• Highway hawkers, buyers’ll go to jail – Ambode
  • If we don’t trade in traffic, we can’t feed – Hawkers

By Ola Kehinde-Balogun

RIGHT now in Lagos, the battle line has been drawn. A war looms between the state government and street hawkers plying their trade across the state.

While the state governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, has said the government would no longer harbour highway hawkers and street traders, the road merchandisers are insisting that hawking is part of their culture. They say hawking has been their only means of survival for many years. The state’s law prohibiting hawking in the streets was reawakened by the June 29 incident at Maryland Bus Stop. On that day, an oncoming truck knocked down a young hawker on the highway, who was allegedly running away from some law enforcement agents. It was an accident that stirred up rage among the street hawkers and social miscreants who went on the rampage and destroyed about 14 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) buses belonging to Primero Transport Service Limited and others owned by LAGBUS Asset Management.

Following the accident, the Lagos State government reaffirmed its position to enforce the existing law that seeks to impose a N90,000 fine, a jail term or both on any street trader, hawker as well as the buyer of their goods. Since the announcement, many residents and traders have continued to pour out their anger on the government for what they considered a harsh position that would further impoverish the residents. Others argued that if the law was fully implemented, it would have an adverse effect on the fragile security situation in the state and the country.

Highway hawkers everywhere

On most of the highways in Lagos, the spectacle that confronts you daily is the sight of young and not-so-young men and women selling assorted items in traffic. On the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Third Mainland Bridge, Gbagada-Oshodi Expressway, Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, Ikorodu Road, Funsho Williams Avenue, Lagos-Badagry Expressway, hawkers confront motorists and commuters everyday.

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 the traffic. Indeed, buying and selling on the highway is a common feature in most parts of the 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 always force motorists to slow down, have created permanent places 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.

But Lagos State governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, has vowed to pursue a full implementation of the law that bans street trading and hawking in the metropolis.

Agony of highway hawkers

A street trader at Oyingbo market, another 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.

She said: “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 family. 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.”

Timing, inappropriate?

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Lagos lawyer and social commentator, Ucheckukwu Chinedu pleaded with the Lagos State government to tread with caution on the implementation of the law, especially under the present harsh economic realities in the country. His words: “What the government fails to realize is that there is time for everything. This time is not appropriate for any tight policy that would make the masses groan any further. This is because majority of our countrymen and women are not smiling at the moment. This, I can tell you, is worse among the downtrodden. Again, when things are not working well with the government, and our economy is not doing well, Nigerian leaders expect you to understand. But if the masses cannot feed or are finding it difficult to survive, which has led some of our people to take to street hawking and okada  (commercial motorcycle) riding, government, especially in the All Progressives Congress (APC) controlled states, would be willing to go all the way to crush these poor people and their means of livelihood. The question to ask is, is our government worried about the struggle people go through to make ends meet at all? In as much as no one could campaign for illegality in the land, government also needs wisdom to curb the considered menace without resulting to public commotion.

“For example, the death of the hawker that led to the wild behaviour of his colleagues could be said to have stemmed from compressed anger of these frustrated young boys and girls. Most of them, even with secondary education or one form of training or another, could not fend for themselves. Their offence is just that they are poor. Pitiably enough, there are some of these hawkers that are more frustrated than certain people in other parts of the country, and yet they have not taken up arms against the state. What I am saying in a nutshell is that, government needs great caution in addressing this menace.”

African culture

According to Taiwo Sulaimon, who hawks nylon bags and other household items around the Egbeda suburb in Lagos, street trading has been in existence even before her birth. She considered it odd that an existing law would seek to jail or fine an offender to the tune of N90,000. She wondered why a government that had not empowered her would want to put her out of the business through which she was feeding 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?”

Last week, the reporter, in a bus 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 part of the reasons the incumbent political party was voted into power.

Said he: “Actually, candidly speaking, I know about the law. But I just forgot now that I was buying things from a hawker. I saw Governor Ambode on a local television station few days back and he was 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 sometimes, but they are back because they have no other means of survival.”

But Ambode says, no going back

Meanwhile, Governor Ambode has said there was no going back on the government’s decision to put a stop to street trading.

The governor noted: “The issue is we need to enforce our laws because we already have a law in respect of that and then there is a clause in it which says the buyer and the seller are both liable and that we are going to fine them either N90, 000 or give them a six-month jail term.

“What we are doing on traffic is that we are introducing new strategies to eliminate traffic but Lagos being a cosmopolitan city, you cannot totally eliminate it. But now, this is the case, in the next few days, you will see on the street of Lagos signs that will be warning you that buyers and hawkers should be aware that there are consequences,

“A whole lot of people who are hawkers, when you check them, I understand from intelligence that there is a cartel. Some people buy fake products and then bring the products in and then give these boys to sell on the street and come back to make returns in the night. So, what I want to advise Lagosians is that most times when you think you are buying something of quality on the road, rest assured that those things are fake products.

“We will be watching out for buyers and sellers and all we need is just a scapegoat. Don’t buy plantain chips or any other item in traffic from July 1. Buyers beware,” Governor Ambode warned.

For now, the signposts of warnings are yet to be seen in Lagos. And the hawkers and buyers are still going about their normal business in virtually every part of the metropolis.