Government’s approach to the ‘machinga’ problem is bound to fail

Some machingas expressed their displeasure at the move to relocate them saying the October 1 ultimatum had caught them off guard. PHOTO | MCL

There is a flurry of activity around the nation to address what is commonly known as the “machinga problem”. This follows President Samia Saluhu Hassan’s directive to regional commissioners to find alternative arrangements to accommodate urban petty traders. Whatever will be decided in those corridors right now, there is but only one guarantee – that we will be at this very point once again in the future.

The hordes of petty traders – known as machingas – jamming roads, pathways, and streets are indeed a grave issue in Tanzania. One only needs to visit Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam to appreciate the scale of the problem – thousands upon thousands of hawkers occupying every square foot, making Kariakoo a very unpleasant place to visit. Despite that, millions keep flocking to these vendors in search of bargains, and as long as there are buyers, there will always be sellers.

The estimated number of petty traders in Tanzania varies significantly depending on the definition one adopts. Some estimates put it at 1.5 million, others 3 million, and others suggest that it is much more. Given that about 800,000 youths enter the Tanzanian job market every year, where many will end up as machingas (38 percent of youths in Africa join an informal sector), the future looks ominous.

Over the years, the government’s reactions to the “machinga problem” have been all over the place – from the use of force to appeasement, and from formalisation to accommodation. Usually, these approaches are quite opportunistic. Politicians consider machingas a liability only when it is not an election year.

Given the scale of the problem, the government can no longer afford to be casual in its dealings with petty traders and street hawkers. Issuing directives here and there won’t cut it out anymore. This is a huge socioeconomic challenge with serious security implications. The government needs to be very consistent. This calls for a well-defined national strategy for managing this problem. And that should start with addressing the causes – not the symptoms – of the problem.

There are a number of issues that lead to the machinga problem. These include demographics (the economy cannot absorb all that enter the job market), education (a populace that is poorly equipped to deal with existing challenges), poverty (thus disenfranchising sections of the population), a culture of informality (rather than formality), poor urban planning (which allows virtually anything to be done anywhere) and, most importantly, rural-urban migration (which leads to rapid urbanisation).

Tanzania, like many African nations, is rapidly urbanising. While its population growth is one of the fastest in the world, most of the gains occur in urban areas. This is a phenomenon that is being observed countrywide. According to World Economic Forum, the three Tanzanian cities of Dar es Salaam, Mwanza and Songea are among the 15 fastest growing cities in the world! And rapid urbanisation leads to the “urban problem” where the “machinga problem” is one of its most visible manifestations.

When the number of people and houses increases so fast to the extent that existing services and resources can no longer cope, a myriad of issues emerge. For example, according to the UN, rapid urbanisation has led to 70 percent of Dar residents to live in informal settlements with poor sanitation, water supply, and health services. This is the environment where the “machinga problem” thrives. Indeed, you have to address the reasons for rural-urban migration if you are to address the “machinga problem”.

Simply put, the “machinga problem” is intricately linked to the rural problem.

In the mid-1990s, Prof Anna Tibaijuka co-authored a book in which this very issue in the city of Dar es Salaam was revisited. Based on their findings, the youth who had migrated to Dar from Mtwara and Kagera did so due to forced villagisation in the 1970s, which uprooted people from their homes (in Mtwara), and because of HIV/Aids (in Kagera).

While the details are a bit different today, the same trends persist: the income or quality of life differentials is what attracts people to urban centres. Therefore, people migrate to cities in search of socioeconomic opportunities to improve their lives. In a nation where the terms villages and rural areas are synonymous with backwardness and poverty, that should not surprise us. In fact, poverty levels that exist in some of our villages are shocking. The system has let rural Tanzanians down in a big way.

The government cannot solve the machinga problem unless it solves the rural problem. Given that roughly two thirds of Tanzanians live in rural areas, Tanzania can hardly afford its rate of urbanisation. Trying to accommodate machingas in the cities will simply create a void for others to fill. Conditions back home have to improve if people are to be persuaded to stay put, or even to go back.

This is not an impossible task. The opportunities that are available in rural areas are far superior to the banality of life people find in cities. If only the government will do its job to develop those opportunities and prepare the people to utilise them.

There are no quick fixes here. That is why the government’s approaches are bound to fail once again.