News | Economic / Social Policy - Africa - East Africa Sweeping Away the Grime of the City

Tanzania’s urban poor face a brutal crackdown on their economic livelihoods


Street vendors are a ubiquitous part of daily life in Dar es Salaam. Photo: picture alliance / AA | Kadri Sener Tam

Anyone who had the opportunity to live in or visit Dar es Salaam during the last five years, plunged into the lifelines of walking traders, street cooks, or small kiosk owners along the roads. Every economic activity shaped its own environment, whether stalls made out of wood, a table put on the edge of the pathway, a mechanical sugar cane juice press, a cooker and a sunshade along or next to the road that opened the space to meet, to discuss or relax, and to find affordable food and items.

Dorothee Braun directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s East Africa Office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Sabatho Nyamsenda is an assistant lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam and a founding member of Jukwaa la Wajamaa Tanzania (Tanzania Socialist Forum).

Almost 75 percent of Dar es Salaam’s 6.4 million inhabitants belong to the urban poor. Most of them live in informal settlements and engage in petty trade. Others work in services like shoe repair, horticulture, collecting plastic bottles or casual work. The sheer number of people who are battling with the most adverse circumstances goes unnoticed. Yet, these informal sources of livelihood enable them to pay rent, school fees, water and food. It is an economy of the poor, known as the informal economy. Even though it is said to emerge parallel to the formal economy, in reality the informal economy is part of the formal economy and subsidizes capital’s interests in its worst form of exploitation.

With the change of presidency, the right to the city that had been granted by the late President Dr. John Pombe Magufuli has now been revoked. In mid-September 2021, street vendors were given 30 days to pack their belongings and move to areas designated by the state that are predominantly located on rooftops, backyards or outside the city, where there are no customers. In explaining the decision, different narratives were created, such as the alleged alliances of shop owners and petty traders in order to avoid taxes or the crowding of traders and their customers on pathways. However, they never captured the complexity of the phenomena, remained rambling by shifting justifications, and worst of all kept on criminalizing the urban poor in order to drive them out of the city. It is a feature of public — and in particular political — discourses in Tanzania that the subject matter is taken out of context and narrowed down to certain particularities, disguising the underlying class interests.

Contradictions within Tanzanian society articulate themselves in class contradictions. The removal of the poor is being enacted in the interests of the elite class. It is a country-wide move that goes hand in hand with the re-capturing of public space by capital. The illusion of upward mobility is symbolized by the recurrence of huge advertisement boards and soothing official narratives. The fact that street vendors consists of different groups of people with different backgrounds, from early school leavers to university graduates, remains untouched. Likewise, the link between an economy that does not provide jobs — as the extractive sector, real estate, financial services and infrastructure are the main sectors of investment — and the existence of the informal sector remains disguised.

The change of the presidency however has brought with it another disturbing feature: the silence of the media and human rights NGOs — both local and international — on the violence carried out by the state and the deprivation of rights of the urban poor in Tanzania, who are labelled stupid, lazy, unproductive or a safety risk. Most of the demolitions happened at night, before the 30-day ultimatum had expired: goods were stolen by the demolishers as stalls were razed down. Those who resist are beaten or put in custody. Some of those who try to document the devastations risk being harassed as well. Yet the media predominantly covers the dominant narrative just as opposition parties line themselves up in the argument of necessity to strip the poor off their right to the city. Human rights organizations as well as academicians who happened to be fierce critics of the former president are now silent. Faced with this elite silence, a few left-leaning academics and activists have been at the forefront of documenting and amplifying voices of the poor.

It is within this context in which the lives, livelihoods and hopes of millions  are been destroyed, that Sabatho Nyamsenda, a Tanzanian academic and socialist activist, wrote an open letter to President Samia Suluhu Hassan to warn her against the havoc that the city cleansing initiatives would wreck on the working poor and offering a set of solutions. Although it focuses on the developments in Dar es Salaam, its findings are applicable to other cities and towns in Tanzania where the crackdown on street vending is ongoing. Below is an abridged translation of the letter to the President. (Note: three terms are used interchangeably to refer to informal micro-traders: street vendors, petty traders or the Kiswahili term machinga).

An Open Letter to the President on Informal Petty Traders (machingas)

Honourable President Samia Suluhu Hassan,

Your aides must have told you “the City” is now becoming clean after the demolition of petty traders’ booths along Vingunguti area. They must have also informed you that in the next five weeks, the whole of Dar es Salaam region will be as clean as Vingunguti. Your aides say they are doing it because of you — that because you are marketing Tanzania to attract tourists, it is a shame when tourists land at the airport and then they see dirt on their way to their hotels. That dirt is not garbage, it is people — the machinga — and the goods they sell.

That drive to make Dar es Salaam Clean Again (one may call it MADACA) was announced by Mr. Amos Makalla immediately after you appointed him Regional Commissioner of Dar es Salaam. The “born-in-Dar,” as Mr. Makalla proudly calls himself, announced the operation to remove all machingas from the city centre, while asking for understanding from his bosses as he was going to “squeeze” people. He gave several reasons for removing the machingas: to clean up the city as they are polluting it; to reduce road accidents as machingas are blocking roads for cars and pedestrians; to bring a city image as businesses cannot be done everywhere; to save machingas’ lives as they are trading in precarious environments; and many others.

