Informal traders in African cities are being used as political pawns

Informal food trade represents a critical source of employment and food security for the urban poor. Nic Bothma/EPA

In late 2017 and early 2018, Zambia’s capital of Lusaka faced a widening cholera epidemic. In response the country’s President Edgar Lungu called in police and the military to raze makeshift food stalls in the city. In addition, the Minister of Local Government added stricter provisions to Zambia’s Street Vending and Nuisances Act. This was due to fears that substandard food safety among traders was fuelling the epidemic.

By early July 2019, however, the minister’s approach was notably different. He declared that police across the country’s district councils should immediately stop confiscating products from street vendors and the vendors should be treated humanely.

Food safety concerns remain. So what changed? One suspected factor is that local government by-elections were scheduled at the end of July. In a polarised, partisan atmosphere, cultivating goodwill among urban traders is a politically strategic move. They constitute a large share of voters and historically have been a critical source of support for the ruling Patriotic Front.

This is just one example of how informal food vendors in cities across many developing countries contend with volatile policies that, at best, lead to poor working conditions and, at worst, result in harassment and confiscation of merchandise. And, as a new study I conducted shows, these policy inconsistencies are not necessarily arbitrary. Rather, they reflect varying underlying political dynamics and local governance structures.

In Lusaka as well as Accra, Ghana, and Dakar, Senegal, governments are battling to manage the demands of a burgeoning middle-class along with those of a still large constituency of urban poor. These urban poor disproportionately rely on livelihoods in the informal sector, either as street hawkers or in open air public markets.

Data reveal that the way governments in these cities deal with vendors can be attributed to several factors. These include the extent of political decentralisation, administrative decentralisation, and vendors’ partisan affiliations. Political decentralisation refers to whether mayors are elected or appointed. Administrative decentralisation captures whether laws give cities a high level of autonomy to regulate informal trade.

The key takeaway from the research is that urban informal traders operate in a complex, multi-level governance system in which party politics, electoral rules, and legal authority over trade, food, and public space collectively interact. By better understanding the politics and governance of African cities and variations across cities, we can identify feasible opportunities to improve informal traders’ livelihoods.

Details in the data

I constructed a database on violent crackdowns on informal traders based primarily on media reports between 2000 and 2016 from both government and independent news sources and complemented with data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data and secondary literature. The data focused on vendors in three relatively equivalent cities: Dakar, Accra and Lusaka. The crackdowns were either episodes of forced relocation or outright destruction of property and merchandise.

In Accra, crackdowns have been relatively consistent over time. They also occur in other major Ghanaian cities. In Dakar, violence increased in the late 2000s. The same was not true in other Senegalese cities. In Lusaka, meanwhile, violence decreased around the late 2000s but increased in Zambian cities controlled by opposition political parties.

Other studies have argued that crackdowns reflect either a lack of collective action among traders to defend their rights or governments’ preoccupation with creating pristine cities. Our analysis differs.

We found that when mayors are appointed and administrative decentralisation over informal trade is high, as in Ghana, city officials prioritise their mandate to regulate vending. National governments rarely intervene.

But where administrative decentralisation is high and mayors are elected, they must decide whether aggressively regulating vending will alienate their core constituents.

That depends on which constituency has more influence. If it’s vendors, then they experience fewer crackdowns. If it’s middle-class residents and formal retailers, elected mayors may use crackdowns as a political gesture. In this case, they’re designed to convey that mayors actively are working to improve urban public space. This was the case in Dakar from 2009 to 2016 under then-Mayor Khalifa Sall.

Finally, there are spaces where mayors are elected but the regulation of informal trade is shared across tiers of government. In these instances, administrative decentralisation is low. Traders’ electoral importance is key to both the city and central governments. And political affiliation comes into play.

The national government has more scope to intervene locally, and it will initiate or halt crackdowns depending on whether the city is controlled by the opposition and whether vendors are critical to the opposition’s electoral fortunes. This third scenario best typifies the dynamics in Zambia. There, crackdowns increased as control of Lusaka shifted to the then opposition Patriotic Front in the mid-2000s.

Policy solutions

What’s needed to ensure that informal traders are handled fairly and humanely rather than being co-opted, bullied or neglected because of political motivations? And how can this be done in a way that also holds the traders accountable so their work doesn’t jeopardise public health?

Informal food trade represents a critical source of employment and food security for the urban poor. It also drives tax revenue to cities. But these potential contributions are often stifled by either benign neglect or outright harassment.

If the continent’s cities are to be inclusive and sustainable, while still ensuring that urban food safety is enforced, innovative policies are crucial. These must ensure humane and effective governance for some of urban Africa’s most vulnerable residents.