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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Street trading in Lagos: Pros and cons

Since the ban on street trading in Lagos by executive fiat of Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Amobode, which took effect from July 1, 2016, there was public outcry against the ban order. A lot of the commentaries in all the media – radio, television, social media and the newspapers – have overwhelmed readers and listeners of news. These commentaries are coming in umbrage/diatribe against the government by the affected street traders, members of the public sympathetic to the plight of street hawkers, highly respected newspaper columnists, in editorial comments and op-eds from social critics and public affairs commentators. This writer has digested through reading, personal discussion, or by listening to discussants on radio and watching the TV, a plethora of opinion on the good, bad and ugly effect of the ban on street trading in Lagos Mega City.

Street trading in Lagos
Street trading in Lagos

I must confess the frankness of the commentators whether for or against the ban, their feeling of empathy, social concern, their blame of the authority for a warped and unenforceable law; and some open suggestions on what the Lagos State Government can do to ameliorate the plight of street traders, in order to integrate this group of itinerant traders into the economic fabric of Lagos mega city.

Governor Ambode has a valid reason for his action. In another breath, I have had cause to read the strong defence of Governor Amode on the same issue. His Excellency has stoutly defended his action by stating that he did not enact a new law on street trading, but was doing his gubernatorial duty as the Chief Law Enforcer in the State of Excellence. He was trying to enforce a subsisting law on the ban of street trading, which he met in office. The law was enacted during the tenure of his predecessor, but like the bane of governance and our less civic-minded society, it what observed more in breach than compliance by the street hawkers, while the law enforcers remain toothless bull dogs who looked the other way and abysmally failed to enforce the law.

To support the reason for the “new day” enforcement of the law, Governor Ambode dwelt extensively on the recent wanton destruction and burning of 49 BRT buses by irate mob in Lagos as a result of the fatal accident, which killed a street hawker being chased by officials of Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI), for hawking in traffic. That ugly incident, as reported, caused the LASG a colossal financial loss to the tune of N139 million. By LASG’s calculation, the said amount was the estimated sum that the government would cough up to replace the burnt 49 BRT buses. Surprisingly too, it was disclosed by the LASG authority that the deceased street hawker was not killed by any state-owned BRT buses, but by another vehicle whose driver absconded the scene of the accident for fear of being lynched by the angry mob. Another vexed issue for the governor’s justification was the unnecessary/unjustified public disorder and spontaneous reaction, which led to the burning of government buses by idle hands roaming the streets of Lagos. Governor Ambode would not take any of such acts of lawlessness in a city under his watch and a government administration under his leadership. He therefore, took a drastic and on-the-spur-of-the-movement decision to ban street trading in the megalopolis.

There is consensus of opinion on the adverse effect of street trading. None of the commentaries on the ban ever failed to tell the truth about the adverse effects of street trading. The critics made mention of the security implication, environmental nuisance, social implication, the eye sore vis-à-vis its unfriendly tourism appeal; and what it does to the smooth flow of traffic in a mega city notorious for traffic congestion.

General consensus against the ban on street trading. Many a commentator including the hoi polli posited that the good-intentioned law against street trading may ended up doing more harm than good if the provisions of the statute are enforced to the letter. There is palpable apprehension where all the army of street hawkers would be sent to after their evacuation from the streets of Lagos, without an alternative plan or places to accommodate their daily trading activities. Without such plan, another grave fear was expressed…the trigger of crime among idle hands. To these commentators, the ban on street trading is an ill-wind that does nobody (government, traders and the citizenry) any good.

Street trading is a dominant informal sector healthy to the macro city economy. The proponents of street trading argued vehemently in their defence that street trading is part of city economy, not only in Nigeria but all over the world. They should allow the street hawkers to stay regardless of the nuisance the traders constitute on the streets. They argued that street traders have their nuisance value. In comparison to cities in other clime, the proponents made mention of permissible street trading in New York, London, Paris, Madrid, Rio de Jainero, Brisbane, Recife, Canberra, Christchurch, Auckland, Mumbai, Cairo, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Oslo and many other cities in all continents of the world. Hence, they opined that the LASG ought to emulate the good examples from cities around the world and learn how street trading can be incorporated as a permissible or tolerated city-based economic activity, without causing any rancor or disaffection between government officials and those eking a living on the streets of Lagos.

