By Ekemini Simon and Garba Jennifer
It might seem an easy place to sell and you see them all lined up in their numbers with different wares on both sides of the road.
Ibom Connection is not only a major intersection in the heart of Uyo Capital City linking Ikot Ekpene Road, Abak Road, Aka Road, Oron Road and Wellington Bassey Way, it is also a huge marketplace for petty traders.
The location is strategic. The buyers are many. And the goods are assorted – ranging from fruits, clothing, shoes, confectionary, cosmetics etc.
The wares stare on the faces of potential customers and the traders – some standing and others sitting beside their wares like sentries – neither care about the scorch from the blazing sun nor the showers of the rain.
Nothing moves them away from their goods. Of course, everything would be stolen within a blink of an eye. So, the umbrella comes to the rescue during rain or sunshine. The umbrella provides relative shade for both the traders and their goods.
The roadside market indeed, is a no man’s land. You see them young and old, men and women. They struggle endlessly to woo customers for patronage.
Sweet names like “Ebe Ayin” (Son In-law), “Anwan Ayin” (Daughter In-law), “Uyai Akparawa” (Handsome young man), My future wife, Fine girl are used to entice passersby to patronise one thing or another.
Yet, as they carry out their businesses, they do not get carried away by the hustling and bustling of Ibom Connection. Their eyes scan everywhere.
They do not take rumbling noise or a sudden race from fellow traders for granted. They are always on high alert and could sprint away with their wares on the arrival of men of the task force from the Akwa Ibom State Environmental Protection and Waste Management Agency (AKSEPWMA). Severally, their wares are seized or destroyed by these men who show no mercy in their rampage.
Government’s position on roadside trading
Roadside trading is a nuisance authorities will like to stamp out. It is considered a major factor impeding the free-flow of traffic on the roads within the capital city, resulting in traffic bottlenecks.
The activities of street traders have led to the narrowing, overcrowding, and outright barricading of roads with the attendant risk of accidents.
On Friday May 10, 2019, the sanitation Court sitting in Uyo convicted no fewer than 12 roadside traders for blocking access roads, displaying wares on pedestrian and recreational grounds and selling at unauthorised locations within Ibom Plaza located close to Ibom Connection.
They were convicted for committing environmental offences punishable under Section 38 of Akwa Ibom State Public Health Law cap. 103 Vol. 5 of 2000.
The Chairman, Akwa Ibom State Environmental Protection and Waste Management Agency (AKSEPWMA), Prince Ikim insists the government does not condone roadside trading.
According to him, street trading is prohibited by the Akwa Ibom State Environmental Protection and Waste Management Agency Law, Cap 47, 2000.
He maintains that no matter what benefits traders derived from street trading, the practice will continue to be seen and treated as a societal menace.
Ikim says the government will do everything to combat the menace which he explains has not only defaced the state but has endangered the lives of the street traders and commuters.
To show the seriousness of the matter, AKSEPWMA recently issued a final warning against street trading while calling on the traders to move to government’s approved markets.
Despite several raids in which many have been arrested, their wares seized and prosecutions secured, it appears the clampdown by the government is rather emboldening the desperate traders.
The traders seem to have limited choices as more and more people see the roadside option quite lucrative than selling in any of the markets within the city.
One is left to wonder what would make a trader disregard the dangers associated with street trading when there are other safe options. This indeed, is the story of the roadside trader.
Roadside traders tell their story
After speaking with several traders, our reporters found three reasons why many have preferred trading on the roadside. These are: better sales, inadequacy of market stalls and lack of resources to rent shops and or market stalls.
Clement Etukudoh who sells cosmetics in a wheelbarrow around Ibom Connection, said he resorted to roadside trading because he makes quick sales and more money.
Although he owns a shop which is managed by his wife, Clement said he goes out for the roadside business around 4.pm daily and retires at about 8.pm.
Clement says unlike his shop which makes an average sales of N3, 000 daily, he makes not less than N10,000 daily from his roadside business.
