By Tochukwu Ezukanma

A city is not just a collection of buildings, streets and public spaces arranged by architectural, engineering and urban planning standards. It encapsulates and expresses the totality of a people’s way of life. Therefore, Nigerian cities are invariably expressing the totality of the Nigerian way of life, that is, the Nigerian reality. Street hawking in Nigerian cities is a manifestation of the Nigerian reality “ a direct consequence of an evil mix: a corrupt and irresponsible political class and a spineless and passive citizenry.

An imaginative writer’s description of Nigeria will inescapably include the avarice, corruption and economic bungling of the Nigerian power elite and the vibrancy, resourcefulness, resilience and docility of the Nigerian masses.

The greed, thievery and bungled governance of the power elite ruined the economy and undermined a principled distribution of the national wealth. And the masses, in their passivity, accepted to vegetate in desperate poverty in a land of plenty.

Passive, yet, resourceful and resilience, they honed survival skills worthy of those that inhabit the poorest and/or war-devastated countries of the world; they took to eking out a living under most miserable circumstances.

Consequently, in Nigerian cities, apart from scavengers (men, women and children) rummaging through trash dumps for edibles, reusable items and sellable scraps, street hawkers throng the streets hoping to survive by selling to motorists and pedestrians. In the blazing sun, along the streets of Lagos, children that should be in school, women (some of them with babies strapped to their backs) and able-bodied men  dart through slow moving traffic, selling bananas, groundnuts, water, soft drinks, CDs, etc.

The presence of such desperate, primitive poverty that spawned garbage foragers and frantic street hawkers in the economic capital of an oil-rich nation, amid the massive corrupt enrichment and extravagant lifestyle of the political elite, should have evoked the pity and roiled the conscience of the governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola. But like the generality of the Nigerian power elite, Babatunde Fashola is indifferent – contemptuously indifferent “ to the ever worsening economic woes of the Nigerian masses. Consequently, not only that he is unconcerned about the economic plight of these Nigerians trapped in insufferable, dehumanizing poverty, he, in his ill-conceived urban renewal policy and its wicked implementation methods, unleashed Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) officials against them.

KAI officials, in their voracity, are feeding off the misery of street hawkers. They confiscate their goods, some of which they expropriate for personal use or resell.

They arrest them and extort money from them (they call it bail). They pursue and herd these innocent people (including women and children) around like animals. They brutalize them as though they are slaves. KAI officials’ cruelty, viciousness and brutality conjure up the image of slave drivers hounding fugitive slaves.

General Dwight Eisenhower was quoted as saying that “to knock people over the head is assault, not leadership. Similarly, to beat up people, steal their goods and extort money from them is criminality, not law enforcement. There is nothing as legalized or legitimized criminality. The coldhearted excesses of KAI Brigade may have the approval and authority of the law of the state but it is still a crime to beat up defenseless men, women and children and steal their money and wares.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “any system that substitutes it for he is an unjust system.” The pronoun for man is he and the pronoun for animals and inanimate objects is it.  To treat human beings like animals or pieces of wood or stone is substituting it for he. Governor Fashola presides over an unjust system because his administration treats human beings like animals.

To stand in the sun for just one hour can be disconcerting. Therefore, those who stand in the sun endlessly hoping to earn little money from hawking CDs, snacks, soft drinks, etc are neither having fun nor exploiting the system. They are poor and helpless individuals consumed by the drudgery for daily survival. They are victims of a series of kleptocracy that ruined the economy and subverted a rational distribution of the national wealth, and thus, consigned a disproportionate percentage of Nigerians to waste away in gateless poverty. They deserve encouragement, not punishment.

To punish people for hawking on the street is as wicked and insensitive as punishing people for sleeping on the street. People sleep in the street because they are homeless and utterly destitute. So, while sleeping in the street might constitute an environmental eye-sore, it presents the society with a problem that needs to be accommodated on the short run and solved on the long run.

People engage in street hawking “ an excoriating and hazardous trade that exposes them to the risk of being seriously hurt or killed by moving vehicles – because they are unemployed and financially strapped, and have nothing better to do with themselves. So, while street hawking may constitute an environmental blemish, it presents the society with a problem that needs to be sympathized with on the short run and then resolved or regulated on the long run.

To fixate on the environmental smirch of street hawking and feign ignorance of the incontrovertible fact that street hawkers are victims of social injustice and economic dislocation is mindless hypocrisy. To continue to compound the problems of those already struggling with shackling poverty by rough-handling them and stripping them of their money and destroying their means of livelihood is unmitigated wickedness.

Please, Governor Babatunde Fashola direct KAI officials to focus on salient environmental and disciplinary issues in this lawless, chaotic and dirty city (where grown men and women urinate, and even, defecate on the street) and leave street hawkers alone. After all, they are Nigerian citizens, who, though poor and voiceless, deserve to be treated with respect and allowed an opportunity to earn a living and provide for their families.

Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

maciln18@yahoo.com