Street vendors are the hallmark of sprawling African cities. In Kigali, Rwanda's capital, life looks increasingly harsh for street vendors as the authorities seek to expand their tax base, in the face of commercial tax evasion. But who are the real culprits?
Since the end of brutal genocide against Tutsi, the city of Kigali has undergone a massive move toward modernisation. Formerly known for its old buildings dating back to the colonial era, Kigali is slowly becoming a new city. In recent times, it has even has been tipped as the Singapore of Africa, a powerful salute to Rwanda's rising promise.
But this change has resulted in mandatory taxes for small street vendors. The dark side of this new world, impacting over 6000 vendors, commonly results police arrests and detentions.
It is against business laws and regulations to do any kind of business in the streets
"When the police catch you, they take your goods away and send you to Gikondo transit center," said Jean Marie Ndagijimana, a 23 years old street vendor. Ndagijimana, who dropped out of primary school as a young boy, has been selling second hand clothes in Kigali for six months.
In a broken voice, he explained the challenges of evading police arrest, the crowded transit centers, such as Gikondo, where inmates received just one meal of beans and maize daily, before being sent to various rehabilitation centers in the country. One of such facilities is located on Iwawa, a remote island in Lake Kivu.
But young men like Ndagijimana are not in the majority. Most of the vendors dotting Kigali's bustling streets are women – and mothers.
As explained by Jean-Claude Ndatuwera , a senior official from the Rwanda National Human Rights Commission (RNHCR), it is often women who bear the brunt of discriminatory laws. "We received a complaint from a woman, who came here, saying her goods are always confiscated by the police," he said. "She does not know where they take them."
According to Ndatuwera, while street vendors have been shown markets by Kigali city authorities, most vendors confirm markets are expensive for them to operate there. "The woman who brought her complaint was a widow, with four children to take care of," he said. "She just cannot afford to rent a premise in the market."
The premises referred by Ndatuwera fall under the umbrella of Kigali's city official program to develop mini-markets, supported by the central government, as well as the Ministry of Public Service and Labor. Currently, 14 mini-markets have been constructed.
Specific initiatives such as the Agaseke project, supported by Rwanda's first lady Jeanette Kagame through her organisation Imbuto foundation, involve more than 2000 vendors weaving baskets for export to Japan and the USA.
Caroline Mugwaneza a member of the cooperative reiterated that for members, Agaseke project means more than the income they get from it. "I do not look at the income we get because it is still small. I see the future and other benefits we derive from this project such as trainings on socio-economic development."
Rose Nyiramajyambere, a 44 year old widow with four children is a member of a cooperative based in the district of Gasabo. She noted that since she left the streets and relocated to the mini-market in Remera, she is now able to take care of her family, crediting the mini-market with helping her first child finish high school.
"When someone is still illegally selling in the street selling, that person is ignorant and does not know the benefit of being part of a cooperative," said Nyiramajyambere.
The cooperatives have administrative functions funded by RWF 15000 ($23) monthly contribution by members, used for rent, security, and cleaning of market spaces. The district of Gasabo further receives RWF 3000 ($4.60) as a monthly tax from each trader in the mini-market.
Fabian Karangwa, an accountant with Nyiramajambere's cooperative, 'Forces Development Cooperative', comprised of former street vendors, explained that during the past 3 years, membership had increased from 190 to over 400.
Back to the village
But for those who avoid formal markets, life on the streets can very unpleasant. Descriptions by vendors tell of common scenes of police and local defense running after street vendors – often mothers with children on their backs – in Kigali, followed by imprisonment for unspecified times.
"They should not treat them in such a way," said Ndatuwera. "They should approach them and tell them that it is against the law to sell in the streets."
The laws, he claimed, should result in the police protecting, rather than endangering the public, including street vendors, citing national police training hosted by the RNHCR in May 2013 in Kabyayi. But he stressed that while police should treat vendors with sensitivity, vendors should respect the law.
We approached the City council for their comments. "It is against business laws and regulations to do any kind of business in the streets," said Bruno Rangira, the Kigali's spokesperson, speaking to us from his office at the City Council.
