Thursday, Nov14, 2013

Illiterates rule!


The thorny issue of street trading has once again reared its head in the national political debate, this time with tragic consequences. One young schoolboy of the Ansarul Muslim Secondary School, is dead, gunned down in the school compound during a clash between pupils of the school and petty traders who had erected makeshift stalls around the environs of the school and at the entrance. The school, located in the densely populated, deprived Guard street area of Freetown, had apparently long complained to the authorities that street trading and commercial activities were hindering the learning process. The noise from these activities, including loud music from unauthorized restaurants and bars made it difficult for teachers to be heard in class. At the entrance to the school, swarms of trays and makeshift stalls had to be negotiated, sometimes leading to altercations and disputes, especially if one were inadvertently knocked over. The school had for some years been blacklisted by WAEC, the regional examining body, as a center for holding its exams, due to the unconducive environment. This

East End police station

…Called to the scene

meant that students from the school taking these exams were required to do so at other centers.


On Monday, November 11, matters came to a head when, following altercations, threats and ultimatums issued the previous week by the two sides, pupils of the school began dismantling the makeshift stalls at the entrance to the school. Clashes erupted, with exchanges of missiles between the schoolboys inside their compound and the petty traders and area youths outside. Police personnel from the nearby East End Police station had to be called in and responded with tear gas and possibly firing of live ammunition (this is under investigation by the police). Injuries were sustained by all sides, and in the process, the young student, Alhaji Barrie, lost his life. Police at first denied responsibility, but now say the matter is under investigation.


The question of street trading, seemingly trivial, has proved to be one of the most thorny and intractable issues of governance in Sierra Leone. The main argument of the traders, who exist in Freetown in the tens of thousands, is that they have nowhere else to do their business but the streets, as government has not built market stalls for them. Governments over decades, but particularly this APC government, have been unable to firmly counter this argument, partly because these petty traders now and historically have been a main source of political support for the APC. As a result the petty traders have assumed carte blanche to operate virtually anywhere in the city. They have taken over entire streets of the municipality, displaying their wares right in the middle of the road and effectively blocking vehicular access (Guard Street, the area where this incident occurred is one such street). No street corner or sidewalk within the city has been spared invasion by these street traders. If it so pleases them they will take over your shop or home frontage and ruin your business or drive you to distraction in your own home. They congregate in hordes, litter the area, are loud and quarrelsome, create noise and confusion, hinder access, attract undesirables, engage in illicit selling of alcohol and other illegal activities, block the free flow of traffic and lead to a general deterioration of the neighbourhood. There are laws against many of these things, of course, but complain to the police and you will encounter a blank wall. Go to the City Council and you will find only deaf ears. Look to your councilor or MP and he/she will not be found. The result is the petty traders, many of whom are illiterate and originally from the provinces, rule the streets around you, and they can drive you from your bona fide property.


The irony in this latest tragic incident is that these poor young schoolchildren from this deprived community, aspire to escape the cycle of poverty inherent in street trading. They are struggling to acquire an education to make something of themselves, but this matters little to the hordes of traders about them. If you enter the Kissy mental home and attempt to associate with the inmates, you’ll discover that you are the outsider, the outcast, the one with a problem. In a land where illiteracy is allowed to rule, literacy and learning are not likely to be prized. One could argue that the students should not have taken the law into their hands by demolishing the makeshift stalls, but whose fault is this really? When you have complained about something that is illegal for years and have seen no response from those who are charged with upholding the law, and this illegality is affecting your own future, are you not justified if you decide to take matters into your hands?


The police have been accused, credibly, of heavy handedness in this matter and of firing live ammunition. This would be by no means the first time the police have used deadly force in questionable circumstances (see US Marine shot dead by Sierra Leone Police). In this incident the police appear to have intervened on the side of the traders and against the students. We have been told that some students have been arrested. No doubt the police would claim that this is as a result of the situation they encountered when they arrived on the scene.and the response of the protagonists to police instructions. The police, however, should not be seen to pick and choose in the enforcement of the laws, to arrest when it pleases them and to turn a blind eye even for protracted periods of time when they choose. The police, however, get their signals from politicians, and if the politicians indicate to them they are happy, or at least not unhappy, with street trading the police will ignore it.


The ultimate responsibility lies of course with government. It is government’s duty to enforce the laws and deal firmly with the traders. The argument that street trading is justified because government has failed to provide markets is a preposterous one, worthy of no more than a single line rebuttal: if government were to provide stalls or shops for the tens of thousands of existing traders, what then should government do if thousands more showed up a short while later demanding their own stalls and shops? Rather than providing markets for these people government should be providing an alternative vision for them, because the path they are on only reinforces their poverty and indeed Sierra Leone’s poverty. The seemingly simple violation of local bye laws is actually a national economic problem. The majority of these petty traders are never going to escape poverty, never going to escape street trading, and in all probability neither will their children.  To encourage them in this pursuit is cruel; it consigns them to a future without hope. What should they be doing? What could they be doing? In truth, the only potential alternative for them is working the land. Which raises the whole issue of why they left the land in the first place, and agricultural practices  and land distribution in Sierra Leone and socio-cultural organization in the provinces. These are questions the politicians avoid like the plague, so the issues are swept under the carpet and the petty traders are allowed to eke out their existence on the streets of Freetown. The more one delves into this seemingly petty, local issue the more complicated it becomes and the more national in scope


