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Sarah Ibikunle: Nigerian Advocate For True Democracy

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In a recent robbery incident at the First City Monument Bank, Admiralty Way, Lekki, Phase1, Lagos Nigeria, Sarah Ibikunle, a 15-year old girl was caught in the crossfire between armed robbers and some police officers who bumped into their operation. Sarah, like millions of other Nigerian children was hawking fried fish on the streets of Lagos. Sarah had hoped that after her secondary school, she would get admission into a university and read Law. She wanted to become a lawyer and perhaps a Senior Advocate of Nigeria later.

She wanted to play that role while she was alive. Now that her young life has been cut short by men of the underworld, could she still remain an advocate for the millions of children out there who are forced by the financial circumstances of their families to hawk different kinds of commodities on the streets of Nigerian villages, towns and cities?

I really think so.

Sarah knew hardship. She knew suffering. Her mother had walked out on her father much early. She left her matrimonial home when Sarah was still young. Her father was left to bring her up. But he died about six years ago when Sarah was only 9. Sarah had to go live with her grandmother. Her grandmother died too, and Sarah moved on to live with her father's sister. This auntie wasn't very rich. So, both Sarah and her cousin, her auntie's son, would go hawking after school to help put some food on the breakfast table for the family.

Perhaps, Sarah had decided to become a lawyer after the entire trauma she had been through, believing there is a need for greater justice in her world. Who would ever know? But Sarah's sudden death raises the dust of very important socio-political issues.

All over Nigeria, in every village, every town, every city, children as young as eight years old are daily on the streets hawking commodities that range from akara, moi-moi, groundnuts, banana and pure water to fried fish, fried plantain, soft drinks and so on. They are sent out there to sell these things because of the financial situation in their families. Their efforts out on the streets most times help put food on the breakfast table for their families.
These children are often exposed to untold hardships and dangers that include raping and motor accidents, and as we now know from Sarah's case, stray bullets.

Child labour is a crime that is recognised all over the world.

In Nigeria, however, child labour is a crime that has often been taken for granted. And that should not be so. I have watched Nigerian politicians campaign. Unfortunately, not one of them has ever spoken of what he or she would do for the poorer families. Not one of them ever spoke a word about working class families. All they talk about is electricity, roads, schools, airports. No one has ever said I will ensure the welfare of the poorer families. No one considers the plight of working class families. For the Nigerian politician, poverty alleviation does not start from families. It starts from the ward chairman's office. The point, perhaps, is that Nigerian politicians scarcely get inspiration from anywhere or any one.

In Britain, the opposition Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, who has been struggling hard to bring Labour back into government, recently drew inspiration from President Barack Obama. Obama had made a pledge to build the American economy from the “middle out”. When Labour launched its industrial strategy a few months ago, Miliband accused the Conservatives of focusing their strategy on the rich in the hope that their wealth trickles down to the rest of British society.

Miliband has since insisted that boosting the prosperity of working class families on average incomes is the key to Britain's industrial revival. He adamantly says that it is essential for all social groups to become better-off in order for their wealth to ripple outwards and drive economic growth. His argument echoed President Obama's “middle-out” philosophy, the idea that the overall economy prospers when middle earners are better off.

Miliband insists that Labour Party's plan must be based on the idea that it is only when Britain's working families succeed that Britain succeeds. He distances himself from the old idea that it is only from the top down that wealth flows. He says: "our plan recognises that every person in every sector of the economy is a wealth creator. We need a plan which nurtures the talents of every young person, supports every business, allows every family to share prosperity, and expects each and every one of us to contribute.”

I have continued to suggest over these years that government should take a good look at what makes democracy work better in the developed countries. One factor that has been useful in stabilizing these societies is that government made the law that every employer of labour must pay workers in time.

All over Europe and America, workers are paid on the day they should be paid. Some workers are paid weekly, every Thursday or Friday; some every fortnight and some four weekly. By midnight preceding your pay day, your salary is in your bank account. There is no issue of salary arrears. That is the law. And that is one law that is helping to stabilize those societies economically. But what do you have in Nigeria? Working class families are owed arrears of salary that runs into several months at a time. How does the working class family survive under such harsh conditions?

When a breadwinner is not sure when he gets his wages or, indeed, if he will ever get paid his wages at-all, what does anyone expect? He may be tempted to steal, or get the money by hook or crook. He just cannot fold his arms and watch his wife and children die of starvation while he sees those in the big offices, said to be “well connected” Nigerians, steal millions of dollars from the national treasury which they siphon into the foreign bank accounts. If security is tight for him, or the decorum of not being marked out as a thief is important to him as a father, he may decide to send some of his children out on the streets to hawk. In the process, anything could happen to the child.

This is a situation Nigerian politicians must address with the political expediency it deserves and with the support of the relevant charity organisations. Government has kept criminal silence over this issue perhaps because it is the greatest employer of labour. The point is that Nigerian children deserve a better deal than the raw treatment they are getting from their mentors at the moment. Government must ensure that the laws are made and enforced concerning salary payments and child labour. No more salary arrears. No more child labour in actual fact, not only on the pages of the newspaper.

Government must prescribe adequate punishment for employers and parents who default. On its part, government must ensure that working class families are paid much in the same way they are paid in the developed countries. In such a way, working class families can plan their lives more meaningfully; incidents of corruption will be minimized and parents will no longer find sending their children out to hawk a compulsion. The government has to choose the right way to accomplish its dream of making Nigeria a true, and not a fake, democratic country.

Sarah Ibikunle's unfortunate death could be a starting point for Nigerian politicians to campaign more vigorously against child labour. Her death could still make her a SAN in Nigeria, advocating for the total abolition of child labour in the country.

It all depends on Nigerian politicians and their vision of democracy.

· Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Emeka Asinugo and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Emeka Asinugo