But, as Nigerians head to the polls for Saturday’s presidential election, although the aroma of spices and the cacophony of hawkers selling their wares still filled the air, there is barely a customer in sight.
“There’s no business at the market. We’ve all just been sitting here since the morning,” said market trader Ishola as she sat outside her stall selling beads and jewellery. “There’s no people. Do you see anybody around? Nobody.”
Across the street, another trader, named Kabiru, sat looking forlorn behind a case of unsold watches.
“There aren’t any customers,” he said. “Everybody is complaining of a lack of cash. There is no cash in the town.”
It was a similar story across the vast market, one of the largest in West Africa, and one which sprawls across numerous streets and alleys in this megacity of more than 20 million people.
‘People are hungry’
Some speculated that fear of a reoccurrence of the violence that has marred previous Nigerian elections had kept customers away. But most said things had been bad for a while and, in particular, following a botched switch to new bank notes that has plunged the entire country into an unprecedented cash crisis.
With not enough of the new notes available and most old ones no longer valid currency, lengthy and sometimes hot-tempered lines have become a common sight outside the few ATMs in the city still dispensing cash. Some have resorted to taking out their frustration with attacks on banks.
Many Nigerian businesses have been quick to adapt, switching to card payments and bank transfers whenever possible. But connectivity issues mean transactions are often time-consuming, if they go through at all.
In the habitual cut-and-thrust bustle of the market, few customers are prepared to wait.
“There is no market. No customers are coming,” said Awotola, who has been selling clothes at the market for more than 20 years. “They prefer to pay in cash and there is no cash. And that’s it. The lack of cash crushes everything.”
Some traders said that since the banknote switch, they are struggling to make enough money simply to feed themselves and their families.
“People are hungry. Many people are crying,” said Gift, another clothes-seller at the market. “There’s no money. People are dying. People are struggling to find money but where is the money?”
‘They beg us to lower the price’
As Africa’s most populous country goes to the polls, the economy, along with security and tackling corruption, is likely to be a major factor in how Nigerians cast their votes and the cash crisis has only served to bring the issue into sharper focus.
But the country’s economic woes run much deeper. Still recovering from a series of recent recessions and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Bank warned in December that “Nigeria’s economy needs to grow faster to reduce poverty ” and “reduce its vulnerability to crisis”;
Like many parts of the world, and partly as a result of the war in Ukraine pushing up oil prices, the country is also experiencing rapid inflation, hitting nearly 22 percent in January.
In a country where more than 80 million live below the poverty line, essentials including petrol and food are becoming increasingly unaffordable.
For street hawkers like Comfort, who sells bowls of hot soup from a stand in Balogun Market, it is yet another hindrance to making living.
“Customers say the price is too much,” she said. “We tell them it’s because what we have to buy in the market is expensive, is too much. So all of them, when they come to eat, they beg us to lower the price. We pray for a good leader to come from this election.”
Across the market, opinions are divided when it comes to who that leader should be.
“I don’t have any choice for leader other than god’s choice.” said Awotola, the clothes-selling market veteran. “I trust in god to choose the best leader to rule my country… so that we can end this hardship.”
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