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Lockdown blues for Rivers’ traders as markets stay close

Deserted Flyover Market, Mile One, Port Harcourt
Deserted Flyover Market, Mile One, Port Harcourt

One of the downsides of the COVID-19 pandemic is that numerous businesses have suffered from lockdown. Traders in Rivers State have been out of business since the state government ordered the closure of all markets in the state. Our correspondent reports on how the traders struggle to cope.

This has not been the best of times for traders in Rivers, as markets in the state have remained closed for three months.

Since the state recorded its first COVID-19 case in March, it has gone into lockdown with confirmed cases rising to nearly 400, with over 20 deaths recorded so far.

Governor Nyesom Wike ordered markets closed to contain the spread of the virus and directed council chairmen to ensure compliance. Since then, major markets like Mile One, Mile Two and Oil Mill Market have remained shut leaving traders scrambling for what to eat daily. Many traders consider this a form of economic deprivation but the governor is unwilling to back down.

In a statement the commissioner of information, Paulinius Nsirim, accused some markets of using access roads as alternatives to their stalls at the risk of “severe consequences.”

Barely a week after the warning was issued, the state task force on COVID-19 demolished parts of Ngbuoshimini Mini Market in ObioAkpor Local Government Area.

At about the same time, desperate traders at Oyigbo took to displaying their goods by the roadside.

Many of them lost their wares when members of the task force swooped in to scatter the goods, injuring several traders in the process.

Leader of Creek Road Traders’ Association, Port Harcourt, Mrs Gloria Kalada said that since markets were shut down, traders are finding it very difficult to take care of their families.

“We came together recently to appeal to His Excellency to consider the traders, that we don’t have any source of income other than the markets,” she said. “We don’t collect salaries from anywhere and the market is our only source of livelihood and we are appealing to him to look into the matter and help us to reopen the markets.”

Part of the demolished Ngbuoshimoli Market, Orazi, Port Harcourt
Part of the demolished Ngbuoshimoli Market, Orazi, Port Harcourt

The Rivers State Chapter Chairman of the National Butchers’ Union of Nigeria, Musa Baba Ahmed, said that the union has been putting in place safety measures for when markets reopen.

“We have set up a task force that will ensure full compliance to all the health protocols if the markets open,” he said. “Each section of the markets will have its taskforce. We will make sure that each customer will use water to wash his or her hand, apply sanitizer and use a mask before entering the market. We have directed all the leaders of the markets to keep their men at the entrance gate of the markets to check body temperature with thermometers,” he said.

At the popular Timber Market in Oyigbo, one of the biggest building material markets in the state, traders allege that they have been harassed, intimidated and extorted by members of the task force.

A trader at the market, Simon Okoye, said, “Since the markets were shut down, many of us are dying of hunger. We cannot pay our bills such as house rents, feeding and even going to hospitals for our medicals. Many of our colleagues have shut down their businesses and relocated to their respective villages. Some have exhausted their business capital, which they used to take care of their families. It is really bad.”

Another trader at the market, Omuka Ude, described the raids and how they try to cope.

“Many of us got tired of staying at home and decided to come out and find a way to survive the hardship imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “Each time we open our shops, the task force members come to harass us. They arrest our members and release them on payment of N20,000. But we don’t open our shops but stay around the market and when any of our customers comes, we open our shops from the back and give the person whatever he wants. That is the only way we can survive so that we don’t die of hunger,” he said.

Our reporter could not speak with the leadership of the market as at press time but an executive member of the Oyigbo Timber Market Association, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that members of the association are no longer finding it easy with the continued shutdown of the market.

He said that some traders have gone bankrupt as a result and called on the state government to open the market, promising that traders will observe all COVID-19 health protocols.

Desperate traders trade by the road side at Oyigbo Market
Desperate traders trade by the road side at Oyigbo Market

Another trader at Eke Oyigbo Market, Michael Obi, said that they now have to find other ways of selling their goods.

“I have to devise means of reaching out to my customers by calling them on the phone. Each time I call them, they tell me what they want and I will go ahead to supply the items to them. This is how we survive in the lockdown,” he said. For other traders, such as Jamina at Mile One Market, they have incurred serious losses as their goods have expired as a result of the lockdown.

“I have a shop at Mile One Market where I deal in provisions. All the goods in the shop have expired because I was not able to sell them before the market was shutdown. There is no way I could have opened the shop because the market is completely shut down and guarded by soldiers. If you go out there, you will see a military tank stationed at the entrance of the market. Those soldiers there will not allow anybody to enter the market. I have my goods locked up in the market and there is no way to bring them out. They are all expired now,” he said.

He called on the state government to open the market so that normal business could resume.

A few weeks ago, the traders cheered news that the state government had ordered the fumigation of all markets in Port Harcourt and its suburbs thinking that would be a prelude to reopening for business. Those hopes were quickly dashed when only the newly constructed Fruit Garden Market at Ogbum-nu-Abali was reopened.

For the others, the wait continues while the traders and their families continue to groan from hunger.

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