Ill-considered ban on street trading
There is a growing list of states including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), proclaiming a “serious intention” to enforce laws banning street trading. Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole tried it, but backed down after he infamously scolded a widowed street trader telling her to “go and die”. Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode is now trying his hand having declared that his administration will enforce a ban because street trading hampers free flow of traffic, constitutes a nuisance, and is a security threat.
Although no new laws have been enacted, enforcing such existing laws at this point in time speaks volumes of the extent to which Nigerian government officials’ care about the plight of the masses. Bans on street trading only satisfy the needs of the rich with their obsession for a pristine environment, not the poor who are pre-occupied with day to day living.
Our present socio-economic reality is one of extreme poverty and mass unemployment. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) there is a 65% rate of unemployment or under-employment, and the situation is degenerating. The continued failure of micro-credit schemes restricts opportunities for citizens to empower themselves.
Meanwhile Government can’t pay salaries let alone consider paying the unemployed. In these circumstances it just isn’t right for governments to enforce anti-street trading laws. It represents callousness in the extreme. Street trading has become the only means to secure an income for the teeming masses of unemployed many of whom have poor education and no prospects.
While ensuring order on the streets is necessary, and the street trading is admittedly unsightly and disorderly as presently carried out, simply banning it is the easiest option and indicates a shallowness of thought. Much as government has a duty to ensure orderliness and preserve the environment, they have a higher moral duty to cater for the under-privileged in society.
Anyone can ban anything if they have the power, but it takes creativity and compassion to devise solutions where hawkers can still earn a living while orderliness is maintained. Policymakers must put their heads together and come up with more humane and innovative ideas by adopting methods used in major cities throughout the world where street trading exists. Unemployed Nigerians struggle to make an honest daily income by either displaying wares on the road, or risking life and limb chasing after moving vehicles.
They truly can’t afford to rent space inside designated markets. They are patronised because the dirty, rowdy, difficult to access market stalls approved by town planning authorities are not conducive or convenient for shoppers to purchase items on their way home. Street traders provide easy access to goods and services and banning them will not only restrict trade, but enforcement of the legislation will routinely be used as a means of extorting money from individuals rather than solving any problem. Even a ban is successful, it will only swell the ranks of militants, kidnappers, armed robbers and other criminal elements.
Government officials tend to underestimate the extent of the problem by simply dismissing street traders as miscreants, criminals and a public nuisance. However any serious attempt to get them off the streets, must include providing alternative opportunities, investing in technical education and finding solutions to increasing ruralurban migration.
On a daily basis people are leaving villages nationwide and arriving in cities with virtually nothing. They struggle to earn a living hawking on the streets. Enforcing a ban on such entrepreneurial enterprise is to destroy the only means they have of resisting the temptation to engage in criminal activities.
At the end of the day street traders are victims of social deprivations caused by poor governance. There is also a cultural angle to the whole issue because street trading has always been part of our way of life. Nigeria isn’t a western nation and while we must definitely adopt modern ways of doing things, these new ways must be beneficial to citizens. Our leaders have come to believe that ordinary Nigerians are docile and can always be cowered into submission.
They should be wary of maintaining such a contemptuous view of their fellow countrymen. Enforcement of anti-street trading laws will give rise to brutality by over-zealous officials and lead to seizing peoples only means of livelihood. The Arab Spring popular revolt in the Middle East was triggered off on 17th December 2010 by an “illegal” street hawker in Tunis named Mohammed Bouazizi who was assaulted by a policeman and his goods seized. With his last hope of earning an honest living gone, Bouazizi bought fuel and set himself ablaze.
A justifiably angry and sympathetic mob started a riot that grew and exploded into open revolt against the Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Our uncompassionate and self-centred leaders would do well to remember that those who fail to learn the lessons of history ended up repeating its mistakes.