Anxiety, Hope As RSG

0
846

If there is anything that had tended to diminish the status of Port Harcourt, and indeed, Rivers State, in the past, it is the simple fact that the state had no befitting market of international standard, where reasonable activities in commerce could be carried out. In fact, the state only had three popular markets that could pass for nineteenth century community markets, where villagers converged to buy and sell commodities. These were Mile One, Mile Three and Town markets, all in Port Harcourt Local Government Area in the Rivers State capital. The first two are located in the densely populated Diobu area while the latter is located in the heart of old Port Harcourt Town.

These three markets have been the major centres of commerce in Rivers State, and have provided millions of residents measured access to goods of all kinds. In fact, buyers and sellers of goods, especially essential commodities, have had to pay their way from far and near to one of the major markets, particularly Mile One Market, in order to make life more meaningful and worth living. But for many years, these markets remained mostly as make-shift cubicles and ramshackle shanties. Indeed, the popular Mile One Market was a typical case of market-in-tents. None of its walls was in blocks; most were zinc walls and roofs while others were merely wooden walls with zinc roofs. And these took in almost a thousand traders within a circumference of about 450X300 square metres, in addition to other road-side traders and hawkers running into hundreds. As for the Mile Three and Town markets, the story is slightly different. Parts of the two markets were built-up in two-storey standard block structures, but most parts were akin to the razzmatazz that characterised the glorified Mile One Market. While the built-up section of the Town Market was virtually fully in use, the Mile Three Market stalls were almost abandoned, with traders feeling cool with road-side trading despite its hazards.

Little wonder, therefore, that all three markets frequently witnessed devastating fire disasters. In fact, there was hardly any year that the three markets did not witness horrendous and bizarre infernos, triggered by almost always scarcely identifiable causes. The aftermath of these had been millions of wares, commodities and even cash lost by traders in the markets. The intervention of emergency response teams, such as the fire services, police and other relief providers had failed to make the impact of any reasonable rescue effort felt, for very obvious reasons. The Mile One Market was a major victim, as it was razed to ground zero in early 2005. In fact, within December, 2004 and February, 2005, all three markets witnessed various degrees of fire, which wiped off an entire market, grounded the viability of one, and threatened the continued existence of the other.

Frankly, there were a lot of reasons why the markets could not scale a simple test of minor fire outbreak or even a technical hygiene evaluation for sound sanitation, environmental and health certification. The markets were constructed in such haphazard fashion. Drive-ways were not provided for, and the litany of pat-ways that dot the markets were mostly over-crowded by a sea of heads of people, desperately struggling to make one purchase or the other, or indeed, of traders hopping from one end to the other to meet the demands of customers. Such faulty construction works left in their wake poor electrical connections, open woods and zinc, polyethylene, ropes, cables, nails, and a whole range of combustibles, explosives, and their likes. None of the markets had dedicated managers, let alone insurance cover to mitigate disasters, and no in-built fire-proof or fire-fighting equipment. It was, therefore, to check these anomalies, guarantee the safety of traders and their customers, increase the viability and revenue profile of the markets as well as elevate the face of Port Harcourt, and indeed, Rivers State, that the government decided on a phased reconstruction of the markets to meet world-class, 21st century standards. And the first in this process is the Mile One Market.        

Development Update recalls that the first phase of the contract for the construction of an ultra-modern Mile One Market was awarded in July, 2007, to Diamond Group Nigeria Limited, at a cost of N3billion. The initial contract scope was to deliver 1,000 lock-up stalls in a modern, state-of-the-art, multiplex structure, in three floors, to the Rivers State Government. But based on expert advice, the design was changed to a two-floor multiplex complex. The market was designed to accommodate fire-fighting equipment, parking lot for cars, good drainage network, and spacious, inter-connecting drive-ways for fire-fighting vehicles. It also includes a security post, offices for facility managers, and other technical components. The second and third phases were planned to deliver 1,300 open and lock-up stalls in two floors of multiplex structures, bringing the total number of stalls to 2,300.

The government’s vision for this gigantic project is simple. Development Update notes that the market is envisioned to redefine the face of Port Harcourt by planting an edifice of modern architecture, with all the paraphernalia of a 21st century centre of excellence in commerce. It is intended to raise the bar in the business of buying and selling, of especially commodities and household goods, appliances, electronics and others. The market is designed to help rewrite the history of often vulnerable commercial centres in the heart of sprawling Garden City of Port Harcourt. Indeed, the market is expected to take-in all the traders on the streets of Mile One and Mile Two in Diobu, particularly those around Ikwerre Road, Sangana and Uyo Streets, Railway Line and Flyover, among others, while doubling as a means of checking street trading and hawking in the epicentre of Port Harcourt. And, of course, it is meant to significantly boost the revenue base of the state, assuming that all the traders fulfil their obligations to government. These are tall goals that any government worth its salt would do well to pursue. And that is why the government of Rt. Hon Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi has religiously shown commitment to ensuring the timely completion of the first phase of the market to facilitate commerce in the state.

