During both winter and summer, in the same layers and layers of clothes, he sits each morning on the platform of Forest Hills train station. The stench from his body, unwashed for months, hits your nostril from 200 yards. His unkempt hair and beard rest on a heap of clothes stuffed in a plastic bag as he dozes off. Inside the F train heading to downtown Manhattan, his other colleague occupies half a section of the coach. Straphangers congregate at the other end, hands over their noses. Some days, he would be sleeping, mouth open and saliva dripping. Other days he would be in the pool of his urine or vomit or any other bodily fluid. Before you get off on 34th St, the woman with the baby would come into your coach, with a toddler in tow. In a foreign accent she would plead for change to feed her daughter. Some straphangers would take a look at the baby and give her change, even though the voice on the public address system repeats a City of New York advisory not to give money to anyone in the train because panhandling is illegal. Outside the subway, along Madison Square Garden, the one they call the preacher positions himself near the Central Post Office. When he is not reading out loud lines from Isaiah, he is speaking to a picture in an old newspaper. In the shopping cart beside him are all his possessions. The last time I tried to count the number of plastic bags hanging on his cart I stopped at twenty-four. Further up, toward Macy’s, the largest store in the world, an Iraq war veteran sits by the curb. A sign in front of him says he is a veteran who’s going through hard times and needs help to eat.
I see these poor, homeless, and in some cases, mentally ill people, every time I go into the city. The 47 million tourists who visit New York City every year also see them. The sight of the poor, the homeless and the mentally ill has not stopped them from coming. The billionaire mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, sees them too when he takes a train to his office at City Hall or as he visits Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence. It is a regular topic of discussion by the city council. Every year the city takes a census of the homeless. The last count says there were 55, 000 of them, including 21,000 children. The city provides food pantries and shelters for 50,000 homeless people each night. Another 5000 adults and children pass the night on the streets or in other public spaces. Each year, over 100,000 New Yorkers spend at least one night in a city shelter. It’s a burden for the City of New York.
And there are over 26,000 Social workers and over 100,000 councilors in New York state who are working in conjunction with several non-profits to rehabilitate the homeless. The city knows each of these homeless New Yorkers. They have a file on each because everyone of them has a story. And the stories are so familiar. Like in the movie, “Trading Places”, where the Duke brothers, Randolph and Mortimer, lost their fortune and we later found them as homeless beggars in the movie, “Coming to America”, the city knows that many homeless people simply hit hard times. It is common knowledge that most people in America are one paycheck away from homelessness. The 2008 economic down turn sent a lot to the homeless corner. The city is aware that they weren’t just people who entered the bus to come to New York to beg. Many used to pay taxes to the city. Others fought for the country in several wars. The city works very hard to give their lives some dignity. Even those who choose to stay in the subway or stay by the street side; those who are drug addicts; those who could have been getting transitional assistants, food stamps and other government programs for the poor, the city diligently works to rehabilitate them. Working with state and federal officials, the city knows that the measure of its humanity is not in how it treats the rich and the powerful, but in how it treats the most vulnerable. In severe weather conditions, the city goes round to make sure that each of them is not exposed to rough weather.
How to accommodate the poor, the homeless and the mentally ill is one problem that all the mega cities of the world are dealing with each day. Even Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who as a mayor was on a mission to clean up New York City, did not load the homeless in a bus and dump them across the Hudson River. If Giuliani had done so, the city police chief would have been the one to arrest the mayor. He would have been charged with mistreatment and abuse of the most vulnerable in society. The city council would have impeached him immediately and he would have spent a dozen years in jail after which his law license would have been revoked. It is that serious.
Such is not the case in Nigeria where Gov. Babatunde Fashola last week sent some Nigerians out of Lagos and back to the Eastern part of Nigeria. The haggling over which aspect of the story is true and what term to use to explain what happened does not minimize the import. On the specifics of the so-called reintegration or, if you, like deportation of some Nigerians from Lagos to Onitsha by the Lagos state government, I’m not a lawyer but my hunch is that it is not constitutional. Even if it is constitutional, it is immoral. That it has been going on for years between states does not make it constitutional, if it is not. And it does not make it moral, something I’m sure it isn’t. Just because the lynching of suspects, some innocent, some guilty, on the streets of Nigeria has been going on for years in almost every city does not make it constitutional or moral.
That many commentators seem to have descended on Gov. Fashola of Lagos state for something others have done before is primarily because people expect more from him. Take away the National cake, Lagos is probably the only economically viable state in Nigeria. Lagos state governor therefore owes Nigeria the responsibility to prove that the building of a nation that we have embarked on can work. If he is not held above board, who would? Akpabio? It’s often a waste of time analyzing the activities of some governors who have no mental capability good enough to run a local government area.
