Hundreds of thousands of Lagosians make their living selling food and household goods in traffic, providing a valuable service to commuters and a solid (if dangerous) job. A new crackdown aims to change all that, but at what cost?
On a mostly disused railway line in Ikeja, central Lagos, Bola Jimo has spread out her wares: drinks and snacks and small goods on stools, fabrics laid out directly on the tracks.
“I get here at 7 or 8 am and don’t leave until 10pm”, explains Jimo, a 40-year-old single mother of three. As we speak, her 18-year-old son minds the stall: both of her sons are street traders as well, weaving between lanes of traffic selling to commuters trapped in their cars in Lagos’s notorious gridlock. “It’s dangerous of course,” she says. “I never wanted them to do it, but life happened that way.”
On a good day she makes roughly 1,000 naira (£2.50), and works six days a week. “It is hard but I have no other choice. I didn’t go to school, I can’t steal or sell myself. I have to sell for my children’s school fees, for rent and food.”
If life is hard, it is about to get harder. Despite selling on the streets for 20 years, a new total ban on street hawking has suddenly made Jimo’s livelihood – and that of thousands of others in Lagos – criminal.
“The task force and police came three times this morning alone,” she says, adding that because street trading is so difficult to ban, authorities are resorting to aggressive tactics. “We had to run because they were confiscating our goods and taking traders away. What are we to do if we do not sell? This is our only livelihood.”
The trading and illegal market law has banned street selling since 2003, but has been only fleetingly policed. In late June this year, however, a street hawker in Lagos was killed by a car while trying to avoid being apprehended by road officials. Incensed at the death, groups of fellow street hawkers became violent, destroying 14 buses and vehicles.
The governor of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode, responded by declaring that the ban on street hawkers would be implemented immediately across the city. It applies to both those who sell and buy goods on the street, and carries a punishment of six months in prison and a 90,000 naira (£213) fine.
According to Victoria Ohere, the director of the Lagos-based NGO Spaces for Change, the ban unlawfully infringes on the rights of street hawkers.
“It unfairly empowers state authorities to seize items, and gives the state the authority to sell them off and dispose of them as they wish,” she says. “Their goods are forfeited even if they are not convicted. I’ve rarely seen a ban so insensitive to people’s realities.”
Street trading is woven into the culture of daily life in Lagos. Constant traffic jams and congestion provide a ready market for sellers to hawk their goods to commuters. The sellers on bridges and expressways are predominantly young men, proffering everything from drinks and sausage rolls to floor mats and bed linen. Fruit sellers, mostly women, cluster on and beneath pedestrian bridges and around bus stops: wherever the congestion will make selling more profitable.
Buying on the street is particularly convenient for car commuters, who can spend hours a day imprisoned in traffic. Many of the items sold on the streets and roadsides are also easier to find than in shopping malls, and are significantly cheaper. Informal markets have sprung up near main bus stops across the city.
Street selling has nevertheless been a contentious issue in Lagos for years. Children under 16 and as young as six sell openly and widely throughout Nigeria, leaving them vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. In many cases their “career” also deprives them of compulsory education. It is illegal for children to sell, but it is rarely policed.
The previous governor, Babatunde Fashola, banned selling in a number of areas (including in a marketplace beneath an Ikeja expressway where Jimo previously sold oranges), part of the state government’s objectives to modernise the design and infrastructure of Lagos – objectives that often see vibrant, crowded commercial areas as obstacles. Some of the traders are allocated new areas that are less densely populated, and consequently less commercially viable.
Most of the 11 million “micro enterprises” in Lagos, as estimated by the National Bureau of Statistics, rely on street selling as a source of income. Many of the hawkers are adults like Jimo who have not been through the education system. The ban therefore presents a potential crisis for many hawkers who would otherwise struggle to make ends meet.
Ambode, in response, has offered affected sellers loans through the state’s N24-billion Employment Trust Fund. One of the fund’s managers, Akin Oyebode, said it is designed to help sellers set up shop in more official places.
“We’re offering small loans, with more flexible credit requirements with them in mind,” Oyebode says. “Ideally they will be able to set up small shops so that they can sell more formally in a safe environment.”
But some observers are sceptical that a fund set up long before the ban will help the majority of hawkers affected.
The question of enforcement, meanwhile, remains huge. The prevalence of street hawking makes it difficult to police. While the Governor’s announcement serves as a firm instructive to police officers and road officials, it will take more than a few isolated arrests to end an industry upon which thousands of Lagosians rely.
“If [the authorities] found work for us, then we would not need to sell,” Jimo says. “It’s because they haven’t done this kind of work that they don’t understand that we are suffering.”
By Emmanuel Akinwotu, this article was first published in the Guardian