OWERRI MARKET DEMOLITION AND OTHER VEXATIONS
By Anthony Opara
The early morning demolition of shops on Douglas Road, Owerri, the Imo state capital is perhaps the culmination of the long-running state of bad blood between the state Governor, Rochas Anayo Ethelbert Okorocha, and his landlords and the aboriginal owners of the land harbouring the state capital.
Owerri people have been landlords to different administrations from the colonial era until now..It was once a Colonial Provincial Headquarters and the government house is named after Mr Douglas, a colonial occupant of the building which has retained the name in spite of the several modernizations by different Governors. Rochas is also the first Governor of the state to operate from his own house rather than live in Douglas House, the official residence of Imo Governors. Ikemba Nnewi, Dim Odimegwu Ojukwu lived there when the capital of Biafra moved to Owerri for a while during the Nigerian Biafran Civil war. The choice of Owerri as capital of Imo state was not a difficult one given the centrality of the town. Not only can one access all parts of the state from Owerri, the surrounding states of Rivers, Enugu, Abia and Anambra can also be accessed easily from Owerri. Owerri is also noted for its serenity and peace as the people are known for their hospitality and accommodation to all and sundry. The people are subsistence farmers and deeply into education and have produced noted administrators like the late Nathan Okeoma Ejiogu and Raymond Amanze Njoku to mention a few.
Owerri town has an ancestral market known as Eke Ukwu Owerri which is as old as the town. This market is located centrally to serve the five villages that make up the town. Both military and civilian administrators have seen this market and none attempted its removal until Rochas arrived the scene. This market has grown from a small town market to the central hub of what you will now call the central business district of the state capital and has therefore expanded to incorporate the adjoining streets to its original Douglas Road location.
From inception, Rochas didn’t hide his intention to remove the market from the center of town but rather than settle for a better area within the capital territory he said he will relocate the market to Ohi, a village far from town, and which the Owerri indigenes considered an affront. They therefore informed the Governor that any attempt to remove the market will be resisted legally. To show that they were serious in this regarded, they then sued the state government and obtained an injunction from an Owerri high court which ordered parties to the suit to maintain status quo until the main issue in which the community among others urged the court to restrain the state government from relocating the market to anywhere other than its current location. The community hinged their prayers on the fact that the market was an ancestral one bequeathed to them by their ancestors.
The Governor, to break the ranks of the community, had broken the five villages that make up Owerri town into autonomous communities and given staffs of office to every village such that they now have their own traditional ruler or Eze. This the Governor did to spite the people especially the aging traditional ruler of the town, Eze Emmanuel Emenyuonu Njemanze, Ozuruigbo the fifth who died last year. The Governor got some political elements in the town, including the APC Leader in the House of Assembly, Lugard Igwe to align with the government’s position and urging him to relocate the market saying that nothing will happen. The Governor has thus been having a running battle with the community culminating on the early morning demolition effected by soldiers and alleged armed cultists from the Ohaji Egbema axis of the state. In the process of the early morning demolition, one young boy was killed by shots allegedly fired by soldiers. There were also others who received various degrees of injuries from gun shots.
As would be expected, the action of the Rochas-led APC administration has been condemned by stakeholders and commentators. The Member representing Owerri Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, Hon Onyewuchi in a press statement described the action of the state Governor as an affront on the community and also an act of illegality given that there is a court order against the demolition specifically. Hon Onyewuchi, a member of the PDP, had only two months ago, organized the clean up of Douglas Road when it became an environmental hazard as the government refused to clean it in a bid to push out the traders. The clean up action was done in conjunction with the Senator representing the Owerri Senatorial Zone, Senator Anyanwu. The state government had condemned the action of the PDP in the clean up exercise saying it was mere politics adding that the PDP should rather support the state in expanding Douglas road in the overall interest of the people of the state.
The Owerri branch of the Nigerian Bar Association also through a statement condemned the action of the state as illegal and a violation of the rights if the people given that a high court had issued a restraining order. Chairman of the Bar in the state, Lun Nwaketa also called on the federal government to probe the involvement of soldiers in a purely civilian matter.
