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Lagos, Street Hawkers and The Human Face of Public Policy

There has been a strong debate on the issue of street trading in Lagos for the past few days. This is definitely due to the Lagos State government’s (LASG) reaction to the unfortunate death of a Lagos resident and hawker who was knocked down by a vehicle while trying to escape arrest by one of the government’s agencies.

The debate has centered mainly on security (for those who support the position of the Lagos State Government) and on the “Rich versus Poor” argument (for those who perceive the government’s action as a war to decimate the poor in the society).

In 2003, the Tinubu’s administration in Lagos State, introduced the “Lagos State Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law”. LASG, in reaction to the unfortunate death of the hawker, announced the full implementation of the law with effect from 1 July 2016. LASG cannot fold its arms and allow the citizens to be mauled down by vehicles just because they want to make a living as street hawkers. I also believe that child hawkers are not to be encouraged on our expressways. In addition, there is no crime in enforcing an existing law. While I support the implementation of this law, especially knowing that many crimes are being committed on our expressways using these street hawkers as informants and/ or perpetrators, I believe that a gradual and phased implementation could have been more appropriate.

Why should LASG issue a threat or seek to implement a law when there is really no apparatus to ensure reasonable or full compliance? Have we been able to stop OKADAs from the major expressways? Have we been able to stop touts (Agberos) from controlling our motor parks? Have we been able to stop people from issuing and collecting fake tax clearance certificates (I am not throwing shades at my friends in Abia State at the moment)? For me, these are issues that LASG should consider in details before rushing to enforce the law. The truth is that we do not need laws to drive behaviours every time, sometimes, we just need to provide alternatives. Let us remember that Babatunde Raji Fashola (BRF) effectively phased out the “Molue” (those old and rickety buses) from our major expressways without promulgating or enforcing any law – BRF’s government created alternatives (BRT buses and the licensing of corporate car hire companies). Thanks also to the arrival of UBER in Lagos last year. This is already creating a good alternative to those rickety yellow taxis. There is definitely more to public policy than the enforcement of laws.

The interesting thing about this negative response to the LASG action is that the strongest voices against the action has been from the middle and high-income earners, and not necessarily from the “poor” residents as the pro-LASG narratives tend to suggest. These groups of residents are the people that will be impacted by the government’s decision – because they patronise the street hawkers and some even use the street hawkers as an efficient and cheap distribution network for their products. Personally, I have bought several packs of Gala (from UAC Plc) while in traffic and I can’t remember ever buying the product in any fanciful store anywhere.

In every market, there must be both buyers and sellers (and the suppliers to the sellers!). The sellers are being patronized because they are meeting the needs of some people. So, why do people patronize the street hawkers? The answer is simple. The first answer is CONVENIENCE. If you are passing through a 3-hour traffic to your house after a busy day at work, then the plantain or bread or groundnut hawker might be your savior (because all the fanciful supermarket in your neighborhood could have closed their stores before you get to your homes). The “pure water” or “bottled water” and the “Gala” sellers have been saving lives since I’ve known Lagos traffic. The second reason why street hawkers are patronized is PRICE. Why should one go to Shoprite (or other similar fanciful stores) to buy plantain at N1,100 when a similar quantity is being sold at N600 in the legendary Ajah traffic? Simple economics! This is what Senator Ben Bruce will refer to as “common sense”.

So, what can LASG do? LASG needs to recognise that the street hawkers are entrepreneurs and most of them are law-abiding citizens who chose street trading as a way to make ends meet. Is there a possibility that some of them might be interested in learning a trade or vocation if provided a good and affordable platform? I think so. LASG can leverage on “Corporate Lagos” to sponsor new trade and vocational centres. The Dual Vocational Training (DVT) program that is being sponsored by the German Government in Nigeria might be a good model to start tinkering with. Graduates of such programs can be organised into cooperatives and provided with spaces for “Neighbourhood Stores” under a “license arrangement” with a government agency. I believe that such an arrangement could also attract organisations like the Bank of Industry (BOI) that can provide loans to such cooperative societies.

LASG also needs to remember that the poor masses are part of any society, even in the US or UK or Germany. In our quest to project the “modern Lagos”, we have consistently pulled down the markets and related infrastructure that are easily affordable to the masses and replaced them with the “high end” stores. Tejuosho market is a perfect example of such a policy agenda that worked against the poor masses. If we stop these hawkers from being able to earn legitimate earnings, we might be indirectly pushing them into kidnapping, robbery and other illicit businesses. Unfortunately, they will still come after the people in the “modern Lagos”.

In every public policy, there are usually trade-offs. For the ban on street hawking to have a human face, LASG must be ready to provide clear alternatives that will still meet the need of the market (Lagos residents) while also eliminating the security threats and the dangers that the hawkers are exposed to.

I believe in an inclusive modern Lagos. Eko o ni baje. God bless Lagos.

By Oluwole Oluyemi FCA, FCTI, CIA

WF Oluyemi, a chartered accountant and corporate strategist, resides in Lagos.

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