Street hawking, though outlawed, is booming in the nation’s capital. The quest to survive has continued to push many under-aged children to run after motorists, risking their lives on the highways with their wares. YEKEEN AKINWALE, who has been tracking this ugly episode, reports
Day was Thursday, February 4. The time was 12 noon. The scotching sun was not enough to deter those one could refer to as special kids. Their determination could match that of any adult. As this reporter approached the end of Ahmadu Bello Road, regarded as one of Abuja’s busiest and longest expressways, there was an uncanny crowd, which spilled over to the adjoining roads. The teenaged street hawkers, who had laid siege on the neighbourhood, encircled two stationed cars.
The occupants of the vehicles were, indeed, August visitors, as they looked dazed in the unusual colony of kid hawkers. Gift peeped from the window of one of the cars behind with a nylon bag of freshly baked loaf of bread in her right hand, and said: “Uncle, please buy bread.” She had to sell all the bread else, “my mother will kill me.
She will be angry with me if I go back home with any unsold loaf.” Gift looked every inch an eightyear- old, but said she is 11. She was fragile, restless and a bit malnourished on the fateful day. She was very open about her situation, yet unrelaxed as she was eager to empty her little bowl of bread. Out of pity, this reporter asked the young hawker, who he later understood to have another sibling on the same road, hawking also, to drop two loaves of bread in his car.
Each loaf of the bread, he was told, costs N500. Incidentally, Gift and his brother, Emeka, are not alone on the roads hawking. They are among an army of vendors on that stretch of the expressway. She appeared intelligent in her spoken English, an indication that she used to attend a school.
When asked about her education, Gift smiled and said: “I’m not in school now, but I want to go back to learn like every other child of my age. Unfortunately, I’m staying with my Aunt, who usually sends me and my brother out to sell bread on a daily basis. My parents are in the village, far from this city, with no means to send us back to school.” Abuja brims with hawkers of different age and style within the metropolis as well as the outskirts.
The fly-overs, under them, on the streets, the highways and the markets welcome the entire guests with pleasure. The scenes on streets could be gory sometimes, with many of them armed with plastic bowls, looking unkempt with shabby attires and usually congregate into small groups. Residents of the areas often times are bombarded with scenarios that assault the eyes. They accost members of the public with alluring songs and soliciting patronage for their wares.
There were others, who mill around the bus stop area in similar fashion. However, many frown at these because they perceive the antics as irritating. They are mostly girls and very young. Some of them may not be up to six years of age.
There are those seen with babies strapped to their backs. Not minding the sea of humans swarming around, they would accost their targets on their way, coercing passersby into emotional blackmails sometimes. Many of their likes are usually in the comfort of their homes when night falls. But, for some of those who hawk on the streets, it is not the case as they are seen desperately trying to sell their goods. To them, the street is home at all times.
Unfortunately, children who are meant to be in school are seen hawking things like bread, groundnuts, oranges and walnut from one part of the city to another. It is the same thing in other big cities of Nigeria. With the spate of kidnappings and child molestation, parents or guardians, according to informed minds, shouldn’t subject kids to risks of being kidnapped or sexually harassed.
Staying out late is not without its risks, especially for the girl child, who appears to be the most vulnerable on the streets. Not with the increasing cases of rape almost every other day in many parts of the country.
While some sell bottled peanuts, some hawk sachet water known by locals as “pure water”, others run after fast-moving vehicles with ripe banana. They defy odds to make ends meet in the capital city where street hawking is supposedly proscribed.
The children, aged between seven and 18 spend an average of eight hours every day, running up and down, chasing motorists to buy their wares, which include other items such as interior decorations and car spare parts like wipers. Awkwardly, these children, who are ready to damn the risks, sell whatever they are hawking even at night. Reportedly, some of them are said to be sexually harassed on a regular basis by paedophiles all in the name of buying off whatever they may be selling.
However, exposing children to this dangerous living contravenes the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which views childhood, a period before age 18, as a special, protected time, in which children must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity.
Despite the domestication of Child Right Act in the FCT, interest of children of the poor appears not adequately protected, contrary to the provisions of Part 1 sections 1 and 2 of the Act that touch on interest and protection of the child.
For Gift, Emeka, and their likes, the current economic downturn in Nigeria casts a bleak shadow into their future, and prospects of their education hangs in the balance despite their resolve to face the odds. Each day, the brother and sister go out to hawk bread to augment what their father, John, a tricycle driver brings home.
They put in close to eight hours hawking, otherwise, feeding at home will be hard for the family of seven. Their mother, a full-time housewife, engages in a seasonal business. Gift said: “My mother sells cooked corn during the rainy season. She doesn’t have any job, but whatever the season brings, she sells.”
