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Uganda's street traders treated 'like animals' in major crackdown

Street vendors sell their merchandise in Kampala, Uganda

Street vendors sell their merchandise in Kampala, Uganda, August 2, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Isaac Kasamani

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Kampala authorities have arrested thousands of vendors this year and there is criticism over poor treatment and lack of regulation.

  • Kampala's vendors arrested in worst crackdown in years
  • City authorities say they "flood the streets"
  • Legal dispute has put spotlight on lack of regulation

KAMPALA - For 13 years, ever since she lost her job in a tobacco factory, Comfort Wanicingrwoth has sold fruit on the streets of Kampala to support her four children.

That makes her a criminal in the eyes of the Ugandan state.

In July she was arrested for hawking and spent five days in prison. She said the guards gave her undercooked beans and maggot-infested maize flour to eat, and left her to sleep on the hard floor with nothing but a blanket.

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"We are not criminals," Wanicingrwoth said. "We are the people who are poor, who are looking for survival."

City officials have arrested thousands of vendors since January in one of the most severe crackdowns on street trade in the Ugandan capital for years.

The move comes after strict COVID-19 restrictions pushed many families further into poverty, and coincides with a sharp jump in prices for essential goods, which is squeezing cash-strapped Ugandans.

In Kampala, enforcement teams can be seen patrolling the congested streets accompanied by soldiers and policemen, while furtive vendors flee through labyrinthine shopping arcades.

A woman stand between two vehicles, posing for a photo with a basket of fruit resting on her head

Comfort Wanicingrwoth, a hawker and a member of the Federation of Kampala Hawkers and Vendors Association, poses for a picture during an interview in Kampala, Uganda, July 29, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Isaac Kasamani

Comfort Wanicingrwoth, a hawker and a member of the Federation of Kampala Hawkers and Vendors Association, poses for a picture during an interview in Kampala, Uganda, July 29, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Isaac Kasamani

"Police are there with the guns, soldiers are there with the guns: how can you defend yourself?" Wanicingrwoth said.

"We are like animals, the way they take us."

However, the city's top technocrat told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that street vendors had "flooded the streets" as Covid-19 restrictions eased last year, blocking walkways and obstructing shops.

"We had people selling all their wares, all their merchandise – tomatoes, eggs, charcoal stoves, roasted meat, whatever," said Dorothy Kisaka, executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), which manages the city.

"It was unsightly really. So we agreed ... that we need to clear the streets, we need to enable the city to breathe."

The issue escalated last month when Kampala's elected Lord Mayor, Erias Lukwago, filed a lawsuit against the KCCA and other state officials - calling the arrest of street vendors "illegal, ultra vires (beyond its powers), irrational and unreasonable".

Kisaka said that she supports efforts to develop clearer regulations on street trading but argued that the KCCA has "a mandate to keep the city orderly and we cannot sit back".

Across sub-Saharan Africa - from Nigeria's Lagos to Kigali in Rwanda - governments are cracking down on street traders as authorities attempt to impose their idea of a modern city onto fast-growing metropolises.

Vendors arrested

At Kampala's City Hall one afternoon earlier this month, a dozen hawkers squinted through the bars of a cell at a courthouse, where arrested vendors are brought for sentencing.

The logbooks showed that 2,636 people have appeared before the court on charges of "hawking" or "plying street trade" without a licence in the first seven months of this year.

Vendors are typically fined 200,000 shillings ($52) – at least two weeks' income for many – or sentenced to two months in prison if they cannot pay.

A street vendor stands in the City Hall court after he was arrested for selling merchandise

A street vendor stands in the City Hall court after he was arrested for selling merchandise in Kampala, Uganda, August 2, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Isaac Kasamani

A street vendor stands in the City Hall court after he was arrested for selling merchandise in Kampala, Uganda, August 2, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Isaac Kasamani

Frank Baine, the Uganda Prisons Services spokesman, said on Aug. 4 that 12 street traders were in prison after being convicted, with 27 others held on remand.

However, Richard Lubega, the chairman of the Federation of Kampala Hawkers and Vendors Associations, which represents some of the vendors, estimated that 700 of them were in jail.

Members of the federation said that male KCCA enforcement officers handle women roughly and sometimes extort bribes.

"That's why we don't prosper, we don't leave the streets – because the little we get, these law enforcement officers, the policemen, they take away from us," said Lubega.

Some vendors also described harassment from plainclothes men who they said accompany the enforcement teams.

Wambi Molly, a fruit seller, said that one of these men demanded that she sleep with him to secure the release of her husband, who had been arrested for hawking. She refused.

Kisaka, the technocrat, said that KCCA staff were trained to "enforce the law but with some level of decency".

In response to the criticism about the action of plainclothes men, she said the KCCA sometimes hired casual workers to support its work - but not with law enforcement.

Legal challenge

The Ugandan government has been trying to control street trading for years. Business in Kampala is regulated by a complicated patchwork of acts, bylaws and ordinances, including a 1969 law on trade licensing and a law governing official markets which dates to the days of British colonialism.

"Currently there is pretty much no clear regulatory framework that governs street trade," said Stephen Odaro, the general secretary of the Platform for Vendors in Uganda, which organises informal street hawkers and market traders.

Kampala mayor Lukwago's deputy, Doreen Nyanjura, who joined him in the lawsuit in July, said the law provides for vendors to be given licences, but that the KCCA was not issuing any.

A 2019 ordinance proposed by the city council to regulate street trade - which elaborates on procedures for issuing licences and uniforms to authorised vendors - has not been passed into law.

"You cannot merely chase these people off the streets without providing them an alternative," Nyanjura said.

But Kampala's elected politicians, who side overwhelmingly with opposition parties, have little power in a tightly-controlled system overseen by President Yoweri Museveni since 1986.

In February, 14 city councillors were arrested while protesting in downtown Kampala wearing T-shirts saying "omutembeyi si muyekera", meaning "a hawker is not a rebel".

Meanwhile, Kisaka said that the KCCA is trying to create space in official markets for vendors, and is working with the Federation of Kampala Hawkers and Vendors Associations to develop a new site in the north of the city.

"Continuous run-ins with our forces is not really the way to solve this problem," said Kisaka. "We must as a city create opportunities for the urban poor."

Lubega, the federation's chairman, welcomed the initiative, but said vendors were still denied the recognition they deserve.

"(Us) hawkers and vendors, we are just like strangers in our own country," he said. 


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