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Too little or too much money: Nigerian children must not be destroyed by their parents

By Emeka Asinugo
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There is a very interesting incident that happened recently in my native Imo State of Nigeria. A very successful business woman found it necessary to dump her husband when her wealth got into her head. After the separation, she got into politics and made even more money. Everyone who associated with her had a lot of respect for her. Literarily, she became an instant celebrity. Everyone knew she was well connected and powerful.

She had an only child, a daughter with her ex-husband. And the child, a ten year old stayed with her mother. Every day, the woman left home to attend to political meetings. She scarcely stayed home, and sometimes she would be away for several days. So, she hired the services of a nanny to look after her daughter.

She bought bags of rice, beans, plenty of yams and other food items and stocked the house with them. She thought to herself: ‘while I am away, my daughter and her nanny would at least have enough food to eat.’

Hardly did she visualise that some days, the nanny would not cook at all. Some other days, the child would prefer to play around with her mates and forget she hadn’t eaten all day. And her nanny would not be bothered. She did not see the need to supervise the young girl’s feeding.

After a while, the young girl became ill. Her mother took her to the Federal Medical Centre where a doctor diagnosed she was suffering from kwashiorkor.

The woman was so infuriated that she slapped the doctor. “How dare you?”she spat out. “I stocked my house with enough foodstuffs to last for a whole year, and here you are telling me my daughter is suffering from kwashiorkor! Are you out of your mind or something? How on earth would my daughter be suffering from kwashiorkor when the store in my house is filled to the brim with an assortment of various foodstuffs?”

The doctor took the slap quietly but asked the woman to try another doctor and if he was wrong, he would be prepared to lose his licence. The woman took the child to a private hospital and the same result was pronounced by the doctor there. The child was suffering from kwashiorkor. The woman now went back to the Federal Medical Centre to apologise to the doctor she slapped. She had too much money. But she had too little time to look after her family.

Ironically, that is exactly what happens to poor families where parents are unable to provide their children with food. Most of the children end up suffering from kwashiorkor. So, what is the difference?

Unlike children of the rich and mighty in the society, children of the poor are sent out by their parents to go hawk along the streets to help put some sort of food on the breakfast table for their families. It reminds me of the incident that happened in 2015 while President Jonathan was campaigning in Lagos.

In that 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 from poor families 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. But her young life was cut short by men of the underworld.

Like most of her kind, 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 later 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 raised 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 realized later from Sarah's case, stray bullets.

Child labour is a crime that is recognized all over the world. In Nigeria, however, child labour is a crime that has often been taken for granted. And that is very unfortunate.

I have watched Nigerian politicians campaign. Not one of them has ever spoken of what he or she would do for the poorer families in his or her constituency. 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 he would 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, being that the Nigerian politician scarcely gets inspiration from anywhere or any one.

In Britain, the opposition Labour Party has been struggling hard to bring Labour back into government. When Labour launched its industrial strategy a few months ago, its leadership accused the Conservatives of focusing their strategy on the rich in the hope that their wealth trickles down to the rest of British society. Labour party insisted that boosting the prosperity of working class families on average incomes is the key to Britain's industrial revival. Labour Party's plan was based on the idea that it is only when Britain's working families succeed that Britain succeeds. They distanced themselves from the old idea that it is only from the top down that wealth flows. "Our plan recognizes 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 from him? 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 relevant charity organizations. 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.

Too little or too much money, Nigerian children must not be destroyed by their parents.