“They declared lockdown for us to stay at home; we obeyed it to the detriment of our businesses, now they came with bulldozers without notifying us to evacuate our goods. They destroyed our shops and goods without relocating us. Do they want us to die of hunger? Why does the government subject us to so much suffering like this in our country because of an imaginary COVID-19?”
This was the cry of most traders whose shops were demolished and goods destroyed by the task force on COVID-19, at the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) Village, located in the Tombia-Etekwe axis of Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, on Sunday.
The village had been closed down for the past four weeks following the declaration of total lockdown by the state government in a bid to curb the coronavirus pandemic. The affected traders told Daily Trust Saturday that goods worth millions of naira were destroyed during the demolition exercise.
While the state government said traders were notified before the demolition exercise, which was aimed at enforcing social and physical distancing, as well as easing traffic in the town, traders refuted the claim, saying most of them were in church on Sunday morning when the exercise took place.
It has been observed that since Governor Douye Diri assumed office last February, his administration has embarked on demolition of “illegal structures” in markets and other public places in the state. He started with the popular Swali Market.
Subsequently, Igbo traders in the state have accused the state government of targeting them in the demolition of the GSM village, saying there was no prior notice to enable them evacuate their goods. They described the action of the state government as crude and hash, saying they are innocent citizens doing their legitimate businesses. They, however, wondered why the state government had been collecting levies in a market they described as illegal.
A dealer on phones, Tari Godspower, said he lost goods worth a huge amount of money. Like his colleagues, he has hope in God.
He said: “From the beginning of this year, we have been facing a lot of challenges. We have been at the receiving of the COVID-19 situation. As if that is not enough, the state government has also inflicted their own suffering on us. Well, God knows better.
“They said this place had Illegal structures, but they were collecting levies from us. Government agents collected all sorts of tickets here on a daily basis; so who is deceiving who?
“If they had good plans of relocating us, why didn’t they show us a location and give us few days to move? That is the standard way of doing things, instead of inflicting another suffering on private business owners when the whole world is facing economic challenges as a result of COVID-19.’’
Reacting to the demolition exercise, the chairman of the GSM Market Traders Union, Mr William Eze, called on the state government to open its borders, which were closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so that they can go back to their villages since all their sources of income have been destroyed. He added that the market provided over 2,000 jobs, saying it is unfortunate that the Bayelsa State Government decided to demolish their shops and destroy their goods at a time when various families find it extremely difficult to feed. He also said they had lost millions of naira.
“The truth of the matter is that as chairman, I didn’t get any official notice. Being Saturday, you know we are having lockdown, so I was supposed to be in my house in respect of the order of the Bayelsa State Government.
“As the chairman of the market, I was supposed to be the first to get a notice, but I didn’t get any until yesterday when my chief security officer hinted me on it and I called some officials, but they denied it; only for me to hear this morning that the shops were being destroyed.
“This is the only GSM village in Bayelsa. The governor should have built another place for us to rent before demolishing this place. Since 2013, we have been writing to the state government to provide a permanent site for us because this place cannot contain us anymore.
“We are more than 4,000 people doing business here, so this place cannot contain us. The suffering is too much for us. We collected most of those destroyed goods on credit, to pay after sales. Now, where do we get money to pay the owners in order to continue in the business?
“Having destroyed our businesses, what do they want people to do? Remember that the borders are closed because of COVID-19. Without any means of livelihood there is no reason to stay in Bayelsa State, let them please open the borders and let us go to our villages before we die of hunger here,’’ he said.
Recounting his ordeal, a shop owner, Mr Samuel Awode, said the Bayelsa State Government, by this action, subjected him to suffering, adding that it is wickedness at its height.
Also, Mr Ifeanyi Michael, a technician and dealer on phone parts, said he was taken unawares; hence he could not remove any good from his shop.
He said some customers’ phones he received for repairs before government declared lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic were destroyed inside the shop.
“There was nothing like pre-notice for us to evacuate our goods before they embarked on the demolition of our shops. We have been suffering due to COVID-19 lockdown and our businesses were crumbling; and now, government decided to add salt to our injury.
“Early in the morning on Sunday, I was called and informed that my shop was among those being demolished. Before I could rush down, every structure around here was flattened. Security operatives did not even allow us to go inside the premises to pick the remaining things.
“People are crying. We have lost our goods. Our situation is pathetic, but we believe in God,’’ he said.
Similarly, Mr Chinedu Chisom, an apprentice in one of the phone repairs shops, said the demolition had dealt a very big blow on him because it remained only few months for his master to grant him freedom.
He lamented that some of the equipment he bought to establish his own shop, on completion of his training, were among those destroyed during the demolition exercise.
“I am short of words. We were just trying to fend for ourselves here instead of indulging in criminality, but the action of the Bayelsa State Government has left us confused. At least they should have given us a day of grace to remove our belongings in the shops. However, I believe that God would help me to start again.
“All my preparations to stand on my own after training are facing challenges right now. I believe that hoodlums seized that opportunity to steal some of our equipment and goods. I say this because we can’t even see anything after the demolition.
“Government at all levels in this country should try to have human feelings. Many families are suffering because of this action as most of the shop owners are breadwinners in their respective families,’’ he said.
The coordinator of the youth wing of Ohaneze Ndigbo, South-South zone, Chief Chinedu Arthur-Ugwa, said there was the need for the affected traders to remain calm. He called on the state government to quickly address the situation and alleviate their suffering.
In his reaction, the permanent secretary in the state Ministry of Information and Orientation and member of the task force on COVID-19, Mr Freston Akpor, said a prior notice was given to the traders to vacate the market.
He, however, said no written notice was given to the leadership of the traders’ association because they are not recognised by government. He said flyers were sent to the market prior to the demolition.
He called for calm, saying the demolition of illegal structures in the state was for the good of the people.
He said most of the demolished structures were built along the waterways and improper disposal of wastes had obstructed the flow of water, thereby increasing the risk of flooding in the area, a situation he said was against the developmental laws of the state.