LAGOS is embroiled in a fresh round of controversy over a move by the state government to implement the law banning trading on the highways. The renewed move to enforce it initially ended in chaos when a young hawker fleeing from Kick Against Indiscipline officials was killed by a truck in Maryland. In protest, miscreants and hawkers went violent, destroyed 48 BRT buses, fleeced commuters and injured 25 of them. Governor Akinwunmi Ambode said the BRT repairs would gulp N139 million. While we feel the pain of the deceased’s family, the wilful destruction of public property is uncalled for.
Superficially, the ban appears oppressive. The popular sentiment is that the legions of street traders besieging Lagos highways are providing a service, contributing to the economy and would otherwise have been jobless. A babel of civil society organizations and human rights activists have condemned Ambode’s plan. This is just gut reaction. Motorists and commuters, accustomed to snapping up merchandise in traffic stops, are aggrieved that they would no longer be able to buy chips, water and sausage rolls. With the few market spaces available going for prohibitive prices, the advocates of street trading seem to have a good point. Yet, hindsight and examples from other societies disprove these claims.
Street trading is part of the informal economy, but many jurisdictions discourage it because it has more adverse effects than beneficial attributes. Apart from encouraging crime, a sticking downside is its impact on the environment: it engenders overcrowding in the streets, causes nuisance like smell, noise and litter. Children who are supposed to be in school are recruited into the web of street trading. Lagos suffers unduly from a daily influx of Nigerians from the hinterland, who put enormous pressure on infrastructure, health, education and social facilities. They distort planning. In a federal system, Lagos has a right to control the influx. To guard against this, the Lagos State Government had in 2003 enacted the Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law, which, in Section One, prohibits street trading and hawking. It provides for a fine of N90,000 or a six-month jail term for both buyer and seller. However, the law had been dormant. The fault lies with successive administrations in the state, which refused to implement it as street traders ran riot.
The premise that the ban will hurt the poor is faulty. Experts say uncontrolled street trading is an indicator of disorderly societies. First, crime and fraud are closely interlocked with street trading. In making a case for the ban, Ambode said, “I understand from intelligence that there is a cartel; some people buy fake products and bring the products in and give these boys to sell on the streets … when you think you are buying something of quality on the road, rest assured that those things are fake products.” No responsible government will allow this anomaly to subsist.
This leads us to crime. In Lagos, robbers disguise as street traders; with them, no commuter is safe in traffic snarls. They sell their wares in the daytime and convert to thieves early in the morning and evening.
The Government should press ahead with the implementation. The deterrent is good, but Ambode should ensure that the security agencies do not abuse it. It will send a message to urchins and miscreants that Lagos is a place of law and order. Examples from other parts of the world are instructive. Although the United Kingdom Department of Business recognizes that street-side stalls aid the economy, the local councils there regulate activities. Before engaging in street trading in Bedford, an applicant must apply for a license costing up to £4,510 per annum. The applicant must be a minimum age of 17. The Cornwall Borough imposes a fine of £1,000 on unlicensed street traders in its jurisdiction, while in Bristol, trading is prohibited completely in some streets. Yet, the UK DoB, in a 2010 reform, recommended that all street (stall) traders must undergo a stringent background police check. Nigeria’s chaotic policing system can render this unfeasible. Thus, Lagos would have to enforce its current law until there is a better security architecture.
To mitigate the ban, Ambode must make the construction of markets and stalls a top priority. There are many markets in Lagos, but they are obviously not adequate for a state of 21 million residents. The local government councils must be empowered to take up the slack; they should build affordable stalls that street traders can migrate to. The governor must put the LGs in the state to work because it is a tall order to think that only Alausa, the seat of power, will build markets for all classes of traders when there are 57 local authorities in the state. The state government can then concentrate on constructing middle- and high-end market spaces.
Lagos residents in and around Oshodi are breathing better now because Ambode’s predecessor, Babatunde Fashola, decided to clean up the long-standing mess there in 2009. If he had been swayed by populism that the street traders there had nowhere else to sell, the place would still have been an eyesore, and a den of criminals. Therefore, Ambode should implement the law banning hawkers from the highways of Lagos.