by Dennis Mbae
Ruthless. That is how Jacinta Muthoni, a street vendor in Nairobi, describes City inspectorate officers in Kenya’s capital. For two years, she has been taking medication for an ailing kidney after the officers clubbed her in the abdomen with a truncheon.
On that day, hundreds of vendors had laid out their wares for sale when inspectorate officers showed up without warning. They had come ostensibly to enforce the City by-laws. “Run!” Muthoni heard someone shout a warning.
All of a sudden, the horde of hawkers broke into a run, each grabbing whatever they could carry. Everyone knew where they would end up if caught – at the back of a city inspectorate vehicle or in the City court if unable to pay an exorbitant fine. Most times, the bribe demanded by these officers is greater than the value of a hawker’s stock. So many just abandon or cast away some of their wares so that they can run faster, and avoid falling into the hands of the officers.
Muthoni or Soni as her friends call her didn’t even get a chance to run. The officers were on her before she could get very far. One of them hit her, inflicting a painful internal injury that would ground her at home for months.
“I am lucky to be alive,” she says. Her recognition of her luck belies far more grim statistics – tens of hawkers have been killed, and hundreds maimed by brutal inspectorate officers. Others have abandoned hawking altogether and left Nairobi.
Through a well-organized network, they collect bribes of around $ 1 million a month from thousands of hawkers in the capital. An ongoing investigative series by Africa Uncensored exposes the blatant operations of a group of inspectorate officers notorious for extortion.
The officers have divided the capital into lucrative zones from where they collect bribes twice a week. Few words are exchanged during transactions. Each party knows their responsibility well. At times, the hawkers themselves do the collecting and then remit accumulated amounts to specific officers at the end of each week. In exchange, they get freedom to operate in undesignated areas. Five of the officers captured on camera have since been suspended by Nairobi County government following the exposé.
Bribery and extortion from informal traders is endemic in major cities across Africa. Although the cause of the illegal practice may vary slightly from one city to another, the end result is the same – hawkers losing a sizeable amount of income to a few corrupt individuals.
Bribery and extortion in Nigeria
In Nigeria, the regulatory laws on hawking and informal trading are the foundation on which bribery and extortion from hawkers by corrupt security officials in major cities have gained ground.
For instance, Section 7 and 8 of the Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law 2003 gives jurisdiction and power to the special court to order the seizure and public auction of items impounded for street trading. Additionally, Section 10 of the law prescribes a fine of $25 or three-month imprisonment upon conviction.
A report published by the Global Advanced Research Journal in February this year documents the average daily income of street vendors in Nigeria. The report, Effects of Street Trading on Urban Areas in Nigeria the highest daily income generated by street traders is $6 and above, and the low income is between $2 and $3.
In Lagos state, various government agencies are known to divide among themselves goods impounded from hawkers instead of publicly auctioning them.
“In many cases, the officials do sell the impounded goods but the money often goes into their pockets, not government coffers. Sometimes, they take the goods home for personal use,” says Tobore Ovuorie, a Nigerian investigative journalist.
Recently, the Osun State House of Assembly introduced a new trading law that seeks to prohibit hawking or exposing goods, wares and articles for sale in some major towns of the state or within the vicinity of any public building in the state.
The Street Trading and Illegal Market Prohibition Law 2016 bans the extension of shops into the walkways, road setbacks and building lines. It also discourages indiscriminate pasting of posters or banners, advertising goods and services on sidewalls, bus stops, bridges or any other unauthorized space.
The now existing laws however may not accomplish the intended purpose if other factors such as rental fees for market stalls are unaddressed. In Lagos, for example, market stalls are unaffordable to many hawkers forcing them to sell on the roadsides, highways, and any open space. Besides this being one of the reasons for heavy traffic in the city, it creates a conducive environment for bribery and extortion to thrive.
Municipal Police “Making a Killing”
In Harare, Zimbabwe, the municipal police (the Zimbabwe equivalents of Nairobi City’s Inspectorate officers) make a killing from vendors who have to bribe to avoid being arrested or having their goods taken. Last year, the National Vendors’ Union of Zimbabwe (NAVUZ) wrote to the country’s anti-graft body demanding action against corrupt municipal officers.
