Street trading, social justice and morality

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Recently, the Lagos State Government announced its decision to fully implement the provisions of its seemingly forgotten 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. That decision, expectedly, drew a lot of flaks and some commendation from different citizens and groups.

It is apparent that what jolted the state government into the decision to implement the law was the recent incident where irate citizens vandalised mass transit buses belonging to the government on claim that one of the buses crushed a street trader.

Less than two months after, Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State announced last week that his state would not ban street trading but rather regulate it to protect the traders. He was able to win the hearts of a few persons when he stressed that the traders were poor people trying to eke out a living rather than resort to crimes. Ayade’s position shows a sense of compassion for the hard times Nigerians are facing and tries to address social justice.

A few issues, facts and questions are now thrown up by these contrary positions. Some of these questions are: What duty does the state owe its citizens? To what extent could members of the public make demands of the society they live in or draw from the resources of such society? What role is law expected to play in the society? What amounts to law and order and when and how can these be suspended or overlooked, in the interest of citizens or any other group?

I have always held, and this accords with the principles of social justice that the state exists because individuals, as citizens exist. That said, the interest of such citizens should be paramount at all times. Society must therefore operate as to take care of the reasonable needs and expectations of its citizens. It follows therefore that rules of society should not aim to injure or hurt an individual, unless such is aimed at protecting the generality of society.

I can therefore understand why rules need to be made to ensure ease of movement on public highways. This is because the primary reason for public highway is for movement of humans and goods. And the point needs to be made straightaway that the street trading that is injurious here isn’t so much about the person who takes up a spot on the side of the road to trade for people who use the road, either as a pedestrian or commuters in vehicles. It is more about the person who stands on the road, in the right of way of vehicles or on the median, soliciting and selling his/her wares.

This, among other things, adds to the slowing down of traffic movement, confusion to motorists, risk of petty cries like pick pocketing or even mugging of motorists and commuters. This happens especially in busy city roads. This may be a major reason behind this law in Lagos State. That reality is not nearly the same as what would be obtainable in a less densely populated state as Cross River, where Ayade governs. I also think the greater risk to lives and limbs of the street traders is even a more weighty reason for not allowing them on public highways. More so, some of these traders are actually minors. But we need to stop not only traders but also others on the streets such as beggars who also run the same risk as the sellers of wares.

Ayade has argued that many citizens cannot afford the cost of rent in standard shops, hence the justification for them to sell openly on the streets. So rather than stop them, he wants to regulate and protect them. I submit that such protection should not shut out the need to also protect motorists and commuters. Even without official protection from the state, many of the street vendors carry on with a sense of entitlement to be on the road and even take over a whole lane and force vehicles to limit their traffic to fewer lanes, thus causing a lot of traffic jams and confusions on many streets and intersections.

I do not think that the only sympathetic approach to addressing the problem mentioned by Ayade lies in allowing traders the use of streets with protection. What the state ought to focus on is how to provide shops for these traders at easy-to-meet terms. But this is not the case because the state is often more concerned about revenue generation and footing the cost of all its projects as immediately as possible. The state has long jettisoned its social service responsibility to citizens, for which the petty traders form part of.

It rather charges exorbitant costs for such services or allows commercial interests to take over the provision of such services. What we have across the states today are the so called shopping complexes, malls and centres owned by private businesses and charging huge rentals or lease such that the small businesses are technically shut out of access. This explains why these small businesses (petty traders) take up spaces on the streets. The state (and that includes local governments) needs to prioritise the establishment of shops and kiosks to be leased out to small businesses at reasonable costs.

They also need to consider temporary access to petty traders to sell some wares at street corners, as much as the convenience requires, considering the types of wares and the needs of the public. This happens in many cities across the world. But there must be proper regulations not influenced by partisan and sectional interests. Such regulations must take care of times and days of the week the trading may be allowed.

We must however not lose sight of the fact that these traders are involved in their own private businesses, not a public, philanthropic service. So they should ordinarily be expected to invest in it and not exact their cost on the society and the common space meant for all members of the society. This aligns with the same issues raised about the propriety of herdsmen taking over public highways for their cattle to graze. The nuisance values of both may be different, but they still exist.

Yet, we cannot also lose sight of the fact that our society has over time granted undue privileges to the elite class or even a class of powerful criminals such as economic saboteurs and terrorists. This happens through negotiations and plea bargains. A society that allows the non-implementation or the suspension of the law in relation to people who deliberately and wilfully breach the law, occasioning violence, death and destruction of the fabrics of society lacks the morality to insist insisting on fully implementing the law to prevent others from eking out a living.

It is in fact a delicate balance to strike as different groups of citizens make demands of the state for their personal interest. In making that decision, let the states weigh highly the need to ensure social justice which would not lead otherwise honest citizens into more heinous and highly-rewarding crimes.

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