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He Picked Jail By Idowu Ohioze

June 25, 2011

There is something about desperation that makes an otherwise peaceful person resort to criminality for the sake of survival. I have never had to do this but just came across a story that cemented my resolve to fight for a better today and tomorrow for the downtrodden.

There is something about desperation that makes an otherwise peaceful person resort to criminality for the sake of survival. I have never had to do this but just came across a story that cemented my resolve to fight for a better today and tomorrow for the downtrodden.

Many eat from the dustbin, others survive by alms begging yet some can only rob in other to fill their tummy and mark another day in the class of ‘thank God it’s a new day’ Nigerians.

If you have ever beheld the sight of a hopeless parent lost in thought about how the next morning would pan out for the children since the last grain of garri was just soaked in an ocean of water by the child, then you would think deep and hard about what life actually means when surrounded by a plethora of have-not in the midst of natural abundance.

Do you know how many pregnant women curse your dear Nigeria while on their death beds just because proper medical assistance couldn’t be rendered to them in their desperate time of need?

How many Nigerian families have lost members to preventable death? I do not talk about avoidable accidents but of proper medi-care for tetanus infested bodies, malaria, common fever, mis-diagnosed headaches and mis-administered surgeries etc.

When one hits a brick wall where and to whom can he go? What articulated social assistance system exists for vulnerable Nigerians who fall into hard times for no fault of theirs?

It’s 2011; sadly the rights of ordinary Nigerians exist only in print. On the front cover reads: ‘Fundamental Rights of Nigerians: Unless otherwise ordered by the National Working Committee of the Nigerian Elites Club, these rights are never to be enforced.’

Understandably therefore, the quest to ‘check out’ of the country is furthered by the desire for a new lease of life. Although, no matter the manner of departure, there is always a trade-off between staying put and relocating to a saner clime. The fellow who travelled the inclement Sahara desert to reach Libya in order to cross to Europe knew he could be game to marauding Tuareg warriors or thieves. But the advertised standard of life across the Atlantic is better than the best you could imagine in Nigeria.

But this is not about many people’s flight into new beginnings or oblivion, in some cases. I write, today, of the consequences of privatizing social assistance, anywhere on earth.

Let me tell you of a non-fictional story of an American jobless man, in case you haven’t read the story.

James Richard Verone, 59, had a problem but hard as he thought, he could only conjure one solution. Having worked for seventeen years for Coca-Cola, saved for the raining day and avoided making enemies being a jolly good fellow, he went about minding his business.

But sickness is no respecter of person. Plagued by back ache, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome, James could no longer hold his part-time job at a convenience store. Later, James would notice a disturbing protrusion on his chest, signaling the outset of a life-threatening disease.

He applied for early social security but only qualified for food stamps. What he desperately needed, though, was medical attention not hand-out. As days went by, “the pain was beyond the tolerance that I could accept,” James recalled. “I kind of hit a brick wall with everything.”

Which is why I asked: to whom does one go when he nears end of the road, in Nigeria?

In James’ case- and because it’s America- he had one key option: turn to a homeless shelter and seek medical help through charitable organisations. That option wasn’t palatable to a man who had always had a home. Moreover, access to medical attention wasn’t guaranteed at a homeless shelter.

James happened upon an idea: an odd but practical one. So what did James do?

On June 9, 2011, he awoke, took a shower and ironed his shirt. He mailed a letter detailing his predicament and chosen solution to the Gaston Gazette. Hailed a cab and then robbed a bank.

The sudden turn of events should alarm anyone given that James has always been law-abiding even though he is now sick. But James had planned meticulously to carry out his idea on the only way to access the needed medical care This explains why I began by saying that desperation could turn a good man to a criminal.

Government’s failure to cater for its citizens forced James, with a depleted account, to donate his furniture, pay his last month’s rent and serve the requisite notice to his landlord. He moved into a hotel and on June 9, he followed his daily morning routine. On that day, he randomly chose the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) at which he presented a prepared note to a bank teller demanding one dollar and medical attention!

James had just pulled off a bank robbery for one dollar without arms, in a very passive manner. When the police came, they met James sitted calmly without any fear.

James knew the rights of inmates in America guarantee access to all forms of medical care and being that he needed exactly that, he was prepared to shed the toga of innocence for the sake of his health. That’s the trade-off.

The only option open to the jobless graduate may be robbery. Government exists to prevent just that. Leaders must ensure that there is no incentive to rob, maim and kill. In essence, policy makers must ensure Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian treatment of the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

It took unwarranted robbery for James’s plight to be noticed. Presently, he is in jail awaiting trial but has been seen by several nurses and has an appointment to see a doctor. All by being in jail!

When the society neglects one of its citizens to the point where recourse to crime is the only way to receive help, then that society has lost its essence. James didn’t have to rob but he desperately needed medical assistance. One dollar wasn’t going to provide that though conviction for robbery would ensure that he is accorded the best medical treatment the American state can afford.

In Nigeria, many homeless people would gladly choose this option if it were available. Unlike in America, where prison inmates are well treated, Nigeria’s streets are full of people needing care. The prison would only worsen their problems.

Kidnapping, armed robbery and petty thieving are their only options. Yet those of us so blessed by God not to have experienced their woes sit on high thrones and blame those on the lowest rung of society’s ladder for making Lagos, Abuja, Port-Harcourt and Enugu un-livable for us.

Truth is: the thieving jobless graduate, kidnappers, militants and under-bridge dwellers became vulnerable because the government neglected them. Oshodi certainly looks finer today but do you know where its former inhabitants are? Is Lagos safer now since miscreants were dislodged from under the bridges? What policy is designed to cater for the thousands who used to ply their trade on the rail tracks since their forced exit?

In James’ case, he simply had to rob a bank in order to receive medical attention. His Nigerian counterparts don’t have that option.

He chose jail but they can only choose hunger, depravation and death.

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