ACCRA, Ghana — Opportunity knocks every minute for Napoleon Musah and his fellow street hawkers in Ghana’s capital city.
When the traffic light turns red, Musah hurries off the sidewalk, flashing his pocket-sized notebook to taxi drivers, minibus passengers and other overheated commuters, as he briskly walks down the white line dividing two highway lanes.
The honking horns tell the hawkers — peddling Dollar Store-type items like key chains, tissues and chewing gum — that it’s time to hustle between bumpers and back to the sidewalk.
And that’s just where government officials want to keep them — off the street. Hawkers endanger themselves and motorists, clog traffic in an already crowded city and don’t pick up after themselves, officials say.
Vendors like Musah say they’ll have no other means of earning money if kicked off the streets, especially during global financial problems.
“The profit is for all the family,” said the 29-year-old married father of two young girls. “I’m from a small village. I send some small money weekly or monthly.”
Musah buys his apparently Chinese-produced notebooks — two pages are devoted to dialing codes for cities in China — for the equivalent of 80 cents each. He sells them for $1, and on average his daily net profit is $5, much better than the one-quarter of Ghanaians living below the poverty line of $1 per day.
There are risks, of course, like when a friend was struck by a motorcycle and suffered a broken leg here on Airport Road a few weeks ago.
“It’s very dangerous, I cannot lie,” he said, adding that it’s still more lucrative and less stressful than his construction job of a year ago. “Construction, the work is very difficult, physically.”
But government officials say enough is enough. The incoming minister for the Greater Accra Region told Parliament last month that hawkers are hurting the economy because commuters are losing work hours while struck in traffic.
And the capital’s equivalent to a city council, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, is preparing the carry out the initiative. A similar effort failed a few years ago despite the AMA’s construction of a pedestrian shopping mall to give 20,000-plus hawkers an alternative sales site.
“They went, and then came back to the streets,” said Frank Asante, the AMA’s public relations director. “They have refused to go there. When we take action we will ask them to go back.”
No deadline has been set, he said, but the problem is spreading.
“It used to be at the main commercial area but as it is now they’ve taken almost every part of the city,” Asante said. “The general consensus is that they are more or less a nuisance to the people in the city.”
There aren’t statistics on how many vehicle accidents have been caused by hawkers, he said, adding that “once in a while” a hawker is killed or seriously hurt.
Taxi driver Kofi Asirifi supports the government’s plan. Motorists are at a disadvantage to crowds of pedestrians when there’s an accident, he said.
“If you hurt somebody, you’re in trouble,” said Asirifi, leaning on his yellow and white Kia 4-door taxi outside an office building in downtown Accra. “They should get out of the street. A car is a machine — anything can happen.”
Ghana isn’t alone dealing with the issue of hawkers, who peddle their wares on city streets all over the world.
A ban on street hawkers in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, sparked two days of riots 18 months ago, ending in a compromise.
A World Bank report in 2005 said many laws against street vending stem from colonial rule, which favored the European-style formal sector. It said South Africa has taken a different approach by embracing the vendors. The city of Durban created a “Department of Informal Trade.”
The “informal sector” is a force in developing states, comprising between 25 percent and 40 percent of annual economic production in Africa and Asia, according to the World Bank.
Musah says he won’t protest in the streets but wants the government to reconsider.
“It’s difficult because there are no jobs,” he said. “We pray God, say make it no happen.”
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