With the inauguration of an investigative panel, Edo State government is set to unravel the mystery surrounding a mid-night inferno that wreaked destruction of monumental proportion on a section of the popular Uwelu spare parts market even as distraught traders suspect the security men in charge of the market of complicity
Outrage, agony, lamentation, frustration and despondency aptly capture the mood at the Uwelu spare parts market in Benin City, Edo State, Tuesday, as the shell-shocked traders struggled to come to terms with their losses brought about by a fierce and mysterious mid-night fire that reduced their goods into charred and twisted metals, and their shops into rubbles. No fewer than 90 shops were affected by the inferno. The Uwelu Spare Parts Market where second-hand vehicle parts, popularly known as ‘Belgium’ parts are sold, is the biggest in the state. When TELL visited the market at around noon on the fateful day, many of the shops were still burning while the ones where the fire had been extinguished were still smoldering as the visibly devastated and confused traders milled around what remained of their hitherto well-stock shops bemoaning their ill fate.
Particularly distraught and crest-fallen was Ibie Osaretin Augustine, Chairman, Motor Spare Parts Association, Uwelu, who lamented that such a tragic and massive fire incident happened during his tenure. Mostly affected were the A-Line shops where Augustine also had his shop. He estimated the total loss in the fire at hundreds of millions of naira. The chairman who put his personal loss at over N400,000.00, told the magazine somberly “I am not even thinking about my own, but my people. I am devastated that this kind of thing is happening during my own tenure. It has spoilt my record. This type of thing happened about two years ago but not up to this level”. The number one trader in the market whose eyes were bloodshot as if he had been crying, told the magazine: “I am not crying; I am crying within. I am in agony; I am in great pains”. The magazine gathered that apart from the loss in goods and structures, many of the traders reportedly lost huge sums in cash which they often concealed in their shops either for easy accessibility or inability to meet up with official banking hours to deposit such monies. This, it was gathered, explained why one of the victims who had raced to the scene at about 1:00 am only to be confronted with billowing fire from his shop ran amok and attempted to run inside, perhaps with the intention of retrieving his money.
Confirming the incident, Augustine said “he was just running; people held him and dragged him back. It was a terrible thing”. The magazine also learnt that he had only a few days before the ruinous fire invested a huge amount of money in buying full engines of different vehicles. Sources in the know said the victim was yet to recover from the trauma and had to be taken home and kept under close watch by family members to prevent him from committing suicide.
It was indeed a very pathetic situation as victims counted their losses, amidst emotional support from family members and fellow traders whose shops were spared. It was also a case of different strokes for different folks because while the victims stood aghast watching how their once-thriving businesses had been laid waste by the devastating fire, it was business as usual for their lucky colleagues in other parts of the ever-busy market who were seen attending to customers that had come to patronize them. A visibly down-cast Festus Maxwell Osaeruoname who claimed to have lost about N15 million to the fire, like other traders, was at a loss what caused the fire. He said “according to the people who saw it, they said the fire started at about 11.35 pm. Then the fire escalated at about one o’clock; it was uncontrollable. Fire service was unable to control it. It was very big. It’s very frustrating; we don’t even know where to start from. I lost about N15 million. If we have to calculate how much this line- A 1 to 12 lost, it’s more than N100 million. A 5 alone lost N15 million; from A 1 – A 4 lost over N20 million. Some lost N20 million, some lost N30 million”. Lamenting the magnitude of the destruction wreaked on their businesses, Osaeruoname said “we are begging Governor Obaseki to come and help us because the shops are burnt to the very pin. We couldn’t remove a pin; even the blocks have fallen apart. We are just begging them to come and help us. We don’t know where we are going to start from; we are frustrated”.