Only three weeks ago, Governor Amaechi told anxious Rivers people and other residents of the state, after some briefing, that the market would be delivered at the end of this month. Development Update recalls the governor had also said the 1,000 stalls in the first phase would be allocated to traders originally displaced in the old market, especially those now in make-shift tents and wood-shops around the new Silverbird Galleria in the flyover area as well as those at the Rumuwoji Playground, adjacent to the Assemblies of God Church, near the market. This has raised hope of a dream come true for hundreds who have waited for years to get their stalls back. It has also raised the hope of millions who have wandered from one illegal stall or hawker to the other in search of wares and commodities to buy. At the same time, the governor’s remarks have jerked the anxieties of many traders, whose make-shift tent-shops have not been demolished, yet feel they could still be accommodated in the already built-up stalls. 

Just last Friday, Rivers State Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, Prince Ogbonna Nwuke accentuated the governor’s remarks when he told Development Update that an inter-ministerial committee has been set up by the State Executive Council to harmonise the issues arising from the old market, including taking statistics of original traders and weighing that against the number of stalls in the new market to ensure adequate allocation of available stalls to genuine traders while also taking other interests into consideration. He noted the hopes and anxieties expressed by traders in the market, and assured genuine traders in Mile One Market that the Amaechi government would be fair and just too to all stakeholders.

As one of the major sustainable infrastructure development projects of the Rivers State Government, Nwuke noted that the committee would also look into other issues, as government was serious about making returns on its investments. One of such is the recommendation for appointment of a facility manager that would ensure proper management of the facilities, liaise with the traders to guarantee peace and work to enhance proper environmental sanitation in the market, renamed Rumuwoji Market by the last administration. He said the facility managers, when appointed, would also be saddled with the responsibility of insuring the facilities against any natural disasters.

Nwuke told Development Update that the government was not interested in paying extra money to contractors, who ask for variation of contract values, because of its belief that most of the projects were properly valued at the time of contract award. He said the government was gearing up to move to the second phase of the project, by finalising the tender process, which would open the floodgate to competent contractors, including the present contractor handling the first phase of the project, if they so wish to be part of the potentially competitive process. The commerce and industry commissioner, pointed out that the present contractor has had a lot of experience and surmounted several difficult challenges in the course of the first phase of the project, and would require all that in competing in the process leading to the second phase, and expressed satisfaction with the quality of work done so far. He said the Rivers tax-payers’ money has been judiciously expended on the project, because according to him, the market would recoup the huge investment of the government to help in developing other desperately needed infrastructures to drive the economy of the state.   

Nwuke stated that when the last administration awarded the contract for the first phase, it did not invoke any laws requiring mandatory tenders to be done before award of contracts, but stressed that the Amaechi’s administration has put in place Public Procurement Law, and a bureau to implement the enabling laws making it mandatory for competitive bids to be done in open and transparent manner before any contracts are awarded. He added that the second phase of the project would pass through due process as prescribed by the law, and allayed fears of favouritism and victimisation of any contractors.

But Development Update can honestly state, after seven inspection visits in the last three weeks, that the entire inter-connecting multiplex structures in Rumuwoji Market, would not be ready by the end of this month. The simple reason for this divergence hinges on the fact that the contractor still needs time to put finishing touches to the complex. For instance, the welding works on some of the steel doors and the dump fence are still being done while the painting has slowed down. The inter-locking tiles on the north and the stretch running through the north-west and south-west wings are yet to be fixed, just as the main gate and security post at the south-west fringe have not been completed. Also awaiting the contractor’s final push is the desilting of the huge drainage stretching from the south-west to the north-west fringes of the market, and the moulding and fitting in of the remaining slabs. Excavation, evacuation and removal of debris are other aspects of the finishing that sometimes, take preciously under-estimated time. And with barely 10 days left, it is acutely difficult to conjecture a realistic month-end handover to government, or indeed, smooth allocation and occupation of the stalls. Or perhaps, the government may allocate the stalls, but some of the beneficiaries would not put their stalls to effective use until, at least, two months. This is where Development Update has problem with the proposed timeline.

The Chairman, Mile One Market Traders Association, Mr Daniel Iheme and the Vice Chairman, Building Materials and Hardware Association in the market, Mr Chioma Wonodi, argued that the traders in the market were about 4,000, but agree that the Port Harcourt City Local Government Council has a list of little above 3,000 traders. They also expressed reservations that the contractor would deliver the project as promised, saying that a lot of work still needs to be done. Both Iheme