A group of school-age children stood by their wheelbarrows as they awaited the arrival of the next vehicle to Giri Park, one of the busiest commuter service points in Abuja. Once it arrived, the children rushed at the passengers, seeking who to help with luggage for a fee. It is what these child-porters do every day, many of them having forsaken school.
Primary and junior secondary education are officially free and compulsory in Nigeria, but data from UNICEF shows that about 10.5 million children are out of school in the country. The nation’s capital territory, Abuja, has 241,000 of these children.
The United Nations defines out-of-school children as those between 6-11 years who are not enrolled in any formal education, excluding pre-primary education.
In Nigeria, some of these children, especially the males, engage in petty jobs such as shoe shining, wheel-barrow pushing and hawking, either as livelihood or to raise money for their own education.
PREMIUM TIMES spoke with many underaged children at Giri and many other parks in the FCT.
At the Park
Each time a vehicle arrives at the park, the boys with their one-wheel barrows swarm the passengers, shouting: “Make I carry your load?”, “Aunty, barrow dey” and other catchy phrases to attract potential customers.
Located along the Gwagwalada expressway, Giri Park is a temporary stop for vehicles entering the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) before they access the main city through the many link roads.
Ajewole Isaac is one of the underage porters at the park.
The 15-year-old said he joined the trade to support his mother who was left to raise seven children after the death of her husband.
Isaac was introduced to the trade by his friend, Rabiu, a boy from Nasarawa State with whom he shares a wheel-barrow.
Most of the boys rent their wheelbarrows for N150 a day. Isaac said he arrives at the park at 8 a.m every day and is paid N10 or N20 for every luggage he wheels from the park to a link road.
Jamilu said he joined the trade after finishing at LEA Primary School in Giri. Unlike the partners, Isaac and Rabiu, who daily rent their wheelbarrow, Jamilu got his from his father.
“I own the wheelbarrow; my father gave it to me to work here. I take the money I make at the end of every day to my mother who uses it on our basic needs at home,” he said.
PREMIUM TIMES spoke with 53 children across the major parks in the FCT in the course of this investigation. At weekends when the parks usually witness high traffic, a boy can make as much as N1000 for the day. But weekdays are different. He sometimes makes nothing, due to the low influx of passengers.
Moses Sunday was 12 when he dropped out of school to work as a porter at Giri Park. He is now 16.
“My father is a labourer with Dantata and Sawoe (construction company) while my mother sells onion along this expressway. My parents are trying, but I also have to save towards my education since I have siblings they are taking care of too.
“I make between N1500 and N800 in a day. After paying the N150 rent for the wheelbarrow, I give part of the money to my mother to keep but she always used it on our feeding and my siblings’ education.”
Unlike most of the other children that PREMIUM TIMES met in the course of this report, Lukman Zubairu speaks good English.
“I started pushing wheel-barrow after my JSS 3 while waiting for posting to senior secondary school.”
He said his father runs a tailoring business from their sitting-room while his mother sells “small chops” in a secondary school.
It is difficult locating the parents or guardians of these children as most of the boys are too shy to take a reporter home.
However, after days of coaxing, Jamilu and Lukman agreed for PREMIUM TIMES to meet their parents.
As we entered their clean small compound in Upa Giri, Jamilu shyly introduced the two reporters to his mother. Neighbours, curious about why Jamilu had brought home two strangers, joined the party.
His mother offered us seats on the mattress which also served as the sofa in the small room where Jamilu and his two siblings were raised.
As we conversed with Jamilu’s mother in Hausa, a male neighbour who later identified himself as a friend of Jamilu’s father interrupted. He said it was wrong for a woman to speak for the family, so he offered to call the father who soon arrived.
The father, Lawal Usman, 47, works as a security man with the Nigerian Union of Pensioners. He said he sent Jamilu to work at the park due to his poor financial situation, which he blamed on the inability of his employers to pay him regularly.
Mr Usman seemed to be a man of few words as his friend soon took over the conversation.
He had thought the reporters were around to offer help to Jamilu for his education but was disappointed that they were journalists only on a mission to probe into their private affairs.
“You see, if he had help, we won’t ask him to go out and work,” he said to register his disappointment.
“Back home in Katsina state, children go to school free of charge,”
Mrs Usman later interjected. But you cannot compare the quality of education there with that of Abuja.”
Jamilu’s parents do not know much about children’s rights to qualitative education as stipulated in the Universal Basic Education (UBE) Act. They complained about extraneous charges Jamilu’s sister in Government Secondary School and his younger brother who is still in Primary 2 are made to pay.