Sweeping the issue under the carpet is like storing a time bomb ticking away. As the ranks of poor, illiterate

St. Georges Cathedral

or semi-literate traders in Freetown continue to swell, an entire class of people without an alternative to the streets and the slums, the potential consequences, political and social, become increasingly unpredictable and uncontrollable Friction between street traders and other groups within Freetown has occurred frequently in recent times. Educational establishments have not been spared this friction. Earlier this year His Excellency the President provoked outrage by floating the idea that the Annie Walsh school, the oldest girls school in west Africa, long complaining of the rampant street trading in its precincts, could be relocated and its historic school buildings could be turned into a market for petty traders (read The Annie Walsh Memorial School Issue)  And old Princewaleans have similarly long complained of encroachment into the Prince of Wales School (read Prince of Wales School – Symbol of a Dysfunctional System). Churches and mosques have not been spared the unwelcome visitations either. Worshippers at St George’s Cathedral, the most prestigious church in the capital are greeted by the site of pavement secondhand shoe sellers at the doorstep. All complaints to authorities have fallen on deaf ears. The issue becomes even more controversial when government forcibly acquires land in the city without compensation, as it has done in recent times (read natinpasadvantage). If it then allows traders to set up shop on the newly acquired land its actions begin to look like a forcible redistribution of land within the city.


Earlier this year, in a surprise move, the APC  launched Operation Wid, designed to clear the streets. With great fanfare, President Ernest

Gibraltar Church, Sani Abacha Street

Koroma addressed the nation with the Mayor and his council, top police brass and other senior government officials and the leadership of the petty traders in attendance. All were in agreement he assured us: laws would be enforced, the streets would be cleared and traffic would flow freely. For a short while, Operation Wid appeared to work, as street by street, ward by ward, petty traders were peacefully urged off the street, makeshift structures, encroachments and obstacles on the sidewalks were cleared and sanity seemed to be returning. The improvement was shortlived. Petty traders’ organizations launched well attended protests. The main recalcitrants, Sani Abacha Street and Guard Street were never cleared, apparently because the authorities believed they would be the most difficult. Apparently responding to political pressure, Operation Wid began to lose steam. The city council street patrols lessened, then disappeared. Today the situation is almost back to where it was before the operation began. Street trading is back big time.


So the government finds itself guilty of at least three sins in this matter. First the President ignored the issue completely in his first term. Then he encouraged the traders during his campaign for reelection in 2012 to believe that he would continue to ignore the issue. He donated money to traders’ groups and the traders responded massively in support of the APC. Having encouraged the traders to believe he would continue to support them he did exactly the opposite by launching Operation Wid. And then, when he discovered the operation appeared to be causing a loss of political support, he reversed himself and pulled back on Operation Wid. So guilty on at least three counts: Recklessness and irresponsibility on count 1, deception on count 2, and weakness and indecision on count 3.


A trip to Ansarul school on Thursday, November 14 included a nightmarish walk along the 200 yard stretch of Guard Street from Clock Tower. What should have been a three-minute walk took twenty or twenty-five. At every step a mass of traders selling all manner of wares competes for space with the few vehicles foolhardy enough to risk travel on what used to be one of the main gateways in to the city.. At every step pedestrian traffic comes up against a vehicular or human obstacle. Stinking, slimy mud underfoot  makes each step uncertain. An infestation of flies  means one is best advised to keep one’s mouth firmly shut. Traders drag their baskets and trays into the middle of the road, very reluctantly pull them back to make space for vehicles that honk loudly enough, then promptly drag them back into the middle of the road. INMATES HAVE TAKEN OVER THE ASYLUM; SANITY IS ENDANGERED.


At the school we found slightly more space. Under the watchful eye of armed policemen, area youths were breaking down traders stalls that had been lined up against the school wall. The area was crowded, but the

Ansarul School, Guard Street

atmosphere was without tension; there was no sign of the violence that had erupted only a few days earlier. School appeared to have been suspended; there was no sign of students within the school compound or its environs.


The destruction of the traders stalls that we observed tells us two things. First, the authorities are now acknowledging that the school was at least partially correct in its earlier complaints and are belatedly taking action on the matter. Why did it have to take the death of Alhaji Barrie to accomplish this? What about all the others that have similar complaints, the businesses and residences, whose neighbourhoods have been taken over by traders? Don’t they have the same rights to peace and quiet in their environment? Is it that only violence will enable them to enjoy their rights as Sierra Leoneans?


The second thing the peaceful demolition of the stalls tells us (and we had already learnt this from Operation Wid) is that government has it in its power to remove traders from the streets whenever it wants. The politicians and the police know this. The traders themselves realize this; they know that they operate on the streets with the tacit approval of the politicians and that if that approval is withdrawn they must relocate. This is what emboldens traders to set up shop as they please within the city. Ultimately, unless politicians demonstrate the requisite vision and political will, the problem of street trading will only increase in Freetown. It’s a frightening thought.