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Skolombo boys: Rejected at home, hunted in the city

Some teenage boys in Calabar on allegations of witchcraft were sent away from their homes. This report looks at the plights of these children that…

Some teenage boys in Calabar on allegations of witchcraft were sent away from their homes. This report looks at the plights of these children that are left to fend for themselves among residents that address them with suspicions. 

In the streets of Calabar, the Cross River State capital, boys in their teens who look unkempt and allegedly driven away from various homes by parents and guardians on allegations that they were wizards and disobedient, are common sight.

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Their presence is scary, prompting alertness and reactions from residents. The boys’ lives are now in danger as locals now hound them.

There are allegations that the boys are into, or being used to perpetuate crimes, making residents to browbeat and see them as easy targets.

The origin of the name, Skolombo is unknown, but it has entered the local lexicon. It has gained notoriety with negative leanings; hence any ill-behaved teenager is nicknamed Skolombo.

Daily Trust on Sunday recalls that Mrs Obioma Imoke, the wife of a former governor of the state, Liyel Imoke, had a rehabilitation programme for the boys, but when her husband left power in 2015, they returned to the streets. She had over 30 of such children in her care.

One of the boys who gave his name as Augustine hangs around some culverts near the abandoned Botanical Garden, the former Calabar Zoo, near Mary Slessor Roundabout, with his group. The culvert is his bedroom, but he is thinking of relocating to another corner to save his life.

These boys often move about in hordes, sleeping wherever they can lay their heads.  They wear tattered clothes and pester people for food and money. They also allegedly rape girls and dispossess people of their belongings.

“I do not attack or rob people, I only beg for money to eat and buy water. I do not have a place to sleep, but sometimes we sleep inside this culvert. When we collect leftover foods, all of us reassemble here. Sometimes we share what we got from people,” Augustine said.

Augustine, who looks 14 or 15 years old, was haggard and wearing one leg of rubber slippers when our correspondent met him.  He appeared not to have taken his bath for weeks, going by the odour that oozed from him.  He lamented that people started attacking them because of the suspicion that they were violent.

“I am sometimes very scared because we are seen as potential threats and bag snatchers. I fear for my life. When I move, I often look back. I am very conscious wherever I go to beg for foods,” he said.

Asked if he knows his parents or where he hails from he said, “My mother’s sister always beats me, saying I stole her money. That was the reason I ran away. My parents have died. I was told that I am from Akpabuyo Local Government Area.”

He said that sometimes he would join another group of boys that scavenge for metals at dumpsites for sale. He alleged that members of other groups would attack him because they feared that he might give them out, reduce their food or steal from them.

Augustine disclosed that some of the boys had died and would be buried secretly at night. “Some time ago we buried one of us in an abandoned building at night,” he said.

One of the boys, Alfred Orji, who claimed to be 13 years old, is often seen around the Adak Uko Street in the popular Mbukpa Road neighbourhood in Calabar South, where there is an abandoned plot of land, fenced round with zinc to keep away prying eyes. This is where some of them live and assemble scrap metals. 

Orji said, “We move about looking for pieces of iron, which can be big or small. If we are lucky to collect up to one kilogramme, we sell at N150. Sometimes we may be lucky to collect up to two kilos, but it is not very easy. That’s why we move everywhere looking for any abandoned metal. Sometimes we dig them up from the ground. This is why you see us going about with a long iron to help us dig up rusted metals.

“We sell to people who buy scraps. From this money, we buy food and jointly cook at the garage, where we stay.”

Another Skolombo boy, Enebong Robert, said he would soon clock 18 years. He wore a pair of skin-tight trousers that stopped after the knee, exposing his dirty boxers. Even in the windy early morning, he did not wear anything to cover his skinny body.

Ene, as he called himself, said, “Some of us sell our scraps at N200 per kilogramme. Some days can be good. One day I collected up to 10 kilograms and sold at N2,000.

