One of the largest markets in West Africa, the Ariaria International Market, Aba, the commercial nerve centre of Abia State, was established in 1976 following a fire outbreak that destroyed the old Ekeoha Market. Daily Trust reports that following the present unwholesome state of the market, the state government wants to rebuild it, but traders are kicking against the plan.
Ariaria is fondly called the China of Africa, Japan of Africa, Pride of the South East etc, because of its versatility in making wears and leatherworks.
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Our findings revealed that the first traders to come to the market, which was designed to accommodate 40,000 stores, were timber dealers.
Before the administration of Governor Okezie Ikpeazu, the major challenges that faced the market were bad roads, gutters and tunnels. As a result of this, the market did not only lose its international quality, to a large extent, it also lost its local elegance as floods often ravaged the place and placed traders at a difficult and disadvantageous position. Daily Trust was told that sometimes the flood would cover the entire market and damage goods and property worth millions of naira.
Our correspondent learnt that traders in the market are currently on warpath with the State Market Development Committee (SMDC) over the planned reconstruction of the market. The SMDC, which revealed that the market would be upgraded in phases, had directed traders at the Park 1 and Park 2 sections to relocate to the Aba Mega Mall, located along the Enugu-Port Harcourt expressway.
On April 21, 2021, the SMDC organised an interactive session to sensitise traders on the plan to remodel the market, which is being done in partnership with TAF African Homes Limited. But the traders have vowed not to move, describing government’s plan as a ploy to take their shops away from them. They called on the state government to demolish only structures built on drainage channels and walkways.
Even an assurance by the chairman of the market development committee that no legitimate trader would lose his/her shop after the exercise did not convince the agitated traders to change their mind.
Our checks revealed that the market has suffered much degradation and indiscriminate erection of shops and illegal structures, leading to the distortion of its original master plan.
In an interview with journalists in Aba, the chairman of the National Association of Nigerian Traders (NANTS), Deacon Michael Aniorji, accused the state government of planning to sack traders from the market under the guise of rebuilding it. He accused government officials and its agencies of distorting the original plan of the market as they encouraged the erection of shops on drainage channels.
The association said they were fully in support of the demolition of structures built on drainage channels and walkways, but against the plan to relocate them to the Aba Mega Mall, which they described as a private facility.
“We are 100 per cent against the planned reconstruction and demolition of already existing structures not built on drainage channels,” Aniorji said.
Ugochukwu Samuel, whose shop was demolished, said, “Telling us to relocate to the Aba Mega Mall is a ploy to rob us of our shops. No trader is relocating. Why can’t the government partner with us in the development of the market? Are we not willing and able to provide the needed funds for the development of the market? The Ariaria International Market is enjoying an international status through the sweat of the traders, who made it what it is today.”
Another trader who simply identified herself as Franca said, “These shops are our only investments. It is from these shops that we pay our rents and train our children. It will be inhuman to take them away from us.
“We, therefore, call on the Abia State Government to resist the temptation from selfish politicians and gold-digging businessmen to lure it into demolition and reconstruction of shops in Ariaria Market.”
Madumere Orji also said, “We have appealed to Governor Ikpeazu to intervene. If the government desires to build a mega mall, it can do so in virgin areas like Ugwunagbo, Osisioma Ngwa or Obingwa, which are close to Aba. If the governor wants to kill us, let him do so quickly, but we won’t relocate from this market.”
He called on the state government to rather focus its attention on reconstructing roads in the market to check flooding.
Traders who spoke with our correspondent also blamed the government for the arbitrary erection of shops at every available space in the market, saying, “The distortion of the original master plan of the Ariaria market was done by the government and its agencies through the appointment of leaders, who, with the help of the authorities, built shops on top of drainage systems and walkways. These illegal structures were also given allocation and approval papers by the Aba North Local Council.”
Traders who spoke to Daily Trust Saturday said they had invested all they had in the market and wondered why the state government wants to take their shops away from them. They argued that all the shops were duly allocated and only revocable on one condition: nonpayment of fees.
“We are not paid gratuity or pension; the shops are our only investments. That’s why we protect them like our lives. It is from here that we pay our house rents, train our children and help our dependants. It will be inhuman to take the shops away from us.
“There are more than 3,000 open shops at the former Timber Line. Why can’t the government develop such places instead of trying to displace original traders? We won’t allow it to happen,” Emeka, who claimed to have started trading in the market in 1979, told our correspondent.
The Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Abia State, Chief John Okiyi Kalu, who spoke with Daily Trust Saturday, said the state government had made several efforts to reconstruct the 47-year-old market so as to tackle its age-long structural issues and provide the necessary modern infrastructure to deal with the perennial flooding challenges traders are facing.
He further said that after a final meeting with stakeholders of the market August 24, 2021, Governor Ikpeazu approved the phased reconstruction of the market as follows: “Traders currently doing business along A-Line, C-Line and Medical Line are to relocate on or before the close of business on September 4, 2021 to enable the commencement of work the following day.
“Also, those affected are to temporarily relocate to Ekumi Shopping Plaza or other available shops within the market.
“The developers have committed to completing the required work in phases, which include the establishment of proper drainage channels within the affected lines, construction of new shops and parks before the first week of December 2021.
“The Abia State Government will, through subsequent press releases, publish the names of existing shop owners, who are guaranteed return to the reconstructed shops after completion of the first phase. It is important to state that no existing shop owner will lose his/her shop after the work.
“Trading activities are expected to continue in other lines that are not affected by the first phase of the redevelopment project, while the appointed developers, Messrs Blessed Henkel International Company, are expected to work with the market committee and security agents to ensure full security during the period of redevelopment.
“Government wishes to assure traders that it will work to ensure minimal disruption to trading activities while executing this project, which has now been made more urgent and crucial because of the recent flooding forecast from the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NiMet).
“We will also not in any way tolerate any attempt by any individual or group to disrupt the planned work as we consulted widely enough and given enough grace period, long before now, for alternative solutions, which never yielded any meaningful result.”
An elated trader at C-Line, simply identified as Mr Okechukwu, who could not hide his feeling on government’s plan to reconstruct the market, said, “We never saw this blessing coming. The governor heard the cry of his people and moved into action. We can’t thank him enough.”
Another trader at A-Line, Elizabeth, also said, “The market women cannot thank the governor enough. If we knew the governor had a very good plan for us, we wouldn’t have been complaining. Please tell the governor that we are proud of him. God bless him.”