For many residents of Lagos State and indeed some other parts of the country, cart pushers and wheelbarrow operators have become informal waste pickers, especially in areas where waste disposal trucks do not get to. In fact, in some places covered by the trucks, some residents prefer the cart pushers because they are much cheaper.
Easily noticed by the clanking noises from their cart, these individuals collect waste from households and business premises, sort through them to extract recyclables, and sell them to middlemen.
According to an estimate given by the state government, Lagos, with an approximate population of 22 million people, generates over 14,000 tonnes of waste per day.
With the high rate of migration into the state and the scale of economic activities Lagos residents engage in for sustenance, informal waste picking using carts or wheelbarrows seems to have become one of the means of waste disposal in the city, even though the state government had outlawed their activities.
Called by different names such as rag pickers, foragers, poachers, waste pickers, salvagers or scavengers, the cart pushers move across streets and dumpsites, looking for used and discarded items such as used bottles, aluminium sheets, steel, electronics, metals, and other materials they find useful.
However, for a number of years and increasingly, there have been several complaints by residents and communities about criminal activities – especially theft – perpetrated by some of the scavengers who hide under the guise of cart pushing to gain access to private property and steal valuables.
In January 2018, the Lagos State government banned the operations of cart pushers and wheelbarrow operators in the state, noting that investigations revealed that they constituted threats to public security.
“What the state government has discovered is that these people use the night to perpetrate all sorts of dastardly acts. They dump refuse indiscriminately on the median of major roads and highways. They also pose serious security threats because they use those carts to hide arms and ammunition and hide under the guise of carrying refuse to rob unsuspecting residents,” the then Secretary to the State Government, Mr Tunji Bello, said in a statement.
Years after, however, cart pushing gained much resurgence as many residents resorted to them due to the relatively lower prices they charge for waste disposal.
Saturday PUNCH gathered that residents of Ikotun, Isheri, Abule-Egba, Meiran, Agbado-Ijaiye, Igando, Ikotun, Idimu, Ile-Epo, some parts of Ojodu, among others, commonly patronise cart pushers due to the non-availability of Private Sector Participation operators.
A resident of Isolo, Stephen Okundaye, complained that his area relied more on cart pushers than the PSP operators whom he described as “ineffective”.
Okundaye lamented, “We patronise cart pushers here because the PSP operators are ineffective. They have practically stopped coming here to take our waste and we had to develop alternative ways to dispose of them. These operators are not conscious of the fact that allowing waste to accumulate can be detrimental to one’s health.
“Depending on the quantity of waste, we pay cart pushers between N300 to N600 and they get the job done. But for the PSP, we pay more to dispose of our waste and I understand that it is due to high diesel costs and other costs like personnel, but what else can we do? The government has left us with no choice but to resort to cart pushers.”
A mask for criminals
In May 2022, the immediate past Chief Executive Officer of LAWMA, Ibrahim Odumboni, announced the commencement of a special operation to rid the streets of cart pushers, noting that criminal elements hide under it to carry out their crimes.
He had said, “Criminal elements have hidden under this guise to carry out heinous crimes. If there are no carts to push, they will get other jobs. They pose a great threat to the environment and the security of the citizens.
“It will shock you to know that many of them keep weapons like knives, machetes, etc, in their carts to attack and dispossess unsuspecting persons when the opportunity presents itself. One such cart pusher was tried and jailed last week, having been apprehended at Victoria Island, vandalising and stealing the government’s iron rods. There have been many reported cases of theft of movable items from people’s compounds traced to them.”
A cleric who resides in Ogijo, Ikorodu, Alabi Shoneye, told Saturday PUNCH that there had been several cases of theft perpetrated by cart pushers in the area.
He said, “These people carry carts or mini trucks to convey waste but they use it to cover the items that have been stolen. There have been instances where they have been caught and challenged by residents here and they have been barred from entering our streets.
“If you put your iron rods or light fixtures outside before you realise it, it will be stolen and they do this when people are not around. In our church where they know people don’t reside, they broke in through the back because they knew we had iron bars at the window. They entered and stole our speaker and other items.”
Meanwhile, in recent times, cart pushing seems to be becoming an avenue for criminal elements to steal people’s property. Some have been caught entering people’s premises and stealing their property, often hiding them under the waste in the cart or their wheelbarrow.
