They used to be rare. But now they are everywhere. They used to elicit sympathy from those they approached. But today, they are a nuisance. Some harass motorists and pedestrians. And others invade homes, shops and workplaces. They used to be mainly Ghanaian nationals. But now there are foreigners who are threatening to outnumber the indigenes.
We call them beggars. To them, it is a profession.
Some are visually impaired. Some are limbless. Some are deaf and dumb. Some are young. Others are old. Some show their various forms of disabilities in order to attract sympathy while others behave as though everyone owes them a living. For others, it is their right to be fed by you.
When your car stops or slows down in traffic, they rush from all angles, singing or speaking about their disabilities. Others also simply lie.
The latest and commonest type of beggars are those from the Sahel regions who invade the streets, markets and mosques in drones. They come as families, usually targeting mosques, churches, markets and other public gatherings. In the streets, they sit in the shade near traffic lights or popular intersections and push their children onto the street. These children, many of whom wear Barcelona FC jerseys, shove their heads and hands into vehicles or grab and harass pedestrians.
Some people give to beggars because they are touched by the stories of the beggars. Others also give in fulfilment of scriptures. Both Muslims and Christians are taught to give alms. But do you know that giving to beggars or fulfilling the demands of the scripture can be criminal and land you in jail?
There is a law in Ghana called the Beggars and Destitutes Act, 1969 (N.L.C.D 392). This law makes the act of begging an offence. The purpose of the Act is to provide for the establishment of institutions at places for the reception of destitute persons and for other related matters.
An article written by one M. Therson Cofie Jr. in 1939 in the Daily Echo critically commented on people with some contagious diseases that roamed about in the streets and markets in Accra. The article resulted in an inquiry about beggars and destitute persons in Accra. This research was led by the medical department and the findings stated that begging and the problem of destitute persons were neither a medical nor social problem but rather a nuisance and a minor crime.
In 1954, the then government of the Gold Coast published an investigation on poverty and begging. Per the Report on the Enquiry into Begging and Destitution in the Gold Coast 1954, there had been a noticeable increase of begging in the larger cities, with a greater number of them coming from the Zongos. As was quoted in the report, “Wherever there is a Zongo, there will be beggars on Friday”. A total of 596 beggars were counted in the whole country [i.e., the Gold Coast Colony], of whom 59 percent were Hausa and 17 percent came from the Northern Territories. In Accra alone, some 198 beggars were counted. In addition, the report noted that there were some 273 ‘professional beggars’.
According to the report, the term “professional beggars” was given to the Muslim beggars who were said not to be in any real financial need since they could count on the assistance of relatives and the Zongo chief.
Then came the Accra Survey of 1957. Amongst the findings as paraphrased in a paper by Holger Weiss, a professor of general history at Åbo Akademi University in Finland, was that, “the main cause of the increased visibility of beggars and street sleepers was identified as being the breakdown of the self-sufficient agricultural economy and the social security that had been available in the traditional extended family.”
As rightly stated by Weiss, “beggars and destitute persons were no longer merely a nuisance, but they had become a societal vice which could only be counteracted through tough legislative means, i.e., prohibiting begging – as eventually became the outcome of the 1957 Ordinance”.
Following these concerns, Governor C.N. Arden-Clarke signed the Control of Beggars and Destitute Ordinance, 1957 (Ordinance No.36) in early March, 1957 which was valid until eventually repealed and replaced by the Beggars and Destitute Act, 1969 (PNDCL 392).
Journeying through the Act leaves one to wonder if indeed this law is in force in Ghana. Section 2 of the Act criminalizes the act of begging. To quote verbatim, the section provides as follows:
“2. Begging as an Offence
(1) A police officer may arrest without a warrant
(a) a person who is found begging,
(b) a person wandering, or
(c) a person who is in any premises or place for the purpose of begging.
(2) A person arrested under subsection (1) is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred and fifty penalty units or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months or to both the fine and the imprisonment.
(3) Subsection (1) does not apply to a person who is soliciting or receiving alms in accordance with a religious custom or the custom of a community or for a public charitable purpose or organised entertainment.
(4) Subsection (1) does not apply to a juvenile, to a collector duly authorised under the Public Collections Act, 1961 (Act 59) or to a collection or a person to which or to whom section 5 of that Act applies”.
A beggar, when arrested and brought before a court of law is liable to pay a fine not beyond 150 penalty units. A penalty unit is GHS 12 and so 150 penalty units will be GHS 1800.