NAVUZ chair Sten Zvorwadza raised concern over failure by Harare City Council to act on the growing number of complaints by hawkers against corrupt officers. In response, the Council’s spokesperson Michael Chideme said they could not address the complaints due to lack of evidence.
At one time, former Harare Town Clerk Dr Tendai Mahachi confirmed to a Parliamentary committee that municipal police did extort bribes. With the continued influx of street vendors, the situation has worsened over the years notwithstanding the crafting of new laws.
Since Zimbabwe tumbled into severe economic crisis and came under sanctions by the West, the number of vendors has grown inexorably making the informal sector one of the top employers in the impoverished nation. Following the closure of many firms, retrenched employees struggled to find other avenues of survival. Joining the informal sector became the easiest way out of poverty. As a result, thousands of informal traders now form the backbone of the country’s near-collapsing economy.
Despite the indispensable role played by informal sector, Zimbabwe’s government, like many other African governments, isn’t keen to recognize the sector, or its potential. Little is being done toward acknowledging the informal sector as a major player in revenue generation. Instead, the informal traders are constantly being run out of the central business district.
Bribery, extortion and implementation of laws such as the Harare (Hawkers) by-laws 2013 have seen hawkers and informal traders work through an extremely narrow straightjacket.
The law prohibits hawkers from, among other things, remaining stationary for over 15 minutes while conducting their business. Further, the law allows for seizure of goods by City Council officials without issuance of receipts.
“For the past 22 years, vendors in Zimbabwe have been harassed by municipal police and the national police force. We have been losing money through bribery and extortion which must stop,” stated Zvorwadza in late 2014 during a vendor’s meeting organized by Transparency International in Harare.
Report on corruption and bribery in Africa
A report published last year by Transparency International placed Zimbabwe third among Sub-Saharan Africa countries that were doing badly in the fight against corruption. Madagascar and Liberia took the first and second position respectively while South Africa came fifth. Kenya held the ninth position in the index.
According to the report, People and Corruption: Africa Survey 2015, 75 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa paid bribes last year alone. The report gives the major reasons for giving bribes as the need to access basic services that they desperately needed, or avoid punishment from police. Further, the report indicates that the poor are the most affected by corruption.
Hawkers, a majority of whom earn less than $100 a month, belong here. These are the same people from whom millions of dollars are extorted every month. Just the thought of it rankles with Soni.
“It’s not fair; how they treat us is not fair at all. I now have to get an operation to remove the clot in my liver, and I can’t pay for it. I don’t know when they will come harass us again,” she says, echoing the statements of thousands of hawkers who trade along the same street in Nairobi’s City Centre.
While many hawkers have died as a result of bribery and extortion, others still bear marks of cruelty propagated by city authorities. A Kenyan hawker, Joseph Maina, personifies the latter description. In the last two years, he has spent $ 4000 for treatment of a bullet wound he sustained when hawkers clashed with city inspectorate officers. That is nearly three times his annual earnings as a hawker.
A Few days after being shot, he reported the matter at Nairobi Central Police station but no action was taken. Since then, he has been seeking, and not getting justice from various agencies including the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, Kenya’s police watchdog.
“I have forgiven the officer who shot me. That notwithstanding, the law should follow its course for the sake of others who might suffer a similar fate,” says the 35-year-old.
Hawkers who stand up to corrupt officials
While many hawkers take the easy way out by paying bribes, some do not. In 2012, a hawker in Johannesburg identified as Jeffrey Neakonde stood up to the police when they unlawfully confiscated his goods. He had refused to give them a bribe. According to Corruption Watch, a non-profit organization that fights graft in South Africa, the police were shocked to find out later that Neakonde had reported them to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, a police watchdog body.
Jeffrey, unfortunately, is the exception to a rule of primacy of the bribe in Africa, and a brutal fine for non-payment.
Additional reporting by Umari Istambuli.
More articles by Dennis Mbae
UPDATE: Edited at 3.00pm on 20th April 2016 for additional images.