In spite of long hours on the road and the tedious running up and down, Emeka and Gift said their body systems had adapted to the stress as they usually do not take any painkillers at the end of the day. “No, we don’t take any analgesics when we get home, we don’t even feel any pain,” Emeka said. While Gift, who is supposed to be in Primary 5 at LEAT Primary School, Jahi, comes to the road as soon as day breaks, her brother, Emeka, who could not join his peers after he had passed his entrance examination into SS1 due to paucity of funds resumes hawking right from 10am every day.
Emeka sat for Junior WAEC at Junior Secondary School, Kado Kuchi, and was offered admission into Maitama Model Secondary School. But his father could not afford the entrance fee of N31,350 into his new school. So, he had to forgo the first term of the 2019/2020 academic session.
The real reason, he joined the legion of hawkers on Ahmadu Bello Road in October 2019, is to enable him to raise enough money to return to school. “So, in October, my father gave me and Gift N2,000 to start this business of selling bread here so we could raise enough for us to continue our educations,” he told this reporter, with an infectious smile.
On a day he and his sister recorded high sales, they sold as many as 10 loaves of bread, which meant a gain of just N1,000. Out of this, Emeka, whose ambition is to study law, said he was already saving money to be able to join his mates at Maitama Model Secondary School when schools resume for second term in January 2020. “My savings is already getting to N20,000,”he revealed.
His younger sister, Gift, hopes to be a doctor one day. But this depends on when fortune smiles on their father, because according to them, proceeds from their daily hawking on the road also go into the family upkeep.
The two siblings, like some of their friends, may end up dropping out of school if the poverty in the country continues to bite harder. UNICEF stated: “One in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria.”
Even though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school, noting that: “Only 61 per cent of 6-11-year-olds regularly attend primary school and only 35.6 per cent of children aged 36-59 months receive early childhood education.” And like Emeka and Gift, Moses, Haruna and Hashiru as well as 10-year-old Safiu and several others throng the road from morning till evening making paltry N1,000 or N1,500 to survive. Safiu is the last of three in the family, and he has never been to any school before even at age 10.
He speaks little English and Hausa language fluently. Looking tired with dried lips from dehydration, little Safiu supports his family with hawking. While the children do this, they run the risk of being knocked down by reckless drivers or as it has become routine, being arrested by officials of Abuja Environmental Protection Agency (AEPB) that enforce the ban on street hawking. The youngsters however, appeared to have resigned to fate as they look frustrated by their daily experiences under the sun on the road.
They lament to no one in particular how men of AEPB run after them, arresting and confiscating their wares in most instances. Emeka said: “Once the task force officials come, we run and they will take our bread or we run with the bread.
If God helps you and you escape, you will go and thank God. They took me in their vehicle, and they drove me to somewhere around Jabi Park and asked me how much I had on me. I said there was no money on me.
They took my remaining nine loaves of bread and asked me to go.” Determined to survive, Emeka said, he and others could not stay at home despite this persecution by the government’s agents. “If you say you don’t want to come out because of kidnappers or AEPB people, you will be the one to suffer for it,” he added. Moses and Hashiru on the other hand, confessed they were fed up with running after vehicles to make ends meet. Moses left Cross River State after sitting for ‘Junior WAEC’ exams “to come and hustle in Abuja.”
“I’m just helping myself with this hawking. My mother is in the village and I stopped school after Junior WAEC because there is no money.” He didn’t hide his disdain for his current condition of living when he said “I’m saying poverty is a disease. I don’t have a house, just staying in an uncompleted building.” Hashiru is more vociferous about this. He said in Pidgin English: “Wetin dey disturb me na school. I want go back to school.
We go dey inside the sun, go dey go up and down, task force go come after us. Dem wan turn us to agbero, make we dey smoke Igbo (India Hemp). See rich people inside the car, and we dey inside sun suffering.
We are sleeping inside batchers, mosquitoes dey bite us.” In most cases, girls among them fall prey to sexual predators as is the case of 14-year-old Rejoice, the first child of a single mother, who was forced out of work by her husband. Jessica, Rejoice’s mother, and her husband separated after she quit her job as a marketer at Kaduna State Television Station as a result of pressing family issues.
But her husband left her with the burden of raising two children when she left her job in Kaduna and relocated to Mararaba, a suburb of Abuja. She resolved to selling soft drinks at the Orange Market, Mararaba, while her daughter, Rejoice, the older of her two children hawks “pure water” to complement her mother’s efforts.
“If we don’t sell, we won’t eat,” Jessica said. Most days, mother and daughter are out hawking as late as 9pm. Rejoice would, however, fall prey to sexual predators on November 28, when she got tired and sat by the roadside after hawking for long hours at the Orange Market. She narrated how she was tired and sat by the pavement by 9pm around the market when a young man, identified simply as Umar, now at large, approached her and told her to follow him for a gift. She said: “I innocently followed him and was offered a bottle of an opened Mirinda drink, which I quickly rushed and I didn’t know what happened to me later.”
