Ambode and the street traders of Lagos by Reuben Abati

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Article written by former presidential
spokesperson, Reuben Abati. Read below…
I am writing this piece after holding a series of
conversations with Lagos street traders and
hawkers who seem not be aware of or are just
indifferent to, or may be they are intrigued by,
the fact that the State Governor, Akinwunmi
Ambode has declared on television that the
state government is prepared to enforce an
existing law banning street hawking.
The relevant law, the Lagos State Street Trading
and Illegal Market Prohibition Law, 2003
prescribes a punishment of N90, 000 or a six-
month jail term, for both the buyer and the seller
of any goods or services on the streets. So I
asked this vendor, who kept pushing copies of the
day’s newspapers in my face, so close, you
wouldn’t even be able to read the headline free of
charge.

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“My friend, are you aware that what you are doing
is illegal? You never hear say Governor Ambode
don ban street trading?”
“That one no concern vendor oh. Na these other
people wey dey sell chewing gum and water dem
dey talk about”
“No. Street trading is street trading. You are
hawking your newspapers, why don’t you get a
shop or a stand?”
“Make I open shop to sell newspaper? Na for
inside traffic people dey buy newspaper, oga?’”
“I just hope they won’t arrest you. The fine is
N90, 000 or six months in jail.”
“Oga, you wan buy paper? Which one you wan
buy, I beg. See, the thing be say, for this Nigeria,
anytime wey anybody reach power, dem go just
dey do wetin dey like. Dey no dey pity we poor
people at all.”
I laughed and drove off.
“Water! Water!”, I yelled at a young man carrying
a small basket of drinks. He ran to the car from
the other side of the road, side-stepping a Keke
Marwa and almost colliding with a motorcycle.
“How much?”
“N100”
“Can I buy because I hear the Governor says they
should arrest anybody that is hawking anything in
Lagos. And this is Agidingbi oh, too close to
Alausa. Please.”
“Oga buy wetin you wan buy. If we no sell water
for traffic, you know how many people go don die
for inside go-slow. When traffic start now, even
Ambode go buy water for inside traffic drink.”
“Oya, bring it quickly. Don’t let those LASTMA
people see you.”
“Which LASTMA people? Oga, relax. Na we-we.
As we dey this street so, nobody fit remove us.“
As I listened to his attempt to share his
knowledge of the streets, I heard the clanging of a
bell. A bicyclist was approaching, a mini-cooler,
hanging conspicuously in his front. Fan Ice! Fan
Milk! A young girl passed, carrying a tray of
groundnuts. The early morning traffic was
beginning to build up, 24 hours after Governor
Ambode huffed and puffed on television about
street hawking.
I immediately remembered Olajumoke
Orisaguna, the Nigerian Cinderella, who made it
from street hawking to the runway. It occurred to
me to ask one of the hawkers.
“Do you know Olajumoke?”
“Olajumoke, oni bread. Oga you sef, e ti jasi.
Don Jazzy, Baba. If Olajumoke no sell bread for
street, how dem for discover say him get talent.
Oga, as you me so, I be student oh for
Polytechnic. The money I make from the street,
that ‘s what I use to maintain myself and one
day, if I become Governor in this country, I‘ll
remember and I will not ban street hawking.”

