Obinna Odogwu, Abakaliki
Recently, some members of the Ebonyi State chapter of the Nigeria Automobile Technicians Association (NATA) went haywire and disrupted economic activities in the artisans’ market in Abakaliki, the state capital.
Curiously, a strange inferno gutted the market popularly called Mechanic Village, the biggest in the state, few days after the artisans protested alleged hijack of their election process by some government agents after reportedly selling forms for between N20,000 and N100,000 to aspirants depending on the positions. By the time the smoke cleared, no fewer than 15 shops and 10 vehicles parked in the area were in rubbles.
Cause of imbroglio
Mr. Chijioke Nweko and Mr. Chidiebere Uzor were named as two contestants for the chairmanship position of the association. Nweko is a mechanic from the Izzi clan while Uzor, a welder, is said to be from Onicha council area of the state.
Founded in 1983, NATA is made up of eight groups of artisans namely: mechanics, panel beaters, welders, painters, vulcanizers, upholstery, electricians, and carpenters.
Preparatory to the election, some members of the association, it was alleged, agitated for a change of baton of leadership from the mechanics bloc to any of the groups that make up the association.
Some of them told Daily Sun that since inception of the association, the mechanics bloc held the position of chairman, a situation which others reportedly found distasteful.
They also complained that the leadership spearheaded by that bloc in the recent years has not been able to meet the yearnings and aspirations of members, hence, part of the reasons they demanded for change.
In addition, it was alleged that since non-indigenes of the state handed over the baton of leadership to the indigenes, mechanics from Izzi clan had presided over the association for about 14 years.
A member of the association, Mr Steven Umoke, a mechanic, was one of the artisans that made the allegations. Their claims were, however, dismissed as total falsehood by some other members especially from Izzi clan. They said that all they were agitating for was a free and fair poll devoid of imposition of candidate by the gov ernment.
In fact, there was pandemonium on that fateful day. In the heat of the unease, members of the union and other traders in the artisans’ market ran helterskelter to escape harm.
The protesters set up bonfires, and allegedly destroyed properties and wares belonging to some of the artisans, traders, and their customers who were trapped in the ensuing melee.
While the snarl lasted, human and vehicular movements at the market’s axis of the popular Ogoja Road were paralysed. Save for the timely intervention of a team of policemen drafted to the scene, the uproar might have degenerated into a distasteful situation.
Displeased Umoke from mechanics’ bloc alleged that the disaffection among the artisans was as a result of clannish politics introduced into the association.
“But we disagreed and reminded them that this is an association that has national outlook; that anybody from anywhere in this
country can be the chairman. “When the disagreement was about snowballing into a crisis, the state government intervened to forestall break down of law and order. They set up a caretaker committee headed by a welder, Mr Chidiebere Uzor, pending when an election would be conducted,” he said.
But the choice of Uzor, a co-contestant for the position of chairman, reportedly did not go down well with some artisans, as according to them, if government must set up a caretaker committee, it should have chosen a neutral member of the association.
A mechanic, Mr Friday Nwubia, from Izzi clan narrated thus: “Government told the interested contestants to come and pick forms. I learnt that the position of chairman was pegged at N100,000 while other positions ranged from N20,000 to N80,000.
“Thereafter, they fixed election date three times but it was never held and we were not given the reason why it was so. So, the following day we heard that government has appointed one of the chairmanship contestants as caretaker chairman. Most artisans here are not happy about it. We are not against anybody. All we want is a free and fair election,” he said.
When contacted, Senior Special Assistant to Governor David Umahi on Internal Security, Dr Kenneth Ugbala, explained that government stepped into the matter to forestall a breakdown of law and order.
“We are not part of NATA. Our job is to provide them with adequate security if they want to conduct election. They made several attempts to conduct the election but could not because of different factions and interests even to the point of causing some problems in the state.
“After a while, they ran to the government and sought for assistance. The Special Assistant to the Governor on Market Enumeration and I had several meetings with them up to seven times; drew up the two factions and set up a caretaker committee to serve for two months.
“The caretaker was to work on their constitution because every of the faction has its own constitution put together by various factions and we cannot work with such. We want to know financial members in order to know those that would vote in the election.
“The ten months we gave to the first person elapsed and nothing was achieved. We now directed the SA Markets to set up an electoral committee. The election was postponed by them several times. At a point, the security agencies wrote to us that they cannot guarantee the safety of the election.
“We now called both parties and said give us some of your factions since all the prerequisites for the election were not met, we now got advice from the security agencies that we should constitute a caretaker that would serve for one year for the sake of security,” he explained.
He added that Uzor from Onicha local government in the southern zone was made caretaker chairman to balance positions held by the north and the central zones for the sake of equity.
He also said that the electoral committee set up was asked not to charge more than N10,000 for forms.
“Whatever money anybody gave to anybody, he should go to the person and collect it back because government did not ask anybody to collect money from them neither did we spend their money,” he said.
One of the chairmanship contestants, Nweko told Daily Sun on telephone that he did not ask anybody to lead a protest. He said he has since handed over the matter to God and moved on as he has no power to fight government or anybody.
But his rival, Uzor, said he was driving when he was contacted on the phone. He requested for a call back. Series of calls to his phone thereafter were neither answered nor returned even days after.
Meanwhile, the police spokesperson, ASP Loveth Odah, said it was unnecessary linking the fire incident to the leadership tussle in the commercial centre.
According to her, preliminary investigations showed that the fire might have been caused by phone batteries connected to the electricity in one of the shops. She said investigation has been opened on the matter while the victims lick their wounds.