How Makeshift Shops, Lack Of Access Fuel Fire Incidents In Abuja Markets

A market in Gwarimpa, Abuja, Nigeria’s capital was engulfed in fire, leading to loss of properties and life. HumAngle investigates the circumstances of the incident.

Lolo Chiamaka Ozoemenam and her husband Ozoemenam are distraught; they have lost their investments to a late-night fire outbreak on Thursday, Feb. 4 at a market known among locals as ‘Tipper Garage’, located in Gwarinpa Estate in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

The fire incident was the second in less than a month in two different markets in Nigeria’s capital – an early morning inferno had on Jan. 10 destroyed the popular Kugbo Furniture market. According to The Nation newspaper, over 80 timber shades and 300 furniture shops were burnt, including countless valuables in the inferno that started at about 6 am.

At the Tipper Garage market, the couples had just restocked their frozen food stores – owning three shops altogether – a day before the fire disaster. All were razed, as they counted their losses.

Devastated by the sudden destruction of her family’s source of livelihood, Chiamaka is yet to come to terms with the reality. She told HumAngle that she could not estimate the worth of her investment and that of her husband in the burnt stores.

“We had just restocked the fridge with chicken and fish the eve of the fire outbreak.”

No one seems to know for sure, the cause of the fire, but Lolo Chiamaka said it was suspected to have started from an electrical fault. Many shop owners, like the couples, could not salvage their investments.

“I have never seen a fire of this magnitude myself; nobody was able to save any of their property.”

She is pleading with the government and individuals to come to their aid.

“We all have children, if you look around, you’ll see that we are all mothers and we have children to take care of,” she said.

Makeshift Market Structures As Contributing Factors

Shop owners who spoke to HumAngle said the fire started at about 12:30 am and lasted for two days. Many of them attributed to this was the makeshift nature of a larger percentage of the shops at Tipper Garage and Firefighters’ late response.

The market is mostly made up of makeshift structures constructed with woods and other flammable items.

Innocent Kate, the market union’s chairwoman, confirmed to HumAngle that the fire started at midnight at about 12:30 am and lasted for almost two days before it finally stopped.

Kate’s seven shops, including one by her husband and her daughter -who recently graduated from the university- were all burnt in the fire incident. She estimated her loss to be about N5 million.

“I get almost seven shops here, and all of them burn no one remain. For only my shop, I don lost almost N5,000,000,” she said in Pidgin English.

She mentioned that there was a fridge in all her shops and she had just bought a bag of charcoal a night before the incident.

The location of fire service to the market according to findings by HumAngle is just a five-minute drive from the market.

HumAngle asked about fire service’ availability considering its closeness to the market.

“They did not come early, the person that called me about the fire called around 1 a.m. and I reached here before they even came,” Kate said.

While they expected the arrival of firefighters, the shop owners, who watched their properties going up in flames, resorted to self-help, fetching water with buckets to put out the raging fire but the fire was too much.

However, she lamented that since the fire incident happened, the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) that oversees Abuja city has not sent any delegation to the market, though Tipper Garage is not one of the 15 markets officially owned by the FCT Administration.

According to Kate, only Bello Matawalle, the governor of Zamfara State, came to visit the market after the incident.

HumAngle visited the Utako market to assess the structures of one of the popular markets in the FCT.

Utako Market/HumAngle
Utako Market/HumAngle

The Utako market shops are built close to one another; a fire raging in one shop can quickly spread out to neighbouring shops and the entire market if it is not promptly put out.

Other than the shops’ clustered nature, the pattern in which goods are displayed could also aid in the spread of fire. Wares are displayed outside the already crowded shops, and these wares could serve as fuel to the flames.

Nelson Onwumike, the chairman of the market union Utako, told HumAngle that the market had had minor fire outbreaks which happened four years ago.

When it happened, some of the traders put it out before it could escalate into something else, Onwumike said.

The only fire service close by is the one in Zone 3, which is about 20 minutes away if the road is busy.

“For the structure of the market, the roof has decking, and the roof is Versus-Omega, the market is designed in a way that it is not prone to fire,” he explained.

“So if my shop catches fire now it will likely just end in my shop and won’t escalate except otherwise.” Most of the fires were caused by electrical issues.”

HumAngle also observed the structures and road access at the Wuse market. Wuse market in terms of structures and road access is quite standard.

The roads are wide enough for cars and even fire service trucks to access most of it to put off the fire in the event it happens.

The shops are constructed with red bricks that are highly fire-resistant and perfect for a marketplace prone to fire outbreaks.

Before the fire incident, the Gwarinpa Tipper Garage structures were mainly makeshifts and mud houses; the roads are not coal tarred, but there was enough space for cars to pass through and at the market entrance there is a car park.

Agonies Of Shop Owners

Usman Abdullahi, Chairman of the market union, told HumAngle, that most of the traders were hopeless and hapless after the fire incident. There were no sights of assistance from the government.

