The Anambra State government’s ongoing crackdown on street traders, beggars and lunatics in Awka has been hailed in government circles as a welcomed development in the effort to transform the state capital and other urban areas into modern cosmopolitan centres. But it has continued to generate hoopla and lamentation in many quarters for its caustic and cosmetic effects on the hapless citizens of the state, who voted massively for Governor Willie Obiano’s second term re-election barely eight months ago. Orient Daily’s findings, however, show that there is more to this routine crackdown than meets the eye.
By Francis Ekpone, Okechukwu Onuegbu, Gabriel Alonta & Tobenna Iloghalu
A first-time visitor to Awka, Anambra State’s fast developing capital would easily notice the fledging battle between government town planning agents/task forces and squatters around the city. As the seat of power with so much money exchanging hands, Awka attracts all kinds of people who strive daily to make both ends meet. From petty traders and hawkers who prefer to make brisk business on the road side, to beggars seeking alms from the privileged members of the society and mentally deranged members of the society also battling for survival.
Even as the government had since outlawed street trading/hawking as well as begging, in a bid to sanitise the state, especially the capital, the law seems not to have deterred them from operating. Just as government workers and others go about their normal businesses daily, hawkers, street traders and beggars also show up at strategic places in the state capital such as Eke Awka market, Amawbia, UNIZIK Temporary site, Arroma and Kwata junctions, among others. Other areas that have high density of street traders, beggars and mad persons include Onitsha main market, Ogbaru Main/Relief Market, Nkpor junction, Nkpor fly over and New Parts market, Mgbuka Nkpor and Obosi, Upper Iweka, etc. They are equally seen in church premises during services where they make brisk business of trading or begging.
Orient Daily findings show that even as the Obiano administration was desperate to rid the state capital of street hawking, begging and squatting, those affected seemed more determined to continue surviving on the streets of the state, for want of alternative options.
Even as government taskforce deployed to enforce the latest demolition and eviction exercise were still on close watch to ensure compliance, some of the affected traders have vowed to continue transacting their businesses from the places they were uprooted.
Some of the embattled traders mostly food vendors, wheelbarrow hawkers, fruit sellers and others who spoke to Orient Daily denied the allegations by the state government that the premises previously housing their stalls and kiosks were illegal structures, insisting that they pay house rents, taxes and other levies to owners of the lands, state and local government areas revenue collectors.
The evicted petty traders, who were already counting their loses since they were forced out of their means of livelihood, lamented that fallen prey to government threats to abandon their business premises to a new location would not only make them to lose customers and other opportunities but also expose them to prostitution, robbery and other anti-social lifestyles.
Most of the traders vowed to square it up with the state government even if it entails dying in the process than packing out as recapitulated heroes.
Miss Chidinma declared that she will continue to transact her business at the place, saying that she cannot afford the shops provided by the government because their prices are as high as N150,000 – 200,000. This is a huge sum of money for a small-scale trader like me to pay, she said.
When the demolition exercise was going on, we asked them what they expected us to do now that our only means of livelihood is being destroyed. To my greatest shock, they told me to go into prostitution if I have nothing else to do.”
One of the evicted traders, Mr. Ikenna Ibeabuchi, expressed disgust that after voting for Obiano’s re-election, they were being rewarded with eviction.
“We are not happy because what we are seeing from the Willie Obiano-led government is not what we expected. At least, a place should have been provided for us to relocate to and if we refuse to move, then they can go ahead and do what they want.
“If the government says it is fighting crime and yet takes away people’s honest means of livelihood, then crime will invariably increase. People will go into crime if they have nothing else to do. So, Willie Obiano should expect high crime rates and high prostitution rates in the state,” Ibeabuchi fumed.
Checkmating the street mayhem
Orient Daily recalled that following growing public angst over activities of street hawkers, beggars and other urchins in many cities across the state, the Anambra State House of Assembly in 2003 passed a law prohibiting street trading across major cities of the state.
The law which was swiftly assented to by the then Governor, Dr. Chris Nwabueze Ngige, was designed to checkmate what was then considered as madness and mayhems being unleashed on the state. But the law did not stop them from operating or curtailed their excesses.
Thirteen years after, on April 28, 2016, the Anambra Assembly, again passed a resolution urging Governor Willie Obiano to deploy state machinery to checkmate the excesses of street hawking and trading in the state. Obiano zoomed into action, directing the fearsome environment regulatory agency, the Operation Clean and Healthy Anambra (Ocha Brigade) and the Commissioner for Social Welfare, Children and Women Affairs to flush out street hawkers, beggars and lunatics in the major cities and towns in the state.
