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Reuben Abati: Ambode And The Street Traders Of Lagos [MUST READ]

Traffic and street traders further define an existential part of the urban social order, and in Lagos as elsewhere, the character, pulse and soul of the city.

I am writing this piece after holding a series of conversations with Lagos street traders and hawkers who seem not be aware of or are just indifferent to, or may be they are intrigued by, the fact that the state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode has declared on television that the state government is prepared to enforce an existing law banning street hawking. The relevant law, the Lagos State Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law, 2003 prescribes a punishment of N90, 000 or a six-month jail term, for both the buyer and the seller of any goods or services on the streets. So I asked this vendor, who kept pushing copies of the day’s newspapers in my face, so close, you wouldn’t even be able to read the headline free of charge.

“My friend, are you aware that what you are doing is illegal? You never hear say Governor Ambode don ban street trading?”

“That one no concern vendor oh. Na these other people wey dey sell chewing gum and water dem dey talk about”

“No. Street trading is street trading. You are hawking your newspapers, why don’t you get a shop or a stand?”

“Make I open shop to sell newspaper? Na for inside traffic people dey buy newspaper, oga?’”

“I just hope they won’t arrest you. The fine is N90, 000 or six months in jail.”

“Oga, you wan buy paper? Which one you wan buy, I beg. See, the thing be say, for this Nigeria, anytime wey anybody reach power, dem go just dey do wetin dey like. Dey no dey pity we poor people at all.”

 I laughed and drove off.

“Water! Water!”, I yelled at a young man carrying a small basket of drinks. He ran to the car from the other side of the road, side-stepping a Keke Marwa and almost colliding with a motorcycle.

“How much?”

“N100”

“Can I buy because I hear the Governor says they should arrest anybody that is hawking anything in Lagos. And this is Agidingbi oh, too close to Alausa. Please.”

“Oga buy wetin you wan buy. If we no sell water for traffic, you know how many people go don die for inside go-slow. When traffic start now, even Ambode go buy water for inside traffic drink.”

“Oya, bring it quickly. Don’t let those LASTMA people see you.”

“Which LASTMA people? Oga, relax. Na we-we. As we dey this street so, nobody fit remove us.“

As I listened to his attempt to share his knowledge of the streets, I heard the clanging of a bell. A bicyclist was approaching, a mini-cooler, hanging conspicuously in his front. Fan Ice! Fan Milk! A young girl passed, carrying a tray of groundnuts. The early morning traffic was beginning to build up, 24 hours after Governor Ambode huffed and puffed on television about street hawking.

I immediately remembered Olajumoke Orisaguna, the Nigerian Cinderella, who made it from street hawking to the runway. It occurred to me to ask one of the hawkers.

“Do you know Olajumoke?”

“Olajumoke, oni bread. Oga you sef, e ti jasi. Don Jazzy, Baba. If Olajumoke no sell bread for street, how dem for discover say him get talent. Oga, as you me so, I be student oh for Polytechnic. The money I make from the street, that ‘s what I use to maintain myself and one day, if I become Governor in this country, I‘ll remember and I will not ban street hawking.”

  That was some sobering thought. The sociology of street trading is worth understanding. It is mostly a source of employment for many persons with low income and low education, and in its more structured format, a large part of the informal sector in many parts of the world. For the buyer who has been demonized along with the seller in the Lagos state law, street trading actually provides easy access to a lot of goods and services, and when you are trapped in the ubiquitous traffic hold-ups across the city, running into hours oftentimes, it helps to just look out the window and buy any food item ranging from fish, to fried meat and shrimps, loaves of bread, biscuits, gala, meat pie, water, beer and any other drink.

If it is a rainy day and you need to step out of the vehicle, you can buy an umbrella while in the traffic. You can also get served hot milk, tea or coffee, or have a shoe-shiner give your shoes a new, clean, gleaming look.

On a sunny and humid day, and you are thirsty, you can have very cold fan milk, or any other drink to cool down your system. Pop-corn, roasted maize, walnuts, name it, everything is available by the roadside, as the traffic crawls. If you have issues with your phone, or your wrist-watch, or even your clothes, you can buy new ones on the streets. Books, musical CDs, electronics, even sex toys, and aphrodisiacs.

There is a special connection between traffic and street trading. But there are also challenges for all parties involved: for the buyer, you could get sold fake or risky stuff, and your money could be stolen – always collect the goods and your change before you hand over any amount.

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