Thus a beggar arrested is liable to pay a fine of at most GHS 1800 or stands a chance of facing a term of imprisonment for at most 3 months or to both the fine and the imprisonment. The question to ask is where a man of straw who has resorted to begging for coins will get this kind of money from. Again, in this era of seeking to decongest our prisons, is this the right punishment for a person who has no food to eat let alone a good place to lay his head?
Again, the Act under section 2(4) seems to provide that a juvenile who stands by the roadside to beg is not an offender. A juvenile has been defined in the Act as a person below the age of seventeen years. I really find this provision in particular disturbing. Are we not opening the floodgates for children to become wayward? No wonder those families from the Sahel region of Africa we see on the streets these days relax under shades whilst their little children do the begging. They play smart. If it is an offence for the adults to beg, then, the kids can go about and harass people for money and food and that will not be an offence. I do not know the mischief this provision sought to cure but that provision is not in good taste. Not the least!
Under section 3, when a beggar is arrested, he is brought before a district magistrate who shall enquire into the circumstances and the character of the offender. He shall do so with the help of a Social Welfare Officer who shall investigate and make a report on that person to the magistrate. Where it is reported that the offender is suffering from an infectious or contagious disease, and that facilities are available for the treatment of that disease in a government hospital, the Magistrate may order that the offender be admitted to a specified government hospital and may also order that pending admission to the hospital, the offender be admitted to reside in a suitable institution.
What if the only hospital that cures the condition an offender may be suffering from is a private hospital? Would the offender be left on the street or sent to prison because there is no government hospital to treat him?
The provision under section 3 is however quick to provide that the magistrate may issue summons requiring a relative of the offender to appear before him and “may commit the offender to the relative’s care or any other fit person who is willing to undertake the care of the offender”. The magistrate may then “order the relative of the offender to give security for the good behaviour of the offender for a period not exceeding one year”.
The law, however, does not only target the beggar. It also targets the giver.
Section 5 of the Act provides: “A person who permits or encourages another person to commit an offence under section 2 may be arrested by a police officer without a warrant and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred and fifty penalty units or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months or to both the fine and the imprisonment.”
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word ‘encourage’ as inter alia, “making something more appealing or more likely to happen.” When road users and passers-by give to the beggars on the streets, they somewhat encourage them by making it more likely that they will always get something if they continue to beg.
This is what the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Otiko Afisa Djaba, called “demand and supply” in a recent interview when the Ministry launched its latest programme to rid the streets of beggars. To her, when these beggars demand from us and we refuse to supply them, they would not be encouraged to come again to demand. What she, however, forgot to add is that begging is a crime and that it is also a crime to give to beggars. We givers abet to the crime of begging because we indirectly encourage the crime of begging to be perpetrated. Under the Act, those of us who give to the beggars are also liable to a fine or imprisonment on conviction.
It is worth noting that there have been attempts to rid of beggars on the streets of Accra and Tema. As reported by Weiss, in 2001, the police, with assistance from a team from various institutions including the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, the Psychiatric Hospital and the Department of Social Welfare embarked on an operation to ‘round-up’ such offenders. Those taken from the streets were sent to the Somanya Rehabilitation Centre to be screened and trained. It turned out that not all of these destitute persons really needed the public assistance. Those who were trained were given tools and equipment to start trade with. Some of them eventually returned to their villages. Others, however, abandoned their trade, sold the tools and equipment they had received and returned to the streets of Accra to beg.
The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, through a programme dubbed “Operation Clear Children off the Street” now plans to train those they take from the streets and also send them back to their hometowns to reunite with their families just like what happened in 2001. Seventeen years down the line, what different measures is the Ministry putting in place to ensure that this five-year programme does not end up like the 2001 exercise?
We all have heard of stories about some beggars who built mansions and even bought fleets of taxi cabs from the begging business. How do we take them off the streets? How do we separate the genuine ones who need help from the crooks who think they can outsmart others? And when we ‘round-up’ the genuine few, how can we empower them so they do not go to the streets again.
Whilst I agree that some of them can learn a trade and can therefore be given something to start up a business, others are old and frail. Sometimes I even fear for them on our busy roads. How can we take care of them and their wards? Will establishing old people’s homes for them be the answer? As quoted above, the purpose of the Act is to provide for the establishment of institutions for the reception of destitute persons and other related matters.
It is without a doubt that the Beggars and Destitute Act, 1969 (Act 396) comprises good provisions aside the few ones that need to be revised. If the government takes the bold step to implement these laws, we are sure to have a sane country where one would not have to bother rolling up their windows when in traffic to prevent being harassed by beggars.
The writer, Rebecca Eduafo-Abraham, is a student of Ghana School of Law. You can reach her through her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more of her writings, visit her blog: www.beckyabraham.blogspot.com.