Governor Obiano also reportedly followed it up with a meeting with market leaders where he declared government’s readiness to enforce the ban on street begging and trading and illegal revenue collection across the state. Obiano did not hid his anger that his administration’s quest to transform the state to an investment destination was being truncated by activities of the beggars, street traders and illegal revenue collectors. The governor equally blamed the street urchins for the refusal of investors and buyers in patronizing over 51 markets in the state, before declaring his administration’s commitment towards creating a business-friendly environment in the state.
Despite Obiano’s vows and constant raiding, demolition of shanties where street traders, beggars and lunatics operate from, the embattled traders, beggars and destitute appeared unfazed as they usually resurfaced at their base to continue their livelihood once government agents and their bulldozers return to their offices.
One place that has survived the relentless government efforts to dislodge the squatters in Anambra is mostly pedestrian bridges. Orient Daily checks on most pedestrian bridges across Awka and Onitsha show that the facility which was originally built to serve as a safe passage for pedestrians trying to cross the busy highway, have been converted to mini-markets with traders displaying their wares on both sides of the passage way. Beggars are not left out of the show as they take advantage of the human traffic on the bridge to beg for alms.
Orient Daily investigation reveals that some beggars sleep on UNIZIK bridge as their belongings were packed by the roadside while traders display their wares with impunity on the bridge. Unconfirmed report has it that the pedestrian bridges in the state, especially in Awka have equally become notorious as hoodlums, who disguise as destitute rob unsuspecting passers-by in the night.
It would be natural for anyone who had tough time navigating through the human traffic of buyers and sellers on the pedestrian bridges in the state to ask: ‘Why did government turn blind eye on this traders and beggars?’
Orient Daily learnt from some of the squatters that government agents don’t chase after them because they collect rent tax to allow them to ply their trade on the bridges. Having allegedly greased the palms of government revenue collection agents, the traders operate with impunity, often obstructing free movement of people as they make brisk business. Some of them, Orient Daily observed, even drag people on their arms and shirts to attract their attention to their wares, an act that provokes the sensibility of the passers-by.
A street hawker, Miss Ngozi Ike, who hawks sachet water and soft drinks on the bridge shocked Orient Daily team when she stated that the only condition to quit street hawking was death or if government provides her alternative job or place to sell.
“Over my dead body will I stop hawking. It is my only means of survival. I live with my aunty and hawking is her only means of survival since she and her husband lost their jobs and now, she has joined us in hawking. We can only stop this business when government provides us with a better alternative which must be a job we can earn and eat with,” she declared.
Another street trader, Mr. Bonaventure Nwokwu, who deals on male foot wears said they sell on the pedestrian bridge because they don’t have enough cash to pay for lock up shops in the market and appealed to the government to tamper justice with mercy.
He argued that the government could support traders like him by providing them loan to secure shops or alternative accommodation where they can make decent living, instead of chasing them away.
He added that government should be grateful that they squat on the pedestrian bridge because their presence scares robbers away. “Without us, armed robbers would have been parading themselves there and robbing unsuspecting people using the pedestrian”, he adds.
Disclosing that the Anambra state government had plan for them to pay taxes directly to the state government’s private account, Nwokwu regrets such actions, saying that Awka youths, occasionally disturb them in the area, claiming they are indigenous owners of the bridge.
Another hawker, Mr. Sunday Mmadu, opined that any plan by the state government to stop trading on the bridge, would bring problems. According to him, sacking traders from the bridge could lead to illegal actions such as armed robbery, delinquency and nuisance by the affected traders.
Mmadu appealed to the government to allow them continue plying their trades on the pedestrian bridge, stressing that there was no work, arguing that their activities also boost the economy of the state.
Mr. Samuel Nwobasi, who hawks sausage roll, however, claimed that he was unaware of the government ban on street hawking. When told that what he was doing was illegal and could land him in trouble, Nwobasi appealed to Governor Willie Obiano to assist them through skills acquisition programmes as he was willing to settle down with a better job.
He added that he never wanted to become a hawker but was forced to hawk by the circumstances of his parent’s death. “This forced me to drop out of school and go into hawking to survive. With this, I make thousands of naira daily. I have been into it for two years now trying to make money to further my education but to no avail.
