Owerri: Nero Fiddles While Rome Burns

By Comfort Obi

Students of history would, of course, remember  Nero, the frivolous Emperor of the Roman Empire who famously fiddled while Rome burnt. In the South-East where I come from, nothing could be nearer the truth than Nero’s story. Most of our leaders play while the region burns. They engage in frivolities and big-manism while the region is systematically being destroyed.

You will excuse me to use the tragedy that is the Ekeukwu market in Owerri as a typical example.  For two years, almost, the case of the famous Ekeukwu Owere, situated along Douglas road and adjoining streets was a ding-dong affair. To be or not to be? To relocate or not to relocate? It has been so between the Governor Rochas Okorocha-led Imo state government and the natives of Owerri (Owere Nshi Ise), the capital of Imo state.

A few months into the Okorocha administration, he came up with the idea that the market represents everything that is bad, and so, must be relocated. He described it as an embarrassment, especially in a state capital, which, in fairness to the governor, he has tried to give a modern look infrastructure-wise. I see new roads even though the inner roads in the state capital are unbelievably ugly and impassable. I see beautiful, modern buildings. I see well, how do I describe them? Okay, let me use the local parlance — decorations. Beautiful as they are, it would have been preferable to use the hundreds of millions of Naira, spent on such decorations for good roads. Of what use are beautiful buildings and decorations when there are no good roads aside from a couple of major streets. Everywhere, almost, is cut-off from the state capital because of the terrible state of the roads. The people are frustrated over the situation. It is not even different within the state capital. Many of the roads are a nightmare.

But I digress.

I was talking about the tragedy that has now become the Ekeukwu Owerri market. So, the governor said the market was an eye-sore sitting majestically on an otherwise growing modern city. He talked about the environmental hazard. The refuse it accumulates, which stench reaches high-heavens, the governor said, can no longer be tolerated. Worse, the governor and security agencies insisted that it had become a den for criminals. Many youths, they allege, do nothing but wait for market men and women – morning, afternoon, evening, to collect “tolls” from them, or forcefully make away with their wares. More worrisome, however, they allege: Ekeukwu has become the melting point for armed robbers, rapists, pick-pockets, hard drug users etc. According to them: “There is a shopping centre known to everybody as cocaine complex yet, everybody keeps quiet.”

The government said for sanity to reign, the embarrassment that has become Ekeukwu Owere has to go. It said it needed to demolish the market to finally upgrade the capital city to its status as a capital city.

But Owere people cried foul, alleging that the mere thought of relocating the market is an abomination, a sacrilege. The governor, they allege, is only expressing in another way, his alleged deep seated hatred for Owere people. They cite as an example, his alleged treatment of former high profile appointees from the zone in his government who he humiliated out of office using either fabricated stories, flimsy excuses, or both. To punish the Owere man more, they say, he now wants to humiliate their forefathers from whom they inherited the market. They also doubt the relocation of the market would be in public interest. An elder told this writer: “The governor’s interest in the market is suspect. He has an obscene, selfish acquisition tendency. I suspect whatever he puts up there will not be for the state government. It may be his personal acquisition. We have seen and endured things in this Owere Nshi Ise from this governor. Ekeukwu Owere is the limit. This is not about giving the state capital a modern look. It is about one man’s business.”

Ekeukwu Owere is an ancestral market, inherited from the people’s forefathers. It has, for decades, been the people’s identity. Their icon. So they ask: What are we going to tell our ancestors? What will  Owere Nshi Ise be without Ekeukwu? Relocating it is like stripping us of our identity. Perhaps.

Yet, not a few people are of the view that Owere Nshi Ise  had since, because of local politics, stripped itself of its identify and that perhaps, the ancestors may be angry. Such people ask: Where were Owere people when the government split the once proud single autonomous community into five – with a couple of autonomous communities not bigger than a hamlet? From having, usually, one respected and revered king, the people now have five of them whose, no disrespect intended, names people do not even know? What can be worse than that?  Meaning: The people can hardly speak with one voice.

However, government’s action on the market seem to have woken them up from sleep. So they ask now: Whatever happened to us? What did we do? Where are we? A bit late, one is tempted to say. Yet…

For the traders, chasing them out of the market is as bad as a death sentence. Where will they go to? The traders have invested their lives in the market. Their goods are worth billions of Naira. What will happen to them? But the government countered that it had built more than 10,000 shops/stalls where they would be relocated to – Ohi, Naze, Relief market. To Owere people, that is not the point. The point is, they insist: This is their ancestral market bequeathed unto them by their ancestors. Taking it out of Owere nshi ise is a deliberate provocation and insult – not only to the living, but to the dead.

Penultimate week, however, something gave. The government “ran out of patience” and issued a-72-hour ultimatum to the traders to vacate the market and take a long walk. Many traders thought things would, as usual, be sorted out. And so did Owere Nchi Ise people. Afterall, there is a court order against the goverment. This time, however, it was different.

