Suspicion, accusations as fire batters Lagos

•Govt opens secret probe, traders allege sabotage

From flood to fire, there has been no respite for the aquatic city. SYLVESTER OKORUWA, BOLA BADMUS, TOLA ADENUBI and SEGUN KASALI  tell the stories of a traumatised people and a worried government.

 

Lagos, in recent months, can be described as a state under the siege of nature.  At the height of heavy rains mid-October and the attendant flooding due to failure of environmental management, deaths, horror, wailing, tears and lamentation were the lot of the people across the state. The state government under the leadership of Mr Babajide Sanwo-olu had to declare an emergency and quickly moved in with some palliative measures. And before the palliative measures could even start bringing succour to the traumatised residents, nature appeared appeased and the rains ceased.

However, before the residents could shout for joy, another nature’s agent, fire, took over and is now battering the state, causing so much sorrow and death. While fire incidents are not new to the residents, it is the regularity that is now causing tongues to wag, especially inside major markets in the state, which locations, long before now, have been a bone of contention between successive administrations and traders.

 

Timeline

At the Oko-Baba plank market in Ebute Metta, it was revealed by the operators, penultimate Friday’s fire incident was the third in three months, fuelling suspicion of sabotage, or what has been referred to as ‘official arson’, in an alleged attempt to dislodge residents and traders from the location. Before the incident at Oko-Baba, which is considered as West Africa’s largest plank market, a fire outbreak had caused huge losses at Katangowa market, Pleasure Bus Stop, Abule Egba. The expansive market is very popular for its used clothes merchandising. It can easily pass as the main imported second-hand market in the state. From that point, fire incident became a daily occurrence, to the amazement of all, including the state government which, Saturday Tribune learnt, has launched a discreet probe to know what it is dealing with.

On October 17, it was the fire at Water Corporation, Onikan Roundabout, and combining market fire with fuel tankers’ fire, it was the turn of oil tanker spillage at Ozunmba Mbadiwe, Victoria Island on October 18 and yet another lone tanker accident on Ikorodu Road on October 19.

Before the agency responsible for clearing the mess usually left behind by such incidents, Lagos State Environmental Management Agency (LASEMA) could take a breather, another container fell at Ijora Olopa on October 25. On the same day, a truck also went down at Idi-Oro Mushin before the Transcorp building fire of October 26 at Alfred Rewane, Ikoyi.

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On October 27, a one-storey building housing Bein and Co on the top floor and ABSA CAPITAL on ground floor at 38A, Glover Road, Ikoyi, went up in flames. If a worried and obviously-overworked LASEMA thought that all had ended with October, the better-not-remembered month, November 5 brought a major one. A building in the Mandillas area of the Island, better known as Balogun Market, burned for hours and in a stranger-than-fiction happening, the next day, November 6, another building adjourning the burnt one, also went up in flames, before the Ebute Metta, Oko-Baba’s inferno of November 8.

On November 9, it was a loaded tanker with 33,000 liters of fuel that fell at AP Bus Stop, inward airport, while another tanker chose November 11 to burn at Gowon Estate entrance in the Egbeda area. Pipeline vandals were reportedly escaping from an operation in Ipaja when they ran into an electric pole and spilled the content of their tanker. Only on Thursday November 14, a building beside Tejuoso Market in Yaba was gutted by fire.

Between October 17 and November 8, a period of 22 days, there were 11 fire or fire-related cases in the state, making it a ratio of a fire incident in every two days.

However, insinuations are rife among traders about push for a government-facilitated modern construction which, it is feared, is going to take stalls out of the reach of their original owners.

Precedents

A lawmaker, Honourable Olayiwola Olawale, in an interview with Saturday Tribune, said the thought of government agents deliberately setting up markets as a way of taking the spaces over should be inconceivable but there are precedents of markets getting razed questionably and past administrations rebuilding them only for the original owners to lose their spaces forever. Some were bulldozed to be converted to modern markets only for government to take them for highest bidders. Such markets include Alade in Allen, Tejuosho in Yaba and Mosafejo in Oshodi.

But the administration of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has promised not to engage in forceful takeover of any market. The state government, through the House of Assembly, had even stopped the ongoing forceful takeover of Ikosi-Isheri fruit market by Ikosi/Isheri Local Government.

Receiving protesters from the partially-demolished fruit market that serves thousands of residents, the Speaker of the Lagos Assembly, Honourable Mudashiru Obasa, said the local government chairman had been asked to stop further action on the takeover of the market. He said moving Lagos forward should be done methodically and without inflicting pains on the people. The member representing Somolu Constituency 1, Honourable Olowo Rotimi, received the protesters on behalf of the Speaker.

“We have called on the local government chairman to stop what he is doing and I know that Mr Speaker and our other colleagues will be interested in this case and they will call the chairman. We have told Mr Fatai Oyesanya to stop forthwith and I am sure we are going to resolve it. I know you will get justice. If we want to move Lagos forward by doing it in a modern way, we have to do it methodically. We cannot just rush into it.

