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●Traders lick wounds after goods worth millions of naira burn in mystery Yuletide inferno
By Sunday Ani and Tony Udemba
Traders at the Lagos International Trade Fair Complex, Ojo, Lagos, and their union officials are at daggers drawn at the moment. Both parties are accusing the other of being the cause of the recent fire that destroyed the Progressive section of the market.
Whereas the traders are accusing the leaders of the Association of Progressive Traders (APT) of being responsible for the inferno that razed their goods and properties worth millions of naira, the leadership has absolved itself of any complicity in the incident.
Part of the ‘Block One’ section of the Article Line in the market located on the Lagos-Badagry Expressway recently went up in flames during the alleged burning of a refuse dumpsite located close to the market.
The victims alleged that the illegal burning of wastes near the market by the leaders was responsible for the incident. They accused the unionists of contributing to the problem through their failure to engage the services of the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) for prompt and proper disposal of waste, insisting that it was the spread of fire from the burning refuse at the dumpsite that engulfed the market.
However, the leadership of the APT has debunked the allegation, arguing that the fire emanated from suspected combustibles in a truck loaded with goods parked near the dumpsite.
Speaking to Daily Sun, the aggrieved traders stated that they had complained to the leaders of the market union about the inherent dangers in open burning of waste in the market, but they failed to listen. They had also protested that the practice should be stopped because of its adverse health implications, as it was a potential cause of fire; they regretted that the union ignored their warning and protests.
Fire emanated from dumpsite
Commenting on the incident, a haulage operator and managing director of Bethel Praise Transport Company, Nonso Onyekaonwu, whose truck laden with goods was destroyed in the inferno, said: “A day before the fire outbreak, we loaded three trucks. Two trucks left for Onitsha on the same day, while the third truck developed some mechanical faults. By the time the problem was fixed it was already late for the truck to depart; so, we postponed the journey to the next day. Unfortunately, both the truck and the goods it bore, which ran into millions of naira, were consumed by the inferno. The claim by the traders’ union that the fire outbreak was caused by combustible materials loaded in our truck was simply untrue; it was a distortion of the actual cause of the incident. It is laughable and unacceptable to us.
“The truth is that everyone in the market knows that it was the illegal burning of refuse by the union that caused us the huge losses. It is inhuman on the part of the union to turn around to blame us, rather than take responsibility for its negligence and improper handling of waste.”
Speaking further, he said: “For a long time now, the traders’ union leadership has continued to collect environmental sanitation levy from traders and everyone doing business in the market for the purpose of waste disposal, but, instead of disposing the waste properly through LAWMA, it preferred to hire an agent, who usually came to burn heaps of waste at the dumpsite, without recourse to its potential danger.”
He stated that the evening before the incident, he saw the man hired by the market leaders doing the job: “I personally warned him against such practice that evening. I told him clearly that I had a truck nearby fully loaded with goods bound for Onitsha the next morning. I pleaded with him not to carry out his usual practice, but he never said anything. He simply ignored me.”
Onyekaonwu explained that, in the past, that particular area of the market had witnessed spates of minor fire outbreaks from the refuse dump.
“On several occasions, in the past, we had witnessed fire incidents as a result of the poor management of the dumpsite in the market, but the timely intervention of traders had always saved the situation. But, this time around, the traders were not lucky,” he said.
Traders accuse market leaders of negligence
Onyekaonwu lamented that, instead of the union accepting responsibility for what had befallen the traders, and make arrangements on how to compensate the victims, its leaders were plotting to turn the case against his firm. He alleged that, immediately after the fire outbreak, the union leaders deployed a bulldozer to clear the heaps of rubbish from the affected area as a ploy to hide the actual cause of the fire.
“A few days after the inferno, we met with the union leaders, who tried to blame us for causing the incident. But, when we resisted this distortion of the truth, they requested for more consultation; they postponed the meeting to another day. I never knew that they had a different agenda in mind; the next thing they did was to seal up my business premises,” he said.
Onyekaonwu has called on the Lagos State government to carry out a thorough investigation into the matter and ensure that the victims were compensated.
Another victim of the fire, Mrs. Chiamaka Okadigbo, blamed the leaders of the market for their negligence in handling the removal of waste in the market. She called on the union to pay for the goods and properties lost during the incident: “Everyone knows that the union has not followed the proper way in handling and disposing waste generated in the market, despite the fact that it collects so much money every month as sanitation levy from the traders.
“Everyone knows that the practice of burning waste in the market is harmful to health and can also lead to fire outbreak. It is unfortunate that, instead of contracting LAWMA, the union chose to bring this hardship upon us.”
She lamented that the affected traders had suffered great losses and called on the union to rebuild their shops without delay and compensate them to enable them return to business.
While bemoaning his loss, another trader, Sylvester Okpara, equally blamed the union for not listening to calls to discontinue the practice of burning waste in the open. He also stated that he had had disagreements with the union leaders over the poor management of waste in that section of the market. He recalled that, on the night of the incident, he received a telephone call from a fellow trader at about 3am informing him that their block was on fire.
Okpara said: “On arrival, I joined a handful of traders to put out the fire but to no avail. Before the state fire service and the state emergency management agency could arrive, our shops had been razed to the ground as well as a fully-loaded truck parked in the market. It is hard to believe that this happened to us at the peak of the Christmas season, when many traders fully stocked their shops for Christmas sales.”
Similarly, another haulage operator, Mallam Nura Nuhu, who recorded huge losses, corroborated other victims’ allegation on the cause of the fire: “There is no single person doing business here who does not know about the sufferings the market leadership has put us through. Every month, they collect levy from the traders to evacuate waste. But rather than engage the services of LAWMA, they will pay one man to be burning the waste from time to time, without even listening to our complaints.”
