Trading on Rail Tracks

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Peter Uzoho writes on a common feature of rail tracks in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos, with its attendant disruption of train movement

One common feature of rail tracks in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos, is the convergence of people at designated points and terminals for the purposes of buying and selling, with its attendant disruption of train movements.

For instance, in Lagos, the major rail tracks, namely, Ikeja along, Oshodi and Mushin, are on daily basis occupied by traders and their customers, turning them to commercial centres. Early in the morning, traders converge with their wares to do the morning session and would retreat at sun rise. In the evening also, being the prime time, they would resurface and would stay till night fall.

Although, they are conscious of the time of the arrival and departure of trains on the routes, they would display their wares on the rail tracks, carry on with their businesses,but on sighting an upcoming train, would start struggling to clear them off the tracks.

Among these traders are young men and women, married women and even teenagers, who are into the risky business as their only source of survival. At these railway-turned markets, the common articles sold are fairly-used clothes and shoes, popularly known as ‘okrika’, belts and bags. There are also those who sell books and educational materials. Hawkers of sachet water, canned drinks, fruits and all paraphernalia of articles are equally on ground to display what they have with all manner of aggression.

On many occasions, these traders would go to the length of blocking ways with their goods, making it difficult for passers-by to move. Some, when a passer-by unknowingly steps on their wares, would resort to fighting the innocent fellow.

Furthermore, a train that is scheduled to reach a destination at a particular time will have to wait longer than necessary since it has to wait for these traders to clear their wares from the track before it would continue its journey. With their mind centred on the income they generate from the business, they have no time to consider the dangers inherent in the business.
However, many argue that there is no justifiable reason for a rational being to indulge in a venture that is as dangerous as trading along rail tracks. They also see such act as constituting nuisance to the society and call for its abolition.

“I don’t know why people in their right senses should risk their lives for the sake of making money”, Mr Jonathan Kayode, a regular passer-by at Ikeja along, Lagos, tells THISDAY in an interview that “In the past no one dared stay on the rail track for any reason, but this time, people would just be doing whatever they like on it, forgetting that train is not as controllable as a car. Every time people gather here buying and selling, some don’t even have anything to sell or buy, but because they have seen crowd they would come and join,” he said.

“I think when the former Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola was in charge, there was a ban on trading along rail tracks in Lagos. It’s just of recent that trading activities returned in those rail tracks. I don’t know why this present Governor allowed that to be happening”, Mr. Godwin Echefu, a resident at Ikeja along area, noted.

According to him, “There should be total ban on trading along rail tracks. Rail track is not a commercial shop; if people want to do business, let them go and look for shops and not to turn rail ways to their shops. If they don’t value their lives I think government can do that for them. Even the crowd constitutes nuisance to the public; the area boys have taken the place as their home and they keep molesting unsuspecting public passing across the rail tracks”, Echefu added.
Ironically, why people show concern to the lives of these traders and their customers, they have vowed not to leave the business as they argue that they have no money to rent shops for their business. According to them, they pay some fees to be allowed to trade there.

“I don’t have money to rent shop and I can’t afford to stop coming here to sell my goods. Ms Bolanle Ogunlana, who sells ladies clothes at the Ikeja along rail track, tells THISDAY. According to her, selling at the rail track makes her sell faster, increases her turn-over and profit. “When I do my business here, I sell my goods faster and even make more profit than those who sell in shops; our customers know that this is where they can buy good quality clothes and shoes at a cheaper price”, Bolanle says. When asked if she is aware of the dangers in doing such business, she said, “Everybody here knows that when train is coming, he or she has to pack for it to pass and then comes back later; so train will not kill anybody here.”

“It’s like a jungle; we are all here to hustle, so everyone has to be smart”, Mr. Chima Ezenwa, a shoe seller says. “The business is a morning and evening thing; it last for just few hours, so we have a very short time to trade. Some trade in the morning while others trade in the evening. It’s the crowd that come around this area that makes us come here to sell. So going to another place will not really help us. People always say we should stop trading along rail way tracks because of the danger of rail accident. But we tell them that there is no place you are that is 100 per cent free of danger. Even those in shops witness some form of danger,” Ezenwa explained.
According to him, he and his family depend on the business for sustenance. “It’s from this business my family survives; If I don’t come here to sell, I won’t be able to make enough sale as to take care of the responsibities before me”, he says.

“We’re not staying here illegally because we pay for space before we are allowed to stay and sell”,Mr. Obinna Pius, one of the traders told THISDAY.There is a task force that comes here every month to collect money from us; so if you don’t pay ,you will not be allowed to do business here”, he said.
Meanwhile, as it takes both the seller and the buyer for business to thrive, THISDAY interviewed some customers who vehemently threw their weight behind trading along rail tracks. To them, it makes them spend less to get what they want to buy, saving them the difficulty and embarrassment of going to buy clothes and shoes at boutique.

“This is where I normally buy most of my clothes and shoes; here you get cheap and quality materials, even if they are fairly used, but they will last longer. So I don’t see any reason why they should be banned from selling here”, Edith Abiola says.

“It’s from them that most ordinary people buy from; it’s not everybody that can afford to buy clothes at the boutique. Besides, they are not stopping train from passing. What will happen to them if they are chased out? How will they manage to feed themselves? Since government cannot provide free shops for them, I think they should be allowed to be where they are, till they are able to raise money to rent their own shops. After all, some of those traders that are in shops now, started like them”, Abiola noted.