Governors Akinwumi Ambode of Lagos State and Nasir El-Rufa’i of Kaduna may soon have to dissolve their people and elect another. By this I mean the two obviously well-meaning gentlemen who are determined to restore the idyllic glory of their urban centres, are ironically working at cross purposes with their people. They want to rid their environment of the filth and confusion created by beggars and street hawkers in one fell swoop.
While one can understand the ban on professional begging, the criminalisation of street trading needs a rethink because it is largely a result of economic marginalisation. The poor and unemployed who don’t want to resort to violent crime make do with hawking items on the streets. But rather than open up more jobs for them the government wants to close the door to their current means of survival. Since the economically flagellated people and their governments are so diametrically opposed to each other on this matter, and since the government holds both the proverbial yam and knife, you wonder who, at the end of the day, will dissolve the other.
Announcing the Lagos ban, Governor Ambode said, “At the State Security Council Meeting, it was resolved that the act of street trading that has continued to hamper free flow of traffic on Lagos roads which further constitutes nuisance and security threat to law abiding citizens will no longer be tolerated… Therefore, street traders and buyers will henceforth be arrested and prosecuted. The Task Force on Environmental Sanitation and Special Offences has been mandated to ensure the Law of the State against street trading is enforced to the letter.”
In fairness to government, street traders are a pestilence – if you judge them by the riotous way they zap across expressways just to sell one mango or sachet of ‘pure water’. At times you wonder if they had a death wish.
They obstruct traffic in many places, forcing motorists to navigate around them. The artful dodgers that they are, their antenna is so honed to danger that they vaporise as soon as government enforcers show up, only to regroup moments later with even greater tenacity. Yes, they constitute a menace!
But does that mean that they should be banned and their activities criminalised? Banning, in my view, is a lazy way out of a socio-economic problem. We ought to think deep. How do other countries handle this phenomenon? That was the question that came to my mind last week as I bought barbecued meat at a junction on West 35th Street in New York. Every food vendor operates from a standardised mobile kiosk complete with a waste bin. He is a street trader and he pays his taxes. The government regulates his conduct and does not stand in the way of his attempt at making a living.
As the trading ban made waves on social media, one contributor said, “Take the popular Liverpool Street market in London which is closed on Sundays.
This is where traders of all nations buy goods to be sold in their various counties! The street at the back of Walthamstow Station (East London) is closed to traffic for three days a week. That is the Walthamstow market where Asians shout, “One pound bowl” on fruits like apple, banana etc, You can buy anything from key holders to motor tyres, in the market. Also at Barking and Romford, you see trading on A406; you see people selling water, flowers and soft drinks. No one runs after they like bull dogs…”
A couple of years ago in Johannesburg, one of the things I relished as I walked from my hotel to the conference centre was the mobile kiosk run by a buxom grandmother where you could have a quick sandwich and steaming coffee on-the-go. There was a small bench and waste bin beside the kiosk; so was a steady stream of customers.
The problem with Lagos, Kaduna, Abuja and our other urban centres is that government is too lazy to put the standards in place and enforce them strictly. You can draw a red line across major highways beyond which a street trader must not venture; anyone who crosses the line would then be arrested. On important highways you can have an outright ban on street trading. On side roads you can create trading zones. I recall that during the Second Republic, Governor Jakande of Lagos State created Sunday markets around some streets in Shomolu, Mushin and other densely populated areas so that poor people could trade and make some money.
Banning is the easiest option. Anyone can ban anything as long as he has the power. But it takes real creativity and compassion to devise a scheme where the people can earn a living while the environment is also protected.
In Abuja, the environmental enforcement teams are notorious for swooping on sellers of food items. I wonder how they account for seized goods. What of the perishables like hot steaming puff-puff? Is it not tempting to place a hungry environmental officer in the same van with seized puff-puff and zobo juice? Why would we be robbing the poor to satisfy the palate of so-called enforcers?
My candid advice to the governors of Lagos, Kaduna and the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (and indeed to all governors) is to please deploy more cerebral resources in attempting to solve social problems. This military-style ban without any alternative is sure to rebound on the commuting public as former street traders transmute to desperate robbers.
“It is up to us to live up to the legacy that was left for us, and to leave a legacy that is worthy of our children and of future generations”, says Christine Gregoire. Now, you and I know how the father of story-telling in Nigeria would have reacted to that quote: C-a-u-s-t-i-c!