A recent demolition exercise in Eke Ukwu Market, Owerri, by the Imo State Government went out of control and has since pitted the people against the government, writes Amby Uneze
When Imo State Governor, Chief Rochas Okorocha, first mooted the idea of relocating the ancestral Eke Ukwu Market, Owerri, the state capital, a majority of the people considered it a joke taken too far. However, as the governor intensified effort to take down the market, which is described as the biggest in the state due to the volume of traders and businesses that go on there, it was then it dawned on the people that Okorocha meant business.
Ironically, it was not only the traders, the indigenes and the owners of the market that were bothered about the possible relocation; the entire people of the state were vehemently against its relocation. Instead, they suggested to the government to fence the market area and continue with the urban renewal programme, which the government said it was aimed to achieve. Although it was not their call to dictate to government how to navigate an urban renewal project, government should have done a lot more of consultations before moving in, other reckoned.
Understanding the Concerns of the Natives
The natives of Owerri Municipal Council, who are the owners of the Eke Ukwu Market, felt that if the ancestral market, which had remained at the centre of the capital city, where they also live is relocated, it then means that their ancestral home would also be affected, thereby making their village and ancestral home history.
To this end, the five villages that make up the municipality had informed the government on a number of occasions through various means of their unwillingness to accept the relocation exercise but their appeal seemed to have fallen on the deaf ears of the Okorocha government.
Another major point they raised was that the place, where the market was to be relocated was far from the old one and also in another local government council, Egbeada, which is in Mbaitoli local government. Not only that, other concerns as enunciated by a majority of the traders included that the new place was not even ready for relocation, therefore they should have been given more time before the demolition.
Battle Shifts to the Court
Bearing in mind that government would eventually move to demolish the market without notice, the indigenes, under the aegis of Owerri Community Assembly (OCA) had approached the Owerri High Court before Justice Okpara, who gave an injunction restraining the Imo State Government or any of her privies from carrying out any demolition or relocation of the Eke Ukwu Market until the determination of the substantive case. While the injunction is still subsisting, the government, on Saturday, August 26, moved in and demolished the said market to the chagrin of both the Owerri indigenes and the observing public.
... And Confusion Sets In
The drafting in of security agencies not only changed the tide completely, it set in unprecedented confusion. According to eye-witnesses, while the people of Owerri and government official engaged in discussions as a result of the 24-hour quit order to the traders to vacate the market or risk their wares being destroyed by government, and as soon as the indigenes left the market square with the belief that they have had a 'gentlemen's agreement' then, bulldozers accompanied by stern-looking security personnel moved in.
"As early as 6.30am, over two hundred combined armed security agents including the Army, Nigerian Air force, Department of State Services (DSS), Nigeria Police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps, the Imo State Security Network and the Imo Community Watch had already cordoned off the Douglas Road, where the market is located, just as Mbaise Road, Emmanuel College junction and Fire Service Roundabout leading to Egbu/Mbaise Road were equally manned by armed security agents.
With braggadocio, government forceful entered Douglas road to carry out the relocation plan, unknown to both traders and indigenes. At the same time, confusion set in and the city erupted in fierce battle, which led to the death of a 10-year old Somtochukwu Ibeanusi, while over eight others were seriously injured from the shooting that ensued by security personnel.
Among those injured was a youth leader in Owerri municipal, Mr. Leonard Ebubeagu, and seven others, who sustained bullet wounds. It was also learnt that the security agents had shot sporadically into the air, supported by the Ohaji/Egbema youths, who bore cudgels in the bid to prevent the traders from retrieving their wares.
That action would later lead to a clash between the Owerri Youths and the Ohaji/Egbema youths with the security agents providing the latter with covering fire. It was in the process that little Somtochukwu, who was going to retrieve his mother's wares was caught in the cross-fire and shot dead allegedly by one of the soldiers, while eight others sustained bullet wounds including Ebubeagu, who was shot on one of his legs.
National Vice Chairman (South-east) of the United Progressives Party (UPP), Chief Ejike Uche, reminded government that while they were denying the incident of any death in the process, "Soldiers are trained to kill. When you deploy them in a market place with Armoured Personnel Carrier and all combat gears, you have given them a licence to kill and you know what to expect".
A Defence That Changed Nothing
In the midst of the pandemonium, the state government continued to defend its action, stating that it took the action to recover Douglas Road that connects the state to other neighbouring states and which had remained a refuse dump for the traders in the market, and therefore, resolved to deal once and for all, with the prevalent criminal activities in the area.
In a release by the chief press secretary to the governor, Sam Onwuemeodo, he observed that "It has come to our knowledge, the deliberate and concerted effort being made by some elements that do not love progress to use the relocation of the Ekeukwu Owerri Market, to blackmail the government of the day and perhaps cause undue tension in the state.