In his several media interviews and speeches, Makalla could not hide his irritation at the presence of machingas in the city centre, citing the example of how their presence smears the city’s image — like seeing a female street food vendor (mama lishe) cooking stiff porridge (ugali) in a pan covered with soot on the side of an expensively-built road. In Makalla’s thinking, that poor woman needs to be expelled and be taken on the outskirts so that she does not smear the city’s image and scare tourists away. What is obvious then is that any type of excuses will be given to justify the removal of informal petty traders selling water, food, clothes and fruits from the city. What is happening now is a technic that the English call, “give a dog a bad name in order to hang him”.

There are many in the middle and upper classes — especially large and medium-scale businesspeople and the educated — who applaud Makalla’s city cleansing moves. The majority of the machingas are cursing him, saying openly that he is taking them back to the dark ages when they used to suffer state violence in the form of beatings, robbery of goods, incarceration and denial of the right to be in the city. Others have gone a step further and questioned whether there is any connection between Makalla and the burning down of petty traders’ markets: Why did the SIDO market burn down in Mbeya when he was the regional commissioner there, and then Kariakoo market burned down after he was appointed regional commissioner in Dar es Salaam? These events may be by design or by coincidence. There are investigative bodies under your command, they can help you to find out the truth. What is apparent is that Makalla hates machingas. I do not think, however, that this hatred is due to evil intents or lack of humanity. I want to believe that Makalla is humane, despite his utter disrespect, bullying and arrogant statements towards the machinga.

The problem, from my view point, lies in the attitude that guides Makalla to perceive the city and its in inhabitants. That attitude, Hon. President, did not start with Makalla and will not end with him. Its root lies in the segregationist colonial urban planning policies as well as the commandist state that we inherited from colonialists. From the time the German colonial government moved its headquarters from Bagamoyo to Dar es Salaam — a policy that was maintained by the British —  the city was divided in three zones, racially-configured the citizenship status. The first zone was Uzunguni (for whites) where Europeans, the first class citizens, lived. Then came the intermediate zone, Uhindini (for Indians) located for people of Asian origin lived who were second class citizens. The third zone was known as Uswahilini (for Swahilis) was inhabited by the colonized black Africans, who were not citizens but subjects.

Uswahilini lacked social services and infrastructure, and as the city expanded, the locals were pushed further into the outskirts. Business licenses were given to Asians who served as a buffer between the master race and the subject race. The economically disempowered natives illegal petty traders. The history of Dar es Salaam city shows that Kariakoo CBD was the area for locals where informal petty businesses thrived — businesses that were never regarded as legitimate income-generating activities.

Since the major function of the colonial state was to coerce African natives to facilitate the exploitation of their labour and the pillage of their resources, it oftentimes chased them away from the city back to their villages calling them hooligans. Such powers to chase people were vested in the district and regional commissioners with the support of coercive devices of the state.

After independence, our urban planning policies and governance systems continued to follow the same colonial principles that never cared about the needs of the majority. It is then no wonder that such policies have always been enforced by all phases of governments in this country — except the fifth phase (2015–2021) where the late President Dr. John Pombe Magufuli decided to change course.

Hon. President, the outlook of your predecessor, the late John Pombe Magufuli, under whom you served as Vice President, was anchored on the right to the city framework. This meant that people in the lower classes like themachingas had the right to make a living in the city centre, and whenever their rights came into conflict with other economic activities, then priority was to be given to their rights. If you speak to street vendors, they will tell you that the period between June 2016 and March 2021, was the time when they enjoyed their freedom as human beings, whose dignity was respected and their sources of livelihoods were not disturbed.

Hon. President, when you took the reins of the country after the untimely death of Dr. Magufuli, you promised to carry on with all the good deeds that he stood for, especially strategic projects like the construction of the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Station and the electric Standard Gauge Railway. You also openly said that your government will be cursed if you failed to complete those projects. Many were encouraged to hear such statements from you. However, construction projects will leave behind a material legacy, which constitutes one side of development coin, that Mwalimu Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania, referred to as “development of things.” The other and most important side development is what Nyerere called “development of people”, which is implemented through policies that cater to the welfare of the majority while restoring popular power to determine the course of the country so that people “develop themselves.” These two sides of development need to be tied together because material development becomes meaningless if it is divorced from human development.

Even though his reign had shortcomings in a few areas, especially in the use of excessive force in dealing with the opposition, the late president Magufuli scored high when it came to the defence of the rights of petty traders, smallholder miners, even smallholder farmers and pastoralists. And as if he was foretelling his own death, the late Magufuli called you and representatives from the Ministry of Local Governments on 6 December 2016 and told you that he was not happy with the way municipal officials were violating the rights of street vendors by chasing them away from the city centre and relocating them to the outskirts where there are no customers. He gave two options to municipal bosses: leave street vendors alone or resign! No sooner had Magufuli died than your lieutenants started harassing the vendors, driving them out of the city.