Authorities such as Rangira justified the ban for the safety of vendors and pedestrians, the City's hygienic and environmental status as well as the importance of taxes for the public purse.
the focus actually should be on the big fish
When asked about alleged harassment by security organs during arrests, and fines of RWF 20000, he flatly denied the claims. The sole legal fine was RWF 10000 ($15), he claimed, further reiterating that street vendors were killing other legal businesses as they avoided taxes and other business costs.
"When you are trying to stop someone doing illegal activities, they do not easily comply because they are making easy money out of it," said Rangira. "I do not think the intention of authorities is to harass them."
Urbain Mwiseneza , senior official with Kigali's Rwandan National Police, claimed that a transit center like Gikondo is used mainly for development of the vendors. "The purpose when they are arrested is to take them back to their villages, train them to be part of cooperatives and get them involved in government programs such as HIMO and VUP Umurenge that help people without capacity," he told us.
He stated that any injuries incurred by the vendors was due to their attempts to evade the due process of the law but denied police culpability.
About the issue of others who were sent to Iwawa island's Rehabilitation and Vocational Development Centre, established in February 2010 by the Rwandan government, Mwiseneza responded that the Center was primarily directed towards rehabilitation of the youth, encompassing not only street vendors, but also, those struggling with drug and other vices.
"While we support efforts by African governments such as Rwanda to expand their tax base to collect additional revenue, the focus actually should be on the big fish," said Alvin Mosioma, head of Tax Justice Network Africa (TJN-A).
"These include wealthy elites and unscrupulous corporations who bare the largest responsibility in eroding the tax bases of Africa countries," he said.
The difference between a prison and The Center
For weeks, Mukashema Donatile, a 40 year old mother of three, did not know the whereabouts of her 12 year-old son. Arrested for carrying scrap on the street, she came to Gikondo Center pleading for information about him, and for his release.
"I want to ask, I want to know, where exactly they took my son or if he is still here," she told Forum for African Investigative Reporters at Gikondo transit center.
During his arrest, she was informed that only children who attended school at the time of arrest, would be released. Others would be held indefinitely at the transit center.
Authorities later informed her that her son, among other uneducated children, would be sent to Gitagata rehabilitation center – the only government-owned facility for street children, located in Musenyi sector, Bugesera district.
Donatile explained that lack of resources prevented her from sending her children to school. The scrap industry was the family's only source of income, with the son earning between FRW1000-2000 daily. She claimed that the Center is filled with kids as young as 5 years old and was a 'dirty place'.
The elephant in the room is commercial tax evasion
Sometimes children can spend up to six months in the center eating only a small cup of maize once a day," she said. "When they are released most of them have stomach illness because of the bad food they had been eating."
Like the son, Donatile herself was once detained there. "I know this place very well and was detained here for two weeks."
Officials at the transit Center denied claims, informing us that the Center was very well maintained. "It is designed for rehabilitation not as a prison," said Ntihemuka Jean Claude, who refused to let us enter and speak with detainees.
But family members of detainees would frequently refer to the Center as a 'prison'. "Among the prison we have in Rwanda this one is not included in them," said one person who had come to visit a relative.
Unlike children, sent to Gitagata on release, adult vendors and prostitutes would be sent to Iwawa Center, where they would be held for a year, allegedly to be taught a new skill.
"Our concern is that they only arrest the most vulnerable in the streets, instead of those who commit serious crime like killing people or robbing them," said one family member.
Detainee releases occurred twice a week at the time of this report. Those who claimed they were in school and could furnish proof, were given priority release.
Women, according to families visiting their wards at the center, stayed the shortest amount of time; one or two weeks before being released. But males, whatever their ages, could stay for as long as six months.
Bribes were frequently mentioned as a means of obtaining release.
"Before they used to cheat you and take your money without releasing the person," said one tired man who had come to ask the whereabouts of his wife who "was arrested selling vegetables ".
He claimed, families were savvier these days. "Now you pay them as they release the person."
While life looks increasingly harsh for Rwandan street vendors, and brighter for formal market spaces, the big issue is largely ignored.
"The elephant in the room is commercial tax evasion and avoidance by MNCs [multinational companies] through which Rwanda lost over $158 million in the last decade," said Mosioma.
This article was funded by The Forum for African Investigative Reporters, FAIR