Earthmovers carrying out the demolition of Eke-Ukwu Owerri Market last year with the protection of security agents and state thugs

Since the demolition of the Eke-Ukwu Owerri market by the Imo State Government, traders in the market have been plunged into anguish, writes Peter Uzoho

When traders at the Eke-Ukwu Owerri, an ancestral market in the Imo State capital closed the day’s business and went to bed, they never thought that the next day, their once happy life would suddenly slide into despair. They never believed that the next morning, they would be singing songs of sorrow, pain and disappointment. Misfortune has overshadowed them – they are now living in poverty and pity.

On August 26, 2017, Owerri was thrown into pandemonium and mourning. It was a bloodbath of sort. On the order of the governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, arm-carrying security agents, led by soldiers at the 34 Artillery Brigade, Obinze, officers of the Nigerian Police Force, the Imo Youth Network and thugs, accompanied operators of bulldozers to Eke-Ukwu Owerri Market and had it razed to ground level. In the process, investments worth millions of naira were destroyed while others were stolen by criminals who saw golden opportunity in the demolition exercise.

Also during the exercise, some people lost their lives through stray bullets allegedly fired by the soldiers. Among the deceased was a 10-year-old boy, Master Somtochukwu Ibeanusi, from Anambra State who was assisting his father to pack their goods.

Several others sustained different degrees of injury and are currently crying in pains in hospitals.

Also known to Imolites as Eke-Onunwa, Eke-Ukwu Owerri is an ancient market in Imo State nestled on Douglas Road, Owerri, on a land said to be owned by the people of Umuororonjo and Amawom, two of the communities in Owerri Municipal Council of the state. It used to be a-must-go-to, for anyone wishing to buy or sell any kind of household items both in piece and in bulk.

Eke-Ukwu Owerri used to host, on a daily basis, over 5, 000 people from within and outside the state, who trooped to the market to buy and sell. Amongst these are traders who had risen from selling on tables and hawking to become multi-millionaires in their respective lines of business. Some had spent decades in their daily hustles in the market. Most of these traders are breadwinners of their different families – providing food, shelter, paying school fees, and rendering some help to distant families.

Eke-Ukwu Owerri Market was held so dearly by both the original landowners and the people of Imo State owing to its importance to their lives and the economy of the state. This was buttressed by a saying in the state that “he who is hosted by Eke-Ukwu Owerri does not go home hungry.” Many people depended on this market for their survival. Not only the main traders, also artisans, transporters, and wheelbarrow pushers who were living on income generated from services rendered. Landlords equally made good cash from rents paid by these traders using their houses.

However, the demolition of Eke-Ukwu Owerri Market has left traders crying in anguish. To them, life has become miserable and no more worth living. They wonder while on earth would a governor who has the well-being of his people at heart embark on such harmful exercise. They said the governor paraded himself to the people of Imo during electioneering in 2011 as a “rescue mission agent” but has become an “agent of Imo annihilation”. According to them, “he wants all of us to die and God will not allow him to achieve his evil plan in Imo.”

“I had two shops in this market fully loaded with goods and all were destroyed by the agents of the governor. Some were stolen by criminals he brought to carry out this evil act. I’m now left with nothing for me and my family,” Mr. Chidiebere Fidelis, one of the traders, told THISDAY.

Fidelis said: “This is the only market we have and the only thing the governor can do is to come and destroy it. So many people who depended on this market for their survival are now roaming the streets hopeless. Some have gone mad because they couldn’t bear the loss. Just look around here, nothing is happening here again. And since they demolished it they have not done anything tangible on this land. The governor just decided to make life difficult for us in this state.

“He asked us to go to Relief Market where nothing is happening. How can a governor be initiating policies that cannot help the people in anyway. It’s really sad that things are going this way in the state,” he noted.

According to Fidelis, the governor’s action stemmed from the refusal of Owerri people to allow him take their land located at Area K, Word Bank, Owerri. “He now came to use force to dispossess us of our cherished market. This market has been in existence before the governor; other governors have come and gone without demolishing it,” Fidelis noted.

“Rochas has decorated us with pain and hardship,” Mr. Boniface Mmaduakolam, who deals on foodstuff, lamented. Mmaduakolam was seen in one corner of the demolished market with his grinding machine and some quantity of his stock but with no one to patronise him. He had been sitting all day and no sale made. This was against his experience when the market had not been demolished.

“We’re just here looking around. Nothing is happening. You can see for yourself. All my goods have been destroyed and some stolen by criminals employed by the governor. I’m only here trying to see if I can see at least N500 to feed my family today but since I came out today I’ve not sold up to one naira,” he said.

Mmaduakolam said: “Honestly, Rochas has suddenly become a different person for us in this state. I don’t know why he derives joy in seeing us suffer in spite of the support we gave to him during election. We voted for him massively. He didn’t spend like his opponents to get to that office. We loved him and thought that he would show us same love but he’s paying us back with wickedness.

“He has banned Keke operators in Owerri and, has heightened the cost of transportation here. Keke that we used to pay N50 to come here is now N100 by bus and, to see them is very difficult. What have we done to him to deserve all these,” he asked.

“Our condition is worse now. We’re waiting for Okorocha to come and finish what is left of us,” Mrs. Kelechi Rowland, a fish seller and mother of four, says disappointingly. “As it stands now to feed is a problem. To pay my children’s school fees is a problem. I’ve even withdrawn them from the private school they were attending to public schools to see if I can cope,” she said.

Mrs. Charity Ogu, who sells wrapper, said the governor’s decision to demolish Eke-Ukwu Owerri Market without proper relocation plan was shocking to her. According to her, the action has worsened the condition of the people of the state, particularly, they, the traders.

“I’ve never seen this kind of governor before – a governor that will act without proper planning. He said we should go to Egbeada; we should go to Naze; we should go to Relief Market and, none of these places has been developed. The only thing he could do is to mobilise his armed men and thugs to come and destroy all we have worked for years. Rochas has reduced us to beggars. God is watching him,” Ogu said.

“We have suffered in this state. Okorocha has messed this state up. Nobody is happy. We’re dying of hunger here while our governor is smiling,” Mr. Nwachukwu Bethel, who sells men’s clothes, said.

Having lost his hard-earned millions, Bethel is now pondering over where to run to for help to enable him recover from the pain.

“I’ve lost my hard-earned millions. I had over N4 million worth of goods in my shops and all were destroyed and looted. I don’t know where to run to for help. How can a governor be this wicked to the people he’s governing? What have we done to him to deserve this,” he lamented.

According to him, some of them would have joined tricycle (Keke) business as another means of survival if that had not been banned by the governor. “How are we going to survive this? No means of survival anymore.”

Mr. Uchenna Iwu was among those whose business ran into millions before the calamity. He deals on shoes and has been in the business for over three decades. He had four shops at the Eke-Ukwu Owerri Market fully stocked with shoes worth N10 million and all of these got lost in the demolition. Iwu is now struggling to survive the shock. With the little money in his account, he was able to buy few shoes and has been reduced to shedding his wares on the floor while begging for patronage.

Recounting his ordeal, he said: “Look at me, just look at me. All I have toiled for over 30 years have been vandalised. I had four shops here in Eke-Ukwu Owerri and all filled with shoes. Now this is what is remaining. I’m now trying to sell them off at a giveaway price just to get some money to feed my family.

‘They didn’t give us any formal notice. No notice at all. We were only hearing it as rumour that this market would be demolished. We didn’t take it seriously. Now everybody is in agony and pain. How do we survive this? Where do we start from here? Are we going to relocate to the village or what?” he noted.