By Habib Yakoob
Sunday, February 23, 2003
THEY cut the spectacle of the devastated, the poor and the abandoned, scavenging and begging around for food and money, in the Federal Capital City, Abuja, in tattered and worn out clothes, they move sometimes in procession along any available traffic hold-up singing: "Brothers, We are soldiers of the Biafra War; we were asked to be here for our entitlements and since then they have never listened to us. We have no food to eat and so we beg in the name of God, feed us and God will feed you too." This is the song made into a powerfully moving refrain, released almost on daily basis on the streets especially around the Naval military base where they have formed a large refugee camp. Of course, you do not immediately decipher the size of the group until you take a stroll from Area 8 Junction, walk leisurely along the Muhammadu Buhari Way, taking a branch to the International Conference Centre.
On a cool evening, last Wednesday, I went through this sight-seeing exercise slowing down much opposite the Naval base to behold more closely the life of these purported soldier men. On typical evenings like this, I gathered, they form a long row waiting for any Samaritan to give them something to eat. Conservative estimate put the figure of these lots at one thousand, but it could be more, and that is after the number of those who died as a result of untold hardship and sicknesses have been removed. Usually, when they die they are thrown into the open space of the Naval base, according to one of the ‘begging soldiers’, to be buried by the authority, in a way suggesting that you ‘killed him with your callousness; bury him ...’ Yet, some of them have embarked upon petty trading, selling items ranging from sweets to cigarette, kolanut and Indian hemp (though the last is not usually displayed) to complement the alms they have gathered from passers-by.
Yet, there are those who, in an attempt to run away from the emotional stress and pangs of hunger, sat in the night and played cards or lie flat on the open pedestal waiting for the next day to begin the process of begging. Sadly enough, they are aged between 45 and 70. That evening, I sought to listen to their stories. Perhaps, not unexpectedly, they all seem to be saying the same thing except with some variation. It was in the year 2001, they said the government of Olusegun Obasanjo had called on the soldiers dismissed from the Army on health grounds to come forward for their claims. Accordingly, they had all trooped to Lagos where their records were to be verified and later to Lokoja. Curiously, they have been there for the past seven months and the authorities haven’t redeemed its pledge of settling them. This is their explanation. But what exactly are their demands? An old man from amongst them found his way out and spoke partly in pidgin English. "You see my pikin, we left service, active service in the 70s when we were all driven or sacked from the military on medical grounds. Of course, what they did to us was that after using us in the war, they discovered that we have no more uses and found a way of discarding us. Now, that was a great injustice. First, they took us to Lokoja then Lagos and finally to Abuja. Since we arrived here in 2002, they have abandoned us and left us begging".
However, the authorities say they were no real soldiers. It is true, they agreed the soldiers retired on health grounds were called for the payment of certain allowances, they insisted the genuine ones had long been attended to and had since left. Senate Committee chairman on Defence, Senator Sylvanus Ngele, told this reporter in a brief chat he was aware of the presence of the "begging soldiers", "but I can tell you that these guys are not real soldiers and a lot of them have just lumped themselves together and are there begging for alms. However, we have been dealing with the leader, they have a union", he stated, adding that they have made several attempts, though futile, to discharge them.
Listening to the positions of the two sides, one was almost at a loss on where to place the blame. But from the answers given to questions by the "begging soldiers", perhaps, it is no longer difficult to get to conclusion. For instance, what were you doing before you were called to Abuja for some monies? Do you have families, and where are they? In your own house? How often do you reach them and what is their position to your long absence from home? Why did you decide to take to begging instead of finding a more honourable means of livelihood? How much have you made so far from begging, when do you hope to finally leave it, and why can’t you go back home? There were yet so many other nagging questions thrown to these ‘soldiers’. The answers to these questions from the beggars instructively revealed them as mere victims of their own misfortune. Popular answers to these questions were not fundamentally different: Most of them say they have long lost their homes and family as a result of so much poverty; and being incapacitated, their family have since lost the patience to stay, and in the language of one of them "they have ran away to those who were no dismissed soldiers". Yet, while some agreed that they were into several other businesses and profession, others said they never tried anything since they left the Army. A lot of them also said they have reservation begging; it is simply the last resort.
Well, which ever side is at fault, it looks reasonable to say the "beggars" have constituted very disturbing and appalling sight to behold in the Federal Capital and more so around the Naval Headquarters. While the authorities appear to be contented with the idea that they are not real soldiers and the genuine ones have long been settled, they are clearly oblivious of the danger in the men continuously hanging around the area. No doubt, they have the faces of innocence and harmlessness but behind these is a tendency to grow violent and become potential tool for political and ethnic violence. Of course, the authorities seem to be unaware of the fact that very little will-power holds them from breaking into shops and doing some nasty things one day. Said one of them to this reporter: "My son, as we de here, so we dey wait for anybody wey go come carry us to vote against this inhuman government - all of us go go". And in this statement lies the danger of allowing the "begging soldiers to continue to hang around, otherwise the authorities may soon discover that the effect will be too much for the city and indeed the nation to contain.