Traders at the Onitsha Printing and Paper Dealers Association Market, Onitsha, Anambra State, are counting losses as mysterious fire ravaged the market, destroying goods worth over N500 million.
Also popularly known as Woliwo Onitsha Market, the place, located near the Upper Iweka Luxurious Bus Park, harbours traders that deal in educational materials, stationery, motor and motorcycle spare parts. There were also artisans and traditional medicine practitioners at the market.
At least 120 shops were razed in the market.
Emma Ohanugo, assistant secretary of the market union, said the cause of the fire was still unknown.
He said the traders had a normal run of business on the fateful day without any premonition of disaster; but, in the evening, the fire started from nowhere and engulfed the market.
“Virtually all the traders had gone home after the day’s business. But I live within the vicinity. So, some minutes past 7pm, people began to shout in Igbo language, ‘oku na agbakwa ebeaooo meaning,’ there is fire in this market. The whole thing looked as if there was an inflammable substance sprayed on the market because, within two minutes of that alarm, the entire areas affected by the inferno caught fire simultaneously.
“We rallied round to see if we could salvage any goods or contain the fire but it was raging wildly. We contacted the firefighters but the first set that came exhausted their contents and called for reinforcement. The second vehicle that came broke down in the course of putting out the fire and, by that time, several goods and stalls had been burnt.”
Chairman of the market, Chief Silas Uzor, said the traders and his executive members were devastated by the disaster.
He lamented that the incident happened when the traders were facing economic hardship, noting that they were just getting ready to pay children’s school fees and other requirements in the new school term.
“We have lost goods worth over N500 million in this fire incident, apart from the shops that were completely destroyed, including electronic gadgets like fridges, and equipment used in cutting stationery and those belonging to artisans in the market, as well as other personal effects of the traders,” he said.
He appealed to the Anambra State government to come to their aid, regretting that most of the traders might be forced to relocate to their villages.
However, a man who described himself as the contractor financier of the market, Mr. Emeka Nwajiobi, said he suspected sabotage.
Nwajiobi alleged that the fire might not be unconnected with what he described as crisis that erupted following the appointment and the alleged refusal of the management committee of the market to leave office after the expiration of their tenure.
“Instead of the management committee members appointed by the government to help the state government bring sanity and development in the market, they turned round to start claiming ownership of the shops.
“Angered by the attitude of the men, the government refused to extend their appointment and informed them last December that it would appoint a new management committee, since their tenure expired last December,” he said.
But the chairman of the market, Uzor, said Nwajiobi was trying to distort the facts of the matter for selfish purposes.
Uzor said that though the market executive didn’t want to point fingers at anybody, since the law enforcement agents have commenced investigation into the incident, Nwajiobi’s utterances already made him a culprit. He said Nwajiobi had been running from pillar to post since government stopped him from milking the traders and converting the proceeds to his personal use without remitting any money to the state government.
“It was Emeka Nwajiobi’s father and not him that we had dealings with on how to finance the building of the market, but he even breached the agreement. When his father could not execute the building project, we had to borrow money from the bank to finance it. From our records, he still owes us N9 million and the police have asked him to pay or we go to court.
“Now, all the years he was claiming monopoly or sole ownership of the market, he was collecting all manner of levies from the traders here without remitting anything to government. When the matter escalated, government became aware of what was going on and waded in. There was a panel of inquiry set up and after everything, government took full control of the market and sacked him from such deals he was into before.
“Presently, we are a caretaker committee constituted by the government and since we took over, we have ensured that all the accruing fees and traders’ tax are remitted to the government when due. When the government fixes time and date for a proper election, we shall vacate office without delay, while those among us democratically elected would be allowed to manage the affairs of the market, if they win election. The man is simply struggling because government has blocked the revenue leakage created by him,” he said.
The Anambra State Commissioner for Commerce, Industry, Trade and Wealth Creation, Dr. Christian Madubuko, had visited the market to ascertain the extent of damage.
He said the state government would set up an investigating panel to look into the immediate and remote causes of the inferno, adding that anybody found to have been involved in any activity that led to the incident would be punished.
He also gave the traders hope that government would assist them to cushion the effects of their loss financially after investigations into the incident.