Senior Researcher, Africa division
“I have been in Gikondo transit center many times, I can’t even count the number of times,” Marie, a street vendor
in the Nyabugogo bus station in Kigali, told Human Rights Watch in April. “I was arrested for selling water and juice on the streets. I have to do it to make sure my children survive.” She went on to explain that police took her to Gikondo transit center, beat her there and only released her after almost two weeks, following a plea from a soldier she knew.
Marie (not her real name) is just one of hundreds of street vendors who have been rounded up, arbitrarily detained and ill-treated in transit centers throughout Rwanda in recent years. The Rwandan authorities, including the Mayor of Kigali and the police inspector general, have repeatedly said they want vendors off the streets, claiming they are a threat to cleanliness and security. The Rwandan authorities have locked up hundreds of street vendors illegally, in filthy and overcrowded buildings.
In May, members of the Inkeragutabara, a part-time auxiliary force of the Rwandan army, tried to seize Théodosie Mahoro’s goods in Nyabugogo bus station, and she died from their beatings. Three men were tried in July in connection with her killing and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Following her death, the government has adopted several measures to encourage vendors to leave the streets. In early September, the City of Kigali opened a new market at Nyabugogo bus station that provides former street vendors with a fixed place to sell their goods, tax-free for one year. Several other markets have been built in Kigali for the same purpose. A legal framework was published to regulate these markets, and to fine vendors who continue to trade on the streets, as well as their clients. Authorities have urged street vendors to form cooperatives, and have facilitated access to loans.
Will the new measures end abuses against people like Marie or Théodosie? It is too early to say. The markets at least provide street vendors with an alternative, and encourage them to integrate into the formal economy, with potential benefits for all. But the new system could also increase the crackdown against those who don’t join the new scheme.
Regardless of the risks, some like Marie may opt to return to the streets or bus stations, as they have been doing for many years, as they know they can find clients there — especially if the new market area or alternative sources of income prove less profitable, or if they can’t afford to compete with better-off vendors in the designated marketplaces. This means that once again, they may face arrests, beatings, and arbitrary detention in transit centers.
This treatment violates human rights, and it doesn’t work. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were worse off after leaving the transit centers. Weeks of ill-treatment and insufficient food, water and hygiene had left them severely weakened. Most had received no education or training for other jobs, despite the government’s official policy of rehabilitation and reintegration. Further impoverished, and in the absence of alternatives, many went back to the streets to try to earn a living.
Creating a new, regulated environment for street vendors is a positive move, but more needs to be done to prevent further abuses by police and other security officials. A legal framework to better govern transit centers and protect the rights of those sent there would be a start. But as a directive on Gikondo last year has shown, legal changes are not enough. The directive created, for the first time, official oversight of the center and laid out certain rights of detainees, but it suffered from poor implementation and insufficient human rights safeguards. Only closing the centers would definitively put an end to these abuses.
Théodosie’s death illustrates not only the precarious security for street vendors, but also the lack of trust between them and the police, as a result of years of abuse and continuing impunity for officers who persecute the vendors. Other street vendors tried to stop the police from removing Théodosie’s body from the bus station because they feared the police would conceal evidence of the killing. It took the intervention of local authorities to calm tensions.
To restore confidence, and to give street vendors their dignity back, the Rwandan authorities should conduct credible investigations into past and ongoing abuses and ensure that those responsible are held accountable. The prosecution of the people responsible for Théodosie’s death proves that this is possible, if the will is there. Moreover, with the recent creation of the Rwanda Investigative Bureau, responsible for investigating abuses by police officers, the government now also has a dedicated body to look into these incidents.
To demonstrate a lasting commitment to protect and support street vendors and other poor residents, the government should combine additional measures to create economically viable alternatives with concrete steps to end abuses by security officials on Rwanda’s streets and in detention centers.