DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN AREA BOYS, OMONILES & STREET HAWKERS
Last week, I was driving down the Mobalaji Bank- Anthony Road in Ikeja, Lagos, when I noticed some confusion around the vicinity. I heard some shouting and then I saw some people running towards where we were. I noticed that they were Street hawkers- those young men and women who sell Bottled and canned drinks, packaged food, chewing gum, sweets, boiled groundnuts, newspapers & magazines, handekerchiefs, windshield wipers and sundry items to commuters any where the traffic slows down. I wondered what was amiss. Then I saw some men wearing long sleeved green shirts on brown trousers, with beret caps on their heads, armed with long sticks, pursuing and beating the fleeing Street hawkers. I asked who are this? and my driver said, they were KAI Operatives. That they pursue street hawkers, seize their wares which they often confiscate or they extort money from them in order to release the goods. I shook my head in sympathy and continued our snarl down the road.
A few minutes after, the scene changed, I was startled to see the hitherto fleeing street hawkers regroup and return with sticks and stones and began to confront the KAI operatives. The KAI operatives took off and began to run back. The hawkers gave hot chase, throwing stones and sticks at the retreating operatives. The chase was so fierce and menacing, that the KAI men ran into their waiting branded trucks and the truck zoomed off in a hurry, almost colliding with other vehicles at the NITEL Junction. Then the street hawkers began to return to pick up their wares, receiving tumultuous applause from the commuters and other bystanders. I was completely taken aback by this war scene that I just witnessed and thanked God that there were no fatalities. I then began to think about what Nigeria was turning to. Aggression everywhere.! Resistance everywhere! People are now resisting even law enforcement officers who try to enforce any regulation that seemed to abridge their 'freedom' . I cringed at the thought that we might be gradually sliding into anarchy.
The very next day, I was pained to watch on the Television, the lifeless body of a young lady who was reported killed by a vehicle on Ikorodu Road, close to the Maryland tunnel, as she was trying to run away from the KAI men who were trying to enforce the ban on street hawking in lagos State. It was also reported that the street hawkers carried out a reprisal attack that led to the vandalization of ten BRT buses on the route. I then wondered how much of such incidences are going on all over Lagos with or without casualties.
It is true that various administrations in Lagos since 1999, have continued to make concerted efforts to renew lagos and change its image from a filty, unsafe and chaotic city where nothing worked to a clean, orderly mega city where everything works. And it is clear that a lot of progress has been achieved. A few short years ago, lagos was "ruled" by the Area Boys- a group of street urchins, drug addicts and lay abouts who contributed to making Lagos unsafe. Through several interventions which included rehabilitation, training and empowerment, most of them were removed from the streets, making lagos island safer for businesses, residents and visitors. A few days ago, I heard the news that the Lagos State Government has banned the OMONILES - an ubiquitous group of land grabbers and pretentious land owners who make every one who buys land in Lagos to pay at least twice. They impose levies on land owners at every stage of development and it is difficult to enter the land without settling them. In some cases, where they have perfected their acts and have become so brazen, they enter into any land of their choice, sell, resell or even begin development . It is reported that some visit violence on the authentic owners of the land they trespass. So most Lagos landowners must be relieved with the announced ban, though many are wondering how the ban will be enforced. Will the KAI brigade, some of whom we understand are actually former area boys be used to enforce the ban on OMONILES?
In all this, we must differentiate between the criminal activities of area boys and the so called OMONILES and the economic endeavors of street hawkers who are pursuing Legitimate businesses . All over Nigeria and in many parts of Africa, street trading and street hawking is providing some level of employment for very many poor people. And so I wish to a make a plea on behalf of the street hawkers for now. We all know how difficult things are with our economy right now. Unemployment and under-employment are on the increase daily and poverty is increasing spiking crimes and violence .If people can not get jobs after leaving school, some five years after, and do not have the money to hire expensive stores, they must be given some space to make a living without being forced into crimes. It is true that we want to have a clean and neat Megacity. But it must be a city for the rich and the poor.
Today, there is so much anger in the land and many people easily visit violence on whoever seems to stand on their way. I do not wish to see repeat scenes of the incidents I had described at the beginning of this article. In making this plea to Lagos State Government to take it easy with the full implementation of this new regulation( or law), I am conscious of the fact that some criminals can pretend to be street hawkers and molest or attack commuters especially late in the evening. To minimize this possibility I recommend some level of regulation. Local governments can register those street hawkers who operate in their localities and issue then identity cards. They may be required to stop trading at 6pm or 7pm. Then the KAI operatives can be assigned to enforce these simple regulations.
To be sure, I am for eventual prohibition of street hawking, and so what I am asking for is only a temporary reprieve, to allow our economy to pick up and let current sensitivities regarding ethnic and religious differences in our Nation to calm down. I know that most of the street hawkers come from different parts of the Country. I am also aware that efforts are being made by our governments to reenergize our economy and additional efforts are being made to create safety nets for the poor. But all these efforts will take time to impact the current high level of distress in our economy. I believe with all my heart that most of these young men and women who stand in the sun and in the rain, often risking their lives, meandering through traffic and running after vehicles in motion, will naturally gravitate to less arduous and hazardous jobs if they become available. We must invest some effort in deliberately creating harmony in our Country, because as they say, when the poor is hungry, the rich can not sleep comfortably.
Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa OFR .