No hawking. No trading. Lagos bans street selling

The Lagos government is getting tough on street selling, squeezing the economic life line of street hawkers who risk up to six months in jail and a hefty fine.

A file photo showing a street vendor who is selling his wares on a road of Lagos. Nigerian authorities are now clamping down on hawkers such as these, threatening those who continue doing so with up to six months in jail and a fine of 90,000 naira if they're caught. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP
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LAGOS // Every morning, Mama Biliki prepares small bags of popcorn outside her ramshackle house in Ajegunle, one of Lagos’ poorest neighbourhoods.

She sells them for for 50 naira each by the roadside.

On a good day, she can earn about 5,000 naira (Dh59) hawking them to pedestrians and motorists stuck in the traffic jams that plague Nigeria’s biggest city.

But the government is getting tough on street selling, leaving Mama Biliki and others like her with an uncertain future.

“I appeal to the government to allow us to hawk on the streets since we don’t have money to rent a shop, so we can continue to feed our families,” she said.

“Even those with a shop, they don’t sell as much as me who hawks in the streets. There are so many taxes on shops that it doesn’t allow them to make a profit.”

In Nigeria’s financial hub – a noisy, overcrowded melting pot of some 20 million people – hawkers can be seen everywhere, snaking between the cars in choking fumes and oppressive heat.

Hungry drivers or passengers in packed danfos (public minibuses) can buy snacks of spicy plantain chips and roasted peanuts, and quench their thirst with cold drinks.

While the traffic idles in snaking, honking queues, drivers can do their grocery shopping, picking up pre-packed fruit and vegetables, and dried noodles from boxes through their car windows.

Elsewhere, there are Nollywood DVDs on sale at traffic lights; hats from every Nigerian region; basketball hoops; mobile phones; and at Christmas time, a whole variety of festive decorations.

And when there is a fuel shortage, hawkers sell rubber pipes and plastic funnels to get petrol from the jerrycans of illegal roadside traders. Goods are seasonal and predictable.

But now the hawkers – who provide a measure of service to gridlocked commuters with no time to shop – risk up to six months in jail and a fine of 90,000 naira if caught.

The governor of Lagos state, Akinwunmi Ambode, has called the petty traders an “environmental nuisance” and a “security threat to citizens”.

“Street traders and buyers will henceforth be arrested and prosecuted,” he said earlier this month.

He said a task force had been mandated “to ensure the law of the state against street trading is enforced to the letter”.

For the traders, though, the crackdown could rob them of a lifeline. Despite Nigeria’s nominal status as Africa’s leading economy, most of its 180 million people live in dire poverty.

Shedrach Ogona, who sells cooking utensils by the road, said: “We’re not criminals, we have [qualifications]. We’re trained. Most of us are trained in one thing or another.

“Please, let the government do what is reasonable.”

Kingsley Shokun, who sells books, said many of the hawkers were not on the road by choice. “We’re not enjoying selling here,” he protested.

Nigeria’s economy has been built on oil but with global prices low since 2014, the flow of money has dried up – not that it ever reached the masses in the first place.

Inflation rocketed to 16.5 per cent in June – the highest for nearly 11 years – driving up the cost of living, particularly for fuel and food.

The country’s dependence on oil has been laid bare, with little domestic manufacturing or industry to plug the gap. Unemployment among young graduates has been estimated at nearly 45 per cent.

According to Chinedu Bosah, secretary of the Campaign for Democratic and Workers’ Rights (CDWR), banning the hawkers could have a negative effect.

One hawker was knocked down by a truck as he tried to evade arrest.

“What is going to be the alternative? The alternative will only be crime,” said Mr Bosah.

* Agence France-Presse