From Femi Folaranmi, Yenagoa
Tears, pain and sorrow are the unwelcome guests in many households in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State capital, now following massive demolition by the Bayelsa State government as part of its urban renewal policy. From Swali Market to Tombia, Opolo and Kpansia markets, the demolition has been sweeping as buildings tagged “illegal structures” were brought down.
Some journalists were also attacked when government officials carrying out the assignment pounced on them.
According to investigations, the decision to move against “illegal structures” used for markets was reached after suspected cultists in a supremacy battle clashed at Swali Market, leaving two people dead and two others sustaining injuries.
Governor Douye Diri, who was said to have been furious over the development, during the State Executive Council meeting on May 5, ordered the removal of illegal structures and traders from around markets in the state.
Diri, in a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Daniel Alabrah, said the pronouncement was necessitated by the resurgence of clashes between cult groups in the Swali Market area. According to him, at the inception of his administration, illegal traders and structures were evacuated from Swali Market to bring sanity to the area, but regretably, it had been re-occupied by miscreants and traders.
The governor directed the special advisers on security matters and their teams to swing into action at Swali Market again.
“From today, no street trading should be found in and around Swali Market and all other markets within the state capital,” he said.
Strangely, however, the team responsible for the demolition exercise did not stop at the markets, they moved into the streets, claiming that the state government has banned street trading. Azikoro Road, Imgbi Road, Old Assembly Quarters Road and Aritalin came under the wrath of bulldozers.
The action caused disquiet as many Bayelsans whose means of livelihood had been affected claimed the state government that promised prosperity was inflicting poverty on them. According to the victims, government, through the Capital City Development Authority (CCDA), had collected money from “illegal structure” and issued permits. Now those structures are being demolished without any refunds or providing alternatives for victims to ensure their business does not perish. Checks indicated that most businesses affected have laid off their staff, while some who could not afford to rent lock-up shops, which cost between N250,000 and N300,000, are converting their homes to business premises.
One businesswoman whose shop was demolished along Old Assembly Quarters Road, Ms Blessing Etifa, CEO of Blossom Bistro, hit hard at the state government for demolishing her business premises after just an hour’s notice.
Etifa, writing on her Facebook wall, narrated how she started her business and grew it to an admirable level before government decided to demolish her the premises: “Now these hoodlums, yes, I call them hoodlums, because no sane person comes to a place with microphone to make announcement that they are coming in an hour to scatter the place.
“I know how much I spent in October last year, renovating that space. I won’t stop shouting it that this administration is evil and the people working as aides are demonic, to say the least.”
Perry Tobi Tukuwei, also writing on Facebook, lambasted the Bayelsa State government for the demolition and said it should have a rethink.
“The state government exposes its inept nature, unpopular and ill-conceived marathon style of leadership with its recent urban renewal drive. In some areas, there is no human face to such draconian move. The government continues to lose the support of the people as it is trying to get through this. Have a rethink,” he wrote.
Tukuwei, assessing the implication of the demolition of Blossom Bistro, stated that the fate of the workers was at stake.
“The manager at Blossom Bee Bistro earns about N80,000 a month. That is way more than an average civil servant on Grade level 8 who goes home with about N55,000. She is now jobless, courtesy of a government who just rewarded prosperity at the Bistro for wickedness. These also include the waitresses, bartenders and a few others who are now jobless too. A few I spoke with were saving money to get into Niger Delta University later this year. For now, those hopes and academic pursuits are dashed.”
Environmentalist and human rights activist, Mr. Morris Alagoa, stated that, because of the harsh economic situation in the country, government should have provided alternatives to accommodate the less privileged whose businesses have been affected.
He said: “How is the prosperity government of Diri assisting the self-employed, vegetable sellers, orange sellers, crayfish sellers, plantain/yam roasters, etc, to survive in Yenagoa and environs so as to be part of the prosperity promised Bayelsans?
“How are the political actors at local and state levels thinking about how to provide conducive environment that would encourage these business folks at the lower rungs of the business ladder to survive?
“I support demolition of illegal structures, especially in the interest of aesthetic and urban/town planning. But the government has to encourage small businesses, even as these folks pay one form of levy or the other.
“Make no mistake, there is real hunger in the land. Cost of living is high too. Some are going to bed hungry and it is gratifying to note that, with all of these, a good number of Bayelsans are avoiding the path of criminality or prostitution. This is one other reason the government should not discourage men and women who are trying to engage in positive ventures. They should be encouraged rather.
“What is wrong if the government acquires and provides well-prepared spaces that would encourage commercial activities for these set of members of the society? Remember, Bayelsa State belongs to all of us and revenue accruing to the state needs to take all segments of society into consideration.
“I want to believe that the ongoing demolition is not that one designed to target the less privileged in Bayelsa State, especially in Yenagoa. There are filling stations and other structures owned by politicians, in and out of government, built on drainages and some stakeholders are waiting to see how the government would take action against such individuals.”
Indeed, several people question the attitude of the officials tasked with the demolition, especially the policemen attached to the team, as they embarked on their duties without a human face. The team was said to have marked the NUJ signpost on Azikoro Road and pulled it down. An attempt to explain to them that the NUJ signpost was not supposed to be affected was rebuffed. A reporter with AIT, Mr. Theo Agidee, who was covering the action of the team had his medicated glasses smashed, while a former secretary of the NUJ, Mr. Stanley Imgbi, was rough-handled.
However, government officials have been speaking up, insisting that enough notice was given before the exercise commenced. They argued that anybody privy to the Yenagoa City urban renewal project would know that the issue of timing would remain unending as the present administration embarked on enough sensitization before the demolition of illegal structures.
Director-general of new media, Mr. Kola Oredipe, called for calm and understanding with the Diri administration as it begins the Yenagoa urban renewal project.
Said he: “There is no partisanship in ongoing removal of illegal structures. We have followed some of the reactions on social media to the ongoing removal of illegal structures and shanties within the state capital, Yenagoa. We sincerely want to appreciate the vast majority of our people for the show of understanding and commending the political will of this government to do the right thing.
“The question should rather not be, why now? Decisions must be taken and that is leadership. We are, however, not unaware that, painfully, the exercise has affected the economic livelihood of some persons but a long-standing illegality does not in any way amount to a legal action. We are steadily achieving this well-thought-out initiative to give a befitting status to the state capital and sincerely want to appreciate the support of many residents, landlords and business owners who clearly understand our direction.
“Again, there are others who claimed they were not given any notice to remove their illegal structures, and that is also not true. A detailed announcement duly signed by the Commissioner for Information, Orientation and Strategy, Hon. Ayibaina Duba, was widely circulated in the media, particularly on all Yenagoa-based radio stations, for about two weeks before commencement of the exercise. A few days after removal of some of the illegal structures, many of those affected have taken steps to make proper adjustment to their buildings in line with the relevant laws. Let’s continue to support this urban renewal effort, for the journey to building a beautiful Yenagoa City you all truly desire has just begun.”