Inferno: Abuja furniture traders recount losses




The Kugbo furniture market was gutted by fire on Friday, January 10, this year, leading to loss of goods and property worth millions of naira, with more than 20 shops razed down. PAUL OKAH visited the scene and files in this report.

Friday, January 10, 2020, will forever be etched on the minds of furniture makers in Kugbo, a community under Karu in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), which is arguably the largest furniture market in the territory.

It was the day the furniture makers woke around 10:30pm to watch equipment, goods and valuables worth millions of naira razed down in an inferno that can only be equated with the biblical hell fire.

They also lamented the late arrival of the FCT Fire Service (FFS) who blamed obsolete equipment as reason for their inability to save the situation.

Worse still, the furniture makers also alleged that they had been abandoned by the FCT Administration, including the FCT Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC), “despite timely payment of revenue to government authorities.”

Lamentations

Recounting his loss, a victim, Mr. Idris A. Samugana, who hails from Auchi in Edo state and who is also the CEO of Sunshine Furniture, and who was already reconstructing his shop at the time of filing in this report, said six fire service tankers could not quench the inferno and that people lost valuables worth more than N30 million.

He said, “If we waste time in reconstructing, the little money in our hands will run out. On Friday night, January 10, around 11:00pm, I got information that this section of the market was on fire and I had to rush down. Before getting here, I met fire service, but the shops were already burnt down. I had to go back to my house when I realised I couldn’t salvage anything from my shop. I don’t even know where the fire started from.

“I lost valuables, including two generators, industrial machines, furniture of different kinds, working tools; in fact, I lost everything. I didn’t recover a pin from the inferno. Specifically, I lost about seven sets of kitchen cabinet, four beds, sewing machine and working materials. I can’t even give the correct estimate of how much I lost. I just want to reconstruct my shop and then move on in life,” he said.

Similarly, the CEO of Kakaisuay Global Resources, Mr. Elvis Ngbor, who hails from Rivers state, said he shares a shop with five traders and that they all lost valuables, even as he lamented that many customers have not even sympathised with them, but were actually demanding to be repaid.

“Many of the traders come to work from Ado, New Nyanya, Jikwoyi, Orozo and other places; so it was too late for us to rush back and salvage something. In my case, we are six different people sharing the same shop and we were all affected. We heard that the fire started from one of the wooden structures behind my shop around 10:00pm. People live in the wooden structures commonly called batchers,” he said.

He said further, “Nevertheless, once we rebuild, we will plan the way forward. Customers have to bear with us for us to fix ourselves and repay them. Sadly, we have been abandoned by government. Since the incident, we have not been visited by any government agency despite the fact that we pay revenues. So, we need the intervention of government. At least, we pay revenue to AMAC, so they should provide relieve materials to us.

“We also need fire service station here. This is not the first time there would be a fire incident in the market. It is almost an annual incident. This market is big enough for that as this is about the biggest furniture market in Nigeria. At the back of the market where we are, we produce and supply to those at the front who have showrooms. There is no shop here that did not lose millions of naira. We are not used to staying at home, that’s why you see us here looking for the way forward. It is not as if we have money, but we have to be optimistic.”

Further lamentations

For the CEO of Moses Interiors, Mr. Moses Ayo, the situation would have been salvaged and valuables saved if the FFS had arrived on time, even as he said he lost generators and furniture worth millions of naira to the inferno.

He said, “I was in the shop that faithful night as I had a lot of work to do over the night. Around 10:00pm, the public power supply was restored. However, around 10:30pm, we started hearing shouts of ‘fire’ and I had to rush out. The fire was raging and nobody was able to rescue anything. As you knowing, structures here are made up of wood, tarpaulin, leather and other consumables.

“Fire service came very late. They arrived here around 11:30 or 12:00am, so the fire had enough time to consume everything. The raging fire even prevented the fire service from entering as they concentrated at the entrance into this section of the market. Nobody rescued anything. I lost four set of chairs, including a foreign set that costs N2.1 million, a generator, industrial sewing machine, among other valuables.

“Some customers have called to sympathise with us, but I am sure they will start demanding for their products once the situation dies down. A particular woman called to say she has no business with the fire incident and that I should deliver the product she paid for within two days. I can’t say I blame her as human beings react differently to situations. In any case, I have started reconstructing my shop to start another phase of life.”

‘We’ve been abandoned’

Another victim, Mr. Anota Matthew, said the fire started and ended in his presence without his rescuing even a pin from his shop. He said no government agency has since visited to commiserate with them on their losses.

He said, “Everything started and ended in my presence. I was working that particular night, but decided to rest a bit. I was hit with shouts of fire from people and I had rushed out. We did our best to quench the fire with water, but we were overwhelmed. I lost four sets of chairs, industrial machine, generator, among other valuables.

“I don’t trust government to help us; so, like many others, I’ve started reconstructing my shop. In fact, we have not been visited by any government official since the incident. However, I will be glad if we can get a fire service station in the market so that we can fight the fire ourselves in the event of an outbreak. Furthermore, we will be happy if government can build concrete shops for us, instead of these wooden structures that easily catch fire.