It is easier said than done. The suggestion made by the defenders of street trading looks good on paper and can quickly win support of the public against the cruel (?) action taken by the LASG. Albeit, the critics put a proviso in their statement: Street trading in all the aforementioned cities is regulated by city ordinance and issuance of street trading license to prospective traders. However, what they inadvertently failed to expose in their argument is the central issue this piece will now address from this point on.

Street trading in other clime is a function of city ordinance, law enforcement and a disciplined society. In all the cities cited as best practices of street trading, compliance with street trading laws is a norm by practice. The enforcement of the law by city officials is never done half-heartedly or compromised by whoever is delegated to perform such function. All the key players carry out their responsibilities without let or hindrance. In all of these cities, there are strong institutions in-charge of street trading and an enlightened citizenry who willfully obey the law without being prompted or forced to do so. The level of literacy is also high, which is a fillip to civilised conduct among the residents of these cities.

Can anybody vouch for such situation in Lagos? Is there a Lagos without law breakers or venal public officials who intentionally take advantage of hapless and mostly uneducated people just because these government officials are the anointed enforcers of the law? Can anyone easily forget KAI officials recorded on tape while demanding for bribe from street hawkers they arrested for violating street trading law? How law-abiding are we in this country to government regulations where strongmen dictate the tune instead of building strong institutions for effective governance? I have searched for suitable answers to these valid questions without success. Readers, I need your help and honest opinion. But if I can hazard the root cause of the problem, I can affirm that we are a peculiar society with uncommon peculiar situation. And in all practicality, what works in other climes never works in this society. We will need peculiar or home grown solutions to street trading in Lagos where every goods under the sun are offered for sale on the streets ranging from live animals, Viagra, opa eyin, sausage, stolen phones, clothing apparels, children toys, sex objects, pirated books, human body parts, wigs, shoes to all kinds of edibles and soft drinks.

I will now advance my next line of reasoning.

The role of planning and planners in street trading. What the doctor does to a sick person by prescribing a drug to cure an aliment is what a town or city planner does to a city with an identified problem be it traffic congestion, inadequate housing, mobility, functionality, street trading or environmental pollution. To ameliorate these problems, the planner will soul-search for the cause(s) by assessing current situation with the aid of available data or cause one to be generated by him/her. After the diagnostic stage, he/she will postulate and make recommended solutions for official consideration and implementation. My subtle inference here is that street trading in Lagos, to the untrained minds can be attributed to the prevailing harsh economic conditions; but a trained mind in town planning would see it more of a matter that requires innovative/creative urban planning intervention. As one of the writers said, “it takes creativity and compassionate planning” to deal with street trading in Lagos. I pitch my tent with that logic.

I have documentary evidence and a best practice from off shore to support my stance.

Preparation of Model City Plan (MCP) in Lagos is a positive sign of Government intervention in planning. The LASG is trying its level best to improve livability in all the nooks and crannies of Lagos Cosmo polis through the instrumentality of Model City Plans for different planning districts of the megacity. There are in existence Victoria/Ikoyi MCP, Agege-Ifako MCP and Ikeja MCP while others are already on the drawing board. Of the latest and more contemporary approach to planning in Lagos was the robust idea mooted by action Governor Ambode to develop a Smart City Lagos, having signed a memorandum of understanding with Smart City Dubai on July 11, 2016 to that effect. These are laudable steps in the right direction. But the pressing question is: Despite Government good intentions have any of the subsisting MCPs factored in the problem of street trading and proffered practical solution to the menace? This writer’s study of the operative MCPs do not provide an answer in the affirmative. The MCPs dealt extensively on present and future land uses in most of the districts; but fell short on the problems associated with ambulatory speed of urban growth in a city like Lagos; and how to specifically deal with them, most especially the irritant city nuisance called: street trading. Whether in Ikeja, Lagos Island, Ikoyi or the outer districts of the mega city where street trading is common place, the MCPs offer no concrete recommendations.