"These people who have refused or failed to appreciate the good of relocating Ekeukwu Market, Owerri to a more acceptable area have been dishing out rumours upon rumours including rumours of people being shot dead. These are wicked rumours.
"The truth is that the market is government's property and it is the decision of the government to relocate it to a better place and such action could not have led to such incident. The security personnel around the market were there to ensure peace and they played that role professionally.
"We are also aware that before now, the hoodlums who have been using the market and environs as areas of their operations have been threatening fire and brimstone over the government's decision to move the market. These hoodlums had also embarked on looting, which led to their being confronted by some of the traders and it took the timely intervention of the Security Personnel to restore order in that part of the market.
"Unfortunately, those who hate progress have gone out with certain disturbing claims and have also posted some photographs that have nothing to do with the Owerri issue on the social media just to see if they could discredit the government and the patriotic action taken in the overall interest of the state", he stated.
Ugo Mere, one of the youth leaders from Umuonyeche Owerri, gave his account of the incident.
"By 6.30am today, we discovered that the police and other security agents, who are armed had blocked all the access road leading to Douglas and also noticed that the bulldozers - about four of them have arrived and before we knew what was happening the boys from Ohaji/Egbema had started smashing open the lock up shops at the market including those at Rotibi Street, across Douglas road.
"But the youths had to repel them and after a while, they reinforced and came back in larger numbers, this time accompanied by the armed security agents. And this resulted in the killing of one Somtochukwu, who was shot dead instantly. Also, seven other persons sustained gunshot wounds including our former youth president, Leonard, who was shot on one of his legs".
Also, lamenting the situation, Madam Abigail Nkwo said she only got to know about the sudden quit order late Friday night as she had been away for about two weeks.
According to her, "I lost all my goods, because I deal in food stuffs and worst of all was that the army people would not allow anybody to get their items even when the demolition had not gotten to the place. I don't know what kind of government is this, which has been causing the people pain. I learnt that the governor said he wanted to expand the road and that is why he has decided to demolish the place. Are we going to eat road?", she asked.
It was the same sad story for Jonas Eke, who deals in clothing materials and decried the activities of the government, said no matter how well intentioned, the exercise had robbed people of their source of livelihood.
"I don't understand what Okorocha wants us to do, because right now, I have lost all the materials I have in my shop, because before I came they had broken it open and looted the goods and I have just restocked it. The governor said we should go to Egbeada but that place is not even ready and now my shop has been demolished because it is located in one of the buildings that was first demolished by the bulldozers", he lamented.
And Reactions Continue...
The President General of the Owerri Community Assembly, Sir Felix Ngoka, described the demolition as "an act of lawlessness" saying the matter was already before the court of law, which had earlier issued an injunction restraining the governor from interfering with the market until the substantive suit filed against the government is disposed of.
"The matter is still in court and the court gave an injunction restraining the government from interfering with the market but what the governor has done today is nothing but lawlessness, when the matter has not been determined by the court of law. We are law abiding people and you saw how the governor used armed security agents and thugs to forcefully eject the people of Owerri from their ancestral market", he stated.
In their reactions, a former Deputy Speaker, House of Representatives, Chief Emeka Ihedioha, Senator Samuel Anyanwu, representing Owerri zone, and Hon. Uche Onyeagocha, a former member, House of Representatives, condemned government's action. However, in their separate speeches, they had sued for calm, stating that the use of impunity by government to achieve her desire was generally outrageous and uncivil.
A former governor of Imo State, Dr. Ikedi Ohakim, lamented the killing of 10-year old Somtochukwu Ibeanusi and regretted that the terror and disaster visited on the Owerri people were avoidable as he had earlier warned Okorocha against the demolition.
In a statement personally signed, Ohakim said, "Imo people, and indeed all Nigerians, should recall that in my letter to Governor Okorocha, dated 26 August, 2016, I advised the Governor in unmistakable terms against the demolition of the market. I drew the governor's attention to the excruciating economic recession in the country, massive job losses in Imo State, the calamity of Mechanics Village demolition without compensation and alternative. In short, I told him that the timing was wrong and timing in leadership actions is of the essence."
Agony of a Bereaved Father
The bereaved father of Somtochuckwu was in tears at his No. 9 Oguamanam residence, close to the demolished market. His words: "I told my little son to come and assist me remove my goods from the shop before the people demolishing the market got to the place.
"When we were crossing the road, we all raised our hands up but these soldiers just drove by and opened fire and shot my son in the head. The bullet hit him in the eye and came out from the back of his head and he fell and died. I want justice. I don't want the killers of my son to go unpunished. He was just a little boy, he was not armed. I don't know if I can bear this", he cried.
