When a market assumes a life of its own and grows out of a city’s original plan, government is commended when it begins to look for ways to tame this growth. Sometimes a relocation is necessary, at other times a complete demolition. The most challenge government has faced in Nigeria, has been its approach to such delicate matters such that a laudable idea to remodel, expand or relocate a market can go tragically awry, even to the point of lives being lost.
This was the case in Owerri, a city in the South-Eastern region of Nigeria. The Eke-Ukwu market Owerri had grown into several roads; The Christ Church Road, Ekeonuwa Street, School road, Njemanze Street and Douglas road, complications from this had turned the area into a nightmare.
Successive governments had talked about relocating the Eke-ukwu market but had not done so. This could have been as a result of ancestral ties the people have to the area. Many insist the market is an ancestral home and therefore should not be relocated.
Present government started to build relocation markets in Naze, Relief market and Egbeada which have yet to be completed before the demolition. This caused resistance by traders to move. The forceful demolition of the market, done by security forces on government orders on a busy Saturday morning caused among others the death of 10 year old Somtochukwu Ibeanusi.
Special assistant, electronic media to the Governor, Ebere Nzewuji in government’s defence insists that no one was killed during the demolition.
A Special Adviser to a former governor on special duties Dr Ethelbert Okere reacted by saying “The government maintaining that ‘traders are happy about the relocation…’ and thanking residents for their ‘cooperation towards a peaceful demolition’ of the market is ‘the height of perfidy”
Isaiah Ibeanusi remembers being called in a rush by a group of people from his at shop early Saturday morning the 26th of August.
‘I did not know why they were asking me to follow them’
He said the urgency of those summoning made him follow quickly. He got to Mbaise Road, Eke-Ukwu Market to find his son Somtochukwu Ibeanusi lying dead on the floor. He had been hit by a stray bullet from security operatives piloting the demolition of the market.
I asked him how he felt, and his answer was fast in coming. ‘Do you see how old I am, to lose a son? At my age, he was my only son. He was 10 years old. And there is nothing I can do’
His voice and hands shook and he won’t say much after that. His eyes watered, his grief, palpable.
The whole time, a younger girl hid just behind the curtain in their small two bedroom apartment just off Douglas Road Owerri. The sitting room had very little space for standing. A faint smell of air freshener hung in the air. Husband and wife were seated. Husband and his brother had a meeting to get to right after our interview and she worried they might be late.
What’s her name? I recognised her from the photo of her which has since gone viral. In it she was clutching her dead brother while she mourned. The father told me she was the only member of the family with Somtochukwu when the stray bullet hit him.
‘Mmesoma’, the father responded.
She’s 12 years old. Her brother was 10, the mother supplied. There was a younger girl Oluebube 9, and the last Chigozirim 8.
Two days of interview and I could not get a smile out of her. She told me she could not remember the last time she did, smiled. She said they were very close, she and Innocent. Understandably so, as they were direct siblings and she was home on vacation from the boarding school where she goes at Mgbidi, Imo State.
Her mother Ogechukwu Ibeanusi worried she was not eating well too. She was already dealing with a husband who won’t eat. I showed Mmesoma the viral photo of her and asked her how it made her feel; every answer she gave was with her eyes. They roamed everywhere, bright, searching; she won’t say another word to me.
The news had said investigations were ongoing, the father, Isaiah said no one had spoken with them. How about any compensation? He had received none. ‘Which compensation will bring back Somto?’ He asked the room.
Predictably the city had degenerated into pockets of violence after the demolition. Riots made the town sleep early Wednesday night. Sporadic gunshots, protests, looting characterized the evening. Radio stations were threatened by callers, tensions were high.
Sources say a section of the youths of the city on that Wednesday night went on a revenge demolition of an area populated by Northerners, popularly called Ama Hausa because they thought, erroneously, that the area will be spared by the government demolition forces because of the Governor’s friendship with the North. The Ama Hausa area was marked for demolition as well. It looked like an all too familiar Igbo-Hausa crisis was brewing. This boiled over quickly so that the uncertainties lasted only Wednesday night. Thursday morning, business opened, albeit slower than usual. By Friday, traders led a procession around parts of the state.
Alhaji Audu Dikko Ajara is the President of the Hausa Community in Imo State and his shop was among those demolished.
‘About 40 shops were demolished’ he said. Mine was one of them and I had a lot in that shop. A flat screen TV, Air Conditioning, goods. The young men were angry but we have been able to calm them down’ Alhaji Ajara is also the Chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association in Imo state and SA to the SSA, Northern Affairs and Hajj matters, Imo state government.
The effects of these will affect Owerri for a while yet. Businesses are counting losses as well as individuals.
For FINCA, a microfinance bank on the major Wetheral Road, an emergency marketing meeting held on Wednesday. Focus was on how to start a conversation especially with customers who had taken loans in such a way as to manage losses. A marketer from the bank worried how the bank’s customers can repay loans if the market where they trade is gone.
Government insists that development must sometimes be this costly, affected traders do not see what benefits this holds in their futures. As for the Obianusis, none of these makes any sense if their son Somtochukwu cannot be brought back to resume a new session and class, JSS1 with his mates this September.