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Nigeria International Market opens in Benin Republic
…We have come to the Promised Land – Chairman of traders union
After 40 years at what some now call wilderness, Nigerian traders in Benin Republic say they have finally got to the Promised Land. They made this declaration last Saturday, November 17, 2012; during the formal inauguration of the Nigeria International Market at Okun Seme Village in Commune de Seme-Podji (Seme-Podji Local Government Area), Departement de l’Oueme. So, less than six months after its foundation-laying ceremony on June 8, this year; the Nigeria International Market, which a few years ago would have been considered an unrealisable dream, has become a reality.
Also, November 17, 2012 has gone down in history as the day the first-ever market run by Nigerians was established in any foreign country across the globe. Speaking at the ceremony, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s envoy to Benin Republic, Ambassador Lawrence Olufemi Obisakin; remarked: “I sincerely congratulate all of you, who made this possible. I must also tell you that, I am delighted that this historic development is taking place during my tenure here”.
The polyglot Yoruba-born top-flight diplomat dug into Igbo cultural cornucopia and pulled out a Chinua Achebe adage, and got spontaneous applause; when he echoed: “The Igbo say that, the lizard that survived a fall from a tall iroko tree without breaking its back, truly deserves to applaud itself, even if no-one else would hail its feat. So, I’m happy at this development and indeed proud of you, all”. The Nigerian envoy oscillated with ease between English and French languages, official tongues of Nigeria and Benin Republic respectively. Not only that, Obisakin also interspersed his speech with Igbo chants, Yoruba adages and Sanu nku, Hausa language for Thank you all; consequently eliciting a standing ovation at the end of his rendition.
Henceforth, no more living in fear as used to be the plight of countless Nigerian traders, when they operated at Missebo Market. At Missebo aka Biafra Market, countless merchants struggled for space in an area that was never originally designated as Market Precinct in the town’s Master Plan. At Missebo, motorists had trouble getting around because vendors and hawkers had taken over everywhere: kerbs, sidewalks and the roads.
There was congestion everywhere, and because of the state of the Missebo neighbourhood, police regularly had genuine reasons to sanitise the surroundings. Moreover, speculations were also rife that undesirable elements found camouflage in the rowdy situation of Missebo and planned or launched unsavoury activities therefrom. On the other hand, however, many Nigerian traders recounted experiences of excessive taxation, even extortion at the hand of some officials. Some Nigerian merchants also claimed they were frequently harassed by local security operatives at Missebo.
The way things stood at their old base, it was no longer a question of, whether things will someday get to the breaking-point; but, when. That dreaded defining moment came more than a year ago, when numerous shops and stalls, believed to be illegal structures; were demolished by the authorities. Suddenly, countless Nigerians resident in Benin Republic and making a living as traders at Biafra Market for decades, found themselves in a lurch. With no mart to conduct their trading, hardship set-in in various ways. Children’s school fees were late in coming and many families were forced to tighten their belts as waist-lines came down from empty stomachs.
However, all hopes were not lost because a few responsive Nigerian community leaders were frantically searching for a way out of the crisis. Initially, apparently due to desperation; some people were actually going to jump at an offer to relocate to another site, even when it was common knowledge that the domain would only be available for three years. To worsen matters, checks revealed there was no provision for a market in that domain, too. For these reasons, Chief Ebuka Onunkwo, Eze Igbo of Benin Republic was against the idea of going to another temporary site.
Hear him: “I was convinced that it would not help us. If we moved to that location and after three years, when we would have developed the area; we are asked to move away, again; we might even be more vulnerable then. “For how long were we going to run from pillar to post? So, I felt we needed something permanent, a place where our people shall enjoy peace of mind; and, our final decision led us here.
This is the Promised Land and it was made possible by our people’s sacrifice, patience and perseverance”, declared Onunkwo; who went on to ask Nigerians to see a template in this fruit of their cooperation. “We can achieve great things, when we work as one”, declared Chief Onunkwo, who holds the title of Odozi-obodo 1, during his address at the inauguration of the market.
The Igbo king observed that, while every Nigerian was prepared to operate as a responsible merchant by paying necessary taxes; never-the-less, it had become inevitable to implore Beninese authorities to temper justice with mercy by avoiding crippling taxation of Nigerians doing business in that country, because every Nigerian is not a money-bag. Chief Onunkwo said that, while Nigeria could be considered as very rich and blessed by God in terms of endowments; every Nigerian was not a money-bag.
He revealed that, from the difficulties that some of the traders faced; when called upon to pay certain dues, it was apparent that “most of our people here are struggling and just managing to make ends meet”. From the cheers that greeted his speech, it was glaring that Eze Igbo spoke well. Not to be outdone, Mayor of Seme-Podji, Hon. Mathias Gbedan also invoked loud cheers from the audience for his address as well as the minute-long prayer for President of Benin Republic, HE Dr Thomas Yayi Boni.
The Mayor pointedly recalled that Chief Onunkwo was the first Nigerian to meet him over the possibility of establishing a market by Nigerians at Seme-Podji. Although much has been achieved, a lot more remains to be done. Thus, amid the euphoria, key figures were still sober enough to remind that the wooden and corrugated-ironsheet roof stalls were temporary structures and that permanent blocks could only be built through more sacrifices by the traders as well as support from relevant agencies, especially financial institutions.
Indeed, photographs bearing artists’ impression of the proposed permanent structure of the market were on display for all to see during the event. Representatives of two Beninese banks with Nigerian hubs, UBA and Diamond; who spoke at the event, promised that their banks would give the welfare of traders at the market priority over institutional competition. “Normally, banks are in business for competition and the competition will continue, but; as far as this project (Nigeria International Market) is concerned, we will give priority to the traders’ welfare as long as the traders also help to make things easier for us”, declared the UBA representative at the event.
Aside Amb Obisakin, Mrs. Maureen d’Almeida, Women Leader and Hotel Proprietress; Chef de Securite d’Arrondissement (CIA, Chief Security Officer of the LGA), Mr. Medeyonwa Leopold; Tradition Ruler of Okun Seme, Majestie Gbena; and, Traditional Religion Leader, Vodouno Gbedo; were also there. Ede, Osun State-born President of Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation (NIDO), Cotonou Chapter; Past. Julius A. Aderinto as well as executive members of all of Nigeria’s regional bodies were also in attendance. Roll call: Alhaji Mounirou Garba, Seriki Hausawa, though unavoidably absent, was well-represented by Limann Abu Abubakar and Mallam Salihu Mohammed Waziri; Mr. Fatai Abimbola Oladimeji, Chairman of Yoruba Community; Chief Bruno Omoregbe, Mr. Kufre Ekanem, Mr. Promise Obulor, Mr. Wilfred Imasuen, Mr. Afeez Owonikoko, General Secretary of Nigerian Traders’ Welfare Union (NTWU) as well as two of the day’s event’s MCs; Mr. Okezie I. Jonathan and Prince Emeka Onyenweaku. To be continued…