Traders at the popular Abakpa Main Market, Abakiliki, are facing altercation with the state government. This disagreement ranges from exorbitant taxes, seizure of shops and illegal extortion by some individuals. Also, those who own shops (landlords) in the market are afraid they may become tenants at the new Ocho-udo International Market. Daily Trust on Sunday examines the new faceoff between traders and the Ebonyi State Government.
The Abakpa Main Market is situated at the heart of Abakiliki, the Ebonyi State capital. It has been in existence before Nigeria gained independence in 1960; hence it is ranked among the oldest markets in the South-East and beyond.
It was originally built with zinc and woods, but in 2001, it was reconstructed with blocks and a concrete roof, popularly known as decking, to avert fire disaster.
The reconstruction was done during the administration of Dr. Sam Egwu as the governor of the state, and supervised, executed and funded by the then chairman of Ebonyi Local Government Area, Dr. Chris Adol-Awam.
A 68-year-old landlady in the market, Mrs Pricillia Obijiaku, told our correspondent that her late husband acquired a shop with the sum of N400 in early 1980.
“l came to Abakaliki in the early 1960s when the shops were built with woods and roofed with zinc. That was how I met the market. In 1980, my late husband became a landlord in the market. He bought the shop at the rate of N400; but today, a shop goes for N1million or N800,000, depending on the location,’’ she said.
At the moment, the market has over 3,000 shops, but landlords and traders alike are afraid that they may lose their shops because of the relocation order issued by the state governor, David Umahi.
Since the issuance of this order, those who are opposed to the relocation idea and approached the court for justice have not found it easy. They complain of lack of water, electricity, internal road network, and shops that would accommodate 3,000 traders, coupled with the issue of compensation, as well as continued harassment by agents of the state government.
Chief Godwin Nwode, also known as Day-by-Day, is among those whose shops, residences or warehouses were sealed for alleged violation of revenue law.
Speaking to Daily Trust on Sunday, he appealed to the governor to reconsider their plight and stop treating them as strangers in the state.
“All we are asking Governor Umahi is to re-consider our plight. We are not strangers, but law-abiding citizens of the state and the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Some of us bought shops at the rate of N900,000 or N700,000, some above N1m, depending on the location of the shop. Some erected their shops with their own money, and we have our papers. So we want compensation or we pay a token in exchange of our shops at Abakpa market for those at the international market
“The local government where the market is located gave us a lease for 30 years. We have spent 18 years, remaining 12, but the government is busy chasing us with police, imposing taxes and sealing our residents. We are living in fear,’’ he noted.
Nwode fled the state after he was declared wanted by the state government last month.
When Daily Trust on Sunday visited the market on Friday, it was observed that not less than eight shops were still under lock and key, including residential places and warehouses of some of the traders.
Those whose shops were sealed include Mr. David Nwoke; Mr. Akwagon I.G; Mr Ezenwata Anwusi; Mrs Suzzy Nwode and Mr Henry Uguru.
Those who had both shops and warehouses sealed were Mr Simeon Ominyi and Mr Osuji Dandy Ideyi, also known as Foreign Man. Chief Godwin Nwode’s shop, warehouse and residential building have been sealed for the past one month.
The affected traders have gone into hiding since the escalation of the crisis last month.
Obinnaya Obialo, a trader at the market, said the bone of contention was not the issue of relocation but that of compensation.
“This is happening because the state government has refused to pay compensation to any trader at the market, including landlords. For instance, l own not less than eight shops at the Abakpa Main Market and you are asking me to relocate and become a tenant without considering my investment at the market.
“And we have our papers. So we want compensation or a swap of ownership at the international market.
“Some of us paid N100,000, some N200,000 and some N300,000 for a shop at the international market under the Chief Martin Elechi-led administration in 2014 when we were told to relocate, but the government is not considering that.
“Last week, about 200 shops were locked by one man who is acting for the government. His name is Peter Oba. He is going about extorting money from traders in the name of the tax, and that is not good,’’ he maintained.
Another trader, Mrs Keith Nweke, who commended the governor for moving the date of the relocation from October 15, 2019, to January 10, 2020, also pleaded with the government to consider their plight instead of being hostile to them.
“Our prayer is that the governor should use human face to follow us. We are his subjects. Again, the governor should call Peter Oba to order, if not, he will kill somebody in this market one day.
“Yes, the governor has extended the relocation date, but that is not enough. We want compensation or swap deal with the government at the international market,’’ she said.
When contacted, Peter Oba denied the allegations against him, saying he has good intentions for traders and landlords of Abakpa market.
“Those allegations are false. I have the interest of the traders at heart; the problem is that the traders misunderstand my position and that of the government.
“What I am trying to do, which is very necessary, is for us to relocate to the international market because Abakpa Main Market is congested. l want them to understand that relocation is the best.
Another trader, Matthias Aleke, who deals on cosmetics, said the relocation of traders to the international market was good because it is moving to a higher level.
“The new market meets international standard and is for the interest of Ebonyi State. It will make us grow in both micro and macroeconomy.
“Concerning compensation, I think the government is in dialogue with traders and landlords,’’ he said.
According to Fr. Abraham Nwali, who mediated between the traders and the state government, under the umbrella of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Ebonyi State branch, identified two grey areas in the conflict. He is also the senior special assistant to the governor on religious and welfare matters, as well as the state chairman of the CAN.
“When we came to mediate between the traders and government, we started by looking at terms of reference and where to sue for peace.
We saw that there were two great challenges. One is settling out of court and the other is opening all the sealed shops and residences. And both parties have accepted to settle out of court. Secondly, the governor has given an extraordinary grace.
“In the area of compensation, the landlords at the Abakpa market already have two options. One is that they are already buying shops. Traders are the people to ask for compensation because most of them have paid their taxes and rents,’’ he explained.
When Daily Trust on Sunday visited the international market, it observed that renovation work was still ongoing at phase 1 while phases 2 and 3 were yet to receive any attention.