By democracy’s famous definition, it is taken for granted that the government exists for the sake of the people, that it is simply a means through which a group of people govern themselves. However, governments repeatedly execute policies that are apparently anti-people, providing the impression that the people are deliberately undoing themselves, like a snake biting its own tail. This paradox is easily redefined if one redefines government to be for the elites. That’s the form of government causing discontent across the world.
If governments were truly (and seen to be) working for the benefit of their general populations, names like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump would not exist in the political sphere. Neither would there be terms like Brexit. Bringing this down to Nigeria, in virtually every election season, the major charge contenders bring against subsisting officials is that their stay in office did not benefit “the people”. Although this is sometimes political bullshit, many times, the challengers are right, as existing officials take decisions that harm the very people they are supposedly serving. See the example of Lagos State.
The Lagos State government, headed by Gov. Akinwunmi Ambode, recently announced a ban on street trading. The government indicated its passion to implement a law that was passed in 2003, but left in the government’s vault for thirteen years. The law’s overwhelming deterrent is the prescription of a ₦90,000 fine or a six-month jail term for both buyers and sellers of hawked products. What is the government’s reason?
The LASG hinged its decision on the argument that street trading is a menace, an eye sore in the melting pot of Nigerian commerce. For a city hoping to compete with the world’s top commercial centres, the government feels the streets have to mimic London or Tokyo to attract investors. The government also argues that street traders are linked to a number of crimes, robbery inclusive. Hence, getting them off the streets would make Lagos safer. Some persons point to the recent death of a street hawker while escaping from government officials, and the attendant destruction that followed as motivation for the government. Also on the government’s offence chart is the involvement of children in trading activities. These children would now be free to attend school. Finally, the government argues that there are shops available for traders. For a tax-loving government, having people in shops provides a wider tax base.
It is time to look at the government’s reasons critically. To start with, while accepting that it is good to make Lagos attractive for investors, forgetting the economic realities of Lagosians is a grievous sin. Can the unemployment rate in Lagos be compared with that of London, Frankfurt or New York? The government should have looked at the reasons people are willing to risk their lives to chase after vehicles on the road. If they had better alternatives, the hawkers themselves would disappear. For millions of Nigerians, street trading is a legitimate means of survival, allowing them to stay away from crime.
Talking about crime, pinning street crimes on traders is a disservice to truth and fairness. Statisticians usually talk about sample size, ensuring that a sample is truly representative of the population being studied. Else, erroneous conclusions are inevitable. How many hawkers are in Lagos? What percentage of those hawkers are involved in crime (apart from the crime of hawking to survive)? Is it plausible to push thousands of hawkers off the streets and expect a safer Lagos? Has an idle mind ceased being the devil’s beloved workshop? As research and reality have shown, when humans are cornered, they can do anything to survive; legality being unimportant. With the enforcement of the ban on street trading, many pundits expect an increase in crime. An upsurge in theft and kidnapping may become the new reality in Lagos.
The issue of children’s involvement in hawking is one area where the government may appear to have the moral upper hand. While I agree that every child needs formal education, I don’t agree that banning hawking is the way to force them into schools. Are children hawking because they wish to, or are they being forced by their parents or guardians? Instead of banning everyone, why not say children should not be seen on the streets during school hours. But first, since poverty is at the root of hawking, the government has to guarantee that the child of a knife sharpener can access education without the impediment of finance. Then, the government can prosecute parents/guardians for withholding their children from free education. This is a better approach, not the knee-jerk action of using a hot slap to kill a mosquito.
STV recently aired footage of a newly-built shopping complex that has remained empty for months. How do you expect sellers of Lacasera and Gala to afford shops that cost above ₦10,000 per month? Some of them don’t even make profits of ₦10,000 in an entire month. This is simply elitist self-service; asking pauperized hawkers to rent shops. To start with, their target market is on the move, not some fancy shoppers with plenty of time to pick and twist. If the government can donate “free shops”, then maybe, it would have some moral leverage to sue for empty streets. Instead of telling them to rent overtly expensive shops, the government should have just copied a certain governor to say, “Go and die!” For taxes, the government can make use of unionism, get hawkers unionized in different areas, and negotiate a fixed tax. That way, LASG can see more revenue to spend on developing Lagos.
Finally, from my experience in Lagos and discussions with some Lagosians, the government may be fighting a battle that punishes the generality of Lagosians—elites and non-elites. Although Lagos is Nigeria’s smallest state, Lagosians spend hours on the roads shuttling from one part of the state to another. Being Nigeria’s revered capital of traffic congestion, commuters spend hours trapped in traffic. This is where hawkers come in, bringing life-saving consumables and hankies during hot periods. Did Ambode check how many lives have been saved by hawked products before implementing the ban? If Ambode doesn’t want hawkers, he should solve Lagos’s traffic problems. If vehicles are continuously on the move, hawkers would have limited time to approach commuters. It is wickedness to have a three-hour congestion, and then punish road users for seeking relief, and also punish the shiny-armoured knights that bring the relief. Haba! Even the devil allowed the rich man to beg Abraham for water.
This implemented ban is an expression of a government that claims to seek the good of the entire citizenry, while actually serving a small section of the population. While making life more convenient for the elite, the less endowed should not be dumped. If the poor have no peace, the elite should expect to have a taste of the misery. Eko o ni baje oo!
Image Credit: polyp.org.uk