Hawking is a prohibited practice within Abuja metropolis, but it has become a burgeoning part of its every day life, writes Chineme Okafor
Clearly, street hawking indicates deep-seated social malaise. To a large extent, it tells of how much of concern a society exerts on the socio-economic status and welfare of its inhabitants, especially when a good fraction of its younger generation are mostly involved in the practice.
Drawing from informal conversations at various times and places with some of Abuja’s street hawkers who are mostly adolescent boys and girls of school age, the reality that some natural choices of life may have been reserved for some people may become a little hard to contest, otherwise, how justifiable is a young life spent daily on the fast-lane of Abuja seeking survival against obvious human-created odds, when considered with the possibilities of a better livelihood from conscious state-aided social welfare policies.
No doubt, street hawking has found a new home in Abuja, Nigeria’s burgeoning federal capital, the trade which now bears the “prohibition tag” from city’s administration, the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) is been implemented through its agent, the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), albeit, with certain evident irregular sentiments which AEPB has keenly denied. While some of Nigeria’s children of school age have continually become vulnerable to unpleasant social acts like rape, torture, infanticide, forced child labour and prostitution, and of course modern day slavery through street hawking, it is certain that the drive to pull through the harsh times of life has continued to serve as the platform upon which most of these acts are regularly perpetrated. “No young person, not even I would prefer to live through this experience.
It is a tough thing to go through every day. You’ve been here for almost 45 minutes and seen what we go through; they come here every day at this time to collect money from me, otherwise, I won’t be allowed to stay here and sell my corn,” a teenage boy simply identified as Mustapha who sits every day at a part of Maitama District to roast and sell corn under Abuja’s hot scorching sun told THISDAY. Mustapha’s narration is not so much different from the experience of most other young hawkers on the streets of Abuja who variously explained to THISDAY their daily experience from the enforcement unit of AEPB; although, they admitted to knowing the legal status of their trade, their complaints however, revolve around allegations of financial extortion and physical abuse by enforcement officials of AEPB who are almost short of anything but urchins taken off the streets perhaps by AEPB to enforce the hawking prohibition policy. “The crackdown mechanism adopted by AEPB for the arrest of hawkers and street traders is in order; these traders defy the standing order and they know it, that is why they take to their heels on sighting any vehicle that looks like an AEPB vehicle whether the vehicle is after them or not.
They do that at their own risk,” Head, information and outreach programme unit of AEPB, Joe Ukairo told THISDAY in defence of the prohibition policy. Ukairo who described street hawking as a nagging social malaise, explained that that there was no way Abuja would have expected to be free from such with the rapid increase in its population, hence, the policy to control its practice. “There is a limit to what the environment can carry just like any other living thing. So we stand in for the environment to speak for it, protect it, nourish it and fight for it where necessary. Street trading or hawking is a social problem that is gradually increasing in the city as a result of population explosion being experienced in Abuja. The influx of people into the FCT must not be interpreted from the negative point of view only. It is also a sign that Abuja is working.
It depicts a thriving society,” he said. Just like Mustapha, another of the street hawker, Meg told THISDAY in a 30 minutes long conversation that with the surge to urban cities, continuous inflation, unabated unemployment and underemployment rates as well as seeming absence of good governance, street hawkers in Abuja may likely not bulge under any of government’s prohibition policies. Meg said: “How do they want us to quit our source of livelihood when they haven’t provided alternatives to us.
The government is insensitive and officials of AEPB have continued to add to the pain; they extort from us, seize our wares when we fail to pay them and most times physically harass us. You can imagine me running with my tray of banana every now and then.” THISDAY indeed witnessed one of the routine “catching” games between hawkers and AEPB enforcement officers when this reporter unknowingly ran into a hot pursuit for a child hawker by an enforcement officer; also naively, this reporter attempted to cut short the pursuit but was violently resisted by the pursuing officer.
