Rose Ejembi, Makurdi
They say thunder does not strike twice. Maybe there is difference in the natural law guiding thunder and fire. This is because in Benue State, in the past nine months mysterious fire outbreak has destroyed goods and means of livelihood worth hundreds of billions of naira, not once but thrice. And, as things stand now, there is no guarantee from anybody anywhere that it will not strike again.
First, it was Gboko main market in the early hours of Monday, October 1, 2018. Next was Wadata market in Markudi on Tuesday, January 1, 2019. Now, it is Makurdi modern market that was engulfed by another mysterious fire in the evening of Tuesday, June 18, 2019. By the time it was over, more than 200 shops stocked with goods worth billions of naira had been razed. So, apart from frequent cases of attacks from herdsmen, the state may also have to put up with regular cases of fire outbreak especially in market places stocked with assorted goods and consumables.
The state governor,Samuel Ortom who announced a donation of N50 million to victims of the inferno to cushion the effect said a Commission of Inquiry would be constituted to unravel the frequent causes of the inferno and also suggest ways of reconstructing as well as safeguarding the market from future fire outbreaks.
“This is one incident too many,” he said in a chat with journalists. “We all recall that we had fire incidence in Gboko market, Wadata market and now modern market. And for the Modern market, this is the third time it is happening within a few years.”
How the nightmare unfolded and what we lost
Just like a nightmare, many traders at the market watched helplessly as their wares got consumed in a mysterious inferno last Tuesday. The fire, according to some traders in state’s largest market is mysterious because it happened shortly after the normal closing hour, 6 pm, when electricity supply to the market was supposed to have been switched off by the market management.
Although it is still too early to accurately estimate the magnitude of losses incurred by the hapless traders, the state governor, while undertaking an on-the-spot assessment of the market said billions of naira had been lost to the inferno.
Mrs. Maureen Ozor, one of the affected traders, could not hold back her tears as she narrated her ordeal to our correspondent beside one of her burnt shops. The mother of five who disclosed that she had two shops where she sold ready-made wears for ladies in one and decorative flowers and flower vases in the other, lamented that she lost the two shops within a twinkle of eye.
According to her, she left the market at about 6:10 pm but she had hardly reached home when a neighbour called to inform her daughter that the market was on fire. “When I heard the news, I was confused,” she said. “All I could do was to quickly pick my keys and rush back to market. By the time I got here, some boys had already broken the lock to my shop and were helping to pack out a few things. But they could not do much before the fire overwhelmed them and they all had to run for their lives. I watched in pain as all my goods were consumed by the ferocious fire. I lost everything. The Fire Service men could not come early to help because they said there was no water. By the time they came, the damage had already been done.”
Ozor who revealed that she lost over N4 million to the inferno wondered how she would start rebuilding her life, insisting that only God can help her recover from the huge loss.
Another trader who lost all his goods to the inferno is Mr. Bartholomew Chukwu. Until the sad incident, Chukwu had the biggest shop for ladies’ shoes and bags in the market. When contacted, the middle-aged man was too shocked to speak, but his wife, Chima, who spoke on his behalf, said they had just gotten home that day only to hear the news of the fire disaster.
“We usually don’t close early until around 7pm even though the market closes at 6pm,” she said. “But that day, because there was low sales , we left as soon as it was 6pm only to hear shortly after we got home that the market was on fire. When we got back, everywhere was chaotic because the fire had spread and was intense. We couldn’t take anything out of the wreckage. And, we just restocked our shop after returning from Lagos last Sunday.”
Mrs. Chukwu who disclosed that they were also victims of the fire incident in the market some years ago lamented that while they were trying to recover from the effects of that one, another fire disaster has affected them.
“What we lost in this fire is in millions and I just don’t want to think of how we are going to recover from this great loss,” she said. “That is why I am calling on both the state and federal government to come to our aid because some of us got loans from banks and how to repay such loans is another big challenge in the face of our present predicament.”
A trader who simply gave his name as Sunday said although his own shop was not affected, but that of his sister who sells school uniform materials was completely razed. “My sister is at home right now,” he told Saturday Sun. “She can’t come here because the disaster affected her so much. She has been crying since the incident happened. As you can see, the fire is still burning inside what is left of her shop even now.”
Ortom and other sympathizers appeal for help
The parish priest of St. Augustine Catholic Church, Demekpe, Makurdi, Father Solomon Mfa who was one of the early callers at the market on Wednesday morning lamented the extent of damage saying that many of his parishioners were affected.
“What I have seen is beyond description,” he said. “The level of destruction is terrible and I feel for the affected traders as they are not likely to come out of this very soon. This is the third time the market has been burnt. I sympathize with those affected and pray that God opens door for them.”
Commenting further on the incident, he said: “These are the things that make some people go into depression and even resort to taking their lives. I encourage relations and friends of the affected to go close to them and encourage them at this trying time. They shouldn’t be left alone.”
Ter Makurdi, Chief Sule Abenga, in similar remark also bemoaned the extent of the fire damage and described the disaster as unfortunate, adding that it touches on the economy of the whole state. The traditional ruler who called on government to ensure free access to all parts of the market for prompt response by fire service workers whenever such incident occurs also appealed to federal government to come to the aid of the state in order to mitigate the effects of the fire and also rebuild the market.
Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance and the Supervising Permanent Secretary, Bureau of Internal Affairs, Mr. Matthew Uyina, informed that the inferno started at about 7pm that fateful day and consumed two blocks housing one hundred shops each and destroyed multimillion naira worth of property.
Also speaking, Secretary Board of Trustees of the market, Mr. Emeka Ofoegbu, lamented that although there were security men guarding the market, none of them could explain how the fire started.
“Some of us left the market at about 6:30 pm,” he said. “I was in church when someone called to inform that the market was on fire. We rushed back to see how we could put it out with the help of fire service men but they said there was no water. Eventually, by the time they came through the village market to put out the fire it was already late as two blocks of shops housing 100 shops each had been completely razed. We are sad that security personnel saddled with the responsibility of guarding the market were not able to know how and when the fire started.”
On his part, Governor Ortom while sympathizing with traders whose shops were gutted in the blaze described the incident as unfortunate, stressing that the losses incurred by the victims were huge and prayed God to open other opportunities for them to recoup them.
He, however, thanked God that no life was lost, even as he reprimanded some youths who used the unfortunate incident to loot, urging them to repent or reap in full measures what they had sown. He said the inferno was one too many, stressing that Gboko and Wadata Markets had suffered similar disasters with that of Modern Market being the third time. “This is one too many and we do not deserve it again,” he said. “We pray it never happens again and we must take some proactive steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
He commended security agencies and men of the fire service for their prompt response which curtailed the extent of damage and looting, adding that the board of trustees should meet with relevant government agencies to resolve issues regarding the suspension of union activities with a view to lifting the suspension.