Un­holy war against street trad­ing

Daily Trust - - OPINION -

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 mil­i­tarystyle ban with­out any al­ter­na­tive is sure to rebound on the com­mut­ing pub­lic as for­mer street traders trans­mute to des­per­ate rob­bers.

*For Ge­orge*

“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 sto­ry­telling in Nige­ria would have re­acted to that quote: C-a-u-s-t-i-c!

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