Thursday, January 29, 2009

A sad and shocking day

I wrote in my Fulbright research proposal that vendors in Lagos "experience harsh crackdowns that include arrests, confiscation of merchandise, and violence." I wasn't completely sure how accurate that was. Until today.

After some web surfing in the morning (when the internet connection is quicker) I headed to the bus stop around noon for another trip to Lagos Island, where vendors congregate in greater numbers. I did not get far. A few hundred meters from home, I came across a scene of mass destruction: the Lagos police had come through hours before, bulldozing more than 100 vendor stalls right here in the relatively quiet suburb of Ojudu Berger. Groups of vendors stood around, watching their businesses be carted away. Groups of police stood around, looking over the wreckage.

I couldn't believe this was happening. Had they timed it for my arrival? I certainly did not want my research to be this relevant. I felt like a reporter at a disaster scene -- I began taking pictures and interviewing witnesses. Some residents took me up on a balcony to survey the scene from above. The atmosphere was tense. Two young men walked me down the street, away from the police, and told me what had happened: the new Lagos state government passed a regulation six months ago that no structure could exist within ten feet of the gutter -- even on private property. The police had come through two days ago to warn them, allowing them to remove their merchandise. Still, more than 200 people lost their jobs and businesses.

I spoke to Edith, shown here standing in front of the ruins of her business. She sold roasted plantains there for 12 years, supporting seven children. The police came at night and took her oven and all her equipment, including two boxes of plantains worth about $60. I asked her if they had any kind of union or association to work on this issue. She said "no." I asked her what she was going to do, she said "I don't know."

The vendors had no clue what to do. Groups of them gathered around me, hoping the oyibo (white guy) could help. What could I do? I encouraged them to schedule a meeting of all the people who had been affected, to make a plan, and offered to attend. Some seemed scared at that idea; others didn't think it would do any good. They are probably right. Here are the photos.


  1. Wow, talk about police sweeps, Sean--it's pretty hard to imagine so much destruction of so many businesses in one police action. I think we're used to a few people being picked up at a time. Well, this is going to be an interesting few months...(Great photos, but be careful w/that camera!)

  2. Indeed, Juhu. I should point out that most of these vendors had erected semi-permanent structures, which a vendor in New York would not even be able to build in the first place. So, in some ways they are more strict here, in some ways more lax.

  3. This is crazy - what was the real reason behind this action?

    I think news organizations would be interested in this story...

    Keep up the good work!!