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#NigeriaAt58: Can our country succeed in the face of informality and unsustainable development

Independence

Yesterday, we were at Rubbin’ Minds with Ebuka Obi-Uchendu on Channels TV to discuss livelihood challenges facing the urban poor in Nigeria. For us, such discussion is emotional as it affects our daily survival. But we also fervently believe that these issues affect the long-term survival and well being of the entire society. No one should turn a blind eye.

In February 2018, the World Poverty Clock declared Nigeria to have the highest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world. This means we have more people living in extreme poverty than India, which has a staggering population of 1.3 billion – more than 6.5 times our country’s population. Nearly 90 million Nigerians are living in extreme poverty and, if we are honest with ourselves, we are not making progress to reverse this dangerous trend as a nation, neither in rural or urban areas.

The Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation is a movement of the urban poor for our dignity and development. At our general meetings, so many of our members have complained about the ban on street trading and the arrest and prosecution of hawkers, cart pushers, and so many others who are just trying to earn a living and provide for the basic needs of millions of Lagosians who rely on our businesses. In the last two years, this has gone from bad to worse with the expansion of the Lagos State Mobile Court that is set up to systematically make money from the urban poor.

Every day, the Task Force “raids” our communities, indiscriminately arresting anyone outside after 9pm. Lagosians are taken by the hundreds to Task Force cells and kept without knowing the reasons for their arrest or being able to contact anyone to let them know their whereabouts. The next day, they are brought en masse before the Mobile Court where they are intimidated and made to plead guilty to offences such as “wandering without evident means of livelihood.” The court looks at the appearance and judges if those arrested are poor to determine guilt. When the accused cannot pay the fines imposed or if fail to plead not guilty, they are sent to Kirikiri or Badagry prisons, which are now overflowing with the urban poor. Even the Prisons Service is complaining of the Mobile Court!

Aside from making money for the State, the Mobile Court is designed to frustrate the urban poor and force them to leave the city. During acquittals or convictions, Mobile Court judges have given orders that we should return to our villages, told us that they “don’t want to see us in Lagos again.” Is this what our city has come to?

We, the urban poor, are an integral part of the city. We do not sit idly by the wayside. Indeed, no one can survive in Lagos without working, least of all the poor. The truth is that we contribute every day to the economy of our city, we play essential roles in the labour market, we pay levies and taxes to the government through so many channels. Indeed, when the Federation surveyed over 300 street traders in Victoria Island, Lekki, and Ikoyi, we found that the average trader pays regular fees to authorities and had worked in the same location for at least 11 years before the massive crackdown that began in 2016.

Yet, the way our government acts towards the urban poor, it is as if we are the problem when in reality our common enemy is poverty. Instead of fighting poverty, they fight us.

We must recognise that the economic strength of Lagos is its population, not despite it. Without its population, Lagos would not be the megacity we aspire to be.

Instead of fighting and trying to frustrate the urban poor, instead of trying to eradicate the informal sector that comprises an estimated 65% of the economy, the government should look for ways to make informality work through incremental formalisation.

Our demand is the decriminalisation of informal livelihoods. However, we are a solution-focused movement and we are ready to work hand-in-hand with any government to find better alternatives to maximise the potential of the informal sector for everyone affected while ensuring our livelihoods and pathways out of poverty.

— The Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement  Federation

The Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation is a movement by the urban poor for our dignity and development active in 144 communities across Lagos. We are affiliated with the global Slum Dwellers International (SDI) movement and we are supported by a human rights organization called Justice & Empowerment Initiatives – Nigeria (JEI). Follow us on Twitter @NaijaFederation and support our #InclusiveLivelihoods campaign.

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