Hon. President, the orders you gave to regional authorities to organize the machingas have been used as a strategy to forcefully remove them from commercial areas with high population flows and relocate them, without their consent, to designated areas in the outskirts which are, to wit, the new reservations for the urban poor. The truth is these violent removals of machingas will not bear any fruits apart from pain and robbery, which will stain your government. At the end of the day, even after all the losses and the pain caused to them, the machingas will go back to those areas because they have no alternative.

Hon. President, as you know, even though he managed to protect the right to the city at the political level, President Magufuli had not gone extra miles, by the time of his death, to translate those rights into a policy and legal framework. This is what I am recommending your government to do. I propose a major overhaul in urban planning and governance policies and laws in order to deliver justice to more than three quarters of urban dwellers who live in informal settlements and work in the informal sector. Some of the concrete measures that I recommend to be taken include:

(a) An immediate suspension of order to remove street vendors from urban centres throughout the country, starting with Dar es Salaam.

(b) A probe into the operations to remove machingas from the cities. These violent acts are said to have involved bribery, corruption, looting of street vendors’ goods, excessive use of force that is said to have caused injuries to several machingas and the death of one person in Dar es Salaam. The collusion of rich businesspeople in the eviction of street vendors should also be investigated. Why was it that two large-scale businesspeople are the ones who led the Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner in his tour of the Kariakoo CBD, and one of those businessmen is the one who uses force, including hiring of bouncers to beat-up street vendors, destroying their goods and chasing them from the road reserve area in front of his shop?

(c) Apologizing and compensating to families of machingas who lost their lives and those that have been injured and robbed  during the demolition operations. Doing so is not a mark of weakness, no! It is a sign of compassion and admission of error made in order to restore hope and faith to the victims of those barbaric acts that are said to have been done by state authorities in collusion with rich businessowners.

(d) Revisiting urban planning laws and policies so as to rid them of the colonial legacies. Instead, the “right to the city” concept should be used to remould the urban space so as to cater to the needs and aspirations of the majority. For example, what is the problem with adding two meters on each side of the road so as to provide street vendors with vending spaces? Also, instead of leasing out road reserve areas to big business, they should be left to machingas for use.  Further to that, instead of displacing the machinga from areas with high pedestrian flows, the government should look into a possibility of buying some of the property so as to expand the areas used by machingas or closing some of the roads so that those streets should remain as special spaces for machingas.                                      

(e) All these will be possible if there is genuine involvement of machingas in decision-making. Involvement of machingas should be transparent and the objective should not be to move them from those spaces but rather giving them space to decide and give recommendations on what to improve.

Lest we forget, Hon. President, after the violent displacement of street vendors, the third and fourth phase governments came with attractive initiatives to build high-rise malls like the Machinga Complex for machingas . What is surprising is that the machingas refused to rent space in those malls and instead they continued displaying their goods on the roadside, right outside those malls. What was the point of using billions to build markets whose the prospective beneficiaries would refuse to occupy? The answer is simple: the planning and designing was made and implemented without involving the street vendors.

Had there been no gap between “the planners” and “the planned”, street vendors would have been involved in the process and they would have explained to planners that machinga business is different from traditional shop business. A machinga walks around carrying the goods to the customer or displays them in areas with high population traffic for visibility. The billions wasted in building empty malls could have been used to expand and redesign areas suitable for street vending.

Hon. President, you are leading a poor country whose majority of the population lives in abject poverty. Their poverty is one of the manifestations of our country’s weak economy; an economy that exports wealth through export of raw materials and imports poverty through externally manufactured goods. That weak economy cannot create decent jobs; it only produces poverty for the majority. Of the one million new workforce that enters the labour market annually, only 40 thousand get employed in the formal sector. The majority of the remaining 960,000 are forced to engage in agriculture and petty trading. Most of our university graduates end up in the informal sector, which was previously a reserve of the least educated.

Even though there are classes among them, the majority of machingas are very poor, with a capital below one hundred thousand shillings (about 38 euros). These people need to be subsidized by the government to live, including access to free social services. But your neoliberal government is not doing that. The best thing is not to rob them even of that little space for making a living in the city centre, even though they can hardly make both ends meet with the meagre incomes they earn.

So, the machinga business is a symptom of our neoliberalized weak economy that does not create decent jobs. The problem of unemployment cannot be resolved by punishing machingas, the same way poverty cannot be eradicated by punishing the poor. The number of informal petty traders in the streets can only be reduced by building an economy that links the industrial sector with the agricultural sector so that our economy does not export jobs elsewhere. But there are also conditions for building such a self-sustaining economy, which I will explain in another letter if you like.

Hon. President, I would have wished to write several volumes to explain my arguments citing experiences from different countries. But let me stop here, for now. I would like to leave you with three concepts which make the core of my letter: an inclusive city, the right to the city and a self-sustaining economy. #RighttotheCityNow! It can be done, Hon. President. Planning is choosing.

Yours in nation-building,

Sabatho Nyamsenda
A citizen of Tanzania, a son of Africa

Abridged and slightly revised. Translated from Kiswahili by Mussa Billegeya.