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Posted by By NWABUEZE OKONKWO, Onitsha on 2008/03/29 | Views: 639 |

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The death toll is rising day by day, yet traders are adamant not to leave the bridge-head market in the commercial nerve centre of Onitsha in Anambra State. They have been embroiled in bloody frictions with the Federal Government and the state government over the land.

• Day Onitsha traders went up in arms over market’s location
• 7 killed, 5 in coma

The death toll is rising day by day, yet traders are adamant not to leave the bridge-head market in the commercial nerve centre of Onitsha in Anambra State. They have been embroiled in bloody frictions with the Federal Government and the state government over the land.

The traders are still itching to continue with their trading activities on the land, saying that they would not vacate the place until the state government finds an alternative permanent and convenient abode to relocate them.

The cordial relationship between the traders and the state government had gone awry in October last year when the government through the state Ministry of Environment demolished all the existing structures in the market and directed the traders to relocate to another site, saying that the government wanted to clean up the area as part of efforts to beautify the commercial city which it claimed looks like an animal farm.

According to the state Commissioner for Environment, Dr. Ifedi Okwenna, "the war against filth and environmental degradation in this state is a must to be won and we will not fold our arms and allow a group of persons who call themselves traders to continue to block the gateway into the commercial city with garbage produced from their livestock and food stuff businesses.

Also lending credence to the commissioner's claim, the Chief Press Secretary to the State Governor, Mr. Mike Udah, disclosed that an alternative site has been provided for the displaced traders, adding that the allegation that the land so revoked had been re-allocated to some private motor park operators in the commercial city was not true.

But in what could be termed a display of courage and bravado, the traders, brandishing a letter from the Federal Government claimed that they are tenants to the federal authorities who own that portion of the land in dispute and as such the state government has no powers whatsoever to eject them.
In the letter to the state government signed by the Controller-General of the federal Ministry of Environment and Urban Development, O. O. Okafor, the Federal Government actually warned the state authorities to steer clear of the land in question because it belongs to the Federal Government.

Okafor had in the letter described the state government's exercise as a reckless incursion on a Federal Government land as it belongs to the federal Ministry of Works, adding that the state government did not consult the federal Works Ministry before embarking on the demolition exercise which had resulted in the total loss of over N200 million and forceful ejection of the traders which are Federal Government's legitimate tenants.

Therefore, the Federal Government ordered the state government to stop with immediate effect the demolition exercise because the powers of the state governor as provided in the Land Use Act of 1978 does not include the revocation of Federal Government-owned lands.
Accusing the state government of insensitivity to the plight of the traders who are mainly Hausas and Yorubas, the Federal Government denied any prior knowledge or agreement to cede the said plot of land to the state government as speculated, but rather insisted that the traders remain legitimate tenants to the federal Works Ministry and as such should be compensated for the huge financial and material loss they had incurred during the demolition exercise.

Strenghtened with this development, the traders vowed to resist the ejection order of the state government, lamenting that their legitimate places of business were invaded by the state government bulldozers that demolished their erected structures without prior notice, arguing that the state government does not have the powers to sack them, since the land was leased to them by the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing, who, they said, are the bona fide owners of the land.

Speaking at a stakeholders’ meeting which was convened by the state Commissioner of Environment and Urban Development, Dr Ifedi Okwenna, in Awka which ended in a stalemate, counsel to the traders’ association, Barrister A. A. Orunkoya, said that the meeting and other peace initiatives of the state government were belated and of little consequence, adding that already the traders have recorded loss of over N200 million to the reckless demolition of their market stalls and other properties without prior notice.

"These dialogues should have come before the demolition and these situations could have been avoided, but due process was not employed in the act, despite the fact that the traders are legitimate tenants on the land, having got the approval of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing who are the landlord; it is highly barbaric and condemnable," Orunkoya said.

He further condemned the manner the state government has been harassing and intimidating the traders by employing soldiers and thugs to force the traders from their legitimate place of business, adding that the state government does not have the powers to revoke the occupancy of a land belonging to a federal agency just as it does not have the right to determine who should be allowed on the land.

Also in a reaction to what looked like a premonition to the bloody clash between the soldiers and the traders, a human right group, World Alliance Against Terrorism, Violence and Inhuman Treatment (WAATVIT), wrote a petition to the commander of the 302 Artillery Regiment, Nigerian Army, Onitsha, Col. E. E. Ikpeme, urging him and his officers to be wary of an alleged plot by the state government to use soldiers to dislodge the traders who they believed are Federal Government lawful tenants doing business on the disputed land.

In a petition dated January 21, 2008, five days before the bloody clash between the traders and the soldiers, WAATVIT averred that it would amount to an affront to democratic tenets for federal agents like the soldiers to allow themselves to be used by the state government, who the human rights group alleged, had refused to obey the Federal Government directive.

According to the petition which was signed on their behalf by Comrade Smart Ese, the South-East/South-South co-ordinator of the group and copied to the Chief of Army Staff and Minister of Defence, as well as the Presidency, the body said: that "we must warn that we will mobilize the civil society to challenge the legality of the use of soldiers against armless civilians if the army commander allows himself and his officers to be used by agents of the state government and contractors to dislodge and forcefully eject the traders from the land.

