Abuja craft market traders cry for help
…Centre now criminals’ den -Govt
It has been really pouring on traders and occupants of the Abuja Art and Crafts Village in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). They had barely recovered from a fire incident that destroyed no fewer than 18 shops with goods worth millions of naira on December 15, 2017, when the Federal Government shut down the market, temporarily, February 12.
The closure came on the heels of a raid by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the FCT Police Command, in the early hours of that Saturday.
At least 92 suspected hoodlums were arrested in the operation, which reports said led to the recovery a rifle and some substances believed to be Indian hemp.
Daily Sun gathered that the security team stormed the place at 4am that day, following intelligence reports of criminal activities at the crafts village, which houses the permanent site of the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC).
An official of the agency said the raid became necessary to rid the site of criminal elements that had terrorised the FCT, using the permanent site of NCAC as a hideout.
It was, however, gathered that about 21 of the suspects arrested in the raid were released after thorough screening by the police, while the rest were remanded on the orders of the court.
FCT Command public relations officer, Manza Anjuguri, confirmed the incident and explained that the innocent, law-abiding citizens would be released accordingly.
“Since some recovery has been made, we will also try to find out the source of the rifle, after which those found wanting would be prosecuted in accordance with the law,” he said.
Before the advent of Otunba Segun Runsewe as director-general of NCAC, the cultural village had virtually become a den of criminals, with shanties springing up indiscriminately all over the location. In fact, there was an report that someone who was kidnapped in Lagos was kept at the Amphitheatre of the arts village for about two weeks, before security agents stormed the place. Stolen vehicles had also been reportedly traced to the village.
From inception, Runsewe reiterated the desire of his administration to upgrade the standard of the craft village to compete with similar ones in other parts of the world, including South Africa and Ghana.
“We are going to rebuild the place to international standard and accommodate all professionals and stakeholders, but this time it will be credible and well-documented persons. The era of people owning five or six shops in the place is over because these are the people fomenting all the trouble there.
“Government is not a Father Christmas; if we have to get this done, it must be done with the right people to manage and operate there. Some people believe that government property is nobody’s property; some people before us struggled to keep the place. Why must we be the one to destroy it,” he said in December after the inferno.
He explained that the unfortunate incident would have been avoided if there were a central power control system in the market such that, at close of business every day, power would be switched off from one point.
Runsewe stated that: “I have been making concerted efforts towards enhancing the standard of the permanent site. To ensure security of life and property at the site, we now have a police post in place.
“It was out of my personal concern for the lives of those doing business at the site that after due consultation with the occupants; I took the decision to stop people from sleeping in the premises. I took particular note of the fact that there were not adequate facilities to make the site fully residential. It was never intended to be residential.
“But for that proactive decision, this fire incident could have resulted to serious casualties.”
To the NCAC, the only way forward was for the occupants of the craft market to vacate the place, so that it would be cleaned up and brought up to standard with the right ambience in place.
As laudable as the objective of the NCAC could be, the occupants believe that the approach was wrong. One, they accused the agency of not giving them ample opportunity to evacuate their wares, adding that government should have also provided them with alternative places of business while embarking on the reconstruction exercise.
To forestall their eviction, Daily Sun gathered that the traders got an injunction from the court restraining the NCAC from forcefully removing them.
They alleged that DG of NCAC brazenly ignored the injunction, even after being duly served with the court order.
Since then, hundreds of Nigerians whose livelihoods depended on the market have become jobless and are in a fix, with their survival in limbo.
Lawrence, one of the occupants, whose shop has been under lock and key for over one week, told Daily Sun that feeding his family was the main challenge at the moment.
He maintained that the best thing was for government to engage them in discussions and also provide an alternative for them, since, according to him, they were not illegal occupants of the place.
“The DG has not told us anything; he’s just saying we should pack out. He even provided forms for us to sign that we’ve agreed to pack out of the market. We don’t really know what he wants.
“The place is locked up and there is tight security. You can’t enter there unless you are going to pack your things out of the place. Painfully, he didn’t even give us quit notice, say, for one week, for people to remove their wares. It should be known that we are not there illegally; we are legal occupants allotted by government,” the trader said.
Lawrence also lamented the way the whole thing was going, especially with the clampdown on the traders.
“We are not happy at all, (Runsewe) packed about 92 of our members and locked them up in SARS. About 21 have been released while the rest were detained on the orders of the court. We hope that we will be able to bail them on Monday (February 19).
“The issue is that there was a court order restraining the DG or his agents from using force to harass and intimidate the traders by his purported eviction. He was duly served the order yet they are not obeying the order,” Lawrence said.
Another trader, Idris Dambatta, alleged that their leaders were being hounded by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for fighting for their rights.
Dambatta said, “He had gone to the EFCC and they blocked our association’s account. They alleged that we are extorting monies from the embassies because when this thing was trying to escalate; we wrote to the diplomats to come to our aid. You know a lot of people lost their goods and shops to the fire incident in December. Some of these embassies sent relief materials, especially food items like noodles. It was from these items that our members who recorded losses in the inferno were feeding.”
NCAC’s head of media, Charles Nwam, declined to comment on the issues when contacted on telephone by Daily Sun, saying that only the DG could speak on the matter.