Oluseye Ojo, Ibadan
If the traders at the popular Dugbe Market in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, could turn back the hands of time and foresee that afternoon fire, they would have strived to prevent the inferno. The fire wreaked monumental havoc on the traders on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.
The blaze came like a thief in the night, catching them unawares, unprepared. The tragedy struck when the affected shopowners were observing the compulsory stay-at-home order occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The incident occurred on Lebanon Street, the Dugbe Alawo section of the market, and destroyed goods worth millions of naira. On the same line were shops selling mattresses, clothes, household items, eye glasses, decoration materials, generators and electronics. The inferno affected 195 shops.
Three persons were said to have sustained varying degrees of injury due to the fire that led to confusion and apprehension in Dugbe, Ogunpa, Ekotedo and their environs. They were said to be responding to treatment. A Toyota Matrix, parked by the roadside in front of one of the razed shops, was completely burnt.
Although the source of the fire has not been confirmed, an eyewitness, who preferred anonymity but displayed his wares by the roadside, said the inferno was caused by the negligence of a welder working in one of the shops, where the fire started. The inferno later spread to other shops before the arrival of the fire service.
Other eyewitnesses said, despite the order by Governor Seyi Makinde that all markets in the state should closed to control the spread of COVID-19, except those selling fruits and food items, some of the shops on Lebanon Street had been operating with impunity.
The prompt response of the Federal Fire Service, Oyo State Fire Service and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) South-West zonal headquarters, Dugbe, prevented the fire from spreading to more shops and buildings in the area built in clusters. The fire started at around 2 p.m. and was put out at about 4.05 p.m.
Many traders initially tried to salvage some goods from their shops, but the intensity and fury with which the fire was burning prevented them. Operatives of the Oyo State Police Command and Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corp (NSCDC) were drafted to the scene to forestall breakdown of law and order. But they were overwhelmed by the surging crowd. Some hoodlums took advantage of the incident to operate despite heavy security presence.
Deputy director of fire service in Oyo State, Mr. Moshood Adewuyi, said his men could not reach the scene of the fire on time due to late notice: “I wonder why a fire incident that happened in the afternoon destroyed so much goods before fire service was called. If it was in the night, there would have been an excuse that the owners were not there.
“But the shop owners were trying to put out the fire on their own. When it failed, they decided to call the fire service after it had destroyed all the shops with goods. When we came, some shop owners were seen trying to pull their goods from the stores.”
An affected trader, Mrs. Folasade Ajiboye, admitted that the traders initially tried to put out the fire themselves without calling the fire service: “In the process, the fire escalated and went out of control before it was extinguished by fire fighters, who were invited when self-help by the traders failed.”
Daily Sun visited the market again a few days after the inferno and some of the affected traders recounted their ordeal.
Mr. Akintola Oluseyi, a book seller, was one of the victims: “It was a bad experience. All my goods have gone; goods that were worth over N7 million were destroyed in my shop. In fact, we have all lost our means of livelihood. We are appealing to government and well-meaning Nigerians to help us.”
Mr. Samuel Oluwaseun, who sold decoration materials, said, “We don’t know the source of the fire. All we saw was fire and it consumed all our properties. We called for help, the Central Bank of Nigeria and others with fire-fighting equipment rose up before the arrival of the fire service. It was a sad development.”
Mr. Akin Joy, an electronics dealer, lamented: “I feel so sad, as I lost everything. All my three shops have gone, including a car parked in front of my shop. All electronics in my shops got burnt. Government should help us.”
Chairman of the market affected by the inferno, Mr. Dapo Davies, the CEO of Pelly Foam, said the fire affected 19 shops and Pelly water factory: “I don’t feel okay at all. The fire lasted for over two hours. We are yet to come to terms with the incident. The damage was due to the fact that most of the shops were locked and people were not around. We only appeal to government to help us.
“The major cause of the inferno is not yet known, contrary to speculation that it occurred while a welder was working on partitioning one of the shops. Concerning the cause of the incident, people will say all sorts of things.
“No welder would come here without my consent, even the tenants. We cannot say specifically the cause of the fire outbreak.
“Most of the shops were under lock, as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. That caused the high rate of destruction. If the shops were not locked, it would not have been much. On what we have lost here, they are not quantifiable for now.”
Makinde described the incident as unfortunate and heartbreaking. He told the victims: “At such a time like this, this is the least of the things that we expect because we still are battling with COVID-19 and its social and economic impacts.
“We believe there is a need for the state to have an endowment fund for disasters. If such an endowment exists, right now, we would have given an immediate palliative to the people concerned. Meanwhile, we will try our best to see what we can do within the challenges we are facing.”
He admonished shop owners and residents to always observe precautions and safety measures within their environments to avert disasters.
Senator Kola Balogun, representing Oyo South, in a video call to Davies, said: “I assure you of immediate intervention through the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). The zonal director, Mr. Slaku Lugard, will write a report to the National Assembly and I will work with that evaluation. I will send N1 million to a designated account as immediate palliative, while they evaluate the extent of the damage.”
Lugard assured the traders: “I will never send an assessment that they won’t work on. I want to console all of them, particularly the man who owns a water company. He has lost so many millions.
“I know that it is difficult for government to really give back all they have lost, but I wish that God will provide ways for them to start and come back to life. We, on our own part, will liaise with FEMA to see how we can do some awareness creation and bring some insurance company to work with them so that they won’t start all over again.”