In its own statement, the Network on Police Reforms in Nigeria (NOPRIN) called for the resignation of the Governor saying that his actions as Governor of Imo state had taken the state backward adding that the President should probe the source of the order to soldiers to use live bullets on innocent citizens of the state whose only crime was their doing business in the state. Traders in the market especially those with shops facing Douglas Road lost billions of naira in the early morning demolition exercise. In an appearance on an AIT programme, former member of the House of Representatives, Uche Onyeagocha, who is also a chieftain of the APC in the state condemned the action and called on the Governor to retrace his steps. Onyeagocha, a lawyer also said the action of the Governor in demolishing the market was a flagrant abuse of his office given the existence of a validly subsisting order of court to suspend all actions pending the determination of the substantive suit filed on behalf of the community by Barrister Corly Acholonu.
Former Governor of the state, Chief Ikedi Ohakim also carpeted the APC administration stating that rather than building more markets the Governor was busy destroying what he did not build arguing that the state was littered with half baked projects executed by the Governor and which were already showing signs of dilapidation few months after commissioning. The former Governor thanked those who initiated a fund to assist those who lost out in the demolition exercise adding that ‘no matter the shocks and scare tactics thrown our way, we must all be united as humans to assist those affected by this inhuman calamity by donating to Eke Ukwu Owerri Market Disaster Fund’ and added that ‘those who believe that money and power provide license to impose ones will on others while ignoring both laws and common sense must be seen for what they are, a symptom of s deep viral infection that we decided, collectively to inhale and one we must come together to heal.’
Calls were also made to the effect that the Commissioner of Police, Imo state should be recalled as he has violated his office by allowing the use of policemen under his command for illegality by an unpopular proven to be in disobedience of a court order but in a spirited defence the Police said their role ensured that lives were not lost. The Police instead warned Imo people to desist from making hate speeches as it was now illegal to do so and fan embers of disunity among the people.
Also in a statement the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor Sam Onwuemedo said that patriotic elements in the state were happy that the Governor exhibited courage in demolishing the market and other illegal structures which had turned the area into a den of thieves. The statement said that the majority of the people were with the state adding that a more conducive environment have been provided for traders to ply their trade and allow the government carry out repairs on the road which had become derelict.
Many in the state regard the statement of the Chief Secretary as expected as a man in his position cannot but mouth the opinions of his master adding that the real Sam Onwuemedo cannot in good conscience say the things in his press statement. A youth leader in the community Kenneth Okas Emedo said that Owerri youths resisted the action but had to give way when the fire power of soldiers overwhelmed them, adding that but for the arms introduced into the fracas, the market would yet be standing saying that it was still not over. A trader, Cosmas Osuji told The Difference Newspaper that he was sure that the Governor was not a man to be trusted as he had told various delegations of traders that compensation would be paid to traders to enable them relocate to Ohi but that nothing of the sort happened before the early morning unconstitutional raid.
Investigations by The Difference Newspaper shows that there is no legal document backing the Governor in this current action. The state House of Assembly was not aware of any decision of government to relocate the main market. No member of the assembly has said anything in relation to the demolition. Lugard Igwe, representing Owerri Municipal in the state Assembly has rather than say anything chosen to go into hiding. His associates told The Difference that he is in a precarious situation given that he is from the town and anything he says or does will be interpreted from the prism of the demolition especially given that he is in the same party with the Governor and it is believed that he had received assistance from the Governor in the race for the Assembly seat where he beat the PDP candidate Mark Ebere who was expected to win the election but lost because of the massive funds injected and which made the elections go in favour of the APC.
Even now, the APC as a party is in serious crisis as forces are arrayed against the Governor who is bent on replacing himself with his Chief of Staff, Uche Nwosu who is married to his daughter. The talk on the streets of Owerri is that Rochas will not be allowed to impose his son in law on the state and that even the APC will not be allowed to present the next administration in the state. All appears calm in the state capital but it’s the peace of the grave yard. Sources close to the community say that after the Sallah break they will proceed to file contempt proceedings against the Governor.
The disobedience on the market demolition is not the first for Rochas who had also disobeyed several other judgements against him in the past, the most notable being the series of injunctions against him in the matter between him and the chairman of the State Council of Traditional Rulers, Eze Cletus Ilomuanya. The Eze had obtained several injunctions restraining the Imo state government from dethroning him which was disobeyed as the Governor dethroned him and removed from heading the Council of traditional rulers in the state. He has also disobeyed injunctions in cases between him and pensioners, civil servants and individuals whose houses were demolished in his claim of making the state capital a mega city. He is known in the state as ‘Eze Onyeagwalam’ which means a king who does not hear or takes advice from anybody. Many are waiting for May 29th 2019 when he steps down as Governor of Imo state.
Gov. Rochas Okorocha of Imo State, Nigeria