“Even if they are going to use that for housing units, they must provide you another location. They cannot just displace you. You are our mothers. You are our voters. We have your mandate and we must support you at all times. Rest assured that you will get justice,” Rotimi said.

Expressing dissatisfaction with the method adopted for the takeover, he said, “For every situation and activity, there is a process. Even if that market is to be used for housing purposes, it behoves the local government chairman and the state to have an understanding with you. If there is the need to move you to another location, it has to be done in an appropriate manner. They cannot just come overnight and destroy your property. It is quite unfortunate. Mr Speaker and your House have listening ears. We will report this today at the plenary under Urgent Matters of Public Importance. It is quite unfortunate that I am seeing over a thousand women who are our mothers. It was through the same source we were also groomed.”

 

We promise… –Sanwo-Olu

The state’s chief executive, Sanwo-Olu, also asked the Oko-Baba market owners to take his word for it that there would be no dislodgment after the fire incident and the rebuilding of the market despite sustained interest of successive administrations in the land space they currently occupy. Sanwo-Olu’s predecessor, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, almost succeeded in moving the traders to a location in the Ikorodu axis of the state but a stalemate scuttled the plan. The traders refused to move to the new site due to alleged inability of the state government to put things in order there. It is not certain if the current administration will complete the new site and move the traders later. The construction of the new Mile 12 Market around the same area was also commenced but not completed. The government is yet to make public, its plan about the relocation policy of the Ambode era.

Sanwo-Olo, Budget
Sanwo-Olu

Sanwo-Olu gave the assurance to the residents and traders when a government delegation visited the site of the incident last Sunday to sympathise with the victims and the people of the community. The delegation, led by the Commissioner for Finance, Dr Rabiu Olowo, had Commissioner for Physical Planning and Urban Development, Dr Idris Salako; Special Adviser on Civic Engagement, Princess Aderemi Adebowale; chairman of Lagos Mainland Local Government, Mrs Omolola Essien and the vice chairman, Mr Jubril Emilagba, on board.

Salako said rather than dislodge the residents, the government would consider a regeneration of the area. According to him, none of the residents will be dislodged from the community as the state government was resolved to embark on the regeneration plan of the area, which had recorded three fire incidents in three months.

Olowo had earlier, in the governor’s message, said, “We have come here to sympathise with the affected residents and the community as directed by Mr Governor. We are also here to understudy the situation so that we can know what to do in bringing succour to the victims who lost property and livelihood. We have just inspected the site of the incident to take stock of the destruction. The situation we witnessed was not very good. We will get to the root of the fire incident in order to prevent future occurrence. We will be meeting with the representatives of the victims to understand their wants and what we need to do to bring immediate relief.”

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Quiet probe

True to Olowo’s promise that the root cause would be known, a discreet inquest has been launched to cover the entire incidents in the last two months, Saturday Tribune has reliably learnt.

A source in LASEMA revealed that the agency had requested for data to cross-check if the recent fire incidents in the city were mere recurrence of what had happened in the past or if there was more to them.

“If you go to the office of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), you will discover that more than 58 per cent of vehicles in this country are registered in Lagos. Also, data from LAMATA as far back as 2007 revealed that over 7,000 vehicles come into Lagos and 3,000 leave Lagos in one hour. That goes to show that there is intense pressure on Lagos. Take the Martin’s Street fire incident for example, you will find out that these buildings had no space between them. The least is a five-storey building and the one that got burnt is a six-storey building which we eventually put out.

“Due to the proximity to one another, the fire kept spreading from one floor to another and from one building to another. That building of number 43, Martin’s Street is already weak and records showed that it got burnt in 2017. It has now been brought down to the ground and the debris removed. With the recent fire incidents rocking different parts of Lagos, I think there has not been enough implementation of building plans in Lagos. This year alone, there has been a noticeable increase in fire incidents in Lagos and that is why we have asked for statistical data of fire incidents in the state from the office of the Statistician-General of the state.

“We have requested for data of about two to three years to make comparison with what is happening this year so that we don’t just judge on personal observation. When we have data, we can cross-check to know if there is an increase in fire incidents in Lagos or it is just a recurrence of what has happened in the past,” the source said.

It was learnt that the government is also worried about tankers going down all over the state and now poised for drastic measures. General Manager, LASEMA, Dr Femi Oke-Osanyintolu, said nobody should be above the law and promised errant drivers a tough season.

“We will act tough. We will carry out a lot of enforcement. We will definitely sue some drivers. We will definitely allow the law to take its course. But you know our government is government of the people by the people and for the people. We need to carry out awareness, advocacy and sensitisation before we start talking about enforcement; that enough is enough. The ultimatum is there. We will commence serious enforcement. We will talk tough and we will act tough. We will not spare anybody because safety of lives and property is paramount to this administration led by Mr Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu,” he said.

Speaking on the power of the agency to probe and prosecute, LASEMA’s spokesperson, Nosa Okunbor stated that the agency has the power to arrest and prosecute offenders during any disaster crisis in the state.