In this deportation story, several questions beg for answers: when dealing with the so-called ‘destitutes’ became a problem for Lagos state, did the state seek help from the Federal ministry responsible for such a population? Did those representing Lagos State in the National Assembly push bills asking for special help from the Federal government to deal with the influx of the “destitutes”? If it failed, did Lagos state sue the Federal government to force them to help? If everything failed, how did the Lagos state government determine the proper way to handle the process? Who did they consult to figure out the constitutionality of their plan of action? Do they understand the wider implications of what happened? How it will unleash those on the fringe and reinforce the stereotypes. Do they for instance fault those who fear that this policy implies that some Nigerians have the right to stay in Lagos while others do not? Do they understand that some of those crying foul are worried that today it may be the “destitutes” but tomorrow it may be mechanics?
So these people were detained at the Rehabilitation and Training Center in Ikorodu and Alausa and maybe others. How many were they? For how long? Did they learn new skills while in detention? According to Lagos State, they wanted to be reunited with their people at home. If so, why didn’t Lagos State give them money to return home since the state has been generous enough to train them and feed them for so long? Why did they need security escort to be transported home? So, Lagos state asked Anambra state in April to come to the Rehabilitation Center to meet these folks. Anambra State did not follow through. Next, Lagos State packed the “destitutes” into a bus and headed to Onitsha in the middle of the night. Is that the best practice that the state that calls itself the one of excellence can muster? Is that the example that Fashola can show the rest of the country and the world on how to humanly handle the most vulnerable in the society?
In the communications between Lagos State and Anambra State, Lagos state noted that 14 of these “destitutes” wish to be reunited with their folks at home after being locked up, incommunicado for 6 months to 2 years. Who will not want to go home after such a long time in what is virtually a prison? On Lagos State’s list of 14 deportees were Victoria Agboola from Obudu LGA and Sunday Irabo. Is Obudu a local government area in Anambra state and does Victoria Agboola sound like an Nnewi name? Did anybody in the Lagos state government check with Anambra state born Commissioner for Planning if Obudu is in Anambra state? There is no record of Lagos State informing Anambra state that on this day and at this time we will be bringing in this number of people to Onitsha, please wait for them. Was Lagos state expecting Anambra state officials to be at Onitsha head bridge at 4 am to receive these people?
Did Lagos state give the people they dumped at Onitsha head bridge transport money to get to their towns and villages? I’m assuming that Lagos state gave these people cell phone to call their folks at home and say, “Oh, come and pick us up at Onitsha head bridge. We are home! Thanks to the kindness of Fashola.” The ACN’s man from Anambra state, Chris Ngige, one of the senators who have not written a bill in 2 years issued a statement supporting the action Lagos state took. When Lagos state was not getting the right responses from the irresponsible Gov. Peter Obi, did Lagos state try to work with Chris Ngige, a former governor of the state to ensure a smooth operation? When nobody came to receive the “destitutes”, did Fashola’s people hand them over to the Red Cross, at least?
Gov. Fashola is capable of rising above the sea of mediocrity swallowing Nigeria. But he has allowed himself to be seduced by the chants of the sycophants who are drunk on the cool aid of low expectations. It’s preventing him from seeing the difficult but honorable steps to the pinnacle of greatness. It is not enough to hang out with Bono or Bill Gates or Bill Clinton. What defines you most is the value you espouse in your actions.
“Nigeria is one of the most unjust nations on earth,” says Pat Utomi. No issue brings that out like the way we treat the poor, the homeless and the mentally ill in our midst. The people we have conveniently called the ‘destitutes’. These are children of Nigeria. They, like us all, have the potential to contribute to our nation’s growth. “The society we abuse today,” the hypocrite, Gov. Obi, used to say, “will take its revenge on our children.”
A hundred years from now, our children’s children will be ashamed of us all- from East to West, North to South, for the awful way we treat the poor, the homeless and the mentally ill. They will look at our age and call it the dark ages.
Gov. Babatunde Raji Fashola fumbled at the same place that most of us do- we think there are some lives that do not count as much as ours- that for instance, our housemaid who feeds our children is less important than our children; and that our driver, whose skill determines whether we make it to and fro each day, is less important than our siblings; and that our security guard, whose vigilance secures our home, is less important than our parents. It’s at the heart of our tragedy. It is the reason why we assume that injustice inflicted on “others” will not eventually get to us. History shows that it does. Injustice usually starts with the most vulnerable who had nobody to speak up for them until it gets to us. And that is when Martin Niemöller said there would not be anybody left to speak for us.
If I were Fashola, I would have called a press conference to apologize for bungling an operation that should not have happened in the first place. Despite Fashola’s posturing as a cosmopolitan actor, he would not apologize in public because the action he took made him a hero to several characters on the edge- the likes of Femi Fani-Kayode, who harbor insular agendas.
Source: SAHARA REPORTERS.