Forget The Law, Take Care Of The Poor

Lagos Street
-By Abdul Mahmud

Lagos is a fascinating city that holds immense imaginations, dreams and possibilities for many who encounter it.

It is the place where hopes are born, where hopes die, and dreams yield to the geniuses of those who overcome bitter warts and ends to live the good life and attain the level of grace by merely knowing and encountering the wealthier Lagos.

Ask those, who, having fled the poverty and misery of their birthplaces, are drawn to the klieg lights, welcomed by the statue of the Eyo masquerades to the vast opportunities the city offers. And they seize them. These are the rag-to-riches folks who render testimonies of their conquests, sing and dance to praise songs, roll on altars in appreciation of what God and Lagos have done to them in mega churches.

This is the Lagos of Linda Ikeji.

Yet, there are those who abandon their birthplaces in search of the Golden Fleece who end up in shanties erected on stilts raised above the brackish waters of the lagoon, or in the margins of the metropolis that are merciless as they are punishing.

Lagos isn’t idyllic, even by the most liberal meaning one gives to the adjective, idyllic.

Visit Lagos you’ll find what passes as sad antonyms of the idyllic: the chaos of the Lagos traffic, the Venice of Lagos- the slum dwellings of Ijora-Badiya, Otto Ilogbo and Ajegunle and the floating shanty of Makoko- brackish waters, shunned by sunlight and befriended only by human waste at night. There are criminals, prostitutes, petty thieves, burglars, carjackers, armed robbers, pickpockets, swindlers, money-doublers, area boys- those left behind by the wealthier Lagos- here, who morph into pretend beings at dawn, and there are those who hustle in the streets- they are neither criminals nor area boys- by hawking wares. God bless their hustles.
This Lagos of Ijora-Badiya is akin to the one that the famous American journalist, John Gunther described in his famous work, Inside Africa, as the “catacombs of filth”.

A word here. One can forgive John Gunther for extrapolating the “cardboard city” he viewed from the old Carter Bridge. Perhaps he didn’t catch a glimpse of Ikoyi of colonial Lagos when he described the city as the catacombs of filth.

The poet, Femi Fatoba, once described Lagos thus: “Lagos is like crab/in a basket/each stepping in the other/each pulling the other down/in order to get up/that is how Lagos is/tough is Lagos/difficult is Lagos”.

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The crab mentality is ever pronounced in places where resources are scarce, where opportunities are limited and folks get by, struggle to climb the food chain by pulling each other down, by stepping on each other.

Getting by and surviving Lagos is a bruising experience even in the best of times. Climbing or reaching the summit of the food chain is even more bruising for those who crouch at the foot, without strength, without courage, without the belief that they can reach the summit of the food chain and don’t come crashing into their miserable earth like Humpty Dumpty.

Lagos state, for all its claim to excellence, subtly implicated in Fatoba’s poetic rendering, is as guilty as the crab in the basket. The toughness and difficulties of Lagos are often quadrupled by the sinister actions of the government of Lagos state.

Take the decision to forcefully remove traders and hawkers from the streets of Lagos as one of the many difficulties poor folks who fight for better life for their families and dependents by eking out their livelihoods on bitter streets- just to place food on the dinner table- have to contend with.

Lagos state is a basket case of how a state becomes repressive, shows no compassion in the way it deals with those who cannot run the rat race, cruel in its public policies, brutal with its legal regimes, when so much is needed to relieve the poor of the pain they feel each day in our country.

When Lagos state chooses to remove beggars from the streets of Lagos, as it shamefully did a few years ago as part of the enforcement of its environmental law and the beautification of Lagos, and embarks on the more devious task of removing street traders and hawkers from the sources of their livelihoods, one is assured that it is madness that is at work.

The poor of Lagos can only be cautioned, warned to be afraid, be very afraid, here.

