By Egufe Yafugborhi
BY Monday, 16th of December, Christmas shopping had peaked at the popular Mile1 Market in Diobu, Port Harcourt that even the deaf could tell without prompting from the extraordinarily bubbling commercial life. From food items, clothing to toys, jewelries and all shade of wares, each of the hundreds of the congested shops in the market spread in over six acres of land was stuffed to the brim.
Beyond the front-line shops, pyramids of bags of rice, beans and yam tubers have overlapped, displacing pedestrians on the walkway and cars pullover lines on the Ikwerre Road as desperate traders defied sanitation and traffics laws with impunity on the road portion stretching to the Mile1 Market.
Shockingly before dawn of Tuesday, all the shops and every item stored in them had disappeared. A wild market fire of pains and sorrow which reportedly started at ungodly 2am had blown through uncontrollably, reducing everything on its path to rubles. The adjacent two storey building, House 57 Ikwerre Road was not spared. Its shop owners and residents lost virtually all wares and personal belongings as the fire blazed in.
The market, usually under lock and key before 6pm everyday, is guarded by night watchmen, but none of the guards, the devastated shop owners and the market authorities have been able to establish a clue as to what ignited the fire and the exact point it began.
Rivers State Commissioner for Special Duties, Dickson Umunakwe whose ministry supervises the State Fire Service however, on self assessment, blamed the uninhibited impact of the fire on poor consciousness among traders and residents in the vicinity.
“Three things are involved in this disaster. Carelessness on the part of the traders and residents of this area, ignorance and sabotage. These factors contributed”, Umunakwe stated.
Umunakwe further said efforts to co-opt the fire units of major oil companies in Port Harcourt which could have added value to the State Fire Service’s efforts to arrest the fire did not materialise as companies who were reached on phone declined assistance because they needed go ahead from their head managements.
The State Commissioner for Information, Ibim Semenitari in a separate reaction blamed the fire on sabotage, alleging a link between the inferno and current political uncertainties in the state.
“At 2am, we heard dynamite and all kinds of sounds emanating from the Abonima Wharf area and also from the Marine Base. This sound continued. We are suspicious of sabotage in the light of current happenings”, Semenitari claimed.
In a continued blame game, factional Chairman of the Mile I Market Association, Chief Young Obene Clark Georgewill, accused the Mayor (Chairman) of the Port Harcourt City Council, Chimbiko Akarolo of masterminding fire out break.
He said, “On 6th January 2004, one Daniel Inyeme collaborated with one Mr. Akarolo and burnt the market at 8pm. Last year, this same group attempted burning the market, and I quickly rushed to Zone Six of the Nigeria Police who asked that I substantiate my suspicion, but the fire was averted.
“The same interest who hijacked the leadership are the ones who have burnt it again. I have been in this market for over 45 years. Recently I borrowed some money from a Micro Finance bank, but I was not feeling well so I gave it to my wife to stock my shop. Now everything is gone, burnt by these people,” he alleged.
Mrs. Olatoyin, one of several tenants at the storey building also gutted by the fire said the impact would have been far minimal if the Rivers State Fire Service was proactive. She lamented that, “The fire started from the other side and as early 2am, I rushed with my husband to the Fire Service, so close by. They came with trucks but none had water.
They were just there idling about with their vehicles as the fire spread, burnt the entire shops and took over our house.
No life was lost directly to the destructive fire, but eye witnesses said fleeing armed robbers in a car rushed through the market axis of the Ikwerre Road as the fire blazed on, and brushed their speeding getaway vehicle through a cluster of frantic shop owners who were trying to salvage the much they could from the dangerous burning fire. Two victims of that car accident were speculated dead in the process while others badly wounded were rushed to hospitals. Some victims who had rushed to the scene watched helplessly as their entire goods disappeared. Some of them reportedly collapsed and were rushed to the hospital.
Mayor of Port Harcourt valued the loss at billions of Naira. The loss also include cash in millions of naira of the previous days sales locked in the shops by some of the victims.
Mrs. Olatoyin whose family lost everything, but her jewelries at the storey building said, “What I am putting on is the only clothes I have. We returned from the Fire Service to meet our apartment razed and everything including documents burnt. The State Fire Service is just there for nothing. They are not working. I am nonetheless grateful that nobody was burnt to death. I just went back to our burnt apartment and discovered that my gold jewelries were not damaged”.
Madam Joy Opara lost her shop of deep freezers stocked with fresh stock of frozen food. In between sobs, she said, “I cannot quantity the loss. Most of us stocked our shops for the Xmas sales with credit facility provided by some micro finance banks who were frequent at the market over the previous week. The little returns I get daily I use in supporting my family and younger ones who are in school. Where do I go from here now?”
As victims count their losses, Governor Rotimi Amaechi and Major of Port Harcourt City Council, Akarolo in separate visits to the burnt market have promised to build a more befitting market at the burnt shops with Akarolo also declaring his intention to set up inquiry into the disaster. Amaechi while expressing his sympathy with the distressed traders gave the possibility a State Government’s lifeline before Christmas to help cushion the impact on the victims.
Barely 24 hours after the Mile1 fire, a day light fire took a better half of the Ahoada Main Market, Ahoada East of the State while traders while busy selling. Blessing Okagbidi, Press Aide to the Ahoada East Council Chairman who valued the loss at the Ahoada Market fire at millions of Naira blamed the untimely response to the fire on “lack of fire department in the area.”