There have been sporadic confrontations between state authorities and street traders over the use of public spaces in Freetown. These confrontations on the streets and pavements of the city now seem to occur every year with no sign of meaningful resolution.
Streets are, by law, meant to facilitate the movement of vehicles, and pavements help pedestrians to move around cities without fear of accidents.
In the current confrontation, state authorities want to uphold the law and reclaim ownership of the streets, while traders complain about the lack of alternative spaces to sell their wares and survive in an economy that has failed to generate productive jobs for the mass of underemployed or unemployed youth.
Many people will agree that Freetown is one of the most congested, filthy, unplanned and under-resourced cities in the world where the law hardly operates in terms of how public spaces are used.
The basic infrastructure of roads, electricity, water and housing that served about 300,000 people in the 1960s and 1970s now serves close to two million people. Public spaces are regarded as open spaces that are devoid of ownership, and can be appropriated by anyone to the exclusion or discomfort of others.
A “stroll” through the central business district, starting from the intersection of Percival Street and Lightfoot Boston Street (now called Belgium) to Up Gun at the end of Kissy Road can be a real nightmare, especially to a first visitor. Howe Street, Wilberforce Street, Ecowas Street, Garrison Street, Upper East Street, Short Street, Back Street, Lumley Street, Sackville Street, Regent Road, Regent Street, Abacha Street and Fourah Bay Road have been comprehensively transformed into a single seamless market that is virtually out of the reach of the law. Some of these streets were abandoned to the traders and became full markets when Operation WID was launched in 2013 and traders were forced to leave Siaka Stevens Street, the thoroughfare at the centre of town. That operation simply produced a balloon effect and police or state power was overstretched and ultimately rendered ineffective.
Can the state succeed in its current drive to rid the streets of traders? Why have traders succeeded in defying the law under all governments since the 1980s? What needs to be done to restore the rules that governed the use of public spaces in the 1960s and 1970s when most citizens, including traders, obeyed the rules?
One popular explanation for state failure in evicting the traders from the streets is that the traders are a key constituency of the ruling party, which will lose votes if it resolutely executes the law. I want to suggest that the problem of state failure to reclaim the streets goes well beyond partisan politics. Over the years, the state has experienced two kinds of failure that may explain its lack of success in dealing with the traders: development failure and failure of state provisioning of mega markets that will serve the majority of traders.
Institutional analysis offers insights on why the state is unlikely to succeed in its current track of decongesting the streets. The cost of enforcing rules is high when a large number of people do not believe in them. The pathology of mass street trading can be traced to two shocks: the economic crisis of the 1980s when state provisioning of basic services and living standards plummeted, and the war of 1991-2002, which fuelled an unprecedented mass migration of people to the city.
The crisis and the war strained the capacity of state officials to enforce rules of any kind. An institutional vacuum emerged. The urban dispossessed or underclass and new migrants with few employment opportunities moved into public spaces, encountering little or no resistance from public authorities. Over time, the old rules lost their significance, and new rules were created by the new occupants. These new rules emphasize effective and continuous occupation of a spot on a public space as a right of ownership or right to trade. Networks of group support and self-policing were constructed to sustain livelihoods. These new informal or illegal rules have been in force for more than three decades; they now regulate in significant ways how public spaces are used by a large number of people.
Reverting to the old formal rules through appeals to the traders or the use of force is unlikely to be effective if attention is not given to the institutional change that has occurred, including the unregulated and unprotected livelihood strategies that have spawned the change. The key issue is how to get the majority of street traders to become law abiding citizens. Relying only on law enforcement to revert to the status quo ante of more than 30 years ago has very high policing costs and may generate strong negative social outcomes.
Getting the traders off the streets requires one or two big initiatives, which have so far not been forthcoming from the state. The first is how to tackle the development failure. By this I mean generating development that will provide jobs to the youths who now rule the streets. Surely, employment-generating growth is recognized in the government’s Agenda for Prosperity, and economic growth has been spectacular in the last few years, thanks to the mining sector. However, mineral-led growth has done little to absorb the surplus labour on the streets; and the various small-scale public works, training and micro-finance programmes and state-created youth agencies and activities have had limited impact. Indeed, the micro finance programmes may have the unintended effect of further keeping the traders who receive loans on the streets.
Agri-business and strategic partnerships between the state and local entrepreneurs, including the top cadre of financially-rich “Belgium Traders”, to diversify into productive industrial activities may hold promise, but will require effective industrial policy, which a weak state, such as Sierra Leone’s, may not be able to pursue or sustain.
The second initiative is the construction of mega markets that will absorb the majority of street traders. Sierra Leone cannot boast of a single mega market that is comparable to markets in Guinea, Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire or Senegal, for instance. Markets in Freetown have not been improved beyond what they were in the 1960s and 1970s when street trading was minimal. The most spectacular illustration of state failure in market provisioning is the so-called market that has been constructed at Sewa Grounds (Park), which is meant to accommodate the Abacha Street traders. The market consists of a small building, which looks like a school, and a few rows of tin shacks (pan bodi) that can hardly accommodate 20 percent of the traders at Abacha Street. Most of the traders at Abacha Street do not have tables on the pavements, but are actually on the street itself hawking a few items. It will be difficult to lure such traders to the “pan bodi” structures at Sewa Grounds. A mega market with four floors and underground parking facilities can be built at the park to release a lot of the pressure on the surrounding streets.
A standard refrain of city council officials is that most of the markets are empty, so traders should not complain about lack of market provisioning. However, on this issue, traders seem more rational than council officials. If a market cannot accommodate more than 50 percent of traders in an area, no trader will want to occupy it, since the majority will be trading on the streets and will enjoy an advantage in reaching buyers who may not enter the market if they can get what they want on the streets. This may explain why only two markets are fully occupied by traders in Freetown: Big Market and Up Gun Market. In these two markets, there are hardly any street traders.
In conclusion, I submit that development failure and failure of mega market provisioning should be taken seriously by state officials. They impose serious constraints on the capacity of the state to enforce its rules on street trading. The failures in development and provisioning may explain the choice of sporadic intervention by the state to reclaim the streets. To demonstrate its legitimacy, the state needs to be seen by the broad public to be restoring sanity on the streets, but it has been consistently shown that it cannot sustain its interventions. Sporadic intervention itself is a reflection of state weakness. The state cannot implement its rules routinely. In this sense, it is not a law and order state; therefore, it engages in sporadic threats and punitive actions. It is only in this context that we can understand the additional problem of partisan politics in constraining state actions.
The traders know that the state cannot sustain its punitive actions; they may withdraw for a few days or even weeks and return on the streets and pavements with a vengeance.