The market also serves as a home to some of the people, including tricycle drivers. One life was lost in the incident, and while it lasted, all the makeshift structures that served as their homes had gone down.

Most of us did not go to school, and therefore, it will be hard to get a government job if the government decides to send us out of this place we have nowhere to go,” said Ibrahim Muhammad popularly called ‘Ibrahim Mai Computer’.

Muhammad is a shop owner who does phone and computer repairs. His shop got burnt down to the ground, including his clients’ gadgets. He spoke in Hausa Language.

He told HumAngle that the fire started at about 1:30 am, and no one had an idea of what started the fire.

“Before we knew it, the fire had consumed everywhere, and no one was able to remove anything from their shops,” Mohammed recounted the experience.

“The fire broke down everywhere, including where we have their bath, everyone’s clothes have been burnt down, and we have not had any place to shower anymore.”

He added that traders had lost properties and sadly, one of them lost their lives in the fire.

The traders have nowhere to turn to as the government has not given any official statement on the next plan of action for the traders and the market.

“We are hoping for God’s intervention so that the government will intervene but not for them to send us away,” Muhammad said.

He pointed out that there are about 2000 traders in the market whose lives depended on the market.

Like Lolo Chiamaka, Mohammed also pleaded with the government to help out saying “we are praying for the government to help out. We are not asking for money but looking for how to continue our business. That is our prayer.”

When HumAngle visited the incident site a week after, caterpillars were packing up the market’s remnants and levelling the ground.

Most Markets Not Managed By Govt Have No Fire Preventive Measures

Abuja Market Management is the Federal Capital Territory agency that supervises all the market in the territory.

The management has 15 markets under its purview which are; Dei Dei ( building materials, regional market, timber, tomatoes and Nantaka markets), Kaura, Garki model, Kaura, Gado, Apo, UTC, Area1, 2 and 3, Nyanya, Maitama, zone3 (two markets), Utako.

Innocent Amechina, the Corporate Affairs Manager of the Abuja Market Management, told HumAngle in an interview about the management’s preventive measures in the event of fire disasters.

Amechina said most of the markets have access to fire service citing the market in Kaura District, which he said has a fire service close to it, Wuse and zone 3 have the service situated at zone3 and Garki model market has one.

He said that management focuses on two-components for preventive measures which are human and infrastructural.

He explained the first is about informing the traders to ensure they always put off their electrical appliances whenever they are closed for the day.“People are told not to bring appliances that can fuel a fire,” Amechina said.

“If the fire starts during the day time it is expected that the owner of the shops has a personal fire extinguisher to put it off.”

Where that fails the offices in the market will be alerted because we have our motorised fire equipment. If we can not contain it immediately fire service will be involved, he added.

He said once in a while the Abuja Market Management Agency conducts a fire drill at night when traders are not around. “It is left for the security men to call the fire service and make an attempt to put it off.”

“A fire drill is created to educate security men and traders on fire prevention and control such that everybody should have the number of fire service at the tip of their finger,” he said.

“This is to ensure that everybody knows what steps to make in the event of a fire.”

According to him, no market under the agency’s supervision had experienced any fire disaster in the past.

“Luckily for us, our markets have not had wildfire situations.”

“We have made it possible that there are going to be several layers even before fire service comes.”

He told HumAngle that the agency discourages shop extensions by owners with material that can easily catch fire. “Shop extensions with trampoline are materials that fuel and escalate fire. People are enlightened against it.”

Amechina said the structural part is that the market is constructed to reduce any fire outbreak’s adverse effects.

He pointed out that some market traders construct attachments (makeshift) on the pedestrian path and service lane to the point that even “when fire service comes, they find it difficult to access the place”.

“Even when the original plan of the market provides access, you see traders constructing makeshift shops on service and road paths.”

“If you go to our markets we have zero tolerance for attachments (extensions) “

Fire Service Stations In FCT

The service has six outposts and emergency contacts in the Federal Capital Territory for people in fire distress to call.

The locations in which the fire services are situated help them access the markets the fastest way possible using the google map to calculate the distance it will take the fire service outpost and headquarters to get to the nearest market to them.

The FCT Fire Service has an outpost located at the Gwarinpa Estate, and it will take them seven minutes to get to the Gwarinpa Tipper garage.

While the Google Maps chart shows that the service is open for 24 hours, a report by traders from the market showed that the fire started at midnight and it took the firefighters two hours to get to the market.

One of the services is located at 22 Samuel Ladoke Akintola Boulevard, Garki, Abuja not far from Garki Model market.

It will take the fire service five minutes to get to Garki Model market, and there is hardly any traffic that will disrupt the transportation flow.

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Chigozie Victor

Chigozie Victor is a journalist and a creative writer. Her work focuses on SGBV, policy and security infrastructure. The graduate of English and Literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka is passionate about helping audiences understand salient issues through clear reporting and multimedia journalism. She tweets at @nwaanyi_manaria

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