Another trader who identified himself as Darlington told Daily Sun that he lost about N10 million worth of goods, as well as N500,000 cash to the fire. He said that he sold local and imported perfumes and was still in shock at his loss.
Fire started from explosion of goods in loaded truck – Market union
But the APT leadership has refuted the allegation that its negligence caused the fire. It described the allegation as the handiwork of those who lost out during the last election. The leadership attributed the cause of the inferno to an alleged explosion from a parked truck near the dumpsite, which was loaded with goods suspected to be combustible, adding that the originators of the allegation that its negligence caused the fire were merely playing politics.
“They are those who want to malign and run the leadership down because of the impending union election,” the APT said.
Reacting to the development, the union’s secretary, Cyril Okafor, recalled that such an incident had never happened before. He said that the market was designed in such a way that it would be very difficult to have a fire outbreak and, even when it occurred, it would be difficult to spread from one shop to another.
Okafor said that the allegation that negligence on the part of the market leaders, who preferred to burn the refuse in the dumpsite instead of evacuating it through LAWMA, was unfounded.
He insisted that the fire did not start from the dumpsite and had nothing to do with the leadership of the market, which managed the arena.
“In this premises, we have a dumpsite. That is where we dump all the waste and from there, LAWMA comes to pick it. This is done on a monthly basis. But you know that, at dumpsites, you find scavengers and most of them smoke cigarettes, even while scavenging and when they finish smoking, they throw the cigarette stump into the dumpsite not minding the inherent danger of fire starting from it. This action is capable of causing fire but, as a proactive measure against such carelessness, we constructed a borehole very close to the dumpsite to take care of any emergency that might arise. There is also a pumping machine available to pump water in case there is any fire outbreak from the site.
“We have been managing affairs in this market for almost seven years now and there has never been a fire incident. But, occasionally, you could see smoke coming out from the site; it had always been put out almost immediately without any harm,” he said.
He declared that, from investigation, the cause of the incident was an explosion from a loaded truck that was parked very close to the dumpsite: “This particular incident started about 2am. According to the security man on duty that night, there was an explosion around that time of the night from a loaded truck parked by the dumpsite. It was the explosion from the truck that set the complex on fire. First, the goods in front of the shops caught fire. Then the fire spread to the building, leading to the destruction of people’s goods. That was the account given by the security man on duty that night.
“We were told that the truck was supposed to move that night but it developed some mechanical faults and that was why it was abandoned there with the hope that the problem would be fixed the next day for the driver go on the journey. Normally, we don’t allow such trucks to stay there; once a vehicle is loaded, it is expected to leave at once,” he said.
Truck loaded with air-conditioner gas refill, perfumes, fire crackers – Union
Speaking on the content of the loaded truck, Okafor said: “That is the area of controversy because those of us who came after the incident saw burnt canisters of gas refill for car air-conditioners, perfumes, thinners, knock-outs and other inflammable items.
We collect levy for market sanitation – Union
The union leader admitted collecting levies from the traders, which was meant to help them to evacuate refuse from the dumpsite. Okafor said: “We collect sanitation levy from traders but that is used to pay sweepers. After sweeping the market, the sweepers dump the refuse at the site for LAWMA to evacuate. So, the levy is used to pay the sweepers and for LAWMA services. The things that are dumped there are just nylon bags, papers and empty cartons, among other rubbish.”
Okafor denied claims that the traders had earlier protested and complained about the dumpsite and nobody listened to them, saying: “There has never been such a protest. It is not true that the association collects levies and refuses to pay LAWMA. You know that all these things are not immediate because, sometimes, even when we notify LAWMA to come and clear the refuse, they promise to come but do not. There was a period (last year), when they could not evacuate the refuse because they claimed that there was no place where they could go to discharge it.”
Security agencies investigate incident
Although Okafor could not give an estimate of what was lost in the inferno, he said that the leadership of the union had met with the victims, with a view to finding a way to assist them.
“But what is on ground now is that the association is under investigation by LAWMA, police and the Department of State Service.
“We have had a fruitful meeting with the victims, where we explained the situation and asked them to give us some time to sort ourselves out first. The police know that what we sell here are mainly jewellery, perfumes and cosmetics but they are suspecting other things.
“The driver is saying that what he loaded was perfume. But he has not admitted that he loaded cans of car air-conditioner gas refill, knock-out, thinner and others items. We have seen charred remains of those things. For now, we are greatly touched by this incident. This is an international shopping complex and a place where foreigners are supposed to invest in, if we make it viable. So, we cannot be working for people to progress and at the same time indulge in this kind of carelessness,” he said.
He also admitted that the people that did business around the dumpsite were actually not supposed to be there: “But we are in a democracy; so we can’t just push them away like that. Before that can be done, we have to go through the process of the law and you know that litigation takes time and equally costs money. Sometime last year, our president asked them to leave but they refused. However, that is not to say that the fire incident is justifiable.”
He called on LASEMA, the Lagos State government, corporate organisations as well as well-meaning individuals to come to the aid of the victims.
Those behind rumours playing politics – Union
The union’s secretary reiterated the claim that those behind the rumour that the fire was caused by the negligence of the market leadership were merely playing politics: “The tenure of this current leadership ends soon; this campaign of calumny is just to paint the present leadership in bad light so that it would be replaced. We know it is the handiwork of those who lost out during the last election. They are still fighting hard; they are the people behind this wicked insinuation that the leadership was responsible for the fire incident,” he said.