Another victim, Daniel Okungbowa who put his loss at about four million naira, said he had been trading in the market since 1999. Okungbowa who sold all types of water and fuel pumps for different brands of vehicles – Japanese, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Chrysler, and Honda, noted that “this is not the first time fire will be entering the market. It happened about two years ago but not up to this level. It had always happened like this every time in the night. We don’t really know the cause of the fire”. Thirty-year-old Benjamin Omoti who came into the market in 2008 as an apprentice, and opened his own shop in 2012, exclaimed that “what is lost is in trillions. Masters are here, boys are here. I lost about N1.5 million. Some lost over 10 million. I sell bearing and hub”. For Vincent Eze however, though he had seen others experience it, it was his first baptism of fire in the real sense of it. As you see it, Na so we still take see am… We were sleeping in the night when we got calls that market dey burn, mostly A and B Line. So when we got here around after 12, nobody fit even enter this place. I lost about N500,000. I dey sell Japanese car parts. We need nothing rather than help from the government”.
The chairman of the market, however, said it may be difficult for many to estimate their losses. According to Augustine, “I cannot just tell you this is it because of the way we buy our goods. We add to what we already had. Some of my traders just came from Onitsha and Lagos markets yesterday (Monday); they packed their goods into the market yesterday. I will say the association has lost hundreds of millions and the number of shops runs into about 90. I cannot evaluate what others had in their shops. Some over-stock their shops based on what I know”.
The big puzzle, however, is no one seemed to know the cause of the fire and how it snowballed into such a big conflagration that could not be contained though there were security men in charge of the market. The seeming mystery surrounding the fire has fueled suspicion of foul play and some of the traders are looking in the direction of the security men on duty. One of those who strongly suspect complicity by the security men is Christian Uyigue who was in the market to give emotional support to his younger brother, Agbons whose shop was also torched. Agbons who was too distraught to entertain an interview, told the magazine “this is not about interview. I want to be left alone”. Christian, his elder brother, however, stepped in saying “he’s my younger brother; look at his store (pointing at the completely burnt stall). My brother has lost more than a million naira. Nothing was salvaged.”
Uyigue believed that the security men had some explanations to make. “They should ask the security because they are the ones in charge of this place. According to what I am hearing, they have not set eyes on any of them. So, they should try and fish them out so that they would ask them one or two questions. Not that I am suspecting that the security men did it, but they should confirm from them. They were not the ones who called the shop owners. It was the shop owners that called the security, meaning they were not around when the fire started. That is my own suspicion. This thing looks so very funny. It’s very unfair”.
Olu Omokaro who said he would not be able to put a figure to his loss because he had many goods in his store, would not also exonerate the security men. A bemused Omokaro said “because we have security here, I can’t believe that this kind of thing can happen. When fire is starting, it starts small. If there is a security man, you will see it; then, you go there and pour water. If e pass you, then you shout and people will assist you. Maybe one or two shops would have got burnt. But this one, about 100 stores just went down”. And with everyone looking in the direction of the security men, little wonder they are reportedly being quizzed by the police. Augustine confirmed to the magazine Friday that the security men were still being held by the police.
For the bewildered victims and sympathizers, their confusion over what led to the fire was compounded by the fact that there had been no electricity supply to the market. The fire could therefore not be attributable to power surge or electrical fault in any of the shops. Hazarding a guess as to what could have happened Osaeruoname told the magazine that “we just left the market yesterday (Tuesday) at about 6 pm. How it happened, we don’t even know because there was no light. But we are surprised how the fire came. Whether it was one of the security men that was smoking or burning something somewhere, we don’t really know”. The magazine further learnt that fighting the fire at the initial stage was hampered by lack of water in the market. Confirming this, Eze said “we don’t have water in this market; I will not lie to you. There is a borehole, but it is not working, that’s the truth of it”.