Offering insight into why he has to use the roadside business to compliment the shop, Clement said, “I have seven children to cater for. That’s a huge bill. I put them in school and during the COVID-19 period, schools were not in session, I sent them for training. All that requires a good source of income.
“I don’t have any other source of income besides this cosmetic business and the one managed by my wife wouldn’t address those needs. That’s why I’m out here on the road.”
Yet, there is a price to pay. He narrates that to trade on the roadside; one must be smart and watchful else the business may turn from blessing to curse.
“Bros, here na survival of the fittest o. criminals dey everywhere here. If you no shine your eyes, you go put hand for head go back house,” Clement says.
Besides the above risks he is expected to pay levies to those he described as “street boys” in order to be allowed to operate. He says in spite of paying N1000 monthly, he is also forced to pay N500 every Friday and N200 every Sunday.
Even when street traders know that those who collect levies from them are not remitting to the government, Clement says, “You have to comply so that you can sell your product instead of staying in the shop and not make sales.”
The illegal levy collectors are not the only ones causing him nightmares. Clement says men of the AKSEPWMA task force are worse.
However, when AKSEPWMA strikes, many of them run away with their wares and display them at the nearby Ibom Plaza where sales are low.
He says as old age sets in, he plans to retire to his shop. “I come here from Ibesikpo Asutan. I won’t be able to do that when I’m old. That is why I have a shop which I will fall back to. I bought the container. It is only the land that I rented,” he says.
Clement argues that if the government is genuinely interested in addressing the problem of street trading, they have to construct adequate market stalls at locations where customers would easily see their wares.
He says, “Plaza is not enough. Government should give us a better place but not take us right inside a village where we won’t be able to see people and sell well. We need a place customers pass frequently and easily access us.
“When we had the main park at where De Choice is operating now and also Urua Uyo close to the plaza here, did you see many people selling on the roadside? Government should think in that direction. “
Those without market stalls and funds for shops
A large number of those who engage in street trading cannot access market stalls and many others do not have resources to rent shops or spaces at locations that are not prohibited.
These set of traders claim that they prefer being arrested for roadside trading than venture into crime or sit at home and die of hunger.
They insist that although street trading is prohibited by law, they really do not see their action as criminal.
“I understand that government has stopped trading by the roadside. But I have checked for market stalls at Akpan Andem and Itam markets, they are all filled. No space again. What should I do?” says Uduak Bassey, a fruit seller by the University of Uyo gate.
A seller of fairly-used shoes, Idara Udobong, corroborated what Uduak said, adding that when the state government relocated Uyo Main Market, an alternative was not provided especially for those who were selling in the open spaces inside the market.
“You can’t find space in the market any longer. When the government pursued people out of Urua Uyo, there was no other market provided. So, people have filled Urua Akpan Andem and Itam market.
“I have checked these markets but there is no space. The little one you find, you will see up to four people who collected the space from someone and the other got from another person. All these people will have their share in the rent. So they make the rent very costly.
“Instead of selling for my little gain to go into rent, I have to sell on the streets so that I can use that and take care of my four children. My husband is sick. I take care of him too,” says Idara.
However, there are those who wish to stop roadside trading, but lack of funds to rent market stall leaves them with no other choice than the street.
“I know the government is against street trading. But the truth is that I can’t afford even a kiosk. I don’t enjoy disobeying the government. But I have to survive and take care of my eight children. This place is free, that is why I am here, “says Akon Etim, a widow in her late 50s who sells kola nuts around Ibom Plaza, Uyo.
Besides the shop challenge, Akon prefers to sell by the roadside because it is levy- free.
Although she is afraid of members of the task force, she always returns to the street after every raid. “The task force will only come after warning us to stop selling. But we don’t always obey because we have to survive.
“When they finally come for enforcement, we all run with our wares to the backyard,” she says.
