Yesterday I got a call from Agba Jalingo to be a guest on his radio program "The Dialogue With Agba Jalingo". The topic for discussion was "Regulating Hawking and Street Vending in Cross River; the Right way?" The Cross River State House of Assembly has just passed a bill to legalize hawking in the state.

My co-guests on the show were Hon Regina Anyogo, representing Yala 1 Constituency in the CRSHA and the sponsor of the bill and Theresa Okpa, Secretary, Prevent Abuse of Children Today, PACT. It was an engaging session and my position on this bill which has been passed my the House, awaiting the Governor's assent, is that it is a dangerous piece of legislation.

Section 1 states that "The objective of this law is to define and provide a regulatory framework for Hawkers in the State which will enable them carry out their businesses in a legitimate manner while equally protecting their rights."

This sounds noble. But the nobility gets lost in the verbosity of the bill and some highly dangerous sections.

Now, I hawked as a teen. In fact, I consider myself the only person in Africa who hawked palmwine. Hawking is certainly a legitimate way to survive. It has never been illegal. So, one will wonder why the State Government is in hurry to "legalise" what was never illegal.

Hawking is one of the toughest ways to survive and not really a dignified profession. It broke my mother's heart every time we had to go out to hawk. But she had no choice. Papa is dead and life is tough. We needed to survive. Nobody aspires to be a hawker. Everyone on the streets hawking is praying for something else to do. Then why are you legalising a job people consider infra dig? That's not even the point, because as I said hawking has never been illegal in the first place.

Sections 2 and 5 establish Hawkers Protection and Regulation Agency and Hawkers Rights Protection and Regulatory Board respectively. These two boards have similar duties and will be peopled by persons who are not even hawkers. State resources will be allocated to pay salaries, allowances, and logistics to run both an agency and a board that regulate a profession people will rather not do or be associated with. Why not spend such resources in creating jobs that will take these hawkers off the streets? That's not my main thrust anyways. Stay with me.

Section 31 of the law states that hawking zones and centers will be created for hawkers. This doesn't make any sense to me. The sole purpose of hawking is for the hawker to take his wares to where the potential buyer is. Creating hawking centers is like creating markets where the hawkers will stay and wait for buyers to come to them. That's not regulating hawking, it's rather, technically, banning hawking. In a wild excitement to legalise hawking (whatever that means), the Cross River State Government has banned and criminalized it.

Section 31 (3) makes it an offence punishable with imprisonment if anyone hawks outside the designated areas or centers. This is really dangerous. This will make every hawker on the street of Cross River State a potential ex-convict just because he is hawking, just because she is hustling to survive.

I agree there should be areas where hawking should not be allowed (infact, I think nobody should hawk at all. But it's not the fault of the hawkers that they are hawking. It's life happening to all of us). But this can be handled through an executive measure or policy not through a law that will criminalise hawking, send hawkers to jail and make them ex-convicts with all the attendant legal disabilities. Just because a hungry brother or sister makes the mistake of hawking in a non designated area, he commits an offence worthy of jail. Just imagine.

Section 26 of the Law states that hawkers will be issued hawkers permit after a rigorous screening exercise that will include collecting personal data. This poses serious social, legal and logistics challenges.

How many persons out there are proud to be identified as hawkers? Proud enough to step out to be counted, issued permits, Identity Cards and uniforms? Yes. The law states that they will be given ID cards and uniforms too!

What of those who don't consider themselves "professional hawkers"? What of Mama Obi who works in the Local Government, whose kids have never hawked before, who is being owed salaries by the State Government, who comes back from work one day and meet the empty house and hungry kids, who goes behind the house to her garden to harvest some vegetables, who calls Obi to go and hawk the vegetables and bring some survival money home? Now, Obi will be arrested for not having a hawking permit, a hawker's ID Card and the beautiful hawker's uniform abi? Does it make sense to you?

The law and the policy behind the law is even contradictory. The Governor said the law is being enacted to protect the right of the poor to hustle and survive, yet the same law can send the poor to jail and make them ex-convicts for hustling. The same law stipulates that you must be a registered hustler before you hustle. And wait for it... The hawkers will have to pay for the permit, the ID Card and the uniform!

That's not all. Section 30 of the law states that hawkers must pay hawkers fees. Governor Ayade has been trumpeting that low income earners are exempted from tax in his administration but behold he is about to sign into law a piece of legislation that will force the lowest of the low income earners to pay tax!

It is pertinent to note that this bill is the idea of Governor Benedict Ayade. It looks like a good idea and maybe the governor means well but this bill is a mistake, a socio-legal catastrophe will be unleashed in the State if the Governor assents to this bill.

Fellow Cross Riverians, Governor Ben Ayade is about to sign a bill into law that will ban hawking to a large extent, he is about to assent to a bill that will make it possible to arrest our poor brothers and sisters just because they are hawking, a bill that will introduce taxes for hawkers... Let's tell the Governor not to do this.

If we don't stand against this today, then we will all be guilty tomorrow. If you keep silent today, then you will be guilty tomorrow if this bill is assented to. Every time the poor is extorted in the name of hawking permit or hawking fees, you will be guilty. Every time the poor is harassed and arrested because of this law, you will be guilty. Every time they prosecute a citizen, forcing him to pay mighty fines or locking him up in jail, you will be guilty.

You can at least begin by sharing this article until it gets to the Governor. Mr Governor please don't sign this bill. The legal, social and economic hardship it will foist on our people will be too grave. Please, sir, don't do this.

First Baba Isa is a Legal Practitioner based in Abuja and writes this from Calabar.

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