Emmanuel Ugwu-Nwogo in Umuahia
Like the rising sun Abia State’s most popular market, the Ariaria International Market is emerging from the horizon with a new face. It is a face of modernity for the 47 year-old market characterised mostly by scraggy infrastructure. The traders, who had initially opposed the remodelling plan when government came up with the idea are now appreciating the effort. Their scepticism has given way to excited appreciation as the conceptualised new look Ariaria market is now taking shape. The first phase of the reconstruction work started from A-Line, C-Line and Medical Line sections of the market up to Enyimba Gate, and kitchen utensils shops.
Three blocks of two storey buildings shops have sprang up from where the decrepit structures used to be. The developer, Engr Henry Okafor whose firm, Blessed Henkel International Company is executing the remodelling project under a public, private partnership (PPP) said that the new structures were designed to have the facilities of a modern market. Each of the block has 480 shops fitted with electronically-operated doors, fire alarms, and elavators for ease of upward movement of goods into the upper floors of two storey buildings. Okafor said that with the way the new Ariaria market was designed it would become a misnomer to call it a market. “What we are building is a mall; it is no longer a market,” he enthused.
The developer explained that the electronically-operated doors are among the security features of the market making the shops well secure as only the owner of each shop can have access to it using a remote control. He dispelled the fears about the desirability of installing electric doors in the shops given the fluctuating nature of electricity supply in the land. Okafor said there is no cause for alarm as power supply disruption would rarely occur since the market is connected to three power sources – Aba Independent Power Project(IPP), Aba Power Limited(a division of Geometric Power) and Solar Power which serves as backup.
According to the developer, 14 blocks of shops were earmarked for the first phase of the reconstruction project, starting from the A-Line section of the market. He said that though “we are focusing on A-Line first” the scraggy structures in the entire market would eventually be demolished and replaced with modern structures in a phased development strategy. Okafor said that on completion the market would have a hotel, school, clinic and four motor parks. The new Ariaria International Market new Ariaria International Market would also have the complements of fire station, police station, banking facilities, smooth access roads with good drainage system that would free the market from flooding. He noted that with all the envisaged facilities in place Ariaria would sparkle as an aesthetic commercial complex where commercial activities are carried out with joy and happiness.
Abia State Commissioner for Trade and Investment, Chief John Okiyi Kalu said that the emerging new Ariaria International Market “is our vision of what a modern market should look like in Abia State”. He acknowledged that “it took long in coming”, but even at that “we are satisfied that it has taken off and is on course”. Trade and commerce is among the five pillars on which Governor Ikpeazu anchored the development agenda of his administration.
This explains why he delved into the idea of remodelling Ariaria International Market, a project that requires not only huge financial outlay but also strong political will given the consequential displacement of traders. “Since 1976, nobody(government) has done anything like this,” said Okiyi, alluding to the political risk involved in asking Aba traders to relocate from a particular trading location to another. Indeed no government right from the old Imo State from which Abia was carved out had ever dared to reconstruct Ariaria despite its decayed infrastructure and congestion.
Expectedly, Ikpeazu didn’t have it easy with the traders when he came up with idea of remodelling Ariaria. In September 2021 when the remodelling project commened the state government was drawn into a running battle with Ariaria traders. They vehemently opposed being relocated to alternative locations to make way for the reconstruction of the market. They were propelled by the fear of losing their shops after the completion of the remodelling project. In a way the traders were justified in their opposition to the project given past experiences where government officials saddled with implementation of government projects/programmes ended up muddling it up.
But Governor Ikpeazu was not discouraged by the traders’ resistance to what he regarded as a necessary change initiated for their own benefit and for the economic interest of the state. Basically, Ikpeazu wants Ariaria market to be truly international in its status by modernising the infrastructure and facilities in the market. The market attracts patronage from across West Africa and beyond due largely to the wide range of goods churned out by artisans that work like bees in the market. The renowned Aba shoe and leather products industry, garment industry, among others are located inside Ariaria.The governor said he was inspired to give Ariaria a face-lift by the modern markets he had seen in foreign countries. According to him, it was always his dream to have Ariaria transformed to look like any of those modern markets he has seen abroad.