“LASEMA goes beyond just responding to emergency crisis in the state. We have all agencies subsumed under LASEMA. We have the police, we have the LASTMA, we have the fire brigade and we have the justice system and lawyers who look into these issues. A lot of people have forgotten about the collapsed building in Ikoyi that killed a 22-year-old because of the recent fire incidents rocking the state. But I can assure you that LASEMA is not resting on its oars to ensure that justice is served,” Okunbor said.

 

Our ordeal –Traders

Over a thousand traders from Ikosi/Isheri market stormed the Lagos State House of Assembly to protest their forced eviction.

Lagos market, Sanwo-olu, Oko-Baba plank market, environmental management, Fire
Fire at Lagos Balogun market, Tuesday last week. PHOTO: SYLVESTER OKORUWA.

The protesters, mostly women, carried placards that called for intervention in their ordeal.

Speaking on why they took the step, one of the leaders of the demonstration, Mrs Adebukola Adejuwonbi, said their market was being destroyed and without proper notification from the appropriate body. Adejuwonbi accused a local government chairman of being the brain behind the market demolition.

“We came from the Ikosi/Isheri fruit market. I am one of the sellers at the market. On Friday morning, we just saw caterpillars breaking down our market without any notice. We were told they have sold this place for a contractor to build an estate where we are making our daily living. We couldn’t challenge them. They even fired gunshots at us. We have come here to plead with the House of Assembly and the governor to come to our aid and deliver us from this problem,” Adejuwonbi said.

Another leader, Yemisi Balogun, urged the government to come to their aid by helping them to get their market back. She said their lives largely depended on the market to cater for the need of their children and household.

“Since they say that the government is for the people, we are here to cry to them that they should come to our aid and deliver us from the destruction of our market. It is from the market we get money to send our children to school. By doing this to us, we are going to suffer. That is why we are here to plead for their intervention. The market is legal for the purpose we are using it for. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have been so worried about the destruction. It is Ikosi/Isheri Market and it is already approved for market.

“Most of us went to school. It is not everyone that will use his certificate to work in the office. So, that is why we are selling at the market. The majority of us are educated but not everybody will work in the bank or become a civil servant. It is from the market I get money to feed my family. I am begging Governor Sanwo-Olu to come to our aid because I know he is the father of the people. Demolition of markets is not what we need now. What we need now are good roads and free education,” Balogun said.

Balogun noted regular payment of taxes by the traders, saying that they should not be punished for being good citizens. “We pay our taxes and we pay our local government money. So, we don’t know why the chairman would do such a thing and even if he wants to do such, he ought to have called all the market leaders to inform us of the latest development. But he did not. This situation has caused a lot of problems. During election, they came to us and we voted for them. We did all these without requesting a dime from any politician. That market is meant for commercial. It is not meant for anything else. It is not as if we are causing traffic problems or anything. They did not bring any petition to us before doing anything. So, why would they come and destroy our market?” Balogun added.

One of the traders in the market, Ajani Oluranti, brought an ethnic dimension into it when she said: “We are Yoruba. The market belongs to the Yoruba. They did not sell off the market that belongs to the Northerners. Why us? I want well-meaning Nigerians across all walks of life to come to our aid. It is a slap on them if the market is taken away from us and the Northerners are there plying their market. It is incumbent on and imperative for the political leaders of south west to come to our aid. The Northerners are plying their businesses in Mile 12 without any issue. They did not disturb them. Whenever there is an issue, they call on their political leaders and they spring into action. Even Mr President springs into action. But why us?” Ajani said.

 

The controversial takeover

Last week Thursday, a section of the market was demolished and there was protest by the traders that they were not given enough notice to look for alternative spaces to continue their businesses. This led to serious argument between the Ikosi Ketu Local Council Development Authority, owners of the land and the new developers. Task Force officials shot tear gas to force their way into the market.

The developers returned to the market on Monday with three bulldozers to demolish the market but they were resisted by all the traders in the market who blocked the road to prevent the bulldozers from gaining access into the market.

When Saturday Tribune visited the market on Monday, there was palpable tension. A woman of about 70 years said the market predated her birth, adding that they were not happy the way they were being treated. Another trader disclosed that the traders were resisting the demolition because an alternative place was not provided for the traders pending the completion of a new market. “We have been asking the Ikosi Ketu LCDA chairman where he wants the traders to relocate to but no answer. This market feeds Lagosians. Traders from Ajah, Agege, Badagry, etc, all come to Ketu to buy fruits to sell to Lagosians,” the trader said.

A visit to the market will put many off because the place stinks and is not conducive to the sale of consumables. The hygiene is very poor as one can feel long years of neglect around the market. What is on ground does not justify the money regularly paid to council officials and market unions by the traders.

Efforts to hear from the Babaloja of the market yielded no result. The market has different sections like the plantain and banana section, watermelon section, orange section and they all have their section leaders. The vice chairman of the plantain section also did not speak to Saturday Tribune. He asked our correspondent to see the Babaloja.

Findings showed that a meeting took place on Monday and while there was no official release, it was gathered that the traders resolved to have a showdown with the owners of the land and the new developers until they are given an alternative space to sell their goods.

Nigerian Tribune

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