For example, in a video seen by our correspondent, a group of people who spoke in Igbo language apprehended a cart pusher and were alarmed to find a goat, chicken, and bag of rice that he had allegedly stolen, hidden in sacks placed in his cart.
The cart pusher was seen beaten by those who accosted him, as they were heard accusing him of theft under the guise of waste disposal.
In another video footage seen by our correspondent, four young men left their two carts and hastily removed the manhole covers of a private residence in pairs. They placed the stolen metals in their carts, covered them with sacks, and left.
Another video footage seen by our correspondent on X dated 2018 showed a cart pusher disassembling a generator from a cage that he placed in his cart and covered with black sacks.
In yet another CCTV footage circulated on the WhatsApp platforms of different estates, some cart pushers were seen removing light fixtures from a fence and stuffing them inside a sack in their cart. They looked around, oblivious to the CCTV camera, as they stole the fixtures.
“These criminally-minded scavengers are often calculated in their mode of operation,” an Ogun State-based painter, Bolaji Ajisafe, told our correspondent. “They tend to strike more in the morning of most weekdays when they know people would be at work or on Sunday when many people would be in church.
“They could gain entrance into your compound pretending to be carrying your refuse bin and from there cart away valuables. They steal virtually anything. I have seen a school where they stole all the manholes leading to the compound, their generators, and light fixtures.”
Also speaking, a nurse, Mrs Funke Akinjo, said, “I used to live in a tenement building, popularly called ‘face me I face you’ apartment and these boys would just come around somebody’s house with their carts and steal people’s clothes.
“When I moved to this area, I spread my clothes out on the line outside my apartment and left for work. When I returned home, my clothes were gone and I was later told that some scavengers came around that fateful day. Of course, they were the prime suspects.”
Narrating his experience on X (formerly Twitter), a man who simply gave his name as Martin, described thieves who masquerade as scavengers as premium rogues.
He stated, “I used to run a door-to-door refuse disposal business here in Port Harcourt city, so believe me when I tell you that these set of guys are dangerous: scavengers, condemned motor parts cart pushers, scrap metal guys, especially the ones that can’t communicate in pidgin/English.
“I am sorry to say this, but I understand that they mainly speak the Hausa language but I must warn you that those scavengers are both desperate and dangerous. Believe me, it’s very scary to encounter a desperate and dangerous illiterate thief who has some strange entitlement mentality on top of it all. They are premium rogues!
“Both the cart pushers and scavengers by night have plundered nearly all steel (foundry) manholes and metallic road dividers in Port Harcourt. These guys (though not all of them) are heartless and wicked thieves! I know them. These open manholes have led to many deaths in Port Harcourt,” he wrote.
Security experts urge alertness
Saturday PUNCH learnt that some states have banned the activities of scrap scavengers following several reports of their grave infractions.
In December 2020, Ogun State placed a ban on cart pushers for constituting a security risk to citizens.
“While they are operating, our people innocently open their premises and commercial outlets to them for the evacuation of their wastes, but unknowingly to them, these cart pushers who are mostly foreigners collate vital information on how to compromise the security of their premises and pass them to the men of the underworld and sometimes join them to rob and terrorise our people,” the then Special Adviser to the Governor on Environment, Ola Oresanya, had said.
In 2021, the Akwa Ibom State government also banned cart pushers following multiple explosions which resulted in fatalities in Oruk Anam Local Government Area of the state.
The immediate cause of the explosion, which claimed four lives, was scavengers who were sorting out what turned out to be military-brand explosives.
Commenting on the activities of criminal cart pushers, a security expert, Mr Lekan Akande, told our correspondent that the relevant authorities needed to act swiftly.
Akande added, “The government and relevant authorities should look into the activities of the cart pushers. Some of them capitalise on it to commit criminal activities which have rightly triggered the action of the government. They are violating people’s property, stealing, and assaulting law-abiding citizens. This should be stopped.
“What I will advise is for residents to mount security cameras and ensure that it is monitored. It’s a waste of time if these activities are captured on video but there is no one to monitor and apprehend the suspects.”
Another security personnel, Emmanuel Johnny, explained to our correspondent that while cart pushers should not be stereotyped based on their ethnicity, their criminal activities must be dealt with by law enforcement agents.
He added, “What I would say from my experience as a civil security expert is that people should really be extra careful. They should be aware of their environment, and if they are to engage anybody in menial tasks like waste disposal or sending them on errands, ensure that your environment is well secured and properly monitored so that you can easily detect the culprits and hand them over to the authorities.”