EVERY morning, Mama Biliki prepares small bags of popcorn outside her ramshackle house in Ajegunle, one of Lagos’ poorest neighborhoods, to sell by the roadside for 50 naira each.
On a good day, she reckons she can earn about 5,000 naira ($16, 15 euros) hawking them to pedestrians and motorists stuck in the traffic jams that plague Nigeria’s biggest city.
But the governor of Lagos state, Akinwunmi Ambode, is getting tough on street selling, leaving Mama Biliki and others like her with an uncertain future.
“I appeal to the government to allow us to hawk on the streets since we don’t have money to rent a shop, so we can continue to feed our families,” she said.
“Even those with a shop, they don’t sell as much as me who hawks in the streets. There are so many taxes on shops that it doesn’t allow them to make a profit.”
In Nigeria’s financial hub, a noisy, overcrowded melting pot of some 20 million people, hawkers can be seen everywhere, snaking between the cars in choking fumes and oppressive heat.
Hungry drivers or passengers in packed danfos (public minibuses) can buy snacks of spicy plantain chips and roasted peanuts, and quench their thirst with cold drinks.
It’s possible to do some grocery shopping while the traffic idles in snaking, honking queues: pre-packed fruit and vegetables and dried noodles from boxes are offered hopefully at car windows.
Elsewhere, there are Nollywood DVDs on sale at traffic lights; hats from every Nigerian region; basketball hoops; mobile phones; and at Christmas time, a whole variety of festive decorations.
And it’s always clear when there’s a fuel shortage: hawkers sell rubber pipes and plastic funnels to get petrol from the jerrycans of illegal roadside traders. Goods are seasonal and predictable.
But now the hawkers — who provide a measure of service to gridlocked commuters with no time to shop — risk up to six months in jail and a fine of 90,000 naira if they’re caught.
Governor Ambode called the petty traders an “environmental nuisance but also… (a) security threat to citizens.”
“Street traders and buyers will henceforth be arrested and prosecuted,” he said in a statement earlier this month.
“The Task Force on Environmental Sanitation and Special Offenses has been mandated to ensure the law of the state against street trading is enforced to the letter.”
For the traders, though, the crackdown could rob them of a lifeline. Despite Nigeria’s nominal status as Africa’s leading economy, most of its 180 million people live in dire poverty.
Shedrach Ogona, who sells cooking utensils on the road, said: “We’re not criminals, we have (qualifications). We’re trained. Most of us are trained in one thing or another.
“Please, let the government do what is reasonable.”
Kingsley Shokun, who sells books, said many of the hawkers were not on the road by choice. “We’re not enjoying selling here,” he protested.
Nigeria’s economy has been built on oil but with global prices low since 2014, the flow of money has dried up — not that it ever reached the majority in the first place.
Inflation rocketed to 16.5 percent in June — the highest for nearly 11 years — driving up the cost of living, particularly for fuel and food.
Nigeria’s dependence on oil has been laid bare, with little domestic manufacturing or industry to plug the gap. Unemployment among young graduates has been estimated at nearly 45 percent.
According to Chinedu Bosah, secretary of the Campaign for Democratic and Workers’ Rights (CDWR), banning the hawkers could have a negative effect.
One hawker was knocked down by a truck as he tried to evade arrest.
“What is going to be the alternative? The alternative will only be crime. And the government keeps spending money for security, reinforcement. It doesn’t pay society,” said Bosah.