Environmental laws proceed from the public policy idea that street trading and hawking blight the beauty of our cities. While it is conceded that street trading and hawking have negative implications for the environment and urban beauty, our public policy-makers neglect or willfully refuse to balance the gains of the informal market against social policy needs. The problem, here, is the lack of creative thinking inside the governments of our country.

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Elsewhere, we see how the gains of the informal market are balanced against social policy needs. Take Vietnam, a country with one of the highest FDIs and GDPs in Asia, where public areas, streets and the inner rings of cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Mihn are mapped out and marked for street vendors and traders thereby enhancing great trading experiences, businesses, economic activities, urban and city life. There, deliberate legal and policy regimes allow trading on named streets and fixed sidewalks in a regulated way.

Walk the street of Nguyen Van Chiem in downtown Ho Chi Mihn City, you will witness how the legal regime of street trading makes public health and safety regulations, public policy on streets management more effective.

By allowing street trading in a regulated way, ancillary policies on revenue generation emerge as well. In England that I am well familiar with, street trading licenses are issued by local councils to traders and it is for this reason one finds street traders hustling during the Nottinghill Carnival and at the prestigious horse racing event, The Royal Ascot, where Kebabs, racing annuals, hats, betting coupons, hospitality packages and sometimes unofficial tickets are hawked and sold under the very eyes and noses of officers of the Thames Valley Police.

Imagine the revenue that accrues to the local councils from licensing and think about the internally generated revenue profile Lagos state would acquire if street traders were licensed. Think: ancillary legal and policy regimes would emerge to safeguard public health and safety.
The regulated regime of street trading is a WIN-WIN for all- the government and the governed, and not the blanket ban Governor Ambode insists on.

Lagos state government, far from the excellence it attaches to itself, is emerging as the most dangerous enemy of the poor- an enemy whose objective is to wipe the poor out of the face of Lagos.

There is no logic in seeking to wipe out poor street traders, or restrict their trade, when the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 ( as amended) provides that “the state shall direct its policy towards ensuring that all citizens, without discrimination, have the opportunity for securing adequate means of livelihood as well as adequate opportunity to secure employment”. The operative phrase here is: all citizens have the opportunity for securing adequate means of livelihood; but, then, the forceful removal of street traders and hawkers raise the questions: how does the removal of street traders and hawkers enhance the opportunity for securing adequate means of livelihood? What will become of these street traders and when they are removed from their sources of livelihood?

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Governor Ambode has not provided identifiable figures of jobs he has created since he assumed office, instead he exhibits a Promethean behavior towards the poor and displays scant regard for the urgency of the problems that confront them.

There is a wider point on the purposes of government here.

Government exists for two important purposes: first, to secure the prosperity of every citizen; and, second, to provide “suitable and adequate food” for all citizens. For the Lagos state government the best way to secure suitable and adequate food for the poor of Lagos is to remove food from the mouths of those who secure their adequate means of livelihood by hawking wares in the streets. What an irony!

Governmental actions shall be humane, says the Constitution.

Even where governmental laws and policies demand enforcement and implementation, those who run governments in our part shouldn’t have the luxury of willfully enforcing and executing laws and policies in a manner that robs poor citizens of their humanity, nor does power entitle them to turn the arc of governance away from poor folks writhing under the weight of poverty and hunger to wholly evil ends.

The arc of governance should rightly bend towards that benign place where life remains the true living of it and happiness, peace and comfort are purchased at a giveaway price- or for free!

Every anti-people law, every anti-poor policy, not only pushes the masses of the people to the wall, it carries with it the danger of revolt. Remember: when the poor are shoved and pushed, they don’t wait for Moses to help them cross the Red Sea of pain. They seize the moment, parting the Red Sea to reach their destinies.

The Lagos State Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law does not serve as a source of comfort to those poor street traders and hawkers whose livelihoods are ruined when they are forcefully removed from the streets, or jailed.

It is sad that those who ruin the livelihood of the poor often insist on removal as an inescapable demand of the law.

Forget the law, take care of the poor in our midst.

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