The Lagos law on street trading

the Lagos State government is in the news for resuscitating one of its municipal laws hitherto implemented halfheartedly, namely the prohibition of street vending law which has been in force since 2003. While the social and political considerations that defined the unenthusiastic implementation of the law have not changed, the seriousness of the state government, this time, will perhaps be established if it carries through the promised enforcement to the election year. What obtained in the past was that the municipal laws were usually implemented in the euphoria of their enactment, only for enforcement to become substantially relaxed as elections approached. The question is, if the enforcement of a law is politically inexpedient, can it be socially right?  Will it not be more appropriate to revisit a law that cannot stand the test of time, rather than selecting the timing of its application?

To be sure, the motivation for the full scale enforcement of the law banning street trading in Lagos can hardly be faulted. The fact of its substantial contribution to the huge jungle that the city has become is a strong reason to want to get street traders and hawkers off the streets. There is no doubt that they constitute veritable environmental nuisance in addition to their tendency to compromise safety and sometimes security of the citizenry. Thus, a cosmopolitan city aspiring to acquire a mega city status can be expected to be ill at ease with street vending or hawking.

Nevertheless, the question will be asked whether street vending is possible in free-flowing traffic. It is certainly necessary to improve on the traffic situation in the state in order to make hawking impossible on the expressway. Another issue is whether there is a structure on the ground to accommodate the teeming population of street vendors to be disengaged by full scale enforcement of the law.  Or is the state thinking of wishing them away just like that?  That would be tantamount to callous impoverishment of the people. No one likes to risk his or her life through street hawking and prospecting for customers in moving vehicles. But when the private and even government shops are priced way above what the average trader can afford, a means of survival has to be devised. If it is politically inexpedient for  many state governments to disengage workers in their employ in spite of  several months of salaries they owe them, it is even more harmful politically, economically and security-wise to ban street vending without making provision for a fallback position for them.

Lagos State, arguably, has the most buoyant and self-sustaining economy in the whole Federation. A proper drill down of the state’s enviable economic and financial performances will reveal the significant contribution of the informal sector where the street vendors belong. Many manufacturers and big time importers rely heavily on the informal sector to distribute their good and the street vendors play a crucial role in this regard.

Besides, street vending is a veritable source of employment and income for many residents of the state, especially those at the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Against this backdrop, doing away with all the street vendors and hawkers in one fell swoop will not only impact the state’s economy negatively,  it will also aggravate social and security issues. The survival instinct may push many whose livelihood revolves entirely around street trading to crime because nature abhors a vacuum. This is likely to be especially pronounced in a city of absolute paradox where the opulence of a few daily stares the abject squalor of many in the face.

For the avoidance of doubt, it is not being suggested that street vending or hawking as it currently operates in Lagos should be encouraged. Indeed, the state government is urged to clear off hawkers and vendors who block the right of way by displaying their wares close to the road, thereby causing avoidable traffic gridlock. What is being advocated, however, is that  a way should be found to integrate this economically active segment of the population into the overall economic system without compromising the objective of banning street vending which is to sanitize the environment and evolve a city with a look of modernity.

This is practicable as shown by the experiences in other climes such as New York, London, Milan and many other cities across the globe where there is street vending. The only difference is that in those cities, existential and survival realities of the poor have been factored into the urban planning in such a way that the activities of vendors do not constitute any environmental nuisance.  Even at that, they are still regulated. Lagos does not have this type of structure yet, but subsequent urban renewal programmes in the state should consider it. And until that is done, the focus of the anti-street vending law should be on removing traders/hawkers whose activities impede the flow of traffic in the city. That way, the seemingly draconian but well meaning law will be seen to have a human face.