Street Hawkers Clash With Abuja Agency Over Alleged Extortion

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Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), and other relevant agencies in the habit of mobilising task forces ostensibly to clean the nation’s capital, Abuja, must in the days ahead clean up their acts as current efforts to rid pedestrian bridges of traders/hawkers have generated allegations of sleaze and extortion by officers of the agencies.

In the recent time, AEPB has conducted series of raids targeted at street hawkers and traders, seizing their wares running into millions of naira. They also set upon temporary structures erected by the hawkers seizing or burning them. But the traders so far have alleged foul play, explaining that AEPB officials have been extorting money from them.

As gathered by ABUJA INDEPENDENT BUSINESS, AEPB officials have developed elaborate scheme that squeezes traders of money on daily basis for upward remittances to senior officials in the agencies.

The money, according to the traders, are allegedly collected on daily basis by two officials of the board, who are often dressed on blue T-shirts emblazoned with ‘AEPB’, over jeans trousers.

One of the traders, a food vendor, who pleaded to remain anonymous over the issue, alleged that she parts with N2, 000 to the men of the agency on a daily basis.

Three other food sellers corroborated the claim. But many others told INDEPENDENT that hawkers especially on pedestrian bridges pay N500 on daily basis.

But the environmental monitoring agency denies that it is involved in any extortion.  Muktar Ibrahim, Head of Information and Outreach Programme Unit, said, “AEPB doesn’t have a policy of extorting money from food vendors, it is wrong, inhuman, antisocial and satanic to do such a thing at this period when everybody is groaning under the recessed economy. We will not tolerate that and we will make a scapegoat of such people”.

Good words, though. But given the alleged organized orchestrations by the extorting gang, not a few observers say that it has official backings, especially with presence of law enforcement agents in place.

Indeed, the estimated hurl on daily basis of the extortion makes it quite attractive for any unscrupulous government worker in AEPB to partake in. For instance, takings at Gwarimpa Bus Stop pedestrian bridge with estimated 1, 500 traders is put at N750, 000 per day, if N500 is collected from each trader on daily basis.

This comes to about N5.2 million per week, from just one pedestrian overhead bridge in Abuja. There are still many more and busier street trading hubs in Abuja.

“The money is collected by our leaders at every point. That is how the officials want it. We cannot refuse because we need to sell and get money to feed our families,” said one of the leaders of the traders at Gwarimpa.

The source further added that most of the traders are finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet because of the economic recession in Nigeria.

“This is why we are begging AEPB to desist from extorting money from those who are trying to survive through hard work,” the informer added.

Similarly, Mrs Nkechi Edward, a food vendor said, “None of this AEPB staff show mercy at all, when they come like this and you don’t have money to give them, they will carry your items away, most times they eat them. This has happened to me on many occasions.”

But Ibrahim, AEPB spokesman insists that extortion from hawkers by AEPB is a deliberate falsehood.

“In the first instance, we are not in charge of regulating people that sell food. So, I don’t know the background to this. When you say food vendors, I assumed they must be people that are registered, that operate legally, in which case AEPB is not the body they paid to for their operations.

“However, I can assume that they may be referring to street hawkers, people that operate in prohibited areas. And if this are the people you are talking about it is really difficult for me to confirm the veracity or otherwise of the allegations,” Ibrahim said.

But he however, advised that such kind of rip off from unscrupulous people claiming to be staff of AEPB could be avoided if such food vendors relocate into areas that are legally designated for such purpose.

AEPB further stated that it would investigate such claims nonetheless. “We will investigate to ascertain if our staff is involved in the extortion of food vendors. This is what we constantly do because we have to monitor. No organization is free of bad eggs, we want to solicit the assistance of the media to fish out people who go under the guise of official duties to extort money that does not come to the government but goes to their private pockets.

“Apart from giving the board a bad name, they also deny government of the needed revenue. This is a corrupt practice and AEPB will not condone such. I will appreciate it if these complainants can get some recordings of such transactions to emphasize the claims,” Ibrahim added.

But it may well appear that AEPB’s biggest undoing is its inability to adapt to prevailing economic realities. While reasons for clampdown on hawkers in the FCT is in keeping with urban renewal mandate and the need to keep Abuja looking befitting as a fitting nation’s capital, there has also been suggestions that town planners ‘humanize’ its city maintenance governance.

This is hardly peculiar to the FCT as other state capital have one form of restriction on trading or the other. While reasons for such clampdown have remained largely same, it however doesn’t address economic realities of open trading or hawking.

For instance, 70 percent of Nigeria’s economic activities happen in the informal sector with trading taking a huge chunk of the figure. The money flow in this sector is largely not captured, and is vulnerable to illegal taxes like the extortions being perpetrated. Secondly, a great number of players in the sector is the most vulnerable in the society; Women, young girls and children forced into labour when they should be going to school. High handedness of government officials further forces this category of people underground.