Dear Governor Ambode, My name is Chidi Okereke. It appears I am writing you this letter, knowing fully well that there’s only a very slim chance it will get to you. But I will write anyway, because, even though I campaigned vigorously for Jimi Agbaje in the 2015 elections, you won me over when you got to work changing the face of Lagos. Even though I said I wasn’t going to join the wagon of those praising you, I couldn’t help it when I saw the work done at Okota/Ago Palace way. When I lived there in 2014, it was hell, but I visited and the roads were smooth. Also, the day I passed Iyana-Oworo at rush hour without experiencing any single traffic, I knew you were the man. Eh sir, I have observe that you don’t want to be the man again. And I will tell you why. But first, let me tell you a story about my life.
When I was about 13, things were extremely rough for my family. Mom was retired, and dad wasn’t doing much. Even though I usually spent the week in my aunt’s house (which was close to my school), and go home on the occasional weekends, I knew it was very messed up. I still looked forward to going home though. My aunts house may have been big and the 3-square meal fantastic, but, your house is still your house. So one fateful Friday, my big head and I were super-hyped to be going home. I couldn’t wait to tell my folks how my JSS 3 Social Studies teacher singled me out in a class of over 200 students to say I was the brightest kid she’d ever taught. I couldn’t wait. I semi-jogged into the compound, only retarded by the slightly heavy weekend bag I was carrying. As soon as I entered I knew something was wrong. I saw our properties, bags, everything, outside. My mom’s younger sister seemed shocked when she saw me. They’d totally forgotten it was Friday. I asked her what was happening? What kind of sanitation and clean-up they were doing on Friday, when the next day was Saturday. My mom who was behind the shelf that had been in our sitting-room since I was born heard my voice and showed her face. She was shocked to see me as well and couldn’t say anything when I asked her what was happening. My aunt took my bag and semi-dragged me to one corner. She told me we had been thrown out of the house for defaulting on rent. The landlord (considerate man I must confess) had sent 3 Quit-Notices, but we hadn’t responded to them, so the Police had come and finally ejected us. My aunt asked me to go to my mom’s shop and stay while they figured out what they would do. Instead I went to the backyard and, I have never cried so hard in my life.
Eh sir, sorry I am telling you stories that touch. I am getting somewhere, please stay with me. Junior WAEC was due, and there were fees to be paid. I had since returned to my aunt’s house, while my folks were living with different people – our pastor, family friend (in Alaba) and an uncle. I couldn’t bring it upon myself to ask my dad and mom for money. How could I? All their efforts were geared at raising money so we could have a house again. And I had never asked my aunt for money. She would have given me (without hesitating) but she was already housing and feeding me. Why should I ask her for money again? I decided to make a bit of money on my own, so that weekend I went to Alaba, where some of my siblings were staying. A bag of pure water was N40 then and Ice-block was N20. That N20 ice-block could cool two bags of pure-water. So for every N100 I spent, I could make N200 if I sold each sachet for N5. Good business. I collected a bowl from the house, bought two bags of pure water, with ice block, and hawked it. It was either I didn’t know all the right places to go to, or I wasn’t singing the ‘Buy Pure Water’ well enough, but I spent more than 3 hours trying to sell the 2 bags. By that time, the ice had melted and the water wasn’t cold anymore. One man almost slapped me when I pled with him to manage it like that. I had to take 8 warm sachets back to the shop where I bought it, and the seller guessing it was my first time gave me advise on where to go to next time. I was exhausted, but after resting for 30 minutes, I went back. This time, it wasn’t too hard. It was almost midday and the sun was very high, so people were thirsty. In about an hour, I was done. I went to the house, ate lunch, rested a bit, then went back to the road. That day, I made N400 in profit. The fees I had to pay was N1650. Sunday was slower; after church I succeeded in going two rounds. Total N600 in my savings. I didn’t go to school on Monday and Tuesday. There was money to be made, and I did make it. N600 on both days and I had N1800. More than enough to pay the fees that would enable me write Junior Waec. I wrote it eventually, and passed with flying colors; 2nd best in the whole school. So, while there have been other obstacles along the way, I look back at how hawking pure water helped meget to where I am today, with pride.
