By Eric Elezuo
A first time passer-by would want to get into the business of selling newspapers because of the number of people clustering around the stand. These people present a view of sales for the newspaper man to the outsider, but in the actual sense, they hardly buy a copy; they have come to be known as the members of the Free Readers Association. Who are these people, why are they there and what do their presence constitute in that environment? Read on…
At every bus stop, street corner or wherever the likelihood of human traffic is noticed, the presence of newspaper vendors is mandatory. As a result, in every city, major or otherwise where the intellectual exist, there is always the presence of newspaper men and their kiosk.
In Lagos and other major cities of the country, newspaper stands do not only present papers on display for sale but also human beings who cluster round the table of papers raising their voices higher than normal in apparent display of intelligence or absolute or obvious ignorance to the activities of the government, opposition, sports teams, or any other human related endeavour. These self-acclaimed analysts argue their points with the kind of passion and emotion that explains nothing other than the fact that they draw some kind of pleasure or reward from the encounter. These people are seem, not in specified places, but everywhere newspapers are displayed for sale.
At the Ikeja Roundabout bus stop, better known as Ikeja Inside, two newspaper stands hover menacingly, beckoning anyone willing to stop over for whatever purpose; argue, analyze, buy or greet a well-known face.
Timothy (pseudonym), who is the proprietor of the stand, as he called himself, told our correspondent that the number of people gathered around the stand does not in any way suggest the volume of sales, adding that most of them are there just to complement efforts, and read for free. He explained that much as most of them are there to read for free, they are only allowed to read the cover page.
“When people pass and see the number of so called customers gathering around this, they think that we are actually making enormous sales; but that is not the case as 95 per cent of them are just free readers, argument experts and those exchanging pleasantries. They are content with reading the cover page which is the only one allowed for free readers,” he said.
He went further to explain that most of those who were allowed to open the inside pages make a certain commitment in monetary terms for them to read and drop the paper.
“Yes, those of them opening the pages have paid to do so. There is a token amount that they commit to enable them read the inside pages. If this amount is not paid, permission is not granted to touch or open the newspaper,” he said.
When asked the amount one has to pay before reading the inside pages, the newspaper man explained that it varies, depending on the information the person is looking, adding that it is negotiable according to the customer’s power of bargaining. He stressed however that the cheapest anyone could pay before was N20, but considering the ‘way things are now’ that price has been hiked to N50.
At the Okokomaiko bus stop where TheBoss encountered a heated argument bordering on the recent trial postponement of the embattled former National Security Adviser, Dasuki Sambo, among several groups, voices were ringing loud and no one seems to be listening to the other. One could easily notice that the arguments were flowing from minds devoid of indepth knowledge, just as everyone spoke based on self-invoked information.
“We argue like this most of times just to release tension as regards the state of events. There are things or knowledge we want to share, and the bus stop is the only place that one doesn’t need invitation to attend. So we come here and air our views, much as it does not receive anybody’s attention,” Segun, one of the readers said.
Another reader who gave his name as Oke said that at the newspaper stand, the contribution is no holds barred, adding that one is expressly permitted to speak his mind without any kind of censorship.
“At this place, you hear more than enough; people go as far as expressing their family situation and challenges, and end up blaming somebody for it, most times, the government. Sometimes, even some classified information is released here. So, I believe that in this crowd, different kinds of people are represented, including policemen and SSS in search of information,” he volunteered.
Suddenly the discussion switched to football, and hovered around the group the Super Eagles found themselves for the Russia 2018 World Cup as well as the European teams that made it to the round of 16, and this was where the argument became heated, and was heading to near exchange of blows, but tempers suddenly relapsed.
At Ikeja Along bus stop, just beside the rail line, and adjacent the Police Station, lay another newspaper stand, clustered by free readers, each stretching his neck trying to catch a glimpse of the available headlines of each of the papers while the operator stands aloof monitoring every hand that attempts to touch the paper, and every eye that looks at them.
The man in charge, who would not give his name, though he could be heard being addressed as Monday, told our correspondent that many of the free readers are well known to his stand, and are always given access when they come. While debunking the fact that there is anything called Free Readers Association in the real sense, he stated that the regular callers to any stand are known among themselves.
“I don’t know of any real association called FRA, but the truth remains that all regulars are known among themselves, and they interact each time they meet before going into their arguments, which is basically on politics, sports or the economy,” he said.
He added that while most of them know next to nothing about what they argue about, it is always fun to have them around to spice up the day’s work.
One of the readers told our correspondent that it is more cost effective to come around and read the paper on the stand, and walk away, stating that one has no business spending hard earned money on something you have to dispose later with money, if care is not taken.
“To buy paper these days no easy. So it is better to read it when and where you need not pay, and life continues,” he said.
A social affairs commentator, Mrs. Aduke Oladapo, who runs a private consultancy services in Ikeja, said that the gathering of people around newspaper stands goes beyond reading the newspapers. She noted that if it is just a matter of just reading newspapers, they would have been satisfied with doing it on their phones, adding that most of them have access to internet.
She said that the gathering is made more pungent because all those people feel that they have something to say, and the newspaper stand platform provides a suitable opportunity to air such views since they don’t have to opportunity to appear on TV or radio or newspaper for any discourse.
“Ordinarily, everyone has something to say, and needs a platform to air such views. So, for these set of people, the place of newspapers provides a veritable landscape to do their wish. The people around, whether listening or not, form the audience, and it does not matter whether they are heard or not. At the end, they are satisfied to have said something though to nobody in particular,” she said.
A cross section of people, who spoke to TheBoss agreed that apart from scanty skirmishes that ensue sometimes when the argument becomes heavily heated, the group constitutes little security risk.
However, a newspaper vendor at the popular Constain Bus stop said that he always tell those coming to view papers at his stand to ‘mind your pockets’ because one cannot vouch for anyone there. He explained that on more than one occasion, some people have complained of losing their wallets, money and other valuables while free-reading.