Where there is a will and mind of creativity, planners can do awesome job to turn city chaos to orderliness. There is a global best practice in urban planning where under the leadership of a maverick planner/architect and his team of dedicated staff, turned the city of Curitiba in Brazil from chaos to creative planning. That world-acclaimed urban planner was Jaime Lerner, who single-handedly came up with an innovative planning strategy in combating street trading in an unsettling city, where before he became mayor in 1988 (Wikipedia), Curitiba was bereft of good urban planning. Lerner was more ingenious in practical and rational urban planning solution than theory of the subject matter. He came up with the idea to pedestrianise a gridlocked commercial artery into a pedestrian mall where street traders harmoniously hawk their wares in the open along with other shopkeepers. Jaime Lerner’s tactical planning (short-term action for long-term change) by a single person, is a best practice the LASG planning authority must encourage to go and understudy; and replicate the idea in some streets of Lagos where such planning revolution can be feasible. After all, the State Government went to understudy Curitiba’s BRT operation (another brain child of Jaime Lerner) before the idea was replicated in Lagos in 2008.

Categorisation of street trading in Lagos is another feasible option. Planning is a cluster of dispositions, which people tolerate more than embrace. By planning disposition, I mean orderly arrangement of the physical space in such a way that it will be “user-friendly” to all. It is being suggested that the LASG Planning Authority in consultation with allied ministries which are key players in Lagos urban affairs, should begin a categorisation of Lagos streets with regards to street trading as follows:

  • Designation of Off-limit streets for automobiles: Streets in this category cannot be accessed by automobiles during certain hours of the day when commercial activity is at its peak. Such streets are for pedestrians use only during the designated timeframe. Balogun, Nnamdi Azikwe, Martins streets, Tinubu Square, Idumota and Ereko axis on Lagos Island can be chosen as pedestrianised streets pilot schemes.
  • Prohibited streets for street trading: As the name implies, these are streets where street trading is totally banned. These are heavily-trafficked thoroughfare or urban roads with high day time traffic such as Allen Avenue, Airport Road in Ikeja, Ikorodu Road or Awolowo and Kingsway Roads in Ikoyi, the Ozunmba Mbadiwe axis and the Lekki Expressway can be designated as such. The competing use of space between motorists and itinerant traders on some busy arterial roads in the mega city does not augur well for smooth traffic flow. It creates distraction at the peril of motorists, while causing avoidable traffic congestion.
  • Consent streets: Most streets are permissible streets (with the exception of the two classified above) where street trading is allowed and where hawkers will not be bothered by KAI.

The LASG is advised to do a pilot scheme as a demonstration effect, in order to create a scenario that everyone can see and feel about how planning initiative can turn chaos to creativity. The government is also advised to create a “dialogue window” as a feedback mechanism (from street users and other stakeholders) to know how effective the plan is working and to also find out areas of improvement. Government must continue to update its initiatives and adapt to unfolding realities. Technical approach without public participation can sometime create resentment of the authority by the citizenry.

Lagos residents should rally support for Governor Ambode in his quest and burning desire of making Lagos a user-friendly city. The Governor has good intentions. A city where no law is obeyed, gives room for anarchy. The uncivilised conduct of a group of itinerant traders should never be the determinant of urbanism as a way of life, for the rest of innocent and law abiding residents of the mega city. I subscribe to the school of thought that street trading cannot be wished away as part of urban living in Lagos. Governor Ambode should throw a challenge to the city managers/planning technocrats in Lagos State to come up with a feasible plan on how to regulate the activity of street hawkers on a city-wide basis. In governance, there must be a meeting point between the government and the governed on any contentious issue of interest to both parties. Government cannot tolerate urban vagabonds and unruly public conduct. Governor Ambode is farsighted. He has lofty dreams for Lagos Mega City. It is incumbent on all Lagos residents to be on the same page with this vibrant man of vision.

By Tpl. Yacoob Abiodun (former Secretary, National Housing Policy Council, Urban Planner, Planning Advocate)

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