Yusuf Bangura’s article on Street Traders and State Power should be applauded for its attempt to introduce structured analyses into the search for a solution to the problem. Hopefully,this will illustrate that criticism is not necessarily a sign of being in the “other” camp and therefore a trigger for attack. The recent creation of Think Tanks is a positive step and should help in presenting the results of evidence-based research on such issues in order to guide policy makers. For me the logical progression is for these Think Tanks to commission independent studies on matters of topical interest such as Street Traders. This would raise the level of conversations from individual opinions to the conclusions of objective research.
Turning to the issue of Street Traders, a quick study of the subject is likely to reveal more underlying and cantankerous problems than traders selling in prohibited areas. Without addressing the underlying difficulties, solutions offered are not likely to be permanent.
To illustrate, in the frustrations created by congested streets harboring pickpockets, and with garbage everywhere, we are quick to blame the sellers and ignore the buyers. But traders are in these places only because buyers go there. Hence we must also consider the behavior of buyers!
Another argument often advanced is that even if markets are built Traders would not go there because of indiscipline, or that they would build panbodies outside – as if the defining characteristic of traders is lawlessness. And yet Bigmakit is doing well. So well, that a good photographer can juxtapose shots of it with similar markets in advanced countries and one cannot tell the difference. Congotong makit is another.
I find the inevitable complaint about the influence of politics amusing. Here the argument advanced is that the Government will not clear them off the streets because Street Traders (often confused with the “masses”) played a key part in the victory of the last elections. Amusing because no party will win elections without the support of the “masses”. According to this logic therefore, no party in power – read no Government – would dare take them off the streets! Notice here how we now confuse Government with the political party in power? The confusion gets more dizzying when we recall that the decision to clear the streets was made by the Government in the first place – ie by the political leaders in that arm of Government.
To clarify, when the leadership adopts a policy – clear the streets of traders, and of garbage – the Executive arm of Government should implement efficiently and effectively. If that does not happen, of course the people will turn to the politicians. The politician then has little choice but to respond to the people.
Let me make it clear; this is not an apologia for politicians rather it is an indictment of the Government. One does not need to be Einstein to know that before clearing the streets, a realistic alternative should be ready. Such an alternative should have been devised after a structured analysis of the problem, taking into account, failed and successful efforts in and out of Sierra Leone and containing one or two options. In the absence of a Planning Commission, found in most rapidly developing countries, Think Tanks are even more important. They could make available to over whelmed and under resourced Government officials more acceptable means of solving problems than the use of brute force or insufficiently researched methods. If one is searching for who to blame, then we have no choice but to put it on Government officials for failing to produce a fair, realistic, and feasible solution.
Yusuf sees two solutions: successful development and building mega markets.
Can we correct development failure in the short-term? NO, because this calls for a long-term solution and the problem of Street Traders is urgent.
Can we build mega markets? Yes, maybe in two years but I doubt that alone will solve the problem.
Recognizing that I am not an urban planner, all I can suggest is that whatever solution is adopted should take into account the following:
- The problem must not be approached from the perspective of controlling lawless and undisciplined traders only but must also tackle the demand side – buyers who prefer to purchase on the pavement rather than take a few more steps to enter a market.
- Given our narrow streets and crowded city, one single mega market will not do it. We should consider several strategic locations for markets with easy access.
- Could we improve existing markets in the city centre while constructing new markets in the suburbs? Here am referring to markets of the future – malls with parking and with low or no – price stalls that would attract the hawkers now found at Kissy street etc. A carefully crafted subsidy would do it. Our Urban Planner must be asked to produce a plan now.
- Bold and decisive action similar to what resulted in the dual carriageways of Wilkinson and Spur roads.
- The problem of street hawking exists in almost every major city in the world but these cities keep a good check on its expansion by consistent and uncompromising action by the police – not sporadic blitzes of law enforcement with police in riot gear!
- Finally, we must examine how other countries solved or are solving the problem. We can learn a lot from the good or bad experiences of others – both advanced and developing countries.