“Despite the huge amount we pay as revenue to AMAC, there is no facility here. No public toilets, no borehole or anything to show that government remembers us. If there is borehole here, each shop can have drums of water to fetch from in case of a fire incident. The inferno was particularly damaging because we couldn’t gain access to water anywhere.”

Market chair speaks

In an interview with Blueprint Weekend, the chairman of Kugbo Furniture Market and CEO of City Furniture, Mr. Austin Bawa, appealed to the victims to trust in God for compensation and for customers to be patient with them, even as he urged concerned authorities to come to their rescue by providing a fire service post in the market.

“When I started getting calls about the fire incident that night, I rushed down here because I had my shop closed for the day. Much damage had already been done by the fire before fire service got here, so nothing was salvaged. From the list we compiled, at least 22 traders were affected, across different shops. In particular, a colleague wanted to supply a kitchen cabinet worth N700, 000 the next day, but it was also burnt down. This is apart from local and foreign chairs, beds, machines and others.

“This is not the first time there will be fire incident here, though I was not affected this year. Last three years, I lost everything to fire and have only recently replaced some of my machines worth millions of naira. We pay revenue to AMAC, but there are not providing anything for us. I plead with government to assist us with a fire service station here. I have instructed traders here to procure fire extinguishers for their shops. It is compulsory,” he said.

Fire Service reacts

In an interview with Blueprint Weekend on the incident, the public relations officer of the FCT Fire Service, Mr. Jerry Timveh, said it was not true that the Service responded late to distress calls.

He said, “Actually, the Kugbo furniture market fire disaster is an unfortunate situation, but it is wrong for the victims to claim that fire service responded late. In fact, from our Control Unit log book, we got a distress call by 11:08pm on Friday, January 10, 2020 about a fire incident in Kugbo furniture market and our men from nearby Karu station arrived exactly five minutes later, that is 11:13pm. They came back at 1:25am on Saturday, January 11; so they battled the fire for more than two hours.

“My thinking is that the victims initially thought they could handle the situation, that’s why they didn’t’t call fire service until the situation was beyond them. With regards to the allegation by the victims that we responded with obsolete equipment, it may interest you to know that we maintain the equipment in our fleet, despite some of them being manufactured 25 years ago. In fact, of recent, we just took delivery of one modern fire-fighting equipment, and we are still expecting more,” he said.

Continuing, he said, “Also, if the traders need a fire post, they can come together to make it happen. Government has given them the space for business, so they can compliment government’s effort by putting facilities in place as government cannot do everything. Wuye, Garki and other markets have fire posts and it is as a result of efforts by traders there. Kugbo furniture market traders can replicate same and not rely on government.”

To avoid future occurrence

“To avoid fire disasters in the future, they can make provision for a fire post, have extinguishers in all the shops and then be trained on how to handle fire extinguishers or have their security men be trained so that they can help before fire service can arrive. Nevertheless, our advice to FCT residents is to put a call to our emergency number (092906118 or 112) on time once they notice a fire incident because, by the time it overwhelms them and they call us, it may also be too late for us to salvage the situation.”

FEMA’s remarks

Despite the allegations of the victims affected by the inferno, inquiries by this reporter led to the revelation that FEMA was not informed on the fire incident on time for timely intervention.

In a reply to a text message from our reporter seeking clarification, the director-general of FEMA, Alhaji Idriss Abass, said the agency was not contacted on the inferno, but he had information that the fire service reacted in time to the distress calls on the inferno.

He said, “Kindly clarify with the FFS. FEMA rescue team was not notified. In fact, I came to know about it after the inferno. The firemen were prompt in attending to the incident. However, if there was no response from the FFS, that’s where we should have come in. But in this circumstance, if the response from the FFS was good, then what do you expect FEMA to do?”

NEMA speaks

In an interview with Blueprint Weekend, the public relations officer of NEMA, Mr. Manzo Ezekiel, said the responsibility of intervening in the Kugbo inferno victims falls under the purview of FEMA and that NEMA will only step in if FEMA is overwhelmed or runs out of resources.

“Kugbo falls under FEMA, so we can’t intervene in the situation. It is only when FEMA runs out of resources and contacts us that we can intervene. I am sure that FEMA is equipped to handle the situation. I know that there is a fire station at Nyanya and Karu, the only question is whether the victims were swift enough to contact fire service when the incident happened. I also wonder about the level of preparedness of Kugbo people to fire disasters, because this is not the first time there would be fire incident in the market.

“They work with consumables like wood, foam and electrical equipment, so how prepared are they? It is not all about blaming the authorities. We can’t be talking about who came late or not: what is the way forward? They should bring the situation to the attention of appropriate authorities. They should also organise themselves for a mini fire service post. They should approach FEMA for help in this regard.

“NEMA has been advocating for traders to get insurance policies so that they can get support in case of disasters of this nature. Nevertheless, we are working with NCC to ensure there is a three-digit emergency number. I believe technical hitches are preventing the digit from being rolled out at the moment, but the number will be of great help in times of emergency once operational,” he said.

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