An attack against poor people 

Unknown-3The Lagos state government recently declared war against poor working people who try to eke a living by trading on the streets. This was with its ban on street hawking. Working class people who cannot afford to go and shop at malls and rather buy off the streets are equally not spared. Both hawkers and anyone who buys from them are liable to pay a fine of N90,000 or spend six months in jail.

The Federation of Informal Workers’ Organisations of Nigeria (FIWON) and several other civil society bodies have condemned this wicked act, in the clearest of terms. But that has not stopped the government from going ahead. Within the first week of July ten street traders were arrested in Ikeja, Ojota, Maryland and Oshodi.

The government tries to justify the law, claiming that the traffic gridlock in Lagos state is largely as a result of street hawking. Security concerns have also been argued in an attempt to criminalise what is essentially a coping strategy for tens of thousands of persons who have no other means of surviving, in the face of social-economic hardships.

The truth of the matter however is that, this is just one more act of class war by the rich few against the immense majority of the population – poor working people. A few years back, commercial motorcycles know as okada were also banned from most highways. A lot of those who recently joined the mass of street hawkers used to be okada riders. Now they -like tens if not hundreds of thousands of other poor petty traders- are being placed between the devil and the deep blue sea.

A good example is Lukman Dawodu a street trader interviewed by Vanguard newspapers at Mushin, whose okada was seized during the earlier crackdown. In jis words: ‘’I bought the bike on hire purchase and had not completed the payment before it was impounded and the owner insisted on collecting his money.  A friend introduced me to hawking to enable me eke out a living out and pay my house rent, LAWMA bill, electricity and cater for my family”.

Several other persons interviewed pointed out that they could not afford the exorbitant costs of renting shops. Before this law was passed, Lagos state government had gone on a spree of pulling down some of the popular old markets such as Tejuosho, Aswani and Bolade-Oshodi. In their places, new “ultra-modern” shopping malls were erected. Most of the shops in these malls were bought by the rich capitalists because poor traders could not afford the prices. They now rent them out at cut throat rents.

The “new” ban is not exactly new. It is a refurbished version of the 2003 Lagos State Street Trading and Illegal Markets Prohibition Law, which is meant to be even more draconian. While the 2003 law prescribes a fine of N5,000 or three months imprisonment, its current version prescribes a fine of N90,000 or six months in jail. This is despite the fact that the number of poor people in the state is now much more than 13years ago and the extent of poverty even more striking.

The Lagos State Task Force on Environment and Special Offences, KAI, the Police and the Lagos State Transport Management Authority and LASTMA are the main government security and para-military agencies meant to enforce the law. An example of what such enforcement could lead to was tragically played out on July 1. A street trader was crushed to death by a BRT bus when trying to evade arrest by KAI officials.

 The way forward is not to run away from the state and its goons – into accidental death, starvation or crime. We have to confront them and fight until victory. The spirit of resistance which has to be built upon was expressed by Lukman Dawodu when he said “whoever tries to stop me from trading will regret the action because this is the last bus-stop for me to survive’’.

But it is not enough for us to confront them as individuals. We are many, they are few. A few rallies have been organised by FIWON and civil society organisations, challenging this anti-poor people law. Members of Socialist Workers League participated actively in these. We need to mobilise even more: processions, rallies, signature campaigns and collective defiance are some of the tactics we have to use.

It is also important to note that, very few people would choose the option of street trading if they had other choices. It could be very dangerous, especially for youngsters and particularly girls. But for many, this is the only way to keep body and soul together.

There is more than enough social wealth for everybody to live a decent life free of the humiliation, desperation and risks that go with street trading. It is because a few super rich persons appropriate this wealth which our labour creates that so many live in poverty, working on the streets, in factories on farms and in dingy offices day in, day out for just barely enough to stay alive.

We have to change this reality forced upon us by the capitalists and their states. We can and will do this only though ceaseless struggle to smash their power and re-build society anew. We must unite and fight against such anti-poor people laws as the Lagos ban of street trading and to break the chains of exploitation and oppression as a whole. We have a world to win!

by Todun Jagun