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By Romanus Ugwu
Business activities are usually halted intermittently by the shouts of “thief, thief,” “barawo,” “ole,” “onye ori.” The alarming shouts are usually preceded by beatings of the culprits and, in some cases, their accomplices.
The stench of Indian hemp consumed in the market, the periodic shout of “my phone, my phone,” “my money” or “my bags” are enough to arouse the curiosity and fear of the shopping public that they are in a den of robbers.
Welcome to the world of uncertainties at Wuse Market, like many other markets in Abuja, the abode of good and evil and the custodians of joy and misery. Most markets in the FCT house touts deceptively swindling and sometimes robbing shoppers of their personal belongings.
The number of touts hanging around the markets has continued to increase in leaps and bounds, especially since the biting effects of recession in the country became harder. It is now so bad that the chances of shopping and leaving the markets without being robbed or witnessing a robbery have become very slim.
The mistake of patronising touts at markets, with its accompanying woes, may not be the only shopping error that FCT residents commit. At offices of the various telecommunications outfits in Abuja and its environs, it has become a tradition for subscribers to patronise touts or agents hanging around the premises of the networks, instead of entering the buildings to carry out their business.
The activities of touts, which has also extended to many other shopping malls in the FCT, have always left lamentations in their wake as shoppers are left to regret not patronising the real shop owners or outfits.
Inside the market, in traffic and at network centres, the activities of the touts usually involve persuasion and sometimes forceful extortion of the customers’ personal belongings.
The operations of the touts usually involve standing at the entrances to the markets, shopping complex or network centres, where they can have first contact with the customers they usually persuasively talk into submission.
When they succeed in winning the shoppers’ confidence, they would collect items like cell phones and leave the shoppers waiting or take them to any of their collaborator’s shops to wait endlessly for them. On their return, if they do return, it is either that the item has been tampered with or the customer would get a fake item in exchange.
Their activities at the telecoms centres are usually more disturbing as they would stand in front of or opposite the entrance of the complex, persuading customers to buy SIM cards or fix their network problems instead allowing them to go inside to “wait” on a long queue.
Armed with the necessary devices to make their operations very convincing, the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the telecommunication staff and the increasing numerical strength of customers seeking attention daily at the network centres have equally contributed in making touts’ operations smooth.
Lamentations of shop owners
Reacting to the menace of touts in the market, a businesman who owned a handsets and accessories shop at Wuse market, Ignatius Madu, told Daily Sun that the touts were graduating from innocently assisting confused customers to robbing them of their belongings.
While lamenting that though the market task force had periodically rounded up the touts with the help of security agents, he decried the increasing rate of touting activities in the market, saying that they now smoke Indian hemp and rob shoppers brazenly.
According to him; “Their activities usually start every evening from 5pm, when the market taskforce would have closed for the day, and peak until the closure of the market. They smoke Indian hemp with impunity, fight each other while struggling for the attention of the shoppers, who they deceive, swindle or rob.
“Incidentally, they come from every part of Nigeria. I don’t blame them so much, instead I blame the shoppers that prefer to patronise them instead of entering the shops, where they have a chance of returning any fake item sold to them.
“Periodically, the task force would raid and arrest some of them but they usually return to the market after spending a few days or weeks, perhaps, in police cells or at the prison, to resume their nefarious activities. They steal customers’ handsets, money, bags and other personal effects.
“Their activities deteriorated to this extent since they closed some markets, forcing some genuine traders to take up touting as a means of survival. They would hang around the entrance of the markets, wait for customers coming to buy, repair or exchange their phones and deceive some of them into paying much for substandard phones.
“I initially blamed some of the shoppers patronising them but the painful thing is that many of them connive with shop owners to defraud the shopping public. In most cases when the customers discover that they bought fake phones or accessories, for example, and return them, the shop owners would deny them, challenging them to provide the tout who brought them to their shop.”
Subscribers prefer touts at network centres
While defending the choice of subscribers patronising touts within the vicinity of telecommunications network providers’ centres, many clients blamed the situation on impatience, arguing that each time they visit the network centres, there was always a large crowd waiting to be attended to, which usually makes them to spend long hours at the expense of other pressing activities.
A disgruntled subscriber, Rev. Fr. Kenneth Agwu, who reacted to the ordeal Nigerians pass through at the various network centres, lamented that the actions of the network operators usually encourage subscribers to patronise the touts.
Narrating his ordeal at a network provider’s centre during the SIM registration exercise, the clergyman said: “I got a text message from one of them for registration of my SIM card and on getting there I met over 1,000 people waiting helplessly without any one to promptly attend to them.
“This was about the fourth time I had been visiting them for the same registration of my SIM. I don’t really understand what the problem was because they forced us to undergo several fresh registrations.
“My concern was that the service at providers’ centres were always problematic and very stressful. With the threat to disconnect, they sometimes left the subscribers without any choice than to wait endlessly on the queue or adopt the plan B of patronising the touts or agents outside.”
Another subscriber who reacted on the issue condemned the inefficiency of the staff of the network centres, describing their nonchalant attitude as second to none.
“Sometimes, most of them feel they are on top of the world, working with the telecommunications firms and treat the subscribers with disrespect and nonchalance. In most of the outfits, the subscribers usually end up spending hours on end without any staff showing serious concern.
“With this treatment, tell me why they should not patronise the so-called touts or agents that attend to them with dispatch,” the subscriber said.
Task force constantly raiding markets for touts
The spokesman for Wuse Market, Abuja, Mr. Innocent Amaechina, while reacting to the menace of market touts, told Daily Sun that the market authorities were aware of the situation but were not being idle, as they periodically arrest them, in collaboration with security agencies.
In his words: “I have not personally noticed the increasing activities of the touts in Wuse Market. It may be perhaps because the touts don’t wear identification tags.
“However, what we do periodically is to carry out raids in collaboration with relevant security agencies, to flush the touts out of the market. Again, we have internal mechanism of checkmating their activities. We have a mobile court where we try anybody identified as a tout, in accordance with the rules and regulations guiding the operations in the market.
“In addition, since it is very difficult to identify the touts, we have pleaded with the traders and shop owners to help us fish them out. In fact, we threatened to arrest any trader or shop owner who shields any tout that ran into his shop. We made it clear to them that anyone who connives with the touts will be tried for aiding and abating the activities of touting.
“One of the challenges we have is that many of them will claim to be shop boys soliciting for customers. We have noticed that it will be a futile effort to sanitise and rid the market of touting activities without the active collaboration of the shop owners.