Mr and Mrs Usman Zubairu are Lukman’s parents. Their sitting room, which also serves as Mr Zubairu’s tailoring workshop, was littered with pieces of clothing materials.
“We know we are not rich, but we meet his basics needs. What I am telling the mother now is that the life he sees those children living looks like enjoyment to him, but it’s suffering. They are suffering, but he does not know. He thinks they are living a better life.
“I stopped him from going there (to the park), but he used to dodge,” Lukman’s father said. He did not approve of his child’s choice of trade but he is helpless, he said.
He complained about the “politics and corruption” in the secondary school admission process in Abuja. He said it was the reason why children whose parents cannot grease palms take to menial jobs after primary school.
Effect of insecurity
The Director of Universal Basic Education Board (UBEB), Adamu Noma, insisted that the agency is doing its best to reduce the number of out-of-school children in the FCT. But the parents also have to play their own part, he said.
Mr Noma said some parents misunderstood the concept of free education in Nigeria to mean that the government would bear all the costs of sending a child to school.
“Basic education for all is the responsibility of all. The education of a child rests on not just the government but society as a whole.
“The education we give is free but the cost has to be borne by some people which include the federal government, the state government and the parents. That is why our slogan is ‘Basic education for all is the responsibility of all.’
“The child is the only one that is not supposed to pay anything before accessing basic education because the UBE Act spells out responsibilities for everybody. There are responsibilities for the teachers, parents, government, education managers and also for the child. A child’s main responsibility is to just attend classes once the school is available,” Mr Noma said in his office in Abuja.
On the role of UBEB in cutting the number of children on the streets of Abuja during school hours, the director said the agency was trying its best to ensure every child goes to school and has access to quality education. But he added, “the FCT is a very difficult society to control due to the insecurity in Nigeria.
“People troop into the FCT almost on a daily basis with their children, for example, the IDPs from Borno, Katsina or Zamfara.
“Whenever the IDPs are asked about why their children are not in school, the common response is that they just got into the FCT and are still trying to settle down, or they do not have money to purchase school uniforms for their children.
“Whenever IDP parents complain about their inability to purchase uniforms, UBEB purchases them and enrols the children in nearby schools,” Mr Noma said.
Quizzed on the legality of some fees charged by government-owned primary and secondary schools, Mr Noma ascribed this to tardiness in the enforcement of policies by the federal government.
“You know that government procedure is not like a private company where once the money is available you can get things done at once. It is at this point that responsible parents have to intervene by contributing to basic things that are not available in the schools that their children attend.
“Due to the various challenges of the education system, it is common to see schools with PTA boards who actively discuss arising matters in education and the general welfare of pupils,” he said.
Mr Noma also stressed the high cost of the shift from hardcopy to digital format in schools. This and others, he said, are some of the reasons teachers, parents, and the wealthy elite should invest in basic education for all Nigerian children.
The director urged parents to do their best to help the government to drastically reduce the number of out-of-school children. “You gave birth to the children, you should be able to take care of them,” he said.
PREMIUM TIMES also visited the FCT Social Welfare Department on the menace of children of school-age children loitering, hawking or engaging in menial jobs on the streets of Abuja.
The Social Welfare Department spokesperson, Shaka Sunday, said that whenever they find school-age children on the streets, a special task force team apprehends and profiles them, and then tries to find out why they are on the street.
“The enforcement team has a clear mandate and terms of reference. The highlight is to evacuate these children found doing menial and undignified jobs on the streets,” he said.
“About 70 per cent of the children apprehended are not residents of Abuja and even after these children are returned to their original residence, they somehow manage to find their way back to the streets through a cartel.
“We don’t arrest them, we only apprehend them. At the Secretariat where the children are profiled, some children were said to be from neighbouring states such as Nasarawa, Kogi, Niger and Kaduna,” Mr Sunday said.
He said children apprehended are taken to a centre at the secretariat for care, after which the liaison offices of their states in the FCT are contacted and measures are taken for their repatriation.
He said despite his team’s efforts, about three weeks after the children’s repatriation most manage to find their way back into Abuja.
“We are beginning to see a situation where it is more like a cartel because some of these children make their way back to Abuja through the supposed cartel we are talking about. Their motive for bringing them from our neighbouring states into Abuja is to tap from the lucrative atmosphere here.
“How they still access the city is not known to me as this can best be explained by the security agencies,” Mr Sunday revealed.
Asked if any member of the “cartel” had ever been arrested, the spokesman said, “only the Director of the Department could disclose information about cartel members who had been arrested.”
He, however, believed that more robust cooperation with the security operatives will drastically reduce the menace of out-of-school children in Abuja.