On a recent morning, a well-dressed woman walked into an eatery behind Unique Garden, Wuse Zone 2 in Abuja, and sat uninvited next to two men waiting for meals.
Wearing a smile, the woman, in her 20s, narrated how she arrived the federal capital for a job interview, and how the process had been extended, leaving her with the unexpected burden of feeding and accommodation in a city she knew no one.
“I’ve been sleeping in the church since my arrival, and I don’t even have enough transport fare to take me back to Lagos after the interview tomorrow,” the woman lamented, according to an attendant at the eatery, who gave her name as Cecilia.
As she spoke, one of the men handed out some four to five N500 bills, and advised her to sort herself out.
Cecilia said the appeal was a ruse – she had seen the lady before soliciting alms with the same tale.
“She comes here from time to time collecting money from people with this same story,” she said.
Cecilia said the woman was a “corporate beggar”, an increasingly popular term used in describing well-looking men and women who flood the Nigerian capital in bespoke outfits daily in search of handouts, under make-believe narratives.
Street begging is rampant in Nigeria, and often involves visibly disadvantaged people, especially children, who line major roads to ask for offerings.
But “corporate begging” is different. Its performers are mostly young people skilled at delivering pity-provoking narratives, and deft at evading law enforcement agents.
With a record high rate of unemployment, and an economic recession, more young people are turning to the scheme.
Aminu Mohammed, an Abuja resident, recounted how he was accosted by an well-dressed man at Wuse Market one evening with a story of how he forgot his wallet at the office as he hastened to leave, and how he could not retrieve it as the office would have been locked.
“Assessing his dressing and composure, I believed his story and gave him money, only for me to run into the same man weeks later at Jabi Park telling the same tale to another unsuspecting person,” Mr. Mohammed said.
In Abuja, “corporate beggars” are mostly common around Wuse market, Berger, Area 1, Nyanya, Lugbe, Kubwa, Maitama, Banex Plaza, AYA roundabout, and all major bus stops.
Residents say a common line is claiming to be short of transport fare to get to the next point for a job or business.
In 2016, the Special Task Team on Abuja Environmental Protection broke a syndicate of suspected suppliers of beggars to strategic locations in Abuja.
The leader of the group, Baba Gwarma, from Kaduna State, was based in Karma-Jiji, a suburb of Abuja, where he sheltered a band of beggars who forayed into the city centre daily to earn money.
Mr. Gwarma was arrested more than 50 times, the chairman of the FCT Special Task Team, Abdullahi Monjel, said at the time, according to ThisDay.
Felisha Nwaogwu, the director of the Social Welfare Department in Abuja, told PREMIUM TIMES such beggars can be dangerous and have devised means of eluding security operatives.
“They can be very dangerous; our staffs have been previously attacked. Sometimes, when they are being taken to Bwari, the rehabilitation centre, they alert their cartel who now lay ambush for our staffs.
“There has been an occasion when we were repatriating some of them to Kaduna, it came to a place where they started chanting in Islam that they are in danger, making passersby think they were kidnapped but as God would have it we managed to survive that day,” Mrs. Nwaogwu said.
She said one of the tricks used by “corporate beggars” is taking advantage of health-challenged persons with ailments like elephantiasis or cancer, and taking them to the streets for alms-seeking.
One case that stood out, Mr. Nwaogwu said, involved a child named Blessing.
Blessing had an accident injury on the leg and was taken away from her poor parents by people who promised to help give her proper medical attention. She was rather taken to Abuja and wheeled along busy roads in search of alms.
Mrs. Nwaogwu said when they were arrested, more than N30, 000 was found on Blessing.
“That’s the money she makes for these people on a daily basis,” she said.
In another case, Mrs. Nwaogwu said “a woman used a perfect costume that makes one of her breasts appear as if she had breast cancer. When she was arrested and her costume was pulled out, she had neat and perfect breasts.”
She said her department does not make arrests, as that is done by the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, AEPB, and the police.
“We only rehabilitate, counsel and repatriate,” she said.
At the government rehabilitation centre is in Bwari, Abuja, those arrested are trained in leather works, welding, clothing, embroidery and ICT, after which they are given small capital to set up businesses, Mrs. Nwaogwu said.