• Saturday, June 15, 2024
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Lagos, street hawkers and the lessons of history


Some weeks ago, the Lagos state governor, in a fit of anger over the purported destruction of some BRT buses by street hawkers and traders protesting the killing of one of them who was being pursued by KAI officials, revived an old law – the Lagos state street trading and illegal market prohibition law, 2003, which 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. According to the governor, “we will be watching out for buyers and sellers and all we need is just (a) scapegoat. Don’t buy plantain chips or any other item in traffic from July 1; buyers beware.”


Like many commentators have averred since then, the law isn’t just insensitive, draconian and uncharitable, but also badly thought out and its implementation will be fraught with many difficulties and challenges that it will ultimately fizzle out like several unsuccessful attempts in the past to implement the law.


The popular maxim that law is made for man, not man for the law still holds true. When a law ceases to serve its purpose, it is either amended or changed altogether. New laws are enacted to respond to exigencies of the times. More importantly, laws are made to suit local peculiarities. The overriding aim is to ensure social order and peaceful coexistence in society. But there appears to be an obsession with foreign, old and archaic laws in Nigeria. It is common to see governments struggling to implement laws copied from other climes or trying to implement colonial laws of 1920s in present times. For them, laws aren’t so much for the purpose of social order and peace in the society but more as instruments of [forceful] restraints and even domination.


True, Lagos harbours the dream of becoming a megacity very soon. It is also true that street trading and hawking isn’t a feature of a megacity. But the Lagos state government conveniently forgot that those cities or countries it seeks to emulate made policies and programmes that overtime eliminated the need for people to trade on the streets or hawk on the roads. Those countries ensured that unemployment rates are very low and have strong social safety nets to take care of those who couldn’t get jobs or are handicapped. That is the secret behind their eliminating street trading and hawking. It will therefore be mere wishful thinking for the Lagos state government to just wake up one morning and seek to eliminate street trading and hawking without doing anything to take care of the worsening problems of unemployment or providing any form of social safety net for the desperately poor, whose ranks appear to be increasing everyday.


Much more worrying however, is the effect this law will have on law and order in the state and the country at large. Scholars of social control advise lawmakers to make laws that can be obeyed and for which the society has the means and capacity to enforce as a last resort. In this case however, it is clear, even to the governor, that the law cannot be obeyed and the state does not have the means and capacity to effectively enforce it. It is the same reason why the law has remained unimplementable since 2003 when it was passed into law. That was even at a time the economy was booming and jobs were being created. It is inconceivable that the same law that didn’t work since 2003 will now work at a time of skyrocketing unemployment and socio-economic hardships where people take to the streets to hawk as their only means of survival.


A final comment on the law is the governor’s utter disregard for history. It was George Santayana who posits that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Five years ago in Tunisia, an attempt was made to implement a similar law and Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed high school graduate who hawked vegetables to survive, had his goods seized by the police. In utter frustration and hopelessness, Bouazizi set himself ablaze. His self-immolation started the Arab Spring that ultimately consumed the leaderships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and is currently threatening that of Syria.


Mr Ambode is threading on dangerous grounds and he is yet to fully realise the implications of the forces he’s about to unleash on the society. The revolt of the street hawkers that day in Maryland is only a foretaste of the trouble that awaits the state government as it attempts to deprive many citizens of their only means of livelihood.

Christopher Akor