From every indication, street hawking has become both an economic and environmental issue to the government to the extent that the FCTA has intensified efforts to get rid of it but its adopted strategy is burdened with inconsistencies which is the hallmark of most government policies in Nigeria; attempt by the AEPB to clamp down on hawkers on Abuja’s streets continues to elicit reactions. It was reported in November 2011 that a protest by a group of about 250 hawkers was initiated and expressed to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on the incessant harassments by officials of AEPB who take advantage of the prohibition status of the trade to extort and abuse hawkers.
Residents of the city have equally condemned AEPB’s adopted strategies but it says that its job as ensconced in its establishment Act is to ensure that there is a balance between human needs against the carrying capacity of the environment. Ukairo said: “The issue of hawking and the control of same has been a challenge; but the AEPB is equal to the task. Hawking is illegal under the AEPB Act of 1997, especially in the city centre and there is no amount of sentiment or “pity party” that can legalise hawking in prohibited areas apart from another Act of the parliament. The public sees us as inhumane and insensitive but that is not true.
We are here for the good of every resident and visitors alike; to regulate the environment and make it safe and habitable and to ensure that whatever activity that is going on in our environment is done within the provisions of the law and the carrying capacity of the environment.” “The overriding public interest principle is employed to balance individuals quest to make ends meet vis-a-vis ensuring compliance to environmental regulation. We are not against small businesses but government through its relevant agencies can only support those businesses been carried out within the authorised location or premises. In any civilised society, law and order must be observed in all human endeavours,” He added.
Describing AEPB’s roles as both regulatory and advocacy, Ukairo stated that the agency remains in touch with the socio-economic realities of the time and has through its acting Director Mrs. Aishat Adebayo sort and obtained the consent of the Minister of FCT, Senator Bala Mohammed for the establishment of occasional markets in the city to checkmate the menace of street trading and hawking. “The minister graciously granted her request and approved for the take off of occasional markets; a technical committee comprising relevant agencies of government are putting finishing touches to implementation strategies. We believe that this platform will provide a decent and “rent free” platform for hawkers to sell their wares. The allegation that AEPB enforcement squad members have often resorted to “unofficial settlement” with arrested hawkers is baseless.
However, there may be some bad eggs in the bunch and that's why we had to change their uniform to a new one that has an identification number on each staff. We charge the public not to give any form of bribe to the staff rather be on the watch to report any one of them involved in unethical practices; all we need from the public to fish out the bad eggs are the identification number on the staff uniform, the registration number of the operational vehicle used and the time of operation,” But this reporter observed that some of the enforcement officers encountered neither had a tagged uniform on or a registered official vehicle; the teams have often operated anonymously without any form of identification and would rather avoid any form of confrontation from residents who feel uncomfortable with their practice mode.
But Ukairo said that the AEPB is open to innovations, ideas and suggestions from the public on its implementation strategy, adding: “On the 6th of July, 2013, we convened the FCT residents sanitation forum, a town hall meeting between residents and the board to discuss issues relating to government policies on the environment, the services we provide and what the residents need to do to ensure environmental sustainability in the FCT. Residents and stakeholders are free to participate in this quarterly window of opportunity and make their voice to be heard but like I said earlier the enormous influx of people into the FCT has put a stretch on existing infrastructure that’s why you see some of the existing environmental infrastructure break down.” “The city should be expanding in infrastructure in line with the population. The present administration is not just concerned about these issues but has equally put some strategies in place to combat them through the provision of basic infrastructure in the area council jurisdictions under the Satellite Town Development Agency (STDA) to relieve the city centre,” Ukairo further said.
He stressed that the AEPB will go ahead with its crackdown on street hawking until it seizes to exist in the city, but how feasible this will be with the rising tides of harsh socio-economic state remains to be seen, perhaps, the “rat race” game between hawkers and AEPB enforcement team might then continue for a long in satisfaction of the typical “Nigerian factor”.