That was some sobering thought. The
sociology of street trading is worth
understanding. It is mostly a source of
employment for many persons with low income
and low education, and in its more structured
format, a large part of the informal sector in many
parts of the world. For the buyer who has been
demonized along with the seller in the Lagos
state law, street trading actually provides easy
access to a lot of goods and services, and when
you are trapped in the ubiquitous traffic hold-ups
across the city, running into hours oftentimes, it
helps to just look out the window and buy any
food item ranging from fish, to fried meat and
shrimps, loaves of bread, biscuits, gala, meat pie,
water, beer and any other drink. If it is a rainy
day and you need to step out of the vehicle, you
can buy an umbrella while in the traffic. You can
also get served hot milk, tea or coffee, or have a
shoe-shiner give your shoes a new, clean,
gleaming look.
On a sunny and humid day, and you are
thirsty, you can have very cold fan milk, or any
other drink to cool down your system. Pop-corn,
roasted maize, walnuts, name it, everything is
available by the roadside, as the traffic crawls. If
you have issues with your phone, or your wrist-
watch, or even your clothes, you can buy new
ones on the streets. Books, musical CDs,
electronics, even sex toys, and aphrodisiacs.
There is a special connection between traffic and
street trading. But there are also challenges for
all parties involved: for the buyer, you could get
sold fake or risky stuff, and your money could be
stolen – always collect the goods and your
change before you hand over any amount.
The sellers always have to contend with
physical risk and sexual abuses, run-ins with
extortionist law enforcement officials, nerve-
wracking exposure to the elements, and
competition for space. People sell on the streets
because they cannot afford to rent shops or erect
structures, and in any case, government is often
part of this problem. Markets are taken over by
the authorities with the intention to modernize
them, but when the shops and stalls are built, the
original traders can no longer afford them
because they would have been taken over by the
rich and prized beyond the reach of the poor who
are then forced onto the streets, thus deepening
the agony of the displaced and the marginalized.
This is the story of Tejuoso market in Lagos, as
is the story of others across the country. If street
traders had a choice, they would also acquire
permanent structures where they can display their
wares in safety. If they could help it, they will
also sit in the comfort of air-conditioned
vehicles. Traffic and street trading further define
an existential part of the urban social order, and
in Lagos as elsewhere, the character, pulse and
soul of the city.
The convenient tendency for government
officials is to dismiss the street as the haunt of
miscreants, criminals and the dubious and street
trading as a nuisance to the social order. This is
what Governor Ambode of Lagos has done. The
trigger for his televised sanctimony is the recent
clash in Lagos at Maryland and Ojota, involving
the law, traffic and street traders with tragic
consequences. We are told that Kick Against
Indiscipline (KAI) officials had given a hawker the
chase, that fateful day. As the young man ran
across the busy expressway, he found himself in
front of an on-coming state-government owned
BRT bus, which crushed him instantly – his
intestines gouged out. This resulted in mob
action.
In the process, 49 BRT vehicles, belonging
to the state government were torched, and
according to the Governor, it will cost the state
government “almost N139 million to put those
buses back on the road.” The Governor sounds as
if the loss of these buses is more painful than the
death of Nnamdi, the street hawker who was
chased to his death. Haba, Governor, se oro ni
yen ! The Governor needs to be reminded of the
over-zealousness of KAI-LASTMA officials and
the recklessness, also, of BRT bus drivers, and
the fact that N139 million may replace buses, but
it will not replace a life that has been lost. It is
also hard to believe that the Governor’s position
is based on the outcome of investigations, which
try to distance the state officials from the
accident, and even if this is so, the decision to
exhume a law that is to all practical purposes, a
dead law, only enforced opportunistically, does
not fully address the issue. A law is dead as an
instrument of social justice when it is openly
defied, disregarded, resisted and attempts to
enforce it are openly ridiculed, and the state itself
finds its application difficult in the face of the
people’s preferences and choices. The test and
impact of any true law is in its application.
To get hawkers off the streets, government
must provide alternative opportunities and invest
more in social capital. The menace of traffic hold
ups should be addressed and a proper
transportation network must be in place. Shops
and stalls must be affordable and accessible and
markets should be located in user-friendly
locations. Street hawkers are constrained by their
social circumstances, most of all, by poverty. To
check street trading, government must also
address the rising threat of rural-urban migration.
Lagos as a growing megalopolis is the destination
of choice for all kinds of adventurers from
Nigeria’s hinterlands, they arrive in the city, and
having nothing to do, they manage to buy a
basket, or a tray, which they fill with goods that
may not be up to N5,000, and they jump onto the
streets, struggling to earn a living as the traffic
crawls.
To push them out is to destroy the only
dream they have of remaining human. The state
government should take a second look at the law:
perhaps the most urgent thing is to insist that
anyone of school age, must not be found
hawking, during school hours. And no matter
what, Governor Ambode should not rob us of the
humour of the streets, a rich therapeutic part of
life and living in Lagos. I remember as I say this,
those young, nubile girls on the streets of Lagos
who sell drugs and local herbs. They all have the
same qualifications: their front-lamps are
permanently in the North, staring directly into a
man’s eyes. The girls are coy, friendly, optically
tempting, and they only target men as customers.
Even when you insist you don’t need what they
sell, they won’t let you be.
“Oga, buy this tablet now. Or taste this drink.
Madam will thank you for it.”
“Madam? She must not even know I spoke with
you!”
“But she will thank you, I swear.”
“You have used it before?”
“Hen hen.”
“Okay. But before I buy anything, I must test it.
And na me and you go test am. Enter moto, make
we go. ”
“Hen, go where? Oga, go test am with Madam for
house.”
“No. I will test it on you first. Fine girl, you dey
fear? ”
Oftentimes, this is followed by much laughter with
the girl scampering off…

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