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The chairman of the market gave more insight into how the fire did a monumental damage to the market. Giving a blow-by-blow account of the frantic actions he took to save the situation right from when an anonymous caller alerted him between 11 pm and 12 am, he said “so, as I got the news, I quickly picked my phone to call the security who I know is in charge of the market after we close at 6 pm on a daily basis. Then he told me that he’s sure somebody was burning something at Oviawe Close and that it’s not fire in the market. I said no, the call I got is distress; they are indicating that it’s inside the market that the fire is burning. So, while we were still on the line, he went towards that direction. Next thing I heard from his mouth is that chairman, na your store line just dey burn; call fire brigade. So, I started making effort to call fire service. I could not get them. I even called our brother, Man Around Town (a popular call-in radio programme on current societal issues aired every morning on the Independent Radio) to assist us reach them because we know they respect their calls a lot. They did not come. I got here, the fire was still burning but it had not gotten this far. So, we started making efforts; we even tried to reach Egor Local government, divisional police officer, DPO, Ogida for them to reach fire brigade for us. But when we found that they could not come, we had to send two of our members, one of them the secretary, to UNIBEN fire service who by God’s grace listened to us and followed them down. And when they came, they started extinguishing the fire. That was how the situation was salvaged until the Army also brought their own fire service vehicle and they joined them. That was how they were able to combat it to this extent otherwise the whole market would have been razed”.
The heart cry of all the victims is plea for assistance by the state government not just to rebuild the market, but to give them succor financially. In the words of Augustine, “when something like this happens, we always beg for assistance. In the same vein, we are pleading with the state governor to come to our aid because we are dealing on micro-finance loans. Most of us took loans from micro-finance banks and we pay daily to them. Now, with the way things are, we can’t be able to pay interest not to talk of the capital”. The magazine gathered that perhaps worst hit were many of the young traders who that just got freedom from their “masters” and had only just opened their shops with loans obtained from various banks. While also appealing to the local government councils and every well-meaning individual in the state to come to their aid, Augustine lamented that “this market used to be recognized as the biggest market in the South-south. Now, it is almost going into extinction”.
For the deeply shattered traders, however, there appeared to be a silver lining behind a cloud of despondency hanging over them. The harbinger of hope was the state governor who on Wednesday paid a sympathy visit to the market to identify with the traders in their most trying time, as well as assess the level of damage. After a tour of the burnt section of the market, Obaseki assured them of government’s support to get them back to business. He said a committee would be set-up to unravel the cause of the inferno in order to prevent a future occurrence. He pleaded with them to remain peaceful while the process was on. True to his promise, an eight-man committee was inaugurated Thursday by secretary to the state government, Osarodion Ogie. The committee which has one week to submit its report is headed by Osaigbovo Iyoha, special adviser to the governor on political matters (Edo South). The terms of reference of the committee as given by Ogie, include “to examine the remote and immediate cause of the fire incident at the market, and establish the culpability of any person, group, corporation or entity, in bearing responsibility for the incident; to establish the full extent of damage and loss arising from the said incident, and assess the effectiveness or otherwise of the response of the emergency response unit as well as law enforcement agencies to the incident; to make recommendations to government on measures to be taken to avoid a repetition of similar tragic incident in future.” The government said the committee was at liberty to summon any person or group to offer testimony or documents and visit the site of the incident. Obaseki had stated during his visit that the outcome of the investigation would guide the state government in providing assistance to the victims. Additionally, he said, “the team will also advise the state government on measures to put in place to ensure that fire outbreaks in markets are minimised and prevented, where possible”. In this regard, the traders already had their shopping list handy. One, they want the state fire service over-hauled to make it responsive to distress calls. Secondly, they want electricity and water restored to the market, and lastly, they want the access roads to the market reconstructed. Corroborating Eze’s claim of lack of water in the market, Dominion told the magazine “you can see that all the stores in A Line have been burnt and we need the help of the state government. My store is A 6. We have a bore-hole but it’s not working. We need them to fix it for us. In case of fire like this, water is very essential in the vicinity”.In a similar vein, Augustine underscored the impact of the deplorable state of access roads to the market on their businesses, complaining that “we have that problem of low patronage because of bad roads; we don’t sell. It’s difficult for customers to access the market. Uwasota is the smoothest road and it is a very long route if you are not coming from the Ugbowo axis”.
Some of the traders are however looking beyond the state government for succor. One of them who simply identified himself as Dominion, believed that the Federal Government could also come in, noting that “we know that the federal government has provision for things like this. They should send their officials to see our plight. We really need help”. The big question, however, is how soon can help come to the affected traders who are left in the lurch and can only do nothing but wait?