“I will be happy if government stops us from hawking and equip us with skills so that we can become employable and self-sufficient. I want to start my own business and through it contribute to the development of the country. We were happy when we heard that government has stopped us from paying taxes and levies. I must confess that we started making much money since then. So, we wish the government can do more by training and empowering us,” he added.
When Orient Daily reporters visited the bridge, a passerby, Franklin Aniagor, a student of Chukwuenmeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Igbariam, noted that the trading activities on the bridge was disturbing the smooth movement of people in the area, saying that it was illegal to carry out such activity on the pedestrian bridge meant for crossing the busy express road.
He blamed the government for not providing enough facilities like affordable shops for her citizens, noting that most of the traders could not afford to rent a shop from the major markets in the state.
But Emmanuel Okeke supports government’s plan to ban street begging and street hawking, saying it constitutes nuisance to the society.
“I support that street begging and street hawking should be abolished because of the manner they rush at people on highways and streets with their wares; dirtying passersby as well as running after moving vehicles and motorcycles. This act has led to loss of lives and properties of them and the people they run to.
“This is not good at all and must be stopped if we must grow. But I will advise the government to provide them with employment and skills to enable them cope when putting an end to it. I will also advise those engaging in the acts to find better places to stay to transact their businesses rather running around. While the beggars should try to discover, develop and use their God-giving talents and skills because Igbo and Africans are not known for begging.”
When Orient Daily officially wrote the Anambra State Commissioner, Ministry Trade and Commerce, Dr. Christian Madubuko, for clarification on the enforcement of street trading in the state, he minuted on the letter, asking the reporter to read up other national dailies on what they are doing in that regard. He is yet to respond to questions posed to him on the subject.
Beggars vs govt officials
Orient Daily investigations also show that some beggars are claiming that the government is indebted to them as officials of the state government have pocketed millions of naira that Governor Obiano approved for their empowerment and rehabilitation at various times.
Mr. Bassey Effiong, a physically challenged from Akwa-Ibom State, who claimed to have been begging for over 10 years in Anambra State, accused state government officials and politicians of using their predicament to amass wealth which they have not accounted for.
Effiong recalled: “This is not the first time journalists and politicians are coming to us, pretending to be helpers. But each time they come, they take our names and assess our needs and we will never hear from them again. During the 2014, 2015 and 2017 elections, we were arrested and taken to the Governor’s Lodge where the governor gave us N2 million cash for our upkeep, but that money was never shared to us. None of us got a dime from that money. They pocketed the money. So, tell me the moral right they have to ask us to vacate this place.
“Again, there was a time people took us to one rehabilitation centre; collected money on our behalf but never gave us anything. Even when they said that they will empower or train us they never did. The places they provided for our rehabilitation are not functional. We are really in a mess. I have made up my mind not to speak to any journalist on this matter, including NGOs and government officials because I fear that they are using us to make money to our detriment,” he fumed.
Another beggar, Mr. Paul Mokwugwo, who was begging for alms at the pedestrian bridge when Orient Daily accosted him, said he had a fatal accident that paralyzed some parts of his body, hence his reason for begging. He, however, called on Governor Willie Obiano and other good spirited individuals, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to come to his aid as he was ready to quit begging for any business.
“I was involved in a fatal accident in 2015 and had been receiving treatment on that since then. The Anambra State government officials visited us in the hospital then and promised to assist us with some cash and other items but never did till today.
“My parents who were providing for my needs since then died a year after the accident. That was why I resorted to begging to sustain myself financially including the treatment of my ailments. I am not happy begging here because I was a business man when it happened and I know I do very well in it. All I need is just N20, 000 to bounce back to business. With this money, I can set up a little kiosk and from there grow like other successful business men like Dangote and others”, he said.
When Orient Daily sought her views on the allegation that government officials pocketed the N2 million donated to beggars by the state Governor, the Commissioner for Children, Women and Social Welfare, Mrs. Ndidi Mezue dismissed the allegation, swearing that such a thing never happened in Anambra state.
Mezue, who reacted through the Social Welfare Officer in the ministry, Mrs. Ekene Aniesona, explained that some of the beggars are stubborn and lazy. According to her, the state government enrolled some of them at the skill acquisition centre at Prof Dora Akunyili Women Development Centre, Awka for acquisition of skills but they fled and returned to the streets to continue begging.
“In Anambra state, we raid beggars and destitute three times in a year, especially when we observe that there is influx of beggars in the state. When we make arrest, we take them to Nteje Rehabilitation centre and there, we give them clothing materials, food items and cash. Some of them we even give sewing machines and vulcanizing machines.
