A protest by traders over the demolition of the popular Eke-Ukwu market in the Imo State capital turned bloody yesterday, leaving a 10-year-old boy dead.
Somtochukwu Igboanusi was shot dead by soldiers invited by the state government to keep the traders in check during the market demolition.
Igboanusi’s killing ended up fuelling the tension as Owerri natives who are fiercely opposed to the demolition launched their own protest.
Residents claimed two other persons were killed during the protest.
The state government denied the allegation. It said the demolition was carried out successfully.
The soldiers from 34 Artillery Brigade, Obinze, near Owerri allegedly shot the boy on the head at close range, while assisting his aged father, Mr. Isaiah Igboanusi, a petty trader to evacuate his goods from the market.
An eyewitness, who identified himself simply as Chijioke, said the soldiers arrived Douglas Road by Mbaise junction in a Hilux van, and started shooting sporadically into the crowd of traders, killing the boy and wounding several others.
Eye witness said Igboanusi could not get immediate help because continuous shooting by the soldiers prevented sympathisers from going to his aid.
He bled to death.
“It was the boy’s wailing mother who summoned courage and carried him. By then he was dead,” he said.
The bereaved father was in tears at his No. 9 Oguamanam Street residence close to the demolished market.
He narrated how his son was killed.
His words: “I told my little son to come and assist me remove my goods from the shop before the people demolishing the market got to the place.
“When we were crossing the road we all raised our hands up but these soldiers just drove by and opened fire and shot my son in the head. The bullet hit him in the eye and came out from the back of his head and he fell and died.
“I want justice. I don’t want the killers of my son to go unpunished. He was just a little boy, he was not armed. I don’t know if I can bear this.”
Neighbours described the victim as cool headed and easy going.
However, the Army Public Relations Officer for the Brigade, Lieutenant Haruna Tagwai, denied that the soldiers shot anyone.
“Please, don’t go and write what you don’t know. The soldiers deployed to the market did not shoot anybody,” he said when contacted yesterday.
Controversy had dodged long standing plan by Governor Rochas Okorocha to demolish the market, ostensibly for road expansion.
He asked the traders to move to a new site.
But the traders and natives of Owerri would have none of that.
The traders vowed not to move. The natives said they have an emotional attachment to the market.
Government stood its ground and decided to bid its time.
On Friday night, it moved several caterpillars to the area.
Armed security personnel were similarly deployed. Tension rose across the city.
At midnight, the caterpillars went to work. By dawn what was left of the once sprawling market were rubbles.
When traders turned up yesterday morning for business, what they found dazed them.
Unable to bear the sight of what had become of their former stores and shops, the traders began a protest.
The soldiers came and shooting began.
In the bedlam that followed, hoodlums had a field day looting goods including mobile phones, electronics and cloths worth millions of naira.
We gathered that the traders and Owerri youths had, on Friday night, set bonfire along Douglas Road, in the hope that this would deter government from carrying out the demolition.
Some of the traders said they were not given enough time to evacuate their goods before the demolition.
They accused the security men of colluding with hoodlums to loot their goods, adding that, “how can they be shooting at traders who are trying to evacuate their goods?”
The President-General of the market, Felix Ngoka, at a press conference on Friday, had vowed that they would resist the demolition of the market with their lives.
He said they had gone to court and government had been restrained from demolishing the market.
The ancestors, according to him, had “warned sternly against the relocation of the market and we will not succumb to any pressure to relocate the market because if we do calamity will befall us. It is better we die resisting it”.
Soldiers cordoned off the popular Bureau de change area popularly known as ‘Ama Hausa’ following an attempt by hoodlums to loot it.
The state government described the exercise as peaceful and successful.
Okorocha had argued that the market constitutes a serious traffic and security challenges and must be removed.
The Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Mr. Sam Onwuemeodo, said in a statement that “with the relocation of the market to a better area, the government will now go ahead to rebuild Douglas Road and realise its lofty dream of making Owerri a befitting city.”
He also denied that several people were killed during the demolition.
He said such rumour was part of the effort of enemies of progress to blackmail the government.
Onwuemeodo said: “Ekeukwu Market Owerri has finally been moved from its current location at the centre of Owerri, the state capital, to its new location at Ohi near Owerri amid jubilation by patriotic residents. The relocation of the market is in line with the Urban Renewal programme of the state government.
“The market was moved Saturday morning and for almost two years the state government has announced its good intention to relocate the market to a more conducive site in the spirit of its Urban Renewal pursuit.
“The government has taken this noble action to equally recover Douglas Road that connects the state with other neighbouring states which has remained a refuse dump for the traders in the market and to deal with once and for all the prevalent criminal activities in the area like robbery, cultism and kidnapping.
“The governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, and the Rescue Mission Government which he heads, commend the traders and the people of the state in general for their cooperation and understanding. By the peaceful conduct of the traders, they have shown that they appreciate government’s intension to make Owerri and enviable state capital.”