On the eve of the demolition exercise, Owere youths and women assembled to defend their inheritance.  But they were out-smarted by security agents who told them to go to bed as only shanties along the road would be demolished. They left at about 2.00am, satisfied. At about 4.00am, the demolition squad and its weapons moved in. On ground were a combination of the military, police and other para-military agencies. But there was also a strange group in black uniform – allegedly recruited from another senatorial zone by the state government. They were armed with guns and matchets. And so, guns boomed from them and allegedly from Owere youths who felt betrayed. Eye witnesses say neither the military nor the police shot at anybody or anything. Only the police tear-gas was handy. But the strange “uniformed people” sowed havoc, blood and tears. In the confusion, an innocent boy – Somtoochukwu Ibeanusi — was killed by an obvious stray bullet while he was out, with his sister, to help his parents evacuate their wares from their shop. It remains to be ascertained why parents would send their children out at that dangerous period. Anyway, the young boy died in a most cruel manner, leaving his devastated parents and siblings with unanswered questions.

So, what is the truth about the Owerri tragedy?

Let me start by saying that the government, considering the Imo state land use laws has the right to take charge of any parcel of land and revoke its Certificate of Occupancy. Every piece of land belongs to the government. Meaning that the Imo state government reserves the right to take over the land on which Ekeukwu is situated. But this must be done according to the laws of the land, following due process. And it must be done with human face. There must be compassion. Agreement. And compensation.

In the case of Ekeukwu Owere, the government showed no compassion. It acted as if it was at war with the people, and as if there will be no tomorrow. The market may have degenerated, to a little extent, an abode for some criminals. But that removes nothing from its iconic status. Most markets in Lagos have the same reputation. In any case, what is the job of security agencies? It is to flush out criminals, not to give them a free reign. And, what makes anybody think that the alleged criminals will not congregate again at the new locations — unfortunately, outside Owere nshi ise? This relocation outside it has firmly denied them of their pride.

But more important, the people insist there is an injunction against the relocation of the market. So, why did the government not wait until its vacation?  Worse is: the government, wittingly or unwittingly, allowed the exercise to degenerate to a low level — bloodshed. It breaks the heart looking at the body of the young Somtochukwu as it sprawled on the ground, spewing blood, and his sister, blood soaked, weeping over his body. More heartbreaking, however, is that both the state government and law enforcement agents feigned ignorance of the boy’s tragic and avoidable death. As I write this, neither the state government nor the police has visited his family to offer condolences. This is not acceptable. They say he was not killed by their agents. True?

In case the state government does not know, it has blood on its hands. But for the demolition exercise, Somtochukwu would still have been alive. Indeed, the government even, excuse this cliché, adds insult to injury by insisting that those who stood against the relocation and demolition exercise were neither Owere people nor the traders; that Owere people and the traders were happy with the exercise. True? This is propaganda taken to a ridiculous level.

The question the government should answer is: Who brought  the armed, strange youths, allegedly from another senatorial zone to come and “fight” in Owerri? Was that necessary? In doing that, the government, or whoever brought them, has deliberately created enemity between the two zones. More curious, however: Where were the police, the military and other security agencies when the “strange fellows” showed their faces in Owerri to back the demolition exercise and face Owerri youths? The relocation of the market may be necessary, at some point in time, but I don’t know why the state government thinks it is a priority now. For many Imo people, it is not. The state is faced with so many problems that this tragic exercise would have been ignored. There is the problem of salaries owed. There is the problem of pensioners dying over non-payment of their entitlements. There is the problem of bad roads. There is the problem of youth unemployment. There is the problem of hunger. There is the problem of insecurity — armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, etc. How come the demolition and relocation of Ekeukwu  Owere  became a priority? Indeed, there are many uncompleted projects in the state. Why start a new one – be it a shopping mall or a school project as is being speculated?

Definitely, none of these problems is exclusive to Imo state or the South east. It is general in character. But it is worse in the South-east, a zone with no road, no federal presence. Just nothing but plenty of hunger and suffering. Yet, our leaders in the South-east would pre-occupy themselves with frivolities. But back to the Owere problem.

In case the governor does not know, or have not heard, the fear is that after demolition, the Ekeukwu Owere land may be up for grabs. Personally, I don’t believe it, but he needs to disabuse the minds of the people. A couple of days after the demolition exercise, the government held a meeting with the leaders of the  Ekeukwu Owere market where it tried to explain its  position, and make offers of free shops (for three months). This seems like, excuse this cliché again, medicine after death. Why was the meeting not held before the exercise?

The state government has a lot of work to do in the state. A first step is to forget the propaganda and make deliberate efforts to win back the trust of the people. This, it can start, by coming down from its high horse, and visit the bereaved Somtoochukwu family and all those injured during the exercise. It should pay compensation to his family and off-set the funeral expenses as well as pick the hospital bills of the injured. It should also invite the leaders of Owerri zone to a meeting – a zone which feels that the incumbent governor has no use for its people.  As for me, my prayers for Imo is: Peace, brothers and sisters, peace.

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