PROFESSING to provide social services in support of the vulnerable, non-governmental organisations of dubious provenance are on the prowl in Lagos State. One of such NGOs was exposed in the Egbeda suburb of Lagos recently through the alertness of a public-spirited resident. The unregistered organisation was fingered for allegedly exploiting sick children and women for pecuniary gain by using them to beg for alms on the streets. This is a cruel, inhuman practice, which the state authorities appear to have tolerated.

Like many other cases that are noticeable on the bustling streets of Lagos, this unpleasant incident also makes the heart bleed. According to media reports, a syndicate from Benue is in the habit of going to the North-Central state to recruit sick children and women, bringing them to Lagos with a promise to pay for their medical treatment. Sick people naturally jump at these offers.

To their chagrin, things turn out completely different upon their arrival in Lagos. Instead of being taken to hospital as they were made to expect, the purported NGO used them for alms begging on the streets. Their daily routine is punishing. They are reportedly given N1,000 per day for feeding, but the stipend is withheld any day the recruits do not go out to beg. That is double punishment for a sick soul. In all, 13 children and women were rescued from the grip of the NGO this time.

Narrating the ordeal of some of the victims, the Supreme Family Entertainment International Initiative, a Lagos-based organisation, said, “When we rescued them, we took them to the Alimoso General Hospital with a police report, but they couldn’t admit them because they claimed that they did not have a specialist that could handle their cases. One of them was a woman with a protruding stomach, who was discharging water and blood from her private parts.” These people have grave medical conditions, and the cost of medical care is beyond the reach of the masses.

In a similar incident in June 2018, a woman from Delta State was rescued by the police. She alleged that she was used to beg for alms for three years with a promise of medical treatment for the abnormal growth on her face. She was not treated until the bubble burst and police stepped in. Many other cases go undetected.

These dubious organisations are exploiting the failings of society. It is a common sight in Lagos traffic to see women with unkempt children in their arms soliciting alms. At other times, those with protruding tumours and some in wheelchairs beg for alms during traffic snarls. Since many Nigerians find these scenes touching, they are inclined to give them money. In the end, it is their paymasters lurking behind the scenes raking in money to the detriment of the afflicted persons.

No doubt, NGOs have stood for noble causes. In Nigeria, they play critical roles in national life, filling the gap where there is a glaring absence of good governance, and strong political leadership, all coalescing to weak social services, dire medical care, millions of out-of-school children, scarce housing, and insecurity. As such, NGOs mushroom in their thousands. These days, NGOs scramble for a share of grants from foreign organisations and governments.

Over time, the operations and effectiveness of NGOs have changed. Under military rule, political/human rights NGOs were standard fare. These civil society organisations helped to keep military aberrations in check in many ways by litigating and putting pressure on the military dictators. Things have changed somewhat since the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999.

Today, desperate politicians regularly sponsor phoney NGOs to fight the authentic CSOs, making it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. A 2021 report by Chatham House, a British think tank, discovered that 7.0 per cent of NGOs in the past six years are fake. The report, entitled, ‘Fake Civil Society: The Rise of Pro-Government NGOs in Nigeria,’ found that out of the 360 NGOs researched, 90 per cent began operations after the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), assumed power in 2015. Before they fizzle out, they are instigated to destabilise the genuine NGOs. As Chatham House recommended, it is the duty of the anti-graft agencies to bring the fake CSOs to book.

Instructively, the situation in Nigeria is different to that of most Western democracies, where NGOs are given pride of place. Take the United States; the Department of State states that it recognises the impact of NGOs in the nation’s democracy. As of January 2021, there were 1.5 million NGOs in the US, catering to various interests, especially political and human rights advancement. As well, the goal of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, described by The Economist of London as the largest NGO in the world, is to lift the extremely poor out of poverty. Between 1972 and 2021, it had touched 138 million lives in Asia and Africa. Its target in 2021 is to empower 20 million people to get social services and reach out to 110 million people in Bangladesh.

Really, Lagos, which is host to a population of 20 million-plus, is in dire need of NGOs, but the state is not regulating them properly. It is so bad that one of the suspects in the Egbeda incident boasted that “the government cannot do anything” to her; she vowed to go and recruit more orphans and sick children from Benue to Lagos. Therefore, the government must visit the full weight of the law on these deviants.

As the Babajide Sanwo-Olu administration pledged in December 2019, it should clamp down on the syndicates exploiting vulnerable children for alms begging. A serious way to achieve this is to eliminate street begging of any kind in Lagos. All those with genuine cases should be taken to rehabilitation centres and given proper medical care. The rest should be humanely returned to their states of origin.

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