The traders turned to Jimoh Lasisi who took a dispassionate look at their case and told them that the law was not in their favour, all the more so since the Land Use Act vested land ownership in the state governor.
Former Lagos State governor, Raji Fashola
Most people think there is only one market at Oshodi in Lagos and this market was in the first week of January, 2016, demolished by the Lagos State government. There are actually more markets in this ever bustling place, each flowing into another. The one destroyed is known as Owonifari Electronics Market, located directly under the bridge of the Oshodi-Apapa Expressway.
For some reason, up to 70% of the traders at the Owonifari Market are from Ihiala in Anambra State and environs. Therefore, I should have more than a passing interest in developments in the market, including its recent demolition. Indeed, I did play some role in the drama surrounding the market in the last two years.
Towards the end of January, 2014, leaders of the Owonifari Market Traders Association visited me in my residence in Lagos with a passionate plea that I speak to the then Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, to postpone the impending demolition which had been planned since 2007 as part of the strategic effort to make Lagos a megacity.
The government had reasoned that the open market was awfully located, right under the very busy Oshodi Bridge with absolutely no safety facilities. If a tanker had over the years fallen from the bridge, as has in recent times become almost a common occurrence on the Ojuelegba bridge in Lagos, the fatalities would have been unimaginable because of the large number of traders. It had about 500 registered traders, but in reality there were some 2,000 traders at the Owonifari Electronics Market; each trader sublet his or her stall to three others.
The Lagos State government did provide an alternative market but the traders rejected it for sundry reasons, including the fact that the structures are storey buildings, rather than bungalows which they preferred for ease of moving their goods. They were not persuaded by the explanation that land is a very scarce commodity in Lagos in view of the state’s small geographical size and the exponential growth rate of its population currently put at 21million.
Nor were they interested in the argument that electronics dealers in bigger markets on Lagos Island have their stalls in storey buildings, to say nothing about manufacturers in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere producing in high rise buildings. I was to understand from Kalu Onuma, the efficient head of the Ndigbo Lagos secretariat, that the Igbo leadership in Lagos has for long been advising the market leaders unsuccessfully to drop their opposition to doing business in stalls located in storey buildings.
Frankly, the leadership of the Owonifari Market is difficult. It hired the services of Ben Nwabueze, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Africa’s most engaging constitutional law scholar as well as the founding secretary general of Ohaneze Ndigbo, in their fight against market relocation. They quickly disagreed. The traders now turned to Jimoh Lasisi, SAN, a fine gentleman. He took a dispassionate look at their case and told them that the law was not in their favour, all the more so since the Land Use Act vested land ownership in the state governor.
The traders had relied on a letter from an official of the Federal Ministry of Housing to argue that the state government had no right over them since they were operating under a Federal Government bridge. Jimoh asked them to look for a negotiated settlement. That was how they approached me. “These traders do not like the truth or professional advice, so I am surprised that they could meet someone like you”, Lasisi told me when I visited him in his office at Onipan on Lagos Mainland.
Immediately the governor set the February 14th date for a meeting with leaders of the Owonifari Market, I contacted, among other influential Igbo people in Lagos, the following persons to join us: Anya O. Anya, president of Ndigbo Lagos and a multi-award winning professor; President of Aka Ikenga, Goddy Uwazurike, a lawyer; Charles C. Ifeanyi, former deputy chairman of the Council of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry and former president of the Lagos State branch of the Association of Anambra Town Unions who retired from the Customs service as the number three man; Joe Anyigbo, the first African to become an executive director and later acting chief executive of the American petroleum giant, Chevron; Pat Utomi, a highly respected scholar at the Lagos Business School; and Emmanuel Chukwuneta, an engineer and entrepreneur, whose firm was instrumental to the building of the multibillion naira Lagos Trade Fair Complex. Since the meeting was taking place on the Valentine’s Day, my wife had to join us!
Fashola, serious as ever, had assembled a large team of relevant permanent secretaries, commissioners and special advisers. The atmosphere of the meeting was convivial but certainly business-like. Those of us on the traders team went through the prepared speech once again and agreed on the prayers, but I was taken aback when the traders suggested that I plead with the governor not make any declaratory statement. I was actually infuriated.
How could the governor be asked not to make a declaration at such an important meeting? The traders took the opportunity of my private audience with Fashola just a few minutes to the commencement of the meeting to request Chiefs Ifeanyi and Anyigbo, two highly respected traditional title holders in my Ihiala hometown and who are particularly close to me, to prevail on me to change my mind. They succeeded. I, therefore, found myself awkwardly pleading with the governor before this impressive audience not to make a declaratory statement. He must have felt embarrassed, but nevertheless obliged. He took copious notes of every speech.
Fashola did ask the traders some soul-searching questions: “Do you think, in all honesty, that history will forgive me if a tanker loaded with petrol or kerosene or gas should fall down from the Oshodi bridge and wipe out thousands of you doing business under it? Many of you travel to China and other countries for business, but would you like your partners to visit your shops under the bridge? Would you like your children to join you in trading under the bridge after you have trained them in universities?” Rising to his feet as he was about to depart the hall, the governor added: “You have been in conversation with the state government for years over the relocation of the Owonifari Market without reaching an agreement. You are free to meet me anytime you want me. You have the telephone numbers of the Honourable Commissioner for the Environment, Mr Tunji Bello, and my Special Adviser on Communication and the Media, Mr Hakeem Bello”.
Owonifari Market leaders left the meeting satisfied. But curiously none has bothered to take my phone calls or return them, let alone visit me, since the meeting. They all ignored my text messages about the need for a follow-up a meeting with the Lagos State government. On January 6, my wife called from Lagos while I was still holidaying in my hometown to break the news of the demolition of the Owonifari Electronics Market. Quite a number of the victims are my own relatives.
Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.