"Stop it!" An apoplectic driver flailed his arms helplessly from his seat behind the wheels while intermittently pressing the horn.
But too late; his car's windshield was already generously lathered up for cleaning. A street urchin, apparently oblivious of his tirades, had begun to wipe away the soapy water with a filthy rag. And for this unsolicited service, he was expected to part with some of his hard-earned cash!
This scenario, now de rigueur in most traffic-choked Lagos streets, throws the spotlight on Nigeria's ever-increasing band of street urchins. They belong to a larger group of out-of-school children, among whom are child-beggars, child-hawkers and child-labourers.
Today's commemoration of the Children's Day - and the federal government's declaration of tomorrow as a public holiday for secondary and primary schools- should rekindle hope for better living conditions, which still eludes these children.
That their plight deserves to be treated as a front-burner issue is premised on the fact that they represent the face of Nigeria's future. Of course, for these children, who have survived in deplorable conditions, the future promises nothing bright. Several of them, already victims of all kinds of abuse, have become canon-fodders for underworld activities.
A concerned President Goodluck Jonathan, while commissioning the first of a series of schools for the so-called "Almajiri" children in Sokoto early last month, promised to build over 400 of such schools across the 19 Northern Nigerian states as well as commission 100 of them by next month. Coming on the heels of this commissioning ceremony was Vice President Namadi Sambo's address at the Northern Impact Summit, organised by the Arewa Transformation and Empowerment Initiative early this month in Kaduna. Sambo, represented by the Kaduna State deputy governor Mukhtar Ramalan Yero, decried the Almajiri system which puts millions of children out in the street to beg for alms.
It's not hard to figure out the reason behind the presidency's concern. With the worsening climate of insecurity in the country, the Almajiri system has been identified as a major culprit, among other factors, bordering on underdevelopment. An uneducated child- street beggar is more susceptible to the wiles of a religious fanatic.
A 2006 UNICEF Information Sheet paints a gloomier picture. It puts the number of under-14 child-labourers across Nigeria at 15 million. "Many are exposed to long hours of work in dangerous and unhealthy environments, carrying too much responsibility for their age," it revealed. "Working in these hazardous conditions with little food, small pay, no education and no medical care establishes a cycle of child rights violations."
The UNICEF report also cited a significant swell over the years in the population of children who have been compelled by circumstances to work. "The end of the oil boom in the late 1970s coupled with mounting poverty has driven millions of children into labour," it continued.
This scenario clearly violates the provisions and principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was based on varied legal systems and traditions. In 54 articles and two Optional Protocols, the Convention shields children's rights by setting standards in health care, education as well as in legal, civil and social services. Nigeria, having ratified and acceded to its tenets, is saddled with the moral burden of caring for its less-privileged children. "States parties to the Convention are obliged to develop and undertake all actions and policies in the light of the best interests of the child," said a UNICEF report.
The draft laws produced in 1988, thanks to the three conferences held by the Nigerian Chapter of The African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect with the Ministries of Justice, Health and Social Welfare in conjunction with UNICEF, stimulated the enactment of the 2003 Child Rights Act. The act not only defines a new child protective system, but also allows opportunities for the participation of children in matters that concern their rights and welfare. These rights were conspicuously absent in the Children and Young People's Act.
According to the Child Rights Act, 2003, "The court may, for the purpose of any specified proceedings, appoint a guardian ad litem for the child concerned to safeguard the interests of the child, unless it is satisfied that it is not necessary to do so."
Also, the court was empowered "to consult the wishes of the child in considering what order ought to be made in protective proceedings" and the child has the right to "exercise on his (or her) free choice" (which seems to be interpreted as voice his or her wishes).
Today, as Nigeria commemorates Children's Day, the spotlight also falls on several underage children dispersed in private households as domestic servants, among artisans as apprentices, persecuted as child-sorcerers by religious organisations and cloistered in special homes.