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Market fires: Not sabotage, but greed and stupidity

Cassius: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” – Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141) Fate is…

Cassius: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
– Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

Fate is not what drives men to their conditions or situations, but decisions and actions, or lack thereof. The ubiquitous and perennial market fires in Nigeria are mostly caused by poor design, mismanagement and greed. And the toll would keep rising, unless we face these simple truth, if the case of the fire that gutted Kano’s Abubakar Rimi Market (better known as Sabon Gari Market), penultimate weekend, is anything to go by.
Said to have started in the wee hours of Saturday last week, from just one shop, the inferno raged on for hours, and by the time it was finally extinguished Sunday evening it has, according to The National Emergency Management Agency [NEMA], gutted about 3,800 shops, because the access road was blocked by hundreds of wheelbarrows chained together for the night. The market traders’ association estimated property losses at over N2 trillion, adding that over 75 per cent of the market has been burnt. Given the usual habit of many traders, especially of northern extraction, of keeping their cash in their shops, we could be safely assume that the losses were much more, amounting to almost half of our Federal Budget.
All these are before adding the tens of thousands who have illegal kiosks, “attachments”, stalls, tables, sheds and what not, who daily make a living from this market. Many more have shops and stalls elsewhere and use the market as a convenient wholesale source, often getting these goods on credit from its bigger shopkeepers. Then there are food and “pure water hawkers, potters, mobile barbers, shoe-shiners, nail-cutters and other “service providers” who make their daily bread from the market.
To put it in context, Sabon Gari Market, as well as the adjacent Singer Market, and Kantin-Kwari Market less than a kilometre away, together represent the nerve centre of commerce for the whole of the north, from Sokoto to Maiduguri, Yola to Kontagora as well as for Niger Republic, CAR, northern Cameroon and beyond. While Singer Market is the main wholesale outlet for Sabon Gari Market, Kantin Kwari is perhaps the largest textiles market in West Africa, and both had experienced serious fire outbreaks within hours of each other, just last February. The Mobile Phones Market in the city, popularly known as the “GSM Village” had experienced twin bomb explosions November 18 last year.
In the usual manner of shifting responsibilities, and blaming anybody but ourselves, many are suspecting sabotage, or blaming everything on fate. Which is rather sad because we are refusing to come to terms with reality. We, or more directly our elected representative and paid functionaries, are fully to blame. Admittedly the GSM Village explosions and the fires they ignited, were most likely the work of Boko Haram insurgents, who see nothing wrong with killing people they don’t even know in their ungodly attempt to force their strange religious beliefs on others, but all these fires, including the one that razed Gwarzo Furniture Market, some 50 kilometres West of Kano, just this Thursday, were preventable, and could be traced to poor layout, inadequate disaster preparedness, corruption and political irresponsibility. This applies to all the fires all over Nigeria that seem to occur almost on a weekly basis.
Last week, the President of the National Association of Nigerian Traders (NANTS), Kenneth Ukaoha, tried to offer a national perspective to this issue of market fires. According to him, 600 persons were killed, 49 markets burnt and 10,000 shops were destroyed between December 1, 2010 when Minna shopping complex in Niger State burnt and March 26, 2016 when the Birnin Kebbi Central Market was virtually razed to the ground. Ukaoha added that there were 16 major fire incidents in 2016 alone. He said, “Apart from loss of lives, goods and properties worth N3 trillion were lost. None of the affected markets has insurance coverage. Eighty-five percent of the fire incidents was said to have been caused by electricity.”
It is obvious that Ukaoha is only referring to major incidences. He is not adding those that have gutted markets in smaller towns and villages, and is only most likely focusing on reported direct losses and official estimates. Even then, if one were to add to this estimate of N3 trillion all the other losses from Boko Haram insurgency, badly maintained roads and bridges, time lost due to inadequate electricity supply, poor health, petrol shortage, endless and shameless diversion of public funds before they even get to Federation Account, waivers, capital flight, over-invoicing, direct stealing, unemployment and other “leakages” and unrealised potential, one can begin to appreciate that the Federal Budget should be the least of our problem. Getting institutions to work matters most, along with putting an end to corruption and political brigandage.
But we are digressing. Our markets are dirty, smelly and over-congested. Even where they are well designed, the market managers collect bribe to allocate every available space including access roads that should be left for pedestrians and emergency vehicles. The local government officials steal almost all the dues, rents and fees collectable and do nothing to improve the facilities, sanitation or security. Even where there are bye-laws to improve sanitation, security, pedestrian flow or emergency access, the politicians and the managers they employ are too scared or too compromised to enforce them. We do not provide enough fire-fighting personnel, equipment or training. The traders themselves do not help matters. They have neither fire-extinguishers nor training in prevention of fighting fires when they occur. They use sub-standard electrical wires, cables and fittings, hire inexperienced personnel to couple them together, leave them on over-night.
NEMA itself, along with the local fire services, must take part of the blame. What prevents them from checking the shops regularly to examine the electrical fittings, or driving through the market with fire trucks at regular intervals to ensure that all the passages are indeed accessible? How often have the attempted to sensitise the traders, and train some of them, on fire prevention and emergency response? Yes, it has a constitutional obligation to provide relief after an incidence but does emergency management stop there? How often have the assessed markets to advise on preventive measures before an event? How have they coped with crowds that are often attracted to these fires, often simply to steal what they can, as we saw in Kano? What of inter-agency coordination during such events, and how often have NEMA and the fire services simulated such emergencies to assess their own capabilities? With all the funds allocated thus far, how come some state capitals have only three or four fire-fighting vehicles? In addition, is it really impossible for our banks to create special products and arrangements to encourage these shop keepers from keeping their cash in the shops, or for the insurance wiz-kids to evolve acceptable and attractive packages for them?
No, things cannot continue like this, with us simply responding to disasters, attempting to regain what we have lost, and wait for the next disaster. Even Sisyphus was not that stupid. Remember him? He was that guy, in Greek mythology, who, for his sins, was condemned by the “gods” to roll a huge rock up a hill for ever in the Underworld. Just as he manages to almost get to the top, the rock would slip and roll down to the bottom, for him to start again. He knew he was doomed, and paying for his sins. Are we also cursed? If we cannot tame these market fires, we should only blame ourselves, not our stars. All our markets are disasters waiting to happen.

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