“We detain them and counsel them on what they can do to better their lives. There was one blind man that learnt how to make beads, another learnt how to make soap at the ministry’s skill acquisition centre. But many of them don’t want to be engaged but preferred begging,” she said.
The commissioner disclosed that about 137 destitute have been rehabilitated at the Nteje centre since its inception.
“If you go there now, you will see some destitute and mentally challenged persons that are being rehabilitated. We do this despite their state of origin as most of them are from Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo, Edo, Bayelsa, Delta and northern part of the country. In our last raid at Awka, Oyeagu Abagana in Njikoka Council area, we arrested over 100 destitute, 38 beggars, 34 street hawkers, and two blind man and woman from Niger Republic. Upon investigation, we discovered that one of them was not actually blind.
The commissioner stated that the state government is not relenting in its resolve to enforce street begging in the state, warning parents and caregivers against using their children or ward to beg.
‘In Anambra state, it is prohibited to beg with children. They should all be in school and if any parent is caught begging with children and children are not allowed to hawk during school hours. They should be in school with others.
On the issue of beggars robbing people on the bridges, she promised to work towards ensuring that the matter is investigated, and action taken to stop the menace.
Time for action
The Chairman, Anambra State House of Assembly Committee on Information and Public Communication, Hon. Kingsley Iruba, who disclosed that the 5th assembly of the state legislature passed an amendment bill prohibiting street trading and assented to by former Governor Peter Obi, expressed regret that it has not been fully implemented by the law enforcement agents.
He blamed the failure of the state government to win the anti-street trading and begging war on the sympathy the law enforcers have on hawkers who are mostly poor and disadvantaged in the society.
“May be they are considering the plights of the masses because you know that poor women and children constitute most of these street traders trying to make out a living. Ideally, people should go to the market or find shop for trading rather exposing themselves to the dangers inherent in these activities such as accidents and others,” he maintained.
He called on Nigeria Police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Operation Clean and Healthy Anambra (OCHA Brigade), Anambra State Transport Management Agency (ATMA) and other relevant enforcement agents to quickly enforce the law.
Meanwhile, the Commissioner for Road, Rail and Water Transportation, Mr. Uchenna Okafor, told Orient Daily that the state government would not relent from evicting street traders and others that eke out livelihood at unauthorised places across the state, especially the state capital.
According to him, most of the structures demolished and kiosks removed were constructed without approval.
“People should stop cerebrating impunity. Majorly, we are demolishing structures mounted on drainages and waterways. You need to see how some people erected structures on these ways blocking the water flow. When you now say illegal, the person has no basis to argue over it. May be the government did not see them or respond when they were erecting them. The fact is that those structures were illegal and government is removing it now. The duration it took the government to carry out this exercise doesn’t matter,” Okafor declared.
On the claims that the evicted traders have no place to relocate to, the commissioner, said that most of them have their permanent shops elsewhere but prefer to trade on road sides.
“Most of them built their shops inside markets, while others own shops. Some even have shops inside markets. But don’t want to relocate. It was even their market leaders that complained to us to assist them to drive them into the market,” he said.
When asked the preparedness of the state government to face the petty traders in the law courts should they decide to fight the battle through legal means, the commissioner said, “They don’t have the moral jurisdiction or moral status to go to court. A structure without building approved plans did not belong to them. The land they are occupying did not belong to them. What will you go to court to talk about? I doubt there is a lawyer who can even accept them as clients.”
On how to sustain the exercise especially now the evicted traders appeared not ready to shift ground, he maintained that “we have arrangements to sustain what we are doing. We know that if you don’t enforce it or sustain it, they will come back. But we prefer a situation where our people will assist the government by not coming out there. But if they insist, we have no other choice than to send taskforce after them. Governor Obiano will do everything to sustain this project because he sustains the security and makes Anambra the safest state in Nigeria.”
He warned the affected traders to find legitimate business to do because Anambra state government will not tolerate any form of criminality within the jurisdiction.
“We know they contributed in bringing the government back to power. And I know they voted His Excellency for him to continue doing good works in the state not for him allow crimes and so on and so forth.
“What we are doing is in line with government visions to sanitise the state. We have an arrangement through which government can assist anyone transacting business in the state. That is through the Anambra State Small Business Agency (ASBA). They can go there to access facilities, loans and whatever that can assist them in their businesses. So, the government has an alternative to their business