In spite of the developments, the bloody day still came on January 26 this year as the soldiers allegedly rained bullets on the traders. At the last count, seven of the traders died and others sustained injuries and were taken to hospitals where they are responding to treatments.
One of the injured persons, Obiora Oba, a father of two and a shop owner at Tool and Allied section of the market close to the disputed land, told newsmen in his hospital bed at Multicare Hospital, Onitsha that he was opening his shop at about 11:30 a.m., shortly after the monthly environmental clean-up exercise in the market when a bullet allegedly fired by one of the soldiers hit him on the spinal cord as he fell and later crawled into his shop to avoid further gun shots when he became unconscious.

According to Oba, who said his shop was not in the disputed land, "when the bullet hit me at my spinal cord and I managed to crawl into my shop with profuse bleeding, I lost my consciousness till I woke up at the hospital late in the evening, partially paralyzed."

He, therefore, called on both the federal and state governments, as well as private and public-spirited individuals to offer him financial assistance because he has exhausted himself financially and physically, more so when he has nothing at stake in the disputed land.

The traders, counting their losses after the incident, identified one Alhaji Suleiman Sani and Salisu Bagobiri as some of those who died in the clash, adding that Bagobiri was one of the two deceased that were dumped at the Onitsha General Hospital by the soldiers. Suleiman Sani, they said, died later at Afolabi Memorial Hospital, Asaba, Delta State, just as they alleged that the soldiers had carried four other yet-to-be identified corpses to unknown destinations as at the time of filing this report.

After the January 26 bloody incident, the state government reacted to the development the next day through the state Commissioner for Environment, Dr. Ifedi Okwenna, his Information counterpart, Professor Chinyere Stella Okunna; the Special Adviser to the Governor on Markets and Parks, Chief Sylva Nwobu-Alor and the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Mr Udah.

Speaking with newsmen at the Press Unit of the Government House, Awka, in what they termed an emergency press briefing, Okwenna who regretted that the incident claimed lives said that the government would not relent in its efforts to clean up the state, adding that because traders had the penchant of attacking state government officials on the land, the soldiers opened fire because they were on patrol and saw the traders trying to lynch some of the state government officials who were carrying out the clean-up exercise on the land that Saturday morning.

Okwenna said he had earlier asked the traders to move to the alternative site which the state government had provided for them and they agreed, only to resist the movement later with an excuse that the land belonged to the Federal Government which is their landlord, even as the Federal Government has never written to the state government to claim the ownership of the land.
He revealed that the minister of works has agreed to pay an emergency visit to the disputed land to find out the true position of things.

Speaking, the Information Commissioner, Prof Okunna, appealed to the Press to always cross-check their facts before dishing it out to the public just as she insisted that there was no way government would allow that land to be occupied by the traders because of the environmental hazards they are likely to constitute.

When eventually the Minister of Works, Housing and Urban Development, Chuka Odom, visited the scene on Monday with Governor Peter Obi, he said he would not go into the nitty gritty of whether the disputed land is owned by the federal or state government but urged the state government to find a permanent place and relocate the traders before ejecting them from the land.

Obi had informed the traders and minister that the government had provided a temporary site for the traders for, at least, nine months during which he would have acquired a permanent place for them.
Earlier, Governor Obi had observed that his administration has done everything possible to create a conducive atmosphere for all traders in the state irrespective of ethnic backgrounds, stressing that the need to open up the bridge-head area of Onitsha became imperative as the only way to reduce traffic congestion along the ever-busy Onitsha-Enugu expressway, which he identified as the gateway to the eastern state.

"I have visited this scene more than six times so as to dialogue with the traders and agree on the best way to go about the relocation arrangement, but they have remained adamant, owing to the misconception of government’s policies and work plan. We are not witch-hunting any person or group. The Yorubas and Hausas among us are our brothers and we cannot deliberately hurt their interest," Obi said.

But the minister advised Obi not to relocate them to a temporary site until he acquires a permanent site for them, adding that it is the responsibility of the state government to relocate the traders to a more convenient site if they insisted on ejecting them from the land.
Odom, however, agreed with Obi that the idea of opening up the Onitsha expressway by the state government is a laudable development, saying that it is dangerous to trade on the plot of land because of its closeness to the Onitsha / Enugu expressway, which he said could be costly in the event of any accident.

The minister, who ruled out political or ethnic bias in the state government’s decision to eject and relocate the traders from the site, assured the traders that their complaints would be adequately resolved with a view to ensuring peaceful co-existence with the government.

Some of the market leaders who spoke on behalf of the traders, thanked the governor and minister for their prompt response and genuine desire to resolve the heightening friction, which took a dangerous dimension and insisted that the state government should compensate the victims of the crisis, who are still receiving treatments at different hospitals in the state and beyond, noting that that will help to secure lasting peace and trust between the government and the people.

The traders also regretted that the governor did not even condole or sympathize with the traders for losing seven of their colleagues during the clash, saying that Obi should direct the soldiers to produce the corpses of the four deceased traders or else the traders would continue to insist on justice.

Nevertheless, business activities are still bubbling at the troubled land as the traders as at the time of filing this report insisted on remaining there till the provision of a permanent site, release of the corpses of the unidentified deceased colleagues and payment of compensations for the lives lost, properties destroyed and payment of hospital bills for those injured during the demolition and shootout exercises, are met.

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