By Helen Ovbiagele

The laws of the land are made with the intention of protecting its citizens – bringing them justice, protecting their interests in every perceivable way. In short, any law made by a government, is supposed to give us a better life. On our part, we’re supposed to obey these laws in our own interest; to ensure that the better life envisaged comes to us unhindered, and also to avoid being punished for the disobedience of specific laws.

In our country, how people-friendly are these laws and their enforcement? How many are enforced to the point of actually ensuring a better life for all citizens? Sometimes, one could see some laws as being non-productive, and a bit pointless. You have this feeling that all aspects have not been well-thought out before law-enforcement officers are asked to zoom into action, and begin to arrest citizens for flouting them.

‘Woman arraigned for beating two police officers’, which appeared in Punch of July 10, startled many of us. I couldn’t imagine how two Nigerian Police Officers would have calmly allowed themselves to be beaten by a 25 year-old woman. Usually, it’s the other way round as we hear of Police allegedly arresting people arbitrarily, even in front of their houses, and whipping citizens on flimsy excuses. We’re used to such stories. So, I salute the calmness of the two female Police officers in that report who did not retaliate, as it wasn’t mentioned in the article that the woman was beaten up before being taken to the Police station. So, what led to this unusual sight?law-book

‘The two officers Inspector ……. and Corporal …….. of …….Police station, were said to have been assaulted by ……… after they arrested a nine-year-old child who was selling a local doughnut, popularly called puff-puff on the road.

The names of those involved don’t matter, so I’ve left them out here; but the said offence and the arrest of a child-hawker matter, and that’s what this my piece is about.

‘The female officers were said to be enforcing the Lagos State Child Rights Law when the defendant came after them, tore their uniforms and necklace…………………….’

Apparently, part of the Child Rights Law for the State forbids children hawking on the streets. I don’t know the age at which the lid is lifted from this, but should a nine year old child be arrested by two Police officers for selling snacks on the streets? What does the law say about arresting children on our streets? Personally, I feel uncomfortable about a situation were our children could be taken off the streets by law-enforcement officers for any purpose without their parents being present.

I’m not saying that children should be allowed to break the law with impunity, and be allowed to get away with it, especially where the offence is a criminal one like inflicting body harm, stealing, murder, abduction, etc. No, they should be held for such criminal offences, and their parents sent for. The law would take its course, they would be charged to Juvenile courts and sentenced as appropriate for their age, if proved guilty beyond measure.

They would then go serve in prisons tailored to turn them into sober/more responsible citizens through purging them of criminal tendencies, giving them vocational training, and meeting their spiritual needs, so that when discharged, they emerge better and more well-adjusted citizens; ready to contribute to the growth of the land. Young offenders should not be sent into prisons where they would interact with hardened criminals and become truly conscripted into a life of crime; becoming worse later than when they were sent in for correction/punishment. Making them pay for their criminal offences, would serve as a deterrent to other young people who may want to indulge in such heinous acts.

But carting off nine-year old street hawkers to Police stations? How does that help their situation of poverty, which was the reason that they were hawking on the streets in the first place? If a nine-year old child whose help is desperately needed to feed and clothe the family is prevented by law from selling what his mother produces, what should engage his attention while he’s lazing around?

How would he be proving himself useful to his family. Idleness at that age drives a child to join bad gangs, and acquire bad habits, values and friends; usually without the knowledge of his parents who are stressed-out, fending for the family. I suppose part of the reason for such a law is to make sure that children are not absent from school unduly.

In this day and age, I’m convinced that no parent down south in this country, would keep his/her child from school and send him hawking, if they have the means to cater well for the needs of the family. Most families believe that the key to a better future for their children is good education, but sadly, not all can afford even the supposedly free primary school education, when the head of the family has no job, and the trader wife can’t afford a stall in the market, and the makeshift hut she sells her wares in, is demolished by council officials.

If she hawks in certain areas she and her goods are carted off to the council premises, where she’s detained until someone comes to pay a hefty fee. What an irony for someone eking out a living! Any wonder that some very poor families choose not to query the source of the money their wards help the family with, when their efforts to engage in honest means of livelihood are thwarted by the authorities.

Yes, I’m concerned about children under five being asked to go sell anything on the streets, due to the attendant danger of accident, abduction, rape, etc. But an eight or nine year old child, who these days is ripe for secondary school, can be asked to hawk in the neighbourhood.

One expects the parents to counsel them on how to cross the road, and to sell mainly in the open places around their streets where the family is known. The local council can make it a point to use a crier to announce to parents, many of who are illiterates, not to allow children under eight to go hawk on the streets, and the older ones should be told safe places to hawk in the neighbourhood.

If law officers feel that a child-hawker is under-aged, they shouldn’t arrest him, but caution the child, and send him home immediately. They can take down the address of the child, visit the parents, and tell them that it’s against the law to send such a young child to hawk on the streets.

The newspaper report didn’t say what was done to child, whether the policewomen still arrested him, but we were told that the woman who was outraged enough to intervene as he was being arrested, didn’t even know the child. She has been charged to court for assaulting the officers.

I suppose the sight of a child of nine being arrested by the Police for hawking could trigger off anger in many of us, especially mothers. Were they really going to lock him up in a cell? Isn’t that an abuse of his rights? God help us in this country.

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