Sometime in April 2003, Arikpo Williams, a resident of Calabar, Cross River State, in Nigeria’s oil-rich South-south region, was to attend a rehearsal at the city’s Cultural Centre.
As he walked into the expansive compound, Williams spotted a boy lying lifelessly on the lawn.
“I thought he was dead,” he recalled. With his heartbeat thumping, Williams moved closer and poked the boy on the shoulder and he woke with a yawn.
“Why are you lying here as if you are dead?” he recalled asking the boy. “You scared me!”
When they got talking, the seven-year-old boy, who gave his name as Otop, recounted how his parents threw him out on the allegation that he was a wizard.
Otop is one of thousands of children dumped in the streets of Calabar over the years, by their families or guardians for every imaginable reason, from being a “witch or wizard”, to exhibiting the exuberance of adolescence.
In the mid-80s, hundreds of abused children were already living in abandoned public buildings, motor parks, markets and gutters in Calabar, residents, government officials and the police told PREMIUM TIMES.
According to Williams, it was his meeting with Otop that opened his eyes to the scourge of child neglect and abuse long before any serious step was taken to address it as a major social issue.
Instead of going for the rehearsal at the Cultural Centre, Williams said he attempted to reunite the boy with his parents, who at the time were living near Atekong Street in Calabar.
“When we got there, we met the boy’s uncle, who told me Otop is a wizard and would not be allowed into the compound,” said the Good Samaritan.
“He told me to wait for the father. And not long after, a man appeared from one of the rooms with a well-sharpened cutlass and charged at us. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me out of the running behind me.”
Not willing to let go, he took the boy to nearby Uwanse Police Station, less than a kilometre from where they first met.
At the police station, he recounted to two female police officers how he found Otop and the narrow escape from his angry father.
Rather than enter the complaint, the police officers asked him to look at Otop’s stomach.
Surprised, he looked down at the boy’s stomach. He hadn’t taken any special interest in Otop’s stomach since they met.
“This boy has eaten witchcraft and that is why his stomach is big,” one of the officers told him. “If you know what is good for you,” one of the female officers said, “take this boy back to where you found him and go your way.”
Angry and disappointed, Williams went away with Otop.
Street children of Calabar
Years before Williams found Otop, child abuse and abandonment had become a major social issue in Nigeria’s former capital city.
A former official of the social welfare unit of the state ministry of women affairs, who pleaded not to be named because she was no longer in a position to speak on the matter, told PREMIUM TIMES that as far back as 1998 hundreds of abandoned children were already roaming the streets of Calabar.
While a lot of them hawked food items for their parents and guardians, she said many others scavenged refuse heaps for recyclable plastics, metals and aluminium.
“As at the time, there was a five-year counterpart-funded programme between the state government and the United Nations International Children’s Educational Fund, UNICEF, on street children,” she said.
“The government was supposed to take ownership of the project afterwards but that never happened.”
While she would not speak on the nature of intervention the state government carried out with UNICEF, and PREMIUM TIMES was unable to get information regarding the project, but the number of street children found in Calabar years later was an indication that the project was not successful.
Williams said months after he met Otop – they became friends and started meeting frequently – he found out that more parents and guardians were wilfully sending their wards into the streets of Calabar.
“I was shocked to know that over 238 children lived on the streets within the metropolis,” Mr. Williams said. “I personally counted them as Otop took me from one location to the other, to show me where his colleagues lived.”
The children were found in Etim Edem Motor Park and along Bassey Duke Street by Nelson Mandela. Others lived in Bogobiri, Flour Mill, and Cultural Center and inside the gutter by the Zoological Garden.
Former street children, Abigail Orok and Essien Aye, confirmed that these areas were homes to hundreds of their colleagues until Obioma, the wife of the former governor of the state, Liyel Imoke, rescued them and many others.
Patricia Endeley, a former commissioner for social welfare during Imoke’s administration, said long before his principal was elected into office, the problem of street children had assumed a dangerous dimension in Calabar.