That was the last she remembered until she woke up about 2am to realise she was not only drugged but was also defiled by Umar and two other men. She was in terrible pain and didn’t know when she woke up. “I noticed blood stains and water on my dress when I woke up,” she recalled.
The man, who offered her drink and two others now at large, allegedly had carnal knowledge of her. Scared to go home because it was late and worried about what her mother would do, Rejoice said she had to sleep in an uncompleted building near her house.
Withdrawn, devastated and terrified, she couldn’t go home immediately the next day. About that time, her mother’s friend saw her and came to her rescue. She reported the incident at the Police Outpost in the market.
While Umar’s whereabouts are still unknown, the police advised Jessica to let the matter die a natural death since the culprits could not be found. But, Wanda Adu Foundation (WAF), which specialises on such issues by taking care of the vulnerable in the society, has stepped in and is pursuing the case of defilement at the police station. Another street hawker, identified by his colleagues only as Auwal, was said to have been run over by a vehicle along the same Ahmadu Bello Way while trying to sell her loaves of bread. His present location is unknown, but sources said that one of his legs fractured due to the accident. Eyewitnesses also said his condition was bad that he was turned back at the Maitama General Hospital at the time of the accident.
Poverty, it has been said, is driving more and more children in Nigeria’s capital city, into street hawking and other menial jobs, exposing them to dangers and risks of being kidnapped by ritual killers. Nigeria as at June 2018, was declared the headquarters of poverty, taking over from India that used to be the world’s poverty headquarters.
CNN has reported back then that “Nigeria has overtaken India as the country with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty, with an estimated 87 million people, or around half of the country’s population, thought to be living on less than $1.90 a day.” The findings, based on a projection by the World Poverty Clock and compiled by the Brookings Institute, showed that more than 643 million people across the world live in extreme poverty, with Africans accounting for about two-thirds of the total number.
Nigeria, the report said, had the largest share of the Africa’s poverty quotient. While the numbers of Nigerians falling into extreme poverty grows by roughly six people every minute, poverty in India continues to decrease.
“At present, an estimated 5.3 per cent of Indians or 71.5 million people live below the poverty line,” the report had said. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, whose party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) promised poverty eradication in the country during electioneering, had to admit at that time that the government had failed to address the challenge of poverty. Osinbajo warned then that Nigeria, despite being referred to as the giant of Africa, was far behind other countries in the eradication of poverty.
The vice president while speaking at an event to mark the 70th birthday of a former governor of Oyo State, Abiola Ajimobi, said Nigeria was yet to make any reasonable progress in stamping poverty out. “It’s very obvious that we are behind the race in eradicating poverty; the reason being that, before now, there was no systematic and focused approach to eradicating poverty in our country.
“This is why from 2014-2015, the APC decided to write social investment into our manifestos. So, the social investment we are talking about is not by accident. It’s a comprehensive programme to tackle poverty,” the vice president had added. A social worker and owner of WAF, Wanda Ebe, is of the opinion that child hawkers are at risk as they are vulnerable and exposed to all sorts of dangers. She described hawking as a form of child labour for which she said the Nigerian government was culpable.
She said: “Hawkers, especially kids, are at high risk of being kidnapped and opened to sexual abuse. “There are so many unemployed people in the country, leaving them without income, force them to do anything to make a living. “The government has no incentives for women and children. No access to health or basic education. No housing scheme for the common citizen; I worry about the future of the Nigerian child,” she added. As a way out, she suggested that the government could give free education to children up to secondary school level and provide ad-hoc support to vulnerable women and children and the aged.
The government, she said, needed to raise and care for her citizens. And “invest in young people for a better country.” Another child right advocate, Josie Mudashiru, also believes that hawking is a form of child labour, which is prohibited and should not be encouraged. The kids, Mudashiru noted, were exposed to activities of kidnappers, ritual killers, rapists and other vices. She said: “I understand that some families need all the help they can get, but children should not be exposed to conditions that put them at risk. Parents should try as much as possible to avoid this.
The streets, especially red spots like Banex area, is nowhere for children to be found hawking.” She however, said that more and more parents should embrace Planned Parenthood, also known as child spacing to manage their families. “And this is where the thorny issue of child spacing comes in even though we do not like talking about it here because of our socalled cultural and religious inclinations. It is better to have the number of children you are able to cater for,” she said. When contacted, spokesperson for the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Halima Oyelade, was not readily available for comments on what the newly created ministry is doing to address the menace. Calls put across to her mobile telephone line rang out and messages sent were equally not replied.