He therefore appealed to the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Turkur Buratai, to help assuage the pains of the family by probing the gruesome murder of his son.
Enter Owerri Elders
Angry indigenes of the Owerri zone in solidarity with Owerri indigenes Friday converged at their ancestral village square (Ugwu Ekwema) on Egbu road and angrily invoked the wrath of their ancestors to descend on those, who in one way or the other had a hand in the demolition of their ancestral market, even as they vowed that over their dead bodies would the market be relocated.
Led by their traditional prime minister, Chief Paul Nnawuchi, the Head of Oha Owerri, Nze Boniface Anokam, elders, village heads and other chiefs, the people who wore black attires alongside their female folks, prayed their fore-fathers to rise from their graves and defend their ancestral heritage which they said was now under threat of extinction by the Imo State government. This is even as the people, in liaison with the entire Owerri zone declared seven-day mourning for the market demolition and in memory of all those, who lost their lives in the mayhem that trailed the demolition exercise.
The mourning period, which commenced with a special thanksgiving mass at the Maria Assumpta Cathedral Owerri last Sunday, would be rounded-off with a commendation service at the cathedral church of the Transfiguration of our Lord (CATOL) Owerri, today.
Prominent among the dignitaries at the gathering were Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu (member BOT of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), former Aviation Minister, Mrs. Kema Chikwe; APGA chieftain, Chief Martin Agbaso; a former governorship aspirant, Chief Ike C. Ibe; Barrister Ken Njemanze (SAN), while the senator for Owerri zone, Samuel Anyanwu, Ihedioha and a House of Representatives member for Owerri Federal Constituency, Ezenwa Onyewuchi, said to be out of the country, sent goodwill messages.
Njemanze, who was chairman of the occasion and assisted by a PDP chieftain in the state, Chief Ambrose Ejiogu, captured the mood of the people in his remarks, when he said the market which was part of the cultural identity of the people and their veritable means of livelihood was put in place by their forefathers. He therefore regretted that efforts by the state government to relocate the market were resisted by the people with a subsisting court injunction, which restrained the government from enforcing the plan.
Iwuanyanwu, who also spoke and shared the views of other speakers like Chikwe, village heads, women and youth leaders and prominent politicians, noted that the people had continued to make sacrifices for the development of the Owerri capital city by not only donating part of their ancestral land for this but also have their cultures and tradition bastardised by the state government.
He declared those who lost their lives in the mayhem as martyrs and assured the people of the state that a committee would be put in place to investigate those behind the importation of ex-militants from the Ohaji-Egbema council of the state to smoothen the market relocation.
A former speaker of Imo State House of Assembly, Chief Nnaemeka Maduagwu, described the government action as lawlessness that had led to the desecration of the land and shedding of innocent blood, adding that, "We have come here, the ancestral home of Owerri people with the immediate victims to appease our ancestors and exhibit our sorrow".
Condemning the action also, Uche Wisdom Durueke, President of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), said: "This act of executive lawlessness should be condemned by all who believe in democracy and rule of law. It is disheartening to note that the Imo State Government is now reputed for having no respect for orders of court."
While the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN) has already written to President Muhammadu Buhari, demanding an impartial investigation into the deployment of the military and armed thugs to a market by the Imo State governor, the Nigerian Bar Association, Owerri branch has also declared it would petition Buratai, the Nigerian Human Rights Commission and the National Assembly over the gruesome murder of Somtochukwu by soldiers from the 34 Artillery Brigade, Obinze.
The NBA chairman, Lawrence Nwakaeti, said the branch would petition and demand that the killers of the child be held accountable for their crime. Describing it as a crime against humanity, Nwakaeti said the Imo state government should be held responsible for the killings, especially that of the innocent kid.
Okorocha had long abandoned Douglas road, where the market was located, refused to evacuate refuse at a time and allowed refuse heaps to pile up such that made the area impassable. It took the combined effort of Owerri indigenes both home and abroad, particularly the 'Dozie Owerri' group, to evacuate the mountains of refuse and save their people from epidemics.
For the same reason, the governor is said to have abandoned all repair works on the Douglas road, leaving it in the worst state ever, dotted with 'gullies' and 'potholes'. At this time, curiously, the governor explained that there was a court order restraining him from touching or working in the market and its environs. But when another order clearly restrained him for touching the market, he feigned not to have seen it and went ahead to cause mayhem.
Okorocha has probably conducted a popularity test with this exercise, especially given the peculiarity of the Imo State politics. The election of 2019, without much ado, might have been lost, although not won yet. Ohakim did not do as much before the people stood in his way and showed him the exit door. Thus, politically, Okorocha has committed a grave political hara-kiri, which neither time nor chance can remedy. It does not look good for the governor and his party, APC.