“We sell to companies who melt them for other purposes. They encourage us to bring as many scraps as we possibly can so that we can earn money.

“We would collect and heap the metals inside this garage until we think it can fetch us good money.” 

Asked if they posed any threat to people, Ene said they did not commit crimes but people feel they are petty thieves.

He said their appearance would deceive people because of what they do to survive as they could go into dirty pits, gutters and dumpsites to fetch scraps.

“People think we can easily attack and dispossess them of their belongings, but we do not do that. We are only dirty but not criminals,” he said.

Ene said some of them could not trace their parents, and those whose parents are alive did not live with them.

He, however, refused to disclose why he is in the streets struggling to survive on what he called ‘pick and drop,’ referring to metals.

People who live around the metal garage told Daily Trust on Sunday that the boys did not constitute nuisance.

Elder Enefiok Akpan, who often comes to fix his car at the mechanic workshop opposite the metal garage said, “These little boys sleep and cook inside that fenced garage opposite this place. I don’t think they are a robbery gang, but you can never tell what they do in the night. 

“We see them go about the streets looking for scraps inside gutters and refuse bins.

“You know the owners of this mechanic garage also dismantle old vehicles here and sell them as scraps. So, the teenage metal scavengers lurk around waiting to see what scraps are left. To them, no scrap is useless. They collect and store them for sale; that’s what I am told they do.”

Daily Trust on Sunday learnt that residents who used to be sympathetic to the plight of these boys are now calling on the authorities to eliminate them, believing that if they multiply in number, the society would no longer be peaceful.

Last Sunday evening, callers on an Efik radio programme on FAD FM asked for mass killing of the boys, who they described as street urchins because, according to them, they terrorise Calabar residents.

One of the callers from Akpabuyo Local Government Area, Etekamba Donald, recalled how some of them entered his compound with knives and machetes, and when he challenged them, they ordered him to open his kitchen and give them food and money or they would stab him.

Another caller, Florence Ephraim from Calabar South recalled how the boys removed her car battery where she parked by the popular Marian Road.

Cobham Raymond also said, “I saw these boys pounce on a woman, took turns to rape her and dispossessed her of her belongings. They were confrontational and daring. It was very disgusting.”

Raymond said the boys were already hardened and always ready to attack. He alleged that some questionable persons used them to spy on dignitaries and residential places.

Some of the callers warned that they would become armed robbers and kidnappers if not checked.

However, a lawyer and child rights advocate, James Ibor, condemned the call to exterminate the boys, saying the callers were ignorant of the implications of such calls.

“Such calls are reprehensible, condemnable and wicked. Is it a crime to be poor? They should not help to promote illegality. Government should not listen to such calls,” he said.

He called on the government to rather devise a means to rehabilitate the boys through social workers and rights groups.

He said, “Social services are non-existent. And the recent action of the Cross River State Government in scuttling the efforts of civil society organisations to secure the future of these teenagers to acquire primary education is not helping the matter.

“Primary and junior secondary school education is expensive despite the provisions of the Universal Basic Education Act, which makes it free and compulsory.

“These children cannot acquire western education or skills to help them eke out a living and prepare for the challenges of adulthood, so they struggle to survive by scavenging.”

He advised parents and guardians to weigh the consequences of throwing their children and wards into the streets.

The coordinator of Operation Skolombo, a security outfit, Alfred Mboto, who is also the permanent secretary on security, Governor’s Office, Calabar, said they were not relenting on their task to tackle kidnapping, cultism, armed robbery, hard drugs, among other vices.

Also, the Commissioner for Youth and Skills Acquisition in the state, Signor Omang Idiege, said government had established the West African Fabrication Academy in Calabar, where young people are trained to acquire special skills. “Some so-called street children are also part of the training,” he said.

The state governor, represented by his deputy, Professor Ivara Esu at a recent event, assured that government specifically set up the Metal Construction Academy in Calabar to train youths, including the Skolombo boys.

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