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•Despite order banning practice, hawking continues on Lagos roads
By Ola Kehinde-Balogun
Six months after the announcement by Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, that he would kick in motion the enforcement of the ban on street hawking in Lagos, road merchandisers have increased in number.
In july, the governor had stated that anyone caught hawking on the streets of Lagos would be prosecuted. The prosecution would cover the hawker and the customer. They would either get a fine of N90,000 or spend six months in prison. Following the announcement, many Lagos residents had thought that the battle line was drawn. They thought some punitive actions were looming over the hawkers plying their trade across the roads and streets of the state. Lagos residents were initially watchful of their desire to purchase items on the road or patronise street hawkers.
It is December, the street hawkers have remained unperturbed, even as government seems to have left the hawkers to continue plying their trade on the highways, byways and streets of the megacity. At the numerous motor parks, bus stops and on the highways of Lagos, buying and selling continues like in times past.
On most of the highways in Lagos, the spectacle that confronts one daily is the sight of young and not-so-young men and women selling assorted items in traffic. On the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Third Mainland Bridge, Gbagada-Oshodi Expressway, Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, Ikorodu Road, Funsho Williams Avenue, Lagos-Badagry Expressway, hawkers confront motorists and commuters every day and keep commerce moving.
The reporter recently went round Lagos. It was still business as usual across the major streets in Lagos Island and Ebute Ero. Nobody seemed to remember Ambode’s directives. The roads were occupied by traders whose activities impeded the free flow of traffic. At Ikorodu, Oshodi, Ikeja and Iyana-Ipaja, Abule Ado, Alakija, the situation has not changed, even as the traders appeared to be on the alert for the possible arrival of Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) officials. Once alerted by their fellow traders, they quickly disappear their wares only to resume trading after the officials have gone, in a sort of cat-and-mouse game. The reporter, however, observed some of the traders being arrested, especially at Oshodi, and thrown behind the prison-like patrol vans used by KAI. But many argued that it was very easy for the traders to bribe their way out of incarceration. And as soon as they were freed, they returned to the roads, hawking their merchandise, which has rendered the law impotent, a resident told Daily Sun.
However, most of the street traders, who spoke to the reporter at some of the places visited, simply dismissed the law as the usual posturing by government. Some said they had little options, insisting that they might die of hunger if they were not allowed to sell. Many argued that the same government that initiated the law actually created the conditions that forced them into street trading. As far as they were concerned, trading on the streets and roads was the only available alternative in the face of current economic realities.
One of the traders, Kelechi Chinedu, informed the reporter that the demolition of the famed Tejuosho Market and the high cost of rent at the new market built in its place left him with few options.
Hear him: “I owned a big shop where I was selling textile materials, but after the demolition and reconstruction of Tejuosho Market, the shops were taken away from us as we could not afford the new price. I used to pay N5,000 monthly for my shop before the place was transformed to an ultra-modern market. Since I could not afford to rent a shop at the exorbitant amount they were charging, I had to resort to street trading and petty business to keep body and soul together.’’
A street trader at Oyingbo market, a bustling community in Ebute Meta area of Lagos Mainland, who identified herself as Mrs. Ifeoma Jude, decried the government’s policy to ban street trading. She said government functionaries were probably unaware of how hard living had become for most Nigerians : “Our governments are not bothered about how poor traders like us survive in this country. We know that street hawking or selling things in traffic on the highways is very risky. But how else does the government want the people to survive? Most of us petty traders cannot go near many of these government-built lock-up shops, because they are too expensive. Unfortunately, if we don’t go out in a day to sell, we cannot feed our families.
“I don’t even understand the new law. Is it that they would go into local streets and arrest hawkers that are not even on the highway? If that is so, it would be unfair, because, selling goods and food items from house to house is not new in many of our communities. I can only imagine what offence they would say street traders have committed, especially, those that are not blocking any part of the road.”
In all parts of the state, many hungry commuters lack the patience to visit designated markets or eateries to quench their thirst or hunger. Most of them wonder why they really need to, as they are readily greeted with all kinds of snacks and wares by passionate sellers in traffic. Indeed, buying and selling on the highway is a common feature in most parts of Lagos State.
Some residents have said that selling goods in gridlocks is as old as the state. Like in other parts of the country, many believe that hawking is a practice that is traceable to the cultural background of the indigenous people of Lagos and, indeed, the Yoruba.
Some craters and potholes on the bad portions of many roads, which would compel motorists to slow down, have created permanent ‘sales points’ for highway trading. Hawking, as an enterprise, is, however, not limited to major roads and highways during traffic jams. Hawking goods around streets and roads is a general practice in Africa that predates modern-day government, according to studies. Today, there is hardly any part of West Africa where hawking or street trading is not practised, especially in the downscale communities.
According to Taiwo Sulaimon, who hawks polythene (‘nylon’) bags and other household items in the Egbeda suburb in Lagos, street trading has been in existence even before she was born. She considered it odd that an existing law would seek to jail or fine an offender to the tune of N90,000, and wondered why a government that had not empowered her would want to put her out of the business through which she was catering for her family. In anger, she fired many questions at the reporter, who had accosted her where she was selling goods to her customers: “They said we should move away from Oshodi, we did. They said we should no longer sell in traffic, and we moved. Is it the government that put me in business? What offence did we commit for choosing to trade, even when some others have chosen to steal? Is it that the governor does not want us in town any longer?”
Recently, the reporter, in a bus going to Festac First Gate Bus Stop, asked one of the passengers that bought some snacks from a food hawker at Mile 2 if he was aware of the new law that could put even the buyer in trouble. The passenger, who simply identified himself as John, criticised the law, even as he queried if that was one of the reasons the incumbent political party was voted into power.
Said he: “Actually, candidly speaking, I know about the law. But I don’t think the law is taking any effect on the buyers at all. I see KAI people running after only the sellers occasionally. Nobody has ever arrested a buyer that I know of. How do you prove it? Such a gesture would only lead to public uproar and fighting, because you do not see me with a kiosk or tray of goods. How are you sure that I have not brought out my food from my bag? Sometime ago, I saw Governor Ambode on a local television station spitting fire, threatening to arrest both the buyer and the seller. I think, most times, our government officials misplace their priorities. This is not a developed setting yet, our government should note that.
“I can tell you that the people selling these goods on the road are not happy themselves. So, why do we want to arrest poor people that are just struggling to have something to eat? I don’t think this is what we need now. People would only hate the APC government the more, as they are already seeing it as an anti-people party. The okada people that are plying the highway dangerously are still there. I know government tried to send them off, but they are back because they have no other means of survival.”
As harsh as the penalties are, the law has been hardly observed. The government announcement in July came after the tragic incident of July 1, this year when a street hawker trying to escape from KAI officials was run over by a BRT bus. The incident led to the destruction of dozens of BRT buses by angry hawkers and touts.
But there seems to be a growing sympathy by many for street traders, which suggests that the state government has a Herculean task as it tries to sanitise the streets and roads. Lagos in particular, has a thriving population of poor people who allegedly live on less than $1 a day. The situation is even worse with the economic recession bedevilling the country now.