In the mid 1990s when the town that I was living in finally took the danger of climate change seriously, it passed an ordinance mandating recycling of cans, bottles and plastics. To achieve its goal the town embarked on massive public service announcement campaign encouraging citizens to recycle. It didn’t stop there. It met the citizens halfway by making sure that every home and rental property has recycling dumpsters next to the regular dumpsters. It was a massive success. While my friends in other parts of the state were still throwing away their bottles, cans and plastics, just about every home in my town was recycling.
A few years later, the town’s population increased and so did people’s fondness for having pet dogs. It wasn’t uncommon to enter one’s home with dog feces caked to one’s shoes because some people weren’t cleaning up after their pets. The municipality was faced with another dilemma, how to get the people to change their behavior without too much disruption to their way of life. And once again the municipality met its citizens half way by installing racks with trash bags on each block so that dog owners could use the bags in the racks to clean up after their four legged companions. Lo and behold dogs feces soon disappeared from the sidewalks. Don’t get me wrong, there are still people who would not clean up after their dogs no matter what you do for them. However, if those people are caught, they will be cited and pay fine.
In order to discourage crime, overcrowding in the streets, and other adverse environmental effects, the Lagos State government enacted the Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law in 2003, which prohibits street trading and hawking. However, each successive administration since 2003 had not implemented or enforced the law. The Ambode administration is finally trying to enforce the law, but now wahala don come. A young hawker was killed while he was fleeing from state enforcement officers. In return, hawkers protested violently, injuring innocent civilians and destroying 48 BRT buses.
Everybody is now having their say about the pros and cons of the ban, which is a great thing for Nigeria’s fledgling democracy. The governor of Lagos State believes that street hawking encourages criminality and cheats innocent civilians by pawning off fake merchandise as authentic. On the other hand, civil society organisations and human rights organisations are condemning the law as inhumane and that it will exacerbate unemployment problems. Furthermore, motorists and commuters accustomed to buying things on the go are anxious about the government’s plan. What then can be done to de-escalate the situation?
First of all, unlike other state governments that are stuck in the hellish stagnation of business as usual, the Lagos State government should be applauded for tackling this issue. I’m sure the government sees that for its citizens to progress they must embrace a new concept of life that somewhat formalises business transactions, make the roads safe for its citizens and protect consumers. In all the advanced economies of the world, business transactions are formalised to protect their citizens and to make business entities contribute to the society in which they operate. As such, the Lagos State government is on the right track.
Notwithstanding Lagos’ noble endeavour, it must provide means for the street merchants to carry on their trade. It is true that in a society like Nigeria, where most small businesses conduct their transactions informally, to disrupt the merchants trade is almost inhumane. How else are they going to make a living? Sure there are criminals elements on the streets as there are in every business, but most of the hawkers are trying to make genuine living, young and old. Most of these people have no other skills. This is the only way they know how to feed and clothe their families, and send their children to school. For the government to start implementing the law without helping them find alternative means of selling their products is a mistake of biblical proportion.
The Lagos State government must meet the traders halfway by constructing stalls and rent it to the traders for low price. The purpose of government is to look after all its citizens. That was what the political leaders of the aforementioned town understood. They also understood human nature, that humans don’t like change because it can be disruptive. So they met them half way. Helping the traders to transact their businesses with as little disruption as possible will be a testament to how much the Lagos State government cares about its citizens.
On the other hand, the civil society organisations are justifiably concerned about the effect of the disruptions on the traders’ livelihood. They reason that it will lead to unemployment and other societal problems. However, street trading is not compulsory. The traders can be trained to learn other skills or move their businesses to government provided stalls.
Lagos State government should, therefore, be applauded for trying to get out of the rot of business as usual. It is trying to elevate business conduct in the society, but it must also balance that with what will be best for the segment of the society that is hit the hardest by the current economic doldrums.
- Ayanbeku, an attorney, sent in this article via [email protected]