To get the traders on the same page with him, Governor Ikpeazu decided on constructive engagement with the traders in order to break their resistance to change. He understood their fears hence persuassion was used instead of force to get around the contentious issues. Several consultative meetings were held with the leaders of the traders association and expanded stakeholders to find a way out. Ikpeazu continually assured and reassured the displaced traders that they would return to their shops after the reconstruction and he would personally issue them allocation papers. He also offered them tax incentives of two years with backing documents as well as cash palliative. It was after the final harmonisation harmonisation meeting of September 8, 2021 that the traders dropped their resistance.
In one of the meetings held at Government Lodge Aba, after the flooding of the market in September 2022, the Governor Ikpeazu made it known to the traders that it was necessary to remodel Ariaria. He said: “There’s no Abia State without Aba and there’s no Aba without Ariaria market. No Governor will succeed without paying attention to trade and commerce as far as Abia is concerned”.
Ikpeazu had explained that part of the reason to reconstruct Ariaria market was to check the perennial flooding and the attendant loss of goods. He vowed that “we will fix the flood problem at the market”. He explained that Ariaria market was prone to flooding because it lies “at the lowest level of Aba” which makes it easy for the market to be submerged once a heavy downpour occurs. “But the flood problem will soon be a thing of the past,” he assured the traders. “I will not be happy as a Governor if I conclude my tenure without fixing the flood menace at the Ariaria market”. The flooding menace appears to have been tackled as appropriate drainage channels have been constructed at the market. In addition, the Ifeobara pond, which is the collection point of flood waters from Ariaria, is now constantly drained and channeled to Aba River.
The outgoing government of Ikpeazu is happy at the evolving transformantion of Ariaria. The commissioner for trade and investment at a recent inspection visit to the project site with journalists said that government was satisfied at the progress and quality of work. He said that the developer was handling the job according to specifications. Okiyi said that it was high time Ariaria market was tranformed with structures and facilities befitting its international status. He described the reconstruction of the 47 year-old market into a modern commercial centre as a major legacy that the Ikpeazu administration would leave behind.
However, it has become clear that the remodelling of Ariaria market would not be completed before Ikpeazu bows out of office on May 29. Not to worry. The outgoing government of Okezie Ikpeazu has said that government is a continuum and so it would be in the interest of Abia State for the incoming administration to sustain the ongoing market remodelling project in the state. The commissioner for trade and investment acknowledged that the delay in the commencement of the project has affected the completion date set for the first phase of the project. Okiyi said that the developer had difficulties mobilising funds for the PPP project. It was only when the state government stepped in and secured a project bank guarantee to the tune of N1.5 billion that the developer commenced work.
The trade and investment commissioner is optimistic that the incoming government led by Alex Otti would see good reason not to abandon the project. He expects that the Ariaria market reconstruction would continue. According to him, Ikpeazu has used Ariaria to set the standard for market remodelling in Abia and it is expected that his successor would continue with the project. The trade and investment commissioner noted that Ariaria is a strategic commercial centre hence the incoming government would be interested in its modernisation as it would boost commercial activities and enhance the revenue base of Abia.
Ariaria International Market has its own chequered history since it was built in 1976 following a major fire incident at the then popular Ekeoha Market. The fire outbreak which was said to have resulted to colossal loses by traders provoked regional outrage and lamentation. The sentimental attachment of people to the market inspired popular songs, including Enyim by the now defunct funk music group, the Apostles, and Oku Gbàra Ekeoha by the late high life maestro, Oliver De Coque. It was in the search for alternative location with enough space to relocate the traders that Ariaria was found suitable and the market was born.
At first, the traders at Ekeoha refused to relocate to Ariaria because it was far from the city centre and in a swampy area. It was the timber dealers that were immediately to move to the new market. The timber section was believed to be the source of the incessant fire incidents at Ekeoha due to the incendiary nature of sawdust. After the timber people moved other traders eventually relocated to Ariaria. The market grew and flourished to the extent that it became an international market. Over the years, Ariaria has outgrown the available space, infrastructure and facilities hence the need to upgrade the market.