Jeff Amechi Agbodo, Onitsha
It was a day of tears and lamentations recently at the Modebe Shopping Plaza, Madueke Street, Onitsha, Anambra State. Many bemoaned their fate as government commenced the relocation of traders to the new market at Ogbunike in Oyi Local Government Area of the state.
Operatives of the task force from the Ministry of Trade and Commerce, and the army, police, Civil Defence Corps and vigilance groups stormed the plaza on January 7 with bulldozers to demolish some structures. They also ordered the traders to move to the new market in Ogbunike.
Many of the traders who had travelled for the festivities came back to the market to resume their businesses only to discover that their shops had been turned to rubble. There was also heavy presence of security men shooting indiscriminately to scare the trader
The situation created a lot of panic and tension, as the traders became confused. Many of them were seen removing their wares from the rubble, while some others were not allowed to gain entrance to their shops.
Some suspected hoodlums hijacked the situation. They injured some traders who wanted to stop them from looting shops.
On January 9, the traders trooped to the Anambra State Government House, Awka, in protest. They moved in a motorcade from Onitsha to Government House gate, where they temporarily blocked the gate demanding to see the governor. Told that the governor was out of the country, the protesters elected to meet with the Secretary to the State Government to complain about the trauma they had suffered.
The traders bore placards with inscriptions like “Governor Obiano, help us to open our shops;” “We don’t have shops at Ogbunike New Market;” “Please we are not provisions and cosmetics dealers, we are article dealers;” “Our lives are in danger;” “If government fails to do something now it will be tough for us;” and “We are not against your site, please leave us alone and go to your site.”
The spokesperson for the traders, Chief Herbert Iwuoha, said the task force was at the market to demolish illegal structures. The operatives also told the traders to relocate to the new provisions and cosmetics market at Ogbunike.
He alleged that the task force had, since January 7, prevented the traders from entering their shops, while touts and hoodlums broke into their shops and looted their wares and injured some traders.
“They went and blocked our shops with thugs, security agents and other government agents. They are there demolishing some structures, molesting and beating some of us who entered the plaza. Some traders are with wounds sustained from the thugs. They said that we must move to the new market, where we didn’t build and the union we are not part of.
“We want the governor to stop them and allow us to open our shops because this is January and we have to pay our children’s school fees, rent and other bills. We are not against demolition of illegal structures that blocked the roads. We do our business in a plaza and not on the street, so why stop us from doing our business?” Iwuoha queried.
Chairman of the Article Dealers Association, Modebe Shopping Plaza, Mr. Bede Iwunze, expressed shock at the raid by the security agents.
He said the traders were not among those who built the market in Ogbunike, noting that his group had acquired land for another market since they were into article trading. He wondered why government wanted to force the traders to move to a market where they had no shops.
“Where do they want us to move to? We don’t sell provisions and cosmetics. We sell articles. How can they force us to move to a market where we did not build to become tenants? They should force the union that built the market to move to the place, not us, as we have a place already acquired to built our own market.”
Some traders and leaders of the market, Joseph Chukwubuike and Donald Udemba affirmed that their association was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission in 2012 and had nothing to do with the Provisions and Cosmetic Dealers Association, who built shops in Ogbunike.
They said government wanted to inflict hardship and suffering on the traders in the month of January. They called on the government to give the traders time to build their own market and relocate, instead of forcing them to move to a different market entirely.
“We are not Provision and Cosmetics Union. We are article dealers and there is no way we will move to Ogbuinke where we have no shops. We have acquired land at Umunya to build our permanent market, and we informed the commissioner when we were invited on this case. We also have court orders stopping any action, pending the hearing and determination of the substantive suit on this matter.
“We have over 800 traders here doing business. We do business in a plaza. We don’t constitute any nuisance here or obstruct the movement of vehicles. We are in support of demolition of any illegal structure, even in our plaza. But to stop us from doing our business and tell us to relocate elsewhere was not the best decision by the government.
“We are law-abiding citizens but government should have a rethink and reconsider their decision and give us time to build our own market and relocate from here. This is January. We just came back from the New Year celebrations. What would be our fate if we don’t have a source of income? How do we put food on our tables and foot our bills, especially now that children are going back to school?”
Another trader, a widow, Mrs. Josephine Nwagu, said her shop was also demolished. She had been training her children through trading in the shop since her husband died.
Chairman of Modebe Enterprises Limited, owners of the plaza, Dr. Arinze Modebe, said there was a subsisting court judgment showing that Madueke and Archbishop Heerey are not street markets.
“What is happening in the plaza is very shameful, despicable and callous. Traders there just survived the shock of the fuel tanker fire in December last year and are now facing this hardship, intimidation and molestation. What the Commissioner for Commerce is saying is that we are street traders. But we are not street traders at all.
“We went to court, we had a judgement in our favour, when Dr. Chris Ngige was the governor of the state, that the place is a plaza, not street market. There is another court order in June 2019 telling the parties to maintain the status quo until the hearing and determination of the substantive suit.”
He described Governor Obiano as a good, enlightened and law-abiding man who would not disobey court orders, stating that what was happening now was a blatant disregard to law and order by the people that were supposed to obey the law. Modebe expressed the traders’ absolute confidence in the ability of the governor to resolve this matter in the best interest of the traders and the state.
“I’m sure that the governor, who is out of the country, is unaware of this. He is a man who believes in the rule of law and who obeys court orders. I want to appeal to Governor Obiano to call the Commissioner for Commerce to order.
“What we are saying is that those who want to move or relocate to the new market at Ogbunike built by certain government officials should go, and those who don’t want to go should be allowed to stay. Why is it that they didn’t touch other shops along Menax Streets? Why are they after our plaza that is inside and off the road?” he queried.
Leaders of the union, who met with the Secretary to the State Government, Prof. Solo Chukwudebelu, during their protest, were directed to meet with Commissioner for Commerce for an amicable resolution of the matter.
Chairman of the Ministry of Commerce Taskn Force, Mr. Celestine Anere, said the ministry had informed the traders to relocate to the new Provisions and Cosmetics market built at Ogbuinke. He regretted that the traders refused, which informed the ministry’s action to enforce their relocation.
“The essence of this to decongest the roads and to ensure that business is being conducted in an orderly manner in a market.
“We told the traders that deal in provisions and cosmetics to move to their permanent market at Ogbunike. The government has over the years told them to move to their permanent site because as you can see, street trading constitutes a lot of nuisance to the public. It is better they move to their permanent site that they built themselves.
“The governor, through the Commissioner for Commerce, Chief Uche Okafor, had dialogued with this people for them to move to their permanent market which they refused. So we are here today on behalf of the state government, to make them move to their permanent site. We also demolished illegal structure and shanties on the roads.
“There is a provision by government to accommodate them at the Ogbunike Market. If they said that they were not aware or were not informed about the relocation, they are liars and they are trying to mislead the public. Government had, at different meetings, informed them even before the coming of the new Commissioner for Trade and Commerce. We are not aware of any court case between the traders and the government on this issue,” Anere said.