A van filled with officials of the Abuja Environmental Protection, Board, AEPB pulls unto the culvert somewhere around the area 11 axis of the federal capital territory. Fiery and stern faced young men donning the dull vests of the outfit, tumble out of the vehicles in a sting formation manner. A few minutes earlier the junction had been filled with street traders: hawkers of ‘pure water’, household items, refreshments and a host of other petty ones. But like a scene reminiscent of nature watch whereby a lion runs into a harem of zebras, the ensuing chaos is equally alarming. The traders, many of them youngsters, run in different direction, some dangerously close to oncoming vehicles. A few run into nearby sheds while others vault low walls in order to avoid the rampaging officials. Presently a young lad is dragged squealing into the van while nearby a younger girl is seen on her knees pleading that her wares be spared. A few newspaper vendors are caught in the web of captivity and spirited pleas that they be left off the hook is ignored. It seems that their offence is that they are not only selling newspapers but other items not covered by their unique relationship with the task force. In Abuja vendors are spared the usual rounding up by task force officials to a large extent. But lately some of them say they have been having running battles with the authorities in the course of their duties.
Daniel Asuquo had a sour taste in his mouth after his recent encounter with the AEPB officials about a week ago. The young graduate who says he has been making ends meet by selling dailies at street corners for quite a while narrates to Daily Trust how a group of vendors were picked up around the secretariat side by the officials. He said he had to spend a night at their office before he was released the next day. That was after he had been charged to one of their mobile courts where he had to pay a fee of N5,000 before he was left off the hook.
“I was surprised that we were picked up in the first place. Their raids in the past did not use to affect us. They always left us alone but nowadays they have started picking us up alongside other street traders. I had to pay the N5,000 before they let me go. How much do I earn from sales every day that I have to part with such huge sum,” he says.
He is yet to return to the streets after his unpalatable experience a weeks after.
But while the onslaught on vendors in general may be far between, many of them still have unique challenges in their daily trudge to make a stipend for themselves and their families. A female vendor at the area one section of the city says that they have to deal with the union on one hand, and then with the city authorities on the other hand, before they can make leeway in the business. “Most of the time you have to have a friend or close associate at the union level if you are to have a constant supply of papers to sell. And then you must also work closely with the union if you are not to have trouble with the AEPB. You must be a card carrying member to survive. They (officials) come around as usual but they rarely disturb you except you are not a member. The challenges are there but just like every challenge one has to find ways to overcome them in order to make it,’ she says.
Roland Ndubisi (not real name),an elderly vendor who plies his trade at the Area One section of the city, gives an exciting insight into the world of the average vendor on the streets of Abuja. “It is a risky job, but for most of us, we would rather do it than do any other job. It has its own benefits and disadvantages just like any other trade. I used to market my papers at Kubwa, but I recently relocated to the city centre because I thought it would be more profitable. As a vendor, you have to be very fast at your job or you will not make it. You can see how these cars are moving very fast. A vendor has to keep pace with them, as most of them would not wait a bit to allow the transaction end well. A vendor who is not fast or smart may get hit by them. You can see that I am not amongst the other vendors you see in the thick of the traffic, as age is no longer on my side. That is the life of the average vendor. If only the motorists will exercise patience more for us, it would be better for us.”
For another vendor, Innocent, the issue of adequate compensation for their labour is paramount. “The amount one makes on a daily basis is not encouraging. We make a maximum of N20 from each copy sold. And no distributor will give you more than 20 copies of each newspaper. And in most cases you don’t even sell everything in your stock. The amount you make at the end of the day is not enough to take care of your needs. Nowadays people no longer patronise us as in the past.”
Godwin Obong is another vendor on the streets of Abuja. A graduate of Economics from one of the nation’s foremost universities, he was pushed into the trade by circumstances beyond him, but as an alternative to life of unemployment. Rather than depend on friends or family members for handouts, he believes his job as a vendor is enough to sustain him in the rapidly growing capital city. On a typical day he can be found around the metropolis chasing motorists in an attempt to sell his wares. It is a back-breaking job and has its own fair share of risks. Many times he has seen vendors being hit by cars in a rush to get to their destinations, and who see these nuisance or other roadside traders as obstacles. ‘But we have learnt to survive amidst these challenges,’ is his brief summation.
Joe Ukairo, media spokesperson for AEPB, however insists that vendors are not molested by task force officials. He said only a few that go beyond the limits of their permitted operation are arrested. He tells Daily Trust: “It is not true that they are being arrested by us. Vendors have our permit to vend. However, where a vendor is found to aid and abate other forms of street trading, the vendor will be treated as a street trader/hawker. I have observed that some vendors sell books and other literature alongside; especially where these books are many and displayed on the floor or a table. This is not permitted! I had meeting with their chairman, vice chairman and secretary in my office two days ago. We discussed on this and other issues. They admitted some do that and promised to discipline those involved especially along Wuse market axis.”
However, Evans Oriri, executive chairman of the Newspaper Vendors Association of Abuja has other concerns, which he believes if attended to will ameliorate the plight of members. We would appreciate it if they can assist us in setting up a newspaper village for us. Where we are now in Area One is just a temporary site given by government, and it is not conducive. When we have premises of our own, it would be a starting point. We know that it is not easy to please everyone, but media houses can contribute towards this vision. They should also look into the area of commission they give us, the distributors and vendors. What they give presently is globally accepted, but we need to look at the peculiar circumstances of our own country before lining up to follow their own pattern. In the advent of the new social media, like online news media, in foreign countries a reader may read online and still go out there on the streets to purchase a hard copy. But in Nigeria once our readers read the online version they do not bother to buy the hard copy, and this eventually impacts negatively on sales. One other alternative we are considering may be to urge media houses to delay the online version for as long as possible, so that we can sell substantial copies. I sincerely also feel that there should be a legislation that will strive to balance the ongoing conflict between online news and the conventional news dissemination mode of newspapers (hard copy).