There is a raging controversy between the Director-General of National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), Otunba Segun Runsewe, and artisans and traders of cultural artifacts of the Abuja Arts and Crafts Village over a fire incident that razed down 36 shops and reportedly destroyed N400 million worth of goods in the market.
President of the African Arts and Cultural Heritage Association (AACHA), Mr Kanayo Chukwumezie, said the fire was a conspiracy by some interested party to remove them from the place.
“We lost over 400 million. We have 18 blocks made of 36 shops that were destroyed. This is a conspiracy to remove us from this village but we will take all the necessary action to stop it,” he said.
Cooking plate causes fire – Runsewe
In a press conference on Tuesday, Runsewe said an outcome of police investigation shows that the fire which started from Shop No 47 was caused by a cooking device (hotplate) not turned off at the closing hours.
Runsewe disputed allegations that the council had a hand in the fire outbreak, adding that the market belonged to “NCAC and engaging in such unwholesome action is not only crude and uncivilized, it also amounts to cutting the nose to spite the face.”
He said he had to wait for the official reports of the cause of the incidents by relevant officials before making a public statement, the reason for his delayed response to the incident.
He further promised that the council will continue to do everything within its power to ensure the sustenance of a conducive environment for all legitimate occupants of the site to do business without hindrance.
“It was out of my personal concern for the lives of those doing business at the site that I took the decision to stop people from sleeping at the premises. But for the proactive decision, this fire incident could have resulted to serious casualties” he said.
Fire didn’t start from my shop -Trader
A trader and the owner of the shop No 47 at the market, Hajiya Maryam Mustapha, however, said the fire did not start from her.
“When I heard DG mentioned my shop number in the media I was not happy. I was surprised that such comment is coming from the DG. The fire did not start from my shop No 47,” she said.
She said that when the DG gave the directive that everybody should stop sleeping in the market she was the first person to comply with the directive.
She insisted that she had never cooked food in her shop or used any cooking device that could cause the fire in the market.
She has been selling arts and craft materials for years in the market and she has been a law-abiding citizen, she said.
Another trader, Muhammad Iliya, disputed Runsewe’s claim saying that at the time of the fire incident, there was no electricity in the area.
“The DG said the fire started in Shop No 47. That is not true. The fire began in Shop 41, which has no power connection at all. Again, the photo he distributed to journalists was not taken from the scene of the fire incident. It was a photoshop. We have taken pictures of the fire scene and we want anybody to come to the market and verify it,” he said.
The trader said the DG was punishing them because of the lingering court case between the NCAC and a private developer in the market, UmmaKhalif.
“Whenever there was a development in the court in favour of the other party, the DG will create an incident in the market,” Iliya said.
“For instance, the fire occurred last Friday after the Federal High Court, Abuja ordered that the developers should meet with the police over the security of the market and that our gates which Runsewe locked be opened.
“On July 6, the same day the court ordered that the gates be opened, the DG sent some officials to mark some buildings for demolition.
On July 26, when the court served the DG with Form 46 – advice on contempt of court, he sent a presidential task force who demolished some structures in the market,” the trader said.
Iliya said it was based on this antecedent that the traders suspected a foul play in the fire incident.
“The DG locked our gates, he wants to throw us out of the place by all means,” he said.
Union demands independent probe
The president of the African Arts and Cultural Heritage Association (AACHA) Chukwumeze said contrary to the DG’s stand, no trader in the facility mentioned used the device in the shop.
According to him, the said shop was being shared between two persons.
“Our investigation has shown that there was not even electricity at the time when the fire incidence started around 9 pm last Friday, and we wondered how a person who did not visit this area five days after the incidence, would now decide to turn to the media and came up with a fabricated outcome.
“We still remain with our stand that there is foul play in the whole of the incidence, and we are demanding for independent investigation about the incident,” the union leader said.
The union leader said their members who stormed the area with plan to put out the fire during its early stage, were denied access into the facility for over 40 minutes by the security guards on duty, who according to them have insisted of not to allowed them in, until they get permission from the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC).
“That conspiracy persisted even when the men of the fire service arrived with their two trucks before the gate was finally opened after more agitations. But even at that stage, the trucks could not go in as a Jeep vehicle was deliberately parked at the entry point and our members have to lift the vehicle off the entrance before the fire-fighters eventually got access,” he said.
The union also called for the removal of Runsewe who they accused of sabotaging the progress of the centre with some “strange policies” since his assumption as the DG.
“This facility is one of the tourists’ attractions not only in the FCT but in the entire country. Visitors specifically from the Sheraton Hotel or Yar’adua centre used to pass through the facility on their way to the Silverbird which is also close to us here. But on his assumption, the DG locked the linking gate; in fact, this fire incidence took place on the very day when a court gave an injunction to maintain a status quo about the issue of the gate in question, pending the court’s judgment on the matter.
“So, if you add this coincidence along with that of the security guards who refused to open the only gate presently we are using, you will agree with me that the issue of conspiracy could not be ruled out, as such we are demanding for an external investigation not from within the ministry, which seem to be composed and lopsided in favour of one particular ethnic group where the issue of impunity could be applied,” the president said.
They alleged that four days after the incidence, the DG was yet to visit the center, and that even the manager of the facility has not reported to his office.
Traders protest to complaints commission, SGF
Hundreds of artisans and traders of the cultural artifacts staged a peaceful protest on Thursday over the recent inferno in the market.
At about 10:30 am, the traders marched to the Public Complain Commission, Unity Fountain and the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation where they presented their complaint letters.
The trades carried different placards with inscriptions “Who parked the black jeep used to block the entrance of the gate when the fire started?” “Who stops our members who rushed to stop the fire at the initial stage from entering the arts village?” “Who told people that tried to get water to stop the fire not to do so?” “Who burn the arts and crafts village in Abuja?” among others.
At the Public Complain Commission, they were received by the officials of the commission headed by the Director of Public Relations, Barrister Ewa Edu.
Edu thanked the traders for conducting themselves peacefully and assured them that the commission would look into the matter and act accordingly.
President of the union Chikwumezie said they organized the protest to fight oppression.
“Over the years we have been intimidated and harassed in the arts and craft village, over the years there has been an attempt to remove us from the present location. We are asking the relevant authorities to take action and stop this harassment,” he said.
He called on the government to rebuild the market and compensates traders who lost their shops and wears as a result of the fire.
Senator Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso, a former Kano State governor, who visited the market promised the traders and artisans that he will take up the matter with the relevant authorities.