Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
The recent directive from the office of the president-general, Anambra State Amalgamated Traders Association (ASMATA), Chief Ikechukwu Ekwegbalu, barring different market evangelism groups from holding weekly prayers in Anambra markets is causing ripples across the state.
For long, various markets in the state have been holding weekly line prayers on Mondays between 7:30am and 9am and general market prayers on Wednesdays or Fridays, between 8am and 10am.
During the prayers, the affected markets normally shut their shops until the prayers sessions are over. Traders who visit such markets from within and outside the state to buy goods have already become used to the prayer times.
The sessions have been the tradition for over 20 years in various markets in the state. While many welcomed the prayers, some silently loathed it. The features include praise and worship, singing and dancing, and preaching.
Those who enjoyed the sessions looked forward to each week with excitement. Others who did not fancy such routines normally stayed in their homes or attended to other issues outside the market until the time had passed.
That has been the situation until government sacked the former central body in charge of markets in Anambra State known as AMATAS recently. The body was replaced with the new one, known as ASMATA.
ASMATA, led by Ekwegbalu, announced the regulation of prayers in the market after a meeting with various market leaders. The traders’ leader alleged that some pastors had turned the prayer sessions to avenues for extortion. He said the spiritual exercise was also turning to a political jamboree, and the leadership of ASMATA would no longer allow anybody to exploit the traders in the name of prayers.
“This ban became very necessary because we have discovered that some overzealous persons abuse this practice by extorting marketmen and women regularly out of their hard-earned resources.
“Some have turned the prayers into a somewhat political jamboree and this is not healthy for the system. All market leaders are expected to meet with the traders and unanimously agree on a suitable date to observe the monthly prayers within a stipulated time between 7am and 10am,” he said.
However, the traders received the announcement with mixed feelings. While some welcomed the idea, others saw it as an infringement on their right to freedom of worship. Some organisers of the various prayer groups in Anambra markets also said that the directive was a “grand plan by some occultists to return the control of markets to the powers of darkness.”
Recently, the situation nearly turned bloody at the popular Onitsha Bridge Head Drug Market, known as Ogbo Ogwu. The organisers of the weekly Wednesday prayers in the market had planned to go ahead with their programme, which they said was based on popular demand. But the market task force and some vigilance group members stopped them.
There was considerable tension in the market in the preceding evening when the market evangelism group raised the alarm that the task force had stopped them from setting up their sound equipment, which they were fixing for the next day’s activity.
That Wednesday morning, the traders had closed their shops for the prayers when the same task force ordered them to open the shops and start business.
The action led to a peaceful protest by some of the traders in support of the prayer session. They assembled at the Main Line, where they normally held the weekly prayers, and from there they marched round the market, carrying placards and singing songs of protests. In the midst of the confusion, the vigilance group summoned the chairman, board of trustees of market evangelism, Benjamin Akudo, and whisked him to their central office at White House, Onitsha Main Market.
Chairman of market evangelism of the Ogbo Ogwu Bridge Head Market, Collins Umahi, said the traders had gathered that morning for the day’s business only to be frustrated by the market union.
“They were commanding people to go and open their shops for business but people were reluctant to comply because they were interested in holding the normal Wednesday prayers. When you see what is happening, it is clear that their directive is against the people’s wish. After sensing the situation, we decided to praise God this way and that is why you see us moving around in this form. We really desire to worship God unhindered in this market and it still baffles me why some people would like to destabilise this,” he said.
Also speaking on the development, secretary of the market evangelism group, Okeke Callistus Onyeka, countered the reasons given by the ASMATA leader for regulating prayers in markets.
“They accused us of using prayers for politics. They also said prayers were chasing away our customers and also said we don’t account for the offering money we realise after the prayers. But the reality remains that they have not said the truth.
“Agreed, all of us are not perfect. Sometimes, before now, the prayer dragged till 10:30am, instead of 10am, but the same market union executives cause the extension because they bring long announcements and other information to disseminate during the prayers.
“It is also laughable for them to say that we use prayers for politics because it is in our constitution that no official of the market evangelism should dabble into market politics. If I want to contest, I would first resign before anything.
“This prayer started 20 years ago and it was made stronger during the Mbadinuju administration of 1999 to 2003. How does prayer stop customers from coming to buy goods in the market? They should go and fight the fire because there are more pressing challenges facing traders in the state.
“All these policemen harassing legitimate traders along the road, various revenue touts brandishing logs of wood and sticks, forcing traders conveying goods to pay one levy or the other, have they tackled them? These are the main factors that affect business in Onitsha but they have not tackled them, only to feast on market evangelism that has produced various benefits.
“This is the weekly prayer that has made it possible for lost goods and cash to be returned to their owners. It has turned the hearts of apprentice traders to stop stealing from their masters and also made many masters who were exploiting their servants to have a change of heart. Many have attained salvation from this weekly fellowship. So, they should stop chasing shadows and pursue the substance,” he said.
Akudo also emphasised that the majority of the traders were in support of the weekly prayers because of many positive results produced so far: “In this prayer ground, we reach out to more than 30 charity homes and motherless babies every year. We assist widows and vulnerable children here on purely humanitarian basis. I want government to look into this matter holistically because the directive is against the wishes of the traders.”
The chairman of the caretaker committee of Ogbo Ogwu Market, Anthony Ezioba, said the market evangelism group had no option than to abide by the directives of the general market body, ASMATA.
Meanwhile, ASMATA leader, Ekwegbalu, has insisted that the regulation of prayers was in the interest of the traders in Anambra State.
“I reiterate that we did not ban prayers in Anambra markets. What we did was to cut the prayer period to once per month instead of having it regularly, so that traders will have time to do their businesses.
“When ASMATA committee came on board, many traders approached us complaining that the constant prayers, which caused the closure of markets, was disturbing business activities. Based on that, we summoned a meeting of all market leaders in the state, where we presented the matter.
“At the end of the day, it was agreed among all stakeholders that prayers should be held once per month in all the markets. The reason was that we came to realise that constant closure of markets due to prayers had frustrated our customers who subsequently diverted to other markets in Aba, Kano, and Lagos.
“We did not ban the daily Angelus prayers offered by 12 noon, neither did we ban the daily Divine Mercy prayers offered by 3 pm. Individual traders, who want to have quiet time, can pray in their shops. But we cannot condone daily prayers that will continue to frustrate business activities in Anambra markets,” he said.
The Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev. Paulinus Ezeokafor, has called on Governor Willie Obiano to take a critical look at the decision by the market leadership with a view to reviewing the directive. He described prayers as the most important tool that Christians need in asking and receiving favours from God, as well as warding off evil manipulations