From Wilson Okereke, Afikpo
Many residents of Ebonyi State, particularly commuters, would wish that a day like October 5, 2021, never repeated. That fateful day, large numbers of travellers were caught in the crossfire of disagreements between the state government and private motor park owners and transporters, which led to the closure of the parks by the former.
In the ensuing melee, hell was let loose when agents of the Ministry of Capital City Development clamped down on the affected premises, and allegedly vandalized some vehicles belonging to the transporters.
Protesting the development, the transporters immediately withdrew their services, which left hundreds of commuters stranded in Abakaliki and Enugu in Enugu State. This adversely affected all facets of socio-economic life of people in Ebonyi, just as the impact was also felt in the neighbouring states.
Lamenting the development, chairman, Association of Mass Transit Operators of Nigeria (AMTON), Ebonyi State branch, Chief Fredrick Nwogbaga, told newsmen that they came out in the early hours of that morning without envisaging any form of disruption but, suddenly, a group of persons comprising private citizens and some policemen who were fully armed with weapons, led by the commissioner for Ministry of Capital City Development, Onyekachi Nwebonyi, stormed their depots and blocked the places.
He said, actually, his members had earlier agreed to abide by the state government’s directive asking all the transporters operating along the ever-busy Afikpo Road to relocate to the central motor park, adjacent the Margaret Umahi International Market.
According to him, while they were making arrangements towards leaving for the place, but following slight delay due to the enormous difficulties associated with the relocation, surprisingly, the disruption was encountered.
“Around two months ago or thereabouts, we were told by the state government to relocate to the new place; we accepted the directive and quickly purchased the forms, which were involved in the process.
“But due to the fact that we are to erect some structures by ourselves, we were making the preparations and at the same time waiting for the government to play its part by providing us with some amenities, which include road network, fencing, electricity, pipe-borne water and, most importantly, security outfit within the area.
“Unexpectedly, the commissioner came with his boys and obstructed our businesses,” he said.
Nwogbaga queried why government asked them to move to a place that was still surrounded with bush and not prepared for their nature of business. He thereby appealed for a grace period of six months to enable them make the place conducive for their trade.
“The place seems like a desert now, and for this reason, we need offices to operate with, the place being an area meant for the general public, toilets are also essential before one will talk of the security of our customers and the safety of their belongings; the new park needs to be fenced,” he said.
Managers of Enugu North Mass Transit, Chief Emeka Ikwuakolam, and Imo Transport Company (ITC), Amadi Callinus Amadi, as well as their Peace Mass Transit, counterpart, Oko Franklin Okpani, all condemned the action of government and also queried why they were being forced to relocate to such open premises.
Two stranded passengers, Rev. Canon Chinedu Anakwe and Miss Chidimma Gabriel, expressed displeasure over the incident, which they said had not only punctuated their various journey but also caused them unnecessary expenses incurred in looking for alternative means of transport, which did not work.
They appealed for the sake of other intending commuters that the state government should extend the deadline to enable the transporters put things together.
“We had been to Afikpo Road, PRESCO Junction and now at the new park in our effort to get vehicles but from that morning hours till now, being noon, we have not succeeded and before now we had exhausted over a thousand naira on Okada and tricycles.
“Therefore, we are appealing to the government to listen to the masses’ yearning,” they said.
But the commissioner, Nwebonyi, said that the action was taken as a result of the transporters’ failure to comply with the time frame given to them.
“The enforcement was not meant to hurt anyone, rather, it is geared at developing the city and, on the strength of this, I am advising them to relocate because it is for their own good,” he said.
Ebonyi Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (EBCCIMA) said the clash was unnecessary, and called for truce.
Meanwhile, the mass transit operators, about four days later, resumed normal operations in Ebonyi State following the intervention by Governor David Umahi. This development came after an agreement was reached by the leadership of the AMTON in a closed-door meeting with the governor, on Friday, October 8.
Commissioner for Capital City Development, Nwebonyi, and his Parks and Market Development counterpart, Eze Nwachukwu, alongside the national president of the AMTON, Gregory Inyaba, briefed newsmen at the end of the meeting.
Nwebonyi explained that the state government, after reviewing the face-off, had decided to extend by one month, the time for the relocation of all mass transit parks to the new government-designated location.
“The issues regarding the relocation of the motorists to the new general park have all been resolved, in the sense that both the government and the motorists are now on the same page. We listened to some of the challenges that are actually hindering the relocation, but, as I speak to you, we have laid to rest all those challenges.
“And, as government, we have also listened to their problems, and in doing so, we have extended the date for the relocation from 30th of September to 1st of November, 2021. That is almost a month time, to enable them to put in place some infrastructures at the new park to enable their businesses to flourish.”
However, president of EBCCIMA, Dr. Emmanuel Eze, had urged that in performing its regulatory roles, it was important for the government to accommodate the concerns of the transport operators through roundtable dialogues.
EBCCIMA noted that transportation is a major economic activity that drives other multilayer activities in the society in a fragile economy like Ebonyi’s; and there is need for order and decorum in the conduct of the sector vis-à-vis other sectors’ economic activities.
Eze also noted the disputes between the government and some trade groups and market associations in the state, stating that all these were not good for the economic development of the state especially the small businesses.
“We urge restraint and encourage continuous dialogue as we collectively strive to move our state forward. It is our belief that roundtable approach to conflict resolution remains most suitable in a democratic setting such as ours, rather than resorting to hard lines.
“All acts of destruction and violent confrontations are therefore condemned in strongest terms, as they are clearly unrepresentative of who we are as Ndi-Ebonyi. We call on the Governor as the father of the state to take a higher moral ground in this instance and order investigations into all alleged violation of human rights.
“It is very imperative to deescalate rising tensions while the Chamber wades in as the leader of the Organized Private Sector (OPS) for possible mediation in all these cases.
“We also use this opportunity to appeal to Ebonyi State Government to remind relevant security agencies manning strategic checkpoints at the various entrance routes into Ebonyi State, especially Abakaliki capital city that we are not at war. We understand that the general security situation in the country has become more complex, but this does not warrant a situation where citizens/commuters are forced to trek and match with their hands raised up while approaching check-points. These acts must have driven away potential business opportunities from Ebonyi State thereby stifling the already weak economy. The Chamber believes we can actually afford a more business-friendly environment than is presently in place.
“Ebonyi State sits at a very strategic economic corridor of the country and as such, any economic disruption sends a bad message about Nigeria to the international communities especially in this era of African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) negotiations.
“We re-emphasize: Ebonyi’s fragile economy must be saved from this slow and painful death occasioned by constant clash between government agents and organized private sector in the state.
“We are looking forward to quick and amicable resolutions of these issues so that all parties may continue to join hands in moving the state forward,” EBCCIMA stated.