In Abidjan, the Ivorian economic capital, they are part of the daily life of motorists. We see them strolling on the medians, carrying pyramids of fruit on their heads or their arms loaded with mirrors, basins or mattresses… When the cars are stopped, they crowd the doors to offer plantain chips , peanuts, sachets of water or small cola nuts to wake up drivers stunned by the heat. At red lights, children rush to wash the windshields for 100 CFA francs (0.15 euros) and adults with legs deformed by polio hold out their arms to beg for a few coins.

A whole microcosm of street vendors and beggars which the minister-governor of the Abidjan district, Ibrahim Cissé Bacongo, intends to put an end to. A press release dated April 2 and signed by the vice-governor, Vincent N’Cho Kouaoh, states that “as part of the fight against urban disorder, itinerant commerce on major arteries, begging in all its forms and use of handcarts are now strictly prohibited throughout the territory of the district”.

A measure motivated, according to the press release, by the desire “to clean up the living environment of the populations, to further ensure the safety of people and property, as well as better road fluidity”, in order to restore Abidjan “its reputation as the pearl of the lagoons, a city that offers a better quality of life to its populations and visitors.” The same arguments were raised in February to justify the destruction of several precarious neighborhoods. Recurring “evictions” over the past decade due to the strong urban growth of Abidjan, and which have intensified in the last two months.

Net shots

The Abidjan district has not listed the street businesses targeted by the ban: the fate of the iconic red Nescafé carts, for example, remains uncertain. He also did not specify the sanctions to which offenders are exposed. It is difficult, moreover, to know how many people will be affected by the operation. The Union of Traders of Côte d’Ivoire (UCCCI) estimates the number of traders without stores at three million, a figure that includes both informal sidewalk stalls and mobile sellers.

In 2013, the former Minister of the Interior Hamed Bakayoko (died in 2021) had already tried to ban begging at the intersections of the economic capital, without his measure really having any effect. Over the past decade, police sometimes raided major thoroughfares, confiscating or destroying street vendors’ merchandise and dispersing beggars. In recent days, police checks have increased, with increased severity.

“We have no choice but to wait for passers-by to take pity on us and give us money or a little rice,” laments a young woman sitting on a cardboard box placed on the burning tarmac of the boulevard. Latrille, in the affluent Deux Plateaux district. Two young children are lying at his feet. The only one to master French, she acts as spokesperson for the small group: “Now the government no longer wants us. When the police come to chase us, we run, we hide. And when she leaves, we come back and sit down. »

At the crossroads located a few dozen meters away, street vendors take care to stay away from beggars to avoid any confusion. But during police raids, they too face sanctions. “Before, when they caught us, they took our goods,” says a very young girl who sells lemons to motorists stopped at red lights: “Now they take us. They took my aunt. She cried, she asked for forgiveness, but they had no mercy and took her” to the police station.

“Mouths to feed”

Street vendors generally do not have the means to pay the rent for a shop or a sidewalk stand, explains a seller of braised bananas who carries a sleeping baby on her back. Rents for commercial leases, like those for residential leases, have increased considerably in Abidjan over the last ten years. The “door pass”, this deposit requested from traders by owners for the rental of a shop, now starts at 10 million CFA francs (15,210 euros). “What do you want us to do?,” she asks. My husband is a swarmer [resourceful], he is a cement damper [mason’s helper]. When there is no construction site, there is no money coming in, but we always have mouths to feed! »

“It is not lighthearted for these populations to walk in the streets under a 45°C sun, but there is no shortage of alternatives,” confirms economist Germain Kramo, teacher-researcher at Félix University. Houphouët-Boigny from Abidjan. For him, street traders constitute “a workforce which, if exploited correctly, could become very profitable for the Ivorian economy”. In Côte d’Ivoire, informal employment represents more than 90% of the workforce and 51% of GDP.

“It is not enough to communicate in the name of beautifying the city and to toughen up police repression to get people to abandon these activities,” argues the researcher. We need mechanisms to bring them into the formal economy. Rather than putting them in prison, why not have them join the civic service centers, which offer vocational training over six months, and would allow them to find qualified employment upon release? “, he suggests.