More market fires than meet the eye

Burnt shops following the March 29, 2014 fire incident at Garki Model Market, Abuja PHOTO: ITUNU AJAYI

Burnt shops following the March 29, 2014 fire incident at Garki Model Market, Abuja PHOTO: ITUNU AJAYI

• Why They May Be Burning In Quick Succession

• Traders’ Assoc. Want Better Deal From government

They share similarities, happening always at night after traders had closed for the day. Goods worth millions of naira are lost. Most often, they are caused by power surge. Electricity generators in shops and stored petrol serve as catalysts for the inferno. Usually, there are no fire extinguishers. And where they exist, they are decorative – expired or empty. Firefighters are not always at hand to help. And when they show up, they either do not have enough water or cannot gain access to the market as a result of obstructions.

Following each fire, owners of burnt goods receive visits from government officials, governors, members of the legislative arm, the crème de la crème of society, even the president sends emissaries. And the messages are usually the same: an expression of how shocked they are, with a promise to rebuild the place, and possibly compensate those who incurred loses.

The most recent was the President’s heartfelt sympathy with the governments of Kano and Kebbi States over the March 26, 2016 fire incidents in their markets. He urged the affected states to launch an investigation, to determine the immediate and remote causes of the fire, in order to forestall future incidences.

This advice, of course, will lie fallow until another inferno occurs. He also prayed that God would comfort and replenish the victims.

Nigerians are very religious. Everything is left to God to sort out. But much as the prayer of the President is well intentioned, where does God really come in when shoddy constructions make it practically impossible for firefighters to reach burning shops? Is God also expected to put water in the firemen’s trucks? Will He control surge from electricity providers or forcibly stop people from storing petrol in their shops?

A study carried out under the auspices of National Association of Nigeria Traders (NANTS) indicates that the country’s economy lost over N5.3trn to market fires between May 1999 and March 2016. The report shows that 49 markets across Nigeria were razed between 2010 till date. It reveals that over 600 lives were lost while over 10,000 shops were destroyed. There were about 15 fire incidences in markets across the country in 2016 alone and 100 per cent of the affected markets had no insurance coverage. Electricity issues were blamed for about 85 per cent of the fires. Only about 12 per cent of the incidents attracted sympathy visits by the government. And of promises made, only about three per cent were kept.

The traders are angry. Ten fire incidents have already been recorded in the last three months. And in what they described as government’s unresponsiveness, they said all that their members ever received were a visit from government representatives or promises of assistance, which never materialised.

Ken Ukaoha is president of the association. He said the body was compelled to conduct the study when it became evident that fire outbreaks in Nigerian markets always followed a similar pattern.

He noted that as soon as a fire occurs, reconstruction begins, leaving the association wondering when such work contracts were signed or details sorted out. According to him, the rush to rebuild burnt markets seems to suggest government had been anxious for reconstruction even before the fire broke out.

He said more worrisome is the fact that original owners of shops in affected markets are surcharged but receive no allocation of shops while new people get shops in their stead.

Ukaoha said this had led the association to believe politicians might be using fire incidences to compensate political jobbers, constituting some as task forces, and allocating shops to others.

He added that Nigeria experienced more fire incidences under civilian rule than during military administrations, a situation he said makes the association suspect political undertones to market fires across the country.

The traders said they make up the nation’s second largest revenue base in import duties, sundry taxes and levies, stressing that instead of the government to look inward and assist them, policymakers go after foreign investors, even offering them incentives denied Nigerians.

“It is sad and unfortunate that while successive Nigerian governments have continued to chase Foreign Direct Investments, even with tax incentives and other attractions, local traders who constitute the largest domestic investors in the country are neglected, while their investments are left to wither by fire,” he said.

Citing the Kano market inferno, Ukaoha said it is unfortunate that goods and property belonging to poor traders and entire means of livelihoods are lost to fire.

He said: “Market fires have unquantifiable implications on the economy, especially the financial services sector, given the role of traders in the redistribution of wealth. Market fires are also associated with grave psychological and emotional trauma, with multiplier effects on society. Most importantly, many lives have been lost, with no serious investigation carried out to forestall repeat. These make us question the existence and role of government.”

Added to the pain is the fact that no market in Nigeria is insured. Shop owners also are not exposed to the necessity of insurance. They often keep cash in their shops and hope that God, somehow, will ensure nothing happens, after all, ‘he neither sleeps nor slumbers’. This ignorance has repeatedly made many a trader lose in one swoop all he had laboured for in years.

The importance of insurance companies wading in cannot be overemphasised. And it is imperative for them to market and promote their products, and enlighten traders on why they should subscribe to insurance policies.

In the Fourth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution, markets come under the control of local government authorities. They are empowered to construct, regulate and manage. In practice, however, markets are constructed and shops are sold or allocated without recourse to security, sanitation and wellbeing of the structures or insurance. All that seem to matter is the collection of dues by task forces set up by local councils.

The traders maintained that but for a few malls, no market in Nigeria is fully insured. In the event of a fire, therefore, the traders alone bear the brunt. Government simply clears the debris and embarks on reconstruction and reallocation of shops.

Again, unlike fire, which destroys instantly, a silent killer is deadly carbon emission from electricity generators owned by individual traders. This deprives their bodies of oxygen, as life continues to be snuffed out quietly.

Managers of individual markets in Nigeria may have to consider having a single source of power, which can be shut down quickly if the need arises. Structures should also be built with emergency responders, such as firefighter, in mind. Besides, fire extinguishers should be functional and checked periodically, to ensure viability.

When Garki model market went up in flames on March 29, 2014, fire extinguishers in the market were either empty or had expired.

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  • I sigh

    It really seems like Igbo/Biafran economic interest are regularly targeted through fire stage management (arson) lately.