Continuing, she says casually, “At that point, when you see me, I run like a small girl who is still in primary school. I’ll peep until they go and I will still come out and sell.”
Akon says she has always been lucky that her wares have never been destroyed or seized but says many of her neighbours have not been as lucky. According to her, many have lost thousands of naira to the task force because they could not run with their wares.
Despite her successes in escaping officials of the Prince Ikim-led task force, Akon said business has not been moving like before.
While she got to her usual spot at 9am on the day our reporter met her, she was yet to sell kola worth N500 as at 5pm.
“Sales are very poor these days. There is no money for people to buy things. When you call people to buy your goods, they say they don’t have money. Today, I haven’t sold up to N500,” she tells our reporter.
Although that was not a profitable business day for her, Akon insists that on a good day, she makes sales of approximately N700. Proceeds from her N30 worth of each kola nut are what she says she uses to feed and take care of the needs of her eight children.
To play the single mother role effectively, she makes sacrifices. “I don’t eat in the morning before coming here. The little I have, I leave it for my children.
“When I become hungry here, I collect rice of N100 sometimes with an understanding with the ‘Mama Put’ that when I sell, I will pay her. Days I have better sales, I pay the N100 but on other days, I pay it small-small,” she says wryly.
For Akon, meat is a luxury and has not been a part of the condiments in the soup she prepares for her family. “Are you not aware that N500 worth of meat would have provided at least eight cups of garri for the family,” she says laughing when our reporter asked whether she cooks with meat.
Akon says crayfish, periwinkle and sometimes bonga-fish are the protein in her food. She however notes that two of her children who trade in the University of Uyo had been supporting the family until the ASUU strike started which halted all activities in the institution. Now, they are all dependent on her.
Nevertheless, the widow does not want to sell on the roadside forever. With a positive demeanor, she argues that if she sees an affordable stall where she will be able to make sales, she will gladly leave roadside trading.
“My Children,” referring to the reporters, “Do you really think I enjoy running with my wares at my age? If I see a shop and have the money, I’ll gladly relocate from this place. But the reality is that it is only this road-side that I have and I don’t have money to get a shop and also get goods that I will sell.”
How can roadside trading be checked
According to Policy Alert, a Civil Society Organization Working to Promote Socioeconomic Justice, the solution to roadside trading revolves around appreciating the root cause of the trade.
The Executive Director of Policy Alert, Tijah-Bolton Akpan notes “Street trading is a reflection of inequality within the economy.” He states that Street traders are part of the informal economy which he posits takes up to more than 85 per cent if not 90 per cent of the Nigerian economy and serve as the key driver of the economy.
Akpan points out the fact that the real reason people trade on the streets is because they cannot afford shops hence it becomes easier for them to put up their wares on the street for sales.
To address the situation, he recommends ” The preponderance of street trading in this part of the world shows there is a deficit of policies. It is important for the government to deliberately create policies that address challenges faced by these people.
“Government needs to come up with policies that provide capital for small business owners like people who sell food stuffs, second hand wears so that they can go into the market and rent a shop and then sell from there.
” What would it cost the government each year to allocate a certain percentage of the budget to address the lowest segment of the economy? What we see is that more than 90 percent of the budget is allocated to address issues that are relevant to less than 20 percent of the population whereas the people at the button pyramid are not getting the benefit of the provisions.”
“It takes policies not knocking the people off the streets. It is about making the economy more equitable to balance the position of these people within the economy.”
While disagreeing that building more market stalls by government may address the concern, the Policy Alert boss notes ” We have a lot of middle persons who mark up the price tag for shops provided by government so that the person who sell garri can’t meet up with the price for the shop and at such the trader is left with no choice than to sell on the roadside.”
Attempts to reach the Commissioner for Trade and Investment, Prince Ukpong Akpabio for comment on government plan for the lowest segment of the economy did not yield results as he neither responded to phone calls nor text message to his known phone line.
This report was conceived and supported by the Journalism Retool House Mentoring Project, 2020.