Endeley noted that hundreds of children were living in abandoned public buildings, markets and motor parks in various parts of the state capital, especially Calabar South Local Government Area.
“They were products of dysfunctional homes and most of them imbibed immoral and criminal tendencies while on the streets,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.
The Security Adviser to the state governor, Jude Ngaji, blamed “irresponsible parents” for the high volume of street children in Calabar.
Ngaji maintained that the increase in crime rate within the city was caused by some of the street children who were abused and abandoned after being branded witches and wizards.
When Child Right Act fails
Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 and made its own version of the Child Rights Act in 2003.
The 1999 Constitution provides that children’s rights come under responsibility of the state and for law to become operational, a state must pass it into law.
With more and more children being thrown out of homes and sometimes branded witches and wizards in Calabar, the state government took a decision to address the crisis when it passed into law the Child Rights Act on May 26, 2009, a day to Nigeria’s Children’s Day celebrations.
Cross River thus became the 23rd out of Nigeria’s 36 states to domesticate the law which specifies the responsibilities of children and the duties and obligations of the government, families and the authorities to uphold the rights of children.
After Imoke gave assent to the bill, the then head of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, UNICEF, in Nigeria, Suomi Saakai, wrote to congratulate the state and Endeley said the international body declared the state safe for children.
Ironically, while the world body celebrated the state, its capital, Calabar, was at the time, far from being a haven for children.
The wife of the governor at the time inspected the locations the children lived and later initiated an arrangement where food was cooked and delivered to the children in their various hideouts.
“The initiative of the then first lady was largely to complement the effort of the state government to indeed make Cross River, a state fit for the child,” Endeley said.
Unable to cope with the daily logistics and sheer burden of cooking and feeding the children in their various locations, Mrs. Imoke was said to have sought and obtained her husband’s permission to house these street kids in an abandoned government-owned eye clinic.
With the help of her pet organisation, Mothers Against Child Abandonment, MACA, she renovated, furnished and renamed the clinic located in Calabar South, Destiny Child Center, DCC.
The Executive Director of MACA, Ndodeye Obongha, said DCC was established to deal with cases of street children and child abandonment.
On October 11, 2009 when the home was opened, scores of children, both male and female were brought in. Later, others were rescued by residents and officials of the state government. The children were documented, some sent to schools and others to skill acquisition centres.
But there was another twist.
The success of the kids in Mrs. Imoke’s shelter became motivation for some parents to push their children out to the streets, hoping they would be rescued by the government.
“They thought by sending their children to the streets, the government would pick them up, feed and send them to good schools,” Henry Fadairo, the state Police Commissioner, told our reporter.
He noted that when DCC was overstretched and Mrs. Imoke was unable to take anymore child in, some of the children who were left on the streets formed a recruitment pool for gangs and street urchins popularly called, “area boys”.
Endeley also confirmed the police boss’ position, saying a lot of families sent their children into the streets to escape taking responsibility for their upkeep and education.
DCC had thus provided refuge for hundreds of abused and abandoned children in Calabar until it was shut down at the twilight of the Imoke administration.
“After reuniting many of the children with their families, we were left with 38 at the time we handed over the home to the state government in May 2015,” Obongha said.
She said her organisation fed, clothed and supported the education of the children weeks after it had signed a deed to hand over the facility to the state government.
“But as I speak to you that centre has been folded up,” she said.
Investigations revealed that Otop, unfortunately, was not one of the children who were admitted to DCC, having become a bigger street boy at the time the home was opened.
Attempts to locate him and his parents failed as residents of their last known address were unwilling to speak on their whereabouts.
Paying back in crime
In a previous report by this newspaper, the police, officials and residents narrated how hundreds of abused and abandoned children were recruited into a deadly criminal gang known as “Skolombo Boys”.
The gang is said to be responsible for the increasing spate of armed robbery, rape and sundry crimes that have turned the once peaceful Calabar, aptly known as Canaan City into a hot bed of crime.
You can read that report here