Imo’s Governor Rochas Anayo Okorocha talks, acts, moves and generally carries on as if nothing could get under his skin. So it seemed until his demolition squad went to work on the Ekeukwu Owere Market on 26th August. And soon cries of horror and outrage filled the air, especially when it transpired that a little boy had been struck by a stray bullet and killed. No one is sure of who fired the fatal shot. But traders were up in arms. The land owners, Owerri indigenes, had mobilized. They probably never reckoned on the ‘eminent domain’ powers of the governor. Okorocha’s political opponents probably sensed an opening, while the legal eagles expressed dismay that a court order had been violated. The humanitarians, the civil society groups, were outraged that a violation of civil rights had been perpetrated. A sympathetic press, or a section of it, felt that an oppressive government was running rough-shod over vulnerable traders who were being deprived of their livelihood.
And what made all this doubly mortifying for the governor was that he had thought he was doing the city a favour. He felt he was finally ridding the town of an incubus, an egregious eyesore, a physical symbol of moral depravity in the city of Owerri; indeed, he was liberating the city of one of the most prolific incubators of criminal conduct in the South East region. And impartial observers think the Ekeukwu Market had become all that, and, maybe worse.
The efforts to get rid of the Ekeukwu Owere Market seem to have had a long history. Before 1999, during the military era, two military administrators had tried to relocate the market or demolish it. Both lost their nerves and let sleeping dogs lie. Okorocha’s immediate predecessor tried to do something about the market. Pressure mounted and he decided that discretion was the better part of valour.
Governor Okorocha said he met the traders at least half a dozen times. He tried to reason with them. He showed them the new markets he had built to resettle them. They could occupy those stalls free of charge for the first three months, to enable them settle down before they begin to pay rent to the state government. The government had enough stalls for each and every trader. Indeed, he said, he had more than 11,000 stalls in three great locations. He reiterated to them that he was truly minded to remove the market as part of his government’s urban renewal programme. Owerri, he told them, was becoming the fastest growing city in Nigeria. He wanted to widen the streets, dualize the roads, put more lighting, close down shanties and slums and clean up the riotous and ubiquitous street trading which has also become the principal source of traffic congestion.
It took hours to cross from one end of Douglas Road to the other, he said. Above all no one passes through Ekeukwu Market environs without being robbed or molested or harassed in one form or another. The cultists, the touts, the armed robbers, the kidnappers and other gangsters had their operational headquarters in the place. How could the city let these ills fester in the heart of Owerri? The governor reasoned.
Having listened to similar platitudes expressed by former governors who lacked the balls to implement their policies, the traders, the indigenes, never thought it could be done.Until the wrecking crew arrived. And in tow were all the security details and enough muscle to counter resistance or defiance. Given the hostile atmosphere, the demolition was considered an Okorocha over-reach. The uproar was deafening. The unfortunate death of little Somtochukwu Ibeanusi, whose Nnewi-born father also lost four shops during the demolition, supplied fuel to the fire. Then the dramatized all black protests and a solemn procession to depict the governor as a heartless tyrant, an oppressive governor who perpetrated awful deeds in defiance of court order.
The governor apparently didn’t expect the backlash and its severity. Those actions seem to have hurt him deeply. For a moment his tone and attitude changed to a kind of quiet resignation, persistence and a tireless recitation of the rationale for the demolition which is gradually coming through. Indeed many are gradually moving to his side of the argument, given his futuristic visions and ambitions for Owerri and Imo State. Nor does it appear that he has given up his presidential ambitions, though he has been quiet about it for years now.
He was so upset with the reporting, he lost his cool and banished from government house the correspondents of two major newspapers who seem to have got the casualty figures wrong. One of the offending reports could be the August 27 report headlined “Three feared dead, many wounded, as Gov. Okorocha begins demolition…” In the heat of smoke and dust of a riotous atmosphere, such reports, though inexcusable, may be forgiven, if a correction was made in the subsequent edition. The governor seems to have read malice in the reports. Editors were urging him last week to forgive and forget and to know that negative reports come with the territory of governance, especially disruptive actions like the demolition of Ekeukwu Market.
When Governor Okorocha personally drove a busload of journalists to the Ekeukwu scene last week a curious audience gathered. There was of course nothing to see than a mountain of trash, piles of rubble, and dozens of umbrella hoisted by tenacious traders, the few still holding out in the old market. Okorocha addressed them, wanting to know if they appreciated the relocation of the market to which an overwhelming number answered yes. A voice or two mumbled no. To those he sent a folksy obscene curse word, and once more urged the traders to leave the place. The relocation of Ekeukwu Market was irrevocable and was done in the best interest of the city of Owerri, not to favour anyone or group. Owerri is a modern city and is in need of urban renewal befitting its status, he said.
Governor Okorocha seems to have won a moral victory in the Ekeukwu Market case by demonstrating the existence of thousands of market stalls and shops the state government built ready for occupation by traders. Ekeukwu was a long standing commercial and civic market centre that had grown beyond its location and had turned into a social liability and a risk to public safety. To that extent there was no good time to relocate or demolish it without vociferous public outcry. The death of the little boy Somtochukwu was an unfortunate turn of events. The governor has vowed to make amends by memorializing the boy’s name with a street and a landmark.