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Street Trading Ban In Lagos: Human Face Required

For buying Gala and a bottle of Lacasera – the most popular traffic meal combo – you will be fined N90,000. And for selling you the gala, the hawkers will be fined N50,000. Same goes for plantain chips by the way.

Not unlike the wholesale ban on Okada riders by the previous government, this new law has its merits. The law targets miscreants who disguise as hawkers by day and rob unsuspecting Lagosians by night. Hawkers sell expired products. They also sell fake goods. And so clearly, there are genuine reasons for putting a stop to what is an uncivilised mode of trading.

Aside windscreen wash-men, street or traffic businesses are now almost non existent in most developed countries. The risk to drivers as well as hawkers is considered far too high to allow street trading on major highways. And where do you draw the line between street trading and jaywalking?

Is street trading an ambition for right thinkers?

But here is the problem. People don’t take to the streets by choice to hawk wares typically valued at less than N2,000 in total. Given the choice, not many people would carry trays of groundnuts on their heads and spend 16 hours on the streets come rain or shine. Not many people would get up in the morning hoping to turn a profit of no more than N500. On a good day.

Street traders hawk because they have to. They are the marginal inhabitants of Lagos badly let down by the system. They are faced with very straightforward options – hawk, steal, prostitute or die. Many of them do the first 3 and still die unceremoniously and uncelebrated in the end.

A rule or law must have a human face. It must recognise the reality which underlies the practice that has been deemed so wrong. Yes, many street hawkers probably turn to robbery by night. Not all of them do. In fact, it is unlikely the majority of them turn criminal at sunset, else we would all be dead or traumatised by repeated assaults.

Street trading – producers’ perspective

And in a simple market system such as this, if the products sold were consistently fake and or expired, buyers would have shown their displeasure by simply refusing to patronize the hawkers. In other words, street trading clearly fulfils a need.

The Lagos state authorities did not consult with producers and manufacturers. Else, even the established juggernauts like Coca Cola and UAC would have confirmed that street and traffic sales are significant channels for their products. More importantly however are the small time producers. Maybe 90% of all plantain chips sold in Lagos is bought in traffic. Most of all the fruits consumed in Lagos are sold by street traders.

We won’t discuss the traditional herbs and “man medicines” sold in Lagos traffic and heavily patronised by drivers and transporters.

In an economy already plagued by chronic youth unemployment, a knee jerk reaction to an informal sector responsible for thousands of jobs directly and indirectly is potentially dangerous.

While Governor Ambode continues to outperform his peers and even forebears, his work can easily be undone by unpopular policies such as this one.

Getting people off the streets, literally

What is needed now is a face-saving tactical withdrawal. It should involve a revisit of the ban whereby only registered and approved hawkers and traders are allowed on the streets. As more employment opportunities open up, the requirements for street trading can be made more stringent. In time, this will reduce the throng of hawkers and street traders to more manageable numbers.

As it stands, the ban is a bad idea. It is a victimization of the poor and the helpless. It is an attack on people who have been forced into poverty by the very people who are responsible for their plight. Or at least, so it seems.

Let us be guided, “when the poor have nothing left to eat, they will eat the rich”. In Lagos, there is no middle class as far as the poor are concerned. We will all be at the mercy of the rampaging hawks (or is that hawkers?) when the call is sounded.

 

Ifeanyi Maduka

 

[Further reading…]

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