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By Magnus Eze
Julius occupies Shop 35 at the Arts and Craft Village owned by the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), Abuja, where he sells assorted cultural attires and ornaments.
Fate saved him from what would have been a bleak yuletide as his shop survived a mystery inferno that engulfed the craft market in the night of December 15 by the whiskers.
Mother luck was actually with Julius, but not so for his immediate neighbour in Shop 34 and occupants of 17 others. Their shops were razed to rubbles.
The fire incident has remained a subject of controversy between the traders and the authorities of the NCAC as they bicker over the actual cause of the unfortunate inferno that destroyed means of livelihoods of many families.
Traders at the market have accused government of being behind the fire incident, apparently because of previous efforts to sanitise activities in the place.
There was also another allegation that a certain unnamed police officer on duty at the craft village should be made to explain what he knew about the fire incident.
The cop was said to have had a misunderstanding with one of the traders in Shop 49 over attempt by the trader to leave his faulty car overnight at the premises. Following the altercation that ensued between them, the police officer had allegedly gone to Shop 49 and openly threatened to deal with the trader.
This, to the traders, was a clear case of an owl crying in the night and a child dying in the morning.
But, NCAC Director General, Otunba Segun Runsewe urged the public to disregard rumours being peddled about the cause of the inferno, describing the mention of the agency as unfortunate and laughable.
Even though the government’s desire is to remodel the place to international standard, he said such contemplation by the agency would amount to cutting its nose to spite its face.
“I have been making concerted efforts towards enhancing the standard of the permanent site. To ensure security of life and property at the site, we now have a police post in place.
“It was out of my personal concern for the lives of those doing business at the site that after due consultation with the occupants; I took the decision to stop people from sleeping in the premises. I took particular note of the fact that there were not adequate facilities to make the site fully residential. It was never intended to be residential.
“But for that proactive deci- sion, this fire incident could have resulted to serious casualties. Let me categorically state that the NCAC has no hand in the fire outbreak as being alleged. The allegation is both unfortunate and laughable,” Runsewe stated.
According to him, preliminary reports from the Fire Service and the Police attributed the fire outbreak to a cooking device known as hot place which was not turned off in Shop 47; occupied by one Hajia Amina Mustapha.
The DG said; “We thank God that no life was lost because it would have been a different story. But let’s tell ourselves the truth, you know that your neighbour is cooking in the market, everybody knows that this woman cooks there but they did nothing. Even one day I was on a disguised inspection; and I asked what the electric boiler was doing there and they said they were taking it home.
So, nobody should claim it was the power holding company that caused it when they brought light; no, power holding company didn’t put the electric boiler there. If the woman had put it off; there wouldn’t have been fire when NEPA brought back the light at night.”
He said the destruction of NCAC property including flex banners and billboards adorning the premises by the irate traders, after the fire incident was crude and uncivilised; maintaining that government must punish the perpetrators to serve as a deterrent to others in future.
Why would the traders go and destroy government property after the fire incident? There’s fire outbreak in the market; why are you going to destroy government property; is government the one responsible; is government the occupant of Shop 47? This is part of the indiscipline that we’ve been permitting in our system which must stop.
“Their own will be a lesson to others. Government gives you an opportunity to earn a living; it’s not a weakness of not know- ing what should be done.
“We are going to rebuild the place to international standard and accommodate all professionals and stakeholders but this time; it will be credible and well documented persons. The era of people owning five or six shops in the place is over because these are the people fomenting all the troubles there.
“Government is not a Father Christmas; if we have to get this done, it must be done with the right people to manage and operate there. Some people believe that government property is no- body’s property; some people before us struggled to keep the place. Why must we be the one to destroy it?
Runsewe maintained that the inferno would have been avoided if there was a central power control system in the market such that at close of business it would be switched off from one point.
Licking the wounds Several visits by Daily Sun were met with lamentations from the victims of the fire disaster. Ahmed Mustapha, whose father’s company, Mustapha Kidama Nigeria Limited traded on gemstone and other jewelleries at Shops 33A and B put their loss at N400million.
He confirmed that the occu- pant of Shop 47; Hajia Mustapha used to cook in the market before the traders were banned from sleeping in the market, arguing that the fire would have been contained if the traders slept in the market that night.
Mustapha said “I have been sleeping here for 15 years and anytime there was fire incident in any shop, it would be put off under 30 minutes because people will rush out and quench it.
“The DG promised to bring Fire Service here, bring ATM, CCTV cameras and other things and he forced us to stop sleeping in the market. But immediately the AFAC Expo ended, they took away everything and we didn’t see him again.”
Occupant of Shop 49, Sunday Nkwo, where the traders alleged the fire started told Daily Sun that he was not there to know where it began but explained that he had no combustible in his shop and did not leave electricity on.
In the main, sympathizers have continued to throng the place; especially politicians. Former Kano governor, Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso stormed the market on December 20 and commiserated with the traders who lost their wares in the fire.
He promised to ensure that they were not evicted from the market and donated N500,000 to them.
Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, Mrs. Grace Isu-Gekpe conducted round by the DG; also inspected the extent of destruction on December 22.
Meanwhile, Runsewe has as- sured that NCAC will continue to do everything within its power to ensure the sustenance of a conducive social environment for all legitimate occupants of the craft market to do business without let or hindrance, hinting that they were waiting for the police report before taking next line of action.