, Zaria and holds a diploma in special education from Kaduna Polytechnic and another diploma in guidance and counseling from Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, Zaria. The statement added that he is a member of the National Association of the Blind and has worked at the Kaduna State Rehabilitation Centre. He is the Chairman of the Braille Production Centre in Kaduna.
That was clear victory for the beggars.
Beggars back to the streets
And the beggers seemed to have returned to the streets.
Last week, they were everywhere on the streets in Zaria, Saminaka, Kafanchan and in and around most of the mosques and the streets of Kaduna metropolis.
It was hard to believe that there was a government order banning them. And El Rufai did not flex muscles with them this time.
To indicate his surrender, he singled them out for mentioning in his last Wednesday broadcast to the people of the state. The broadcast was an outpouring of bile on the immediate past government over alleged squandering of the resources of the state. His message to a group he kept referring to as a “minority” was also very discomforting, telling them they were in for hard times. He then banned the sponsoring of pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and Israel, saying N1.7 billion of Kaduna State money was spent on the pilgrimages without impact.
Not a concentration camp
Sunday Vanguard visited the colony of beggars on Ilorin Street, Kaduna, last Thursday, to speak to their leaders on how they had been copping since the visit of El Rufai to the place last month.
From a matchbox size, iron-sheet made cubicle, Shehu, a lean, cheery looking lad, sat behind a sewing machine, stitching a piece of cloth as he traded jokes with two other folks at number 35, Ilorin Street, in the heart of Kaduna.
He looked up and recognised Olu Ajayi, Vanguard photo-journalist, and smiled.
“You came to see our chief again?”, he asked and, without waiting for a response, he added, “he is right in”, and ordered one of the young fellows to take us to chief. Both men are cripples, but had left begging after acquiring sewing skills. And they were both some kind of official tailors in the 440-room colony housing a few thousands of men, women and children.
We walked into the open compound to a creepy feeling. People with all kinds of disability packed in a congested compound made of rusted zinc sheets and one block of normal building. There were able – bodied children, and women milling around with the disabled persons. The place evoked the imagination of a concentration camp.
But it was far from that.
Three wives and 18 children
Mallam Abdullahi Samaila, 39, the chief we had come to see oversees the affairs of the crippled. There are chiefs for the blind, the deaf, lepers and so on in the camp.
Ajayi had been around with dignitaries who came to the colony, and he and Samaila had become acquaintances over time.
“I came to this town when I was barely 15”, he said, “and I came from Sokoto to learn the Quran as an Almajiri.
“Since then I have been in this town. I now have three wives and 18 children. I beg to support my family. I have put some of my children in primary schools and some in secondary. I don’t want them to end up like me. But all I can do is to beg and cater for them. I have absolute belief in the power of the Quran and Western education to transform the lives of people to live decently. So, one day, some of my children will also be important people and may even take me out of here”.
7 million Almajiris everywhere
And outside the street, you could see the ubiquitous Almajiri – itinerant Quranic pupils – barefooted and in tattered clothes clutching their bowls and begging for money or left over food. They are used for menial jobs and hawking. Most were given out by their parents at the age of five to Islamic teachers, and never returned home. In Kaduna, they have become street urchins and are always hostilely treated by society. No one knows their numbers in Kaduna State, but Kano State said, last year, it had about three million beggars including the Almajiris.