Eh sir, what am I saying? I hawked that pure water because at that time, that was my only hope. I was 13 then, but I knew this. I also know how difficult it was having that weight on my head, screaming my lungs out and running after a customer in traffic. I knew how tough it was looking at those seemingly privileged kids in fine cars with envy and trying to hide when I saw someone I knew. I assure you sir, nobody enjoys hawking. Everyone who does it, does it because, that is probably their only option.
Eh sir, I understand that your mission is a Lagos that is safe, clean and orderly enough to be called a global city. That is great, and ordinarily, banning people from hawking would help sanitize the environment. But there are a few things I need you to understand. There are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of unemployed people in Lagos. And that I believe is why you created the LSETF. But the fund is only N6.25 billion every year. Can N6.25 billion ensure every unemployed in Lagos becomes employed? I do not think so. So while you are doing an awesome job addressing the unemployment issue, you must realize that you cannot do it all. This leads to my question: These hawkers you have banned, what are your plans for them? How would they survive? How will they pay rent, eat, take care of their families? I once saw a woman hawking La-Casera with a baby that is not more than 2 months old. I was furious and I ranted about it, but then I gave it more thought and realized she was probably doing it to feed that baby. Let’s say the baby’s name is Rasheeda. How will Iya Rasheeda have fed her baby if she couldn’t hawk? Beg? Please. Oh yes, it is unsafe to hawk in traffic, but is it safer to starve or watch your child starve to death? So, if you have not set up an alternative that would see the hawkers make as much money as they used to make while doing their legit business, dear sir, please cancel the ban. Like I said earlier, you are doing a remarkable job towards reducing traffic jams. But, we still spend hours on the road, navigating short distances. Sometimes, we get hungry, sometimes we get thirsty, sometimes, we’re neither, but just because we are frustrated by so many things, and do not want to cry or contemplate suicide, we eat something to distract ourselves. At those times, we bless the heavens for the cashew-nut sellers, the plantain chips hawkers, the gala merchants and the traffic barmen for their existence. When it becomes very hot, we thank our stars for the handkerchief sellers. And so on. Sir you would not understand this. You are never stuck in traffic, your escorts make sure of that. Even if by some chance you’re in traffic, I don’t think the sun can penetrate the tinted windows of your bullet-proof SUV enough to make you break a sweat in that ice-cold car. I’m also sure if you’re thirsty, there’s a mini-fridge in that space between the front seats with your favorite drinks. If you think I’m exaggerating, disguise yourself and enter a bus from Eko Hotel to Palmgrove on a Friday evening. This might not be a popular opinion, but you might as well regulate these guys. How about a body that registers all hawkers FOR FREE and gives them ID cards/permits and a vest that they’re to wear at all times? They can pay a very very small fee periodically, a fee that is just enough to run the regulatory body so the government doesn’t have to spend its own money regulating them. If you go ahead with banning these hawkers outrightly, and they resort to crime solely to make ends meet, who would suffer? Me and my fellow brethren who do not have a bevy of security men following us everywhere of course. Have you seen a Gala seller chase a speeding vehicle? Those guys can compete with Usain Bolt. Now, imagine that guy can no longer sell Gala and decides to snatch my precious phone. How can I catch him?
Eh sir, I have said quite a lot. And honestly, I am tired of writing. I just hope you will reconsideryour position on these guys who just want to survive. If you must do this, make it a gradual process. There’s a reason why mothers take time to wean their babies off breast milk. They don’t wake up one day and start giving them eba. It is a process. From breast to SMA Gold to mashed rice before they start swallowing them balls. Be gentle on the people you took an oath to lead.
Eh sir, it appears my battery is low and my generator is misbehaving. Have a great night o sir.