The time was about 8am that cloudy Friday. Civil servants had started arriving at the Federal Secretariat Complex, Central Business Area, Abuja, the nation’s capital.
With the shortage of parking space at the huge complex to serve the increasing number of persons who work in the secretariat, some parked along the road, hoping that officers of the Federal Road Safety Corps would not tow their vehicles for wrong parking. Others, however, drove into the parking lot of the popular Eagle’s Square.
Almost equidistant from government establishments like the National Assembly, the Office of the Head of the Federal Civil Service, the Federal High Court and the State House, the Eagle’s Square may rightly be referred to as a major symbol of democracy, as it hosts major events.
From playing host to the inauguration of elected presidents to political rallies, concerts and Democracy Day celebrations, the arena is evidently a place of interest. So also is its parking lot, which can accommodate no less than 300 vehicles at a time. This turns it into a makeshift market the moment civil servants begin to arrive.
On both entrances to the parking lot there are a number of hawkers selling things like groundnuts, snacks and other items. Also noticeable are newspaper and book stands, printing shops and PoS stands.
As our correspondent soon found out, the real buying and selling take place inside the parking lot, in which car boots become storefronts for products ranging from herbal remedies and tea to clothes, shoes and handbags. Our correspondent counted no fewer than 10 vehicles converted to shops, with salespersons attached to them.
While the businessmen and women said they understood the optics of converting their vehicles to stores, they insisted that the situation of the economy drove them to find alternative sources of income.
For them, the cost of finding proper stalls to set up their businesses and services is more expensive than selling out of the boots of their vehicles.
A salesman for electrical appliances, Ogbu Godwin, who started the business seven years ago, said it was his only source of income and livelihood, adding that although the business started small, he had had to diversify to survive.
“I am not a civil servant; this is the only business I do to survive. Usually, in a day before, we make like N3,500. Then we were only selling phone chargers, power banks and stuff like that. Now, we make as much as N10,000 from the sales of extensions, repairing phones, and selling chargers and power banks. If I had a store, half of that would probably go into settling dues, and I cannot afford that,” he added.
A civil servant, who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity, said although she had been in service for over two decades, her jewellery and clothing business had “always been to make ends meet”.
She added that although her five children were old enough to fend for themselves, she engaged in the business to stay active.
She said, “The business has always been to make ends meet. Whichever way you look at it, the economy is biting hard. It is not as if we are making any gains; we are just doing it to stay active because we are growing old.
“We hardly make sales unless in the first week when they pay workers’ salaries. And then we don’t come during the weekends or public holidays. If not for the POS service that we added, sometimes we may not make sales for a whole week. And even that POS, our only gain is from the charges. The volume of business has reduced drastically. The only thing making money for me for now is my cold room, but the weather effects that too because when the rain falls, nobody sees a need to buy anything that is cold.”
Speaking on the legality of her business, she added, “The good thing about this is I don’t have to pay any taxes because I can’t imagine paying taxes from my government job and doing the same for this business. I pay my salesperson N500 per day, just so she also has enough to survive. The unfortunate reality is nothing is coming into the business. So, I pay her from my pocket. I pay the person overseeing my cold room N250 per day, depending on how he sells; so these are the issues.
“Everyone selling in this place is struggling; it’s not easy for anybody. We are all just trying to survive. Nobody is making a profit; nobody is having a field day in the business. We’re all just trying to survive at this time. At least I do this alongside my job, for some people this is their only source of income and they can hardly make ends meet”.
Another saleswoman, who identified herself only as Bose, sold herbal tea, coffee, perfume oils and skincare products out of the boot of her car.
She said although she was not a civil servant, she struggled to make sales on a daily basis.
According to her, the cost of setting up a business in the nation’s capital made her decide to use the boot of her car as her store.
“I am not a civil servant but I come here every day to sell my products. After all, we must survive this economy one way or another. You can’t blame us for selling in this manner. The cost of a full business setup is not something that is easily affordable. You know it’s Abuja; before we pay rent, fix the shop, and pay dues, where is the rest of the money to stock up and sell? Let’s not even talk about other costs: electricity, transportation, repairing damage, paying salesperson, and so forth. Overall, this is the cheaper option,” she added.
Asked about the risk of being picked up by the authorities of the FCT for violating any state codes against illegal marketplaces, Bose replied, “What are they going to do? ‘Demolish’ my vehicle the way they demolish illegal structures? This is a public place. Don’t I have rights?”
Mallam Ibrahim, who sold men’s clothing materials, also stated that the nation’s capital did not encourage the ease of doing business as everything was always too expensive and unaffordable.
“Just this week, I have spent over N20,000 on fuel. That is to transport to a business that is hardly putting anything back into my pocket. And then to set it up in an official store is even worse; it’s a cost I cannot even afford to think about. So, this is easier for me,” he said.
Meanwhile, efforts to reach the Director of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, Osilamah Braimah, for comments on the legality of using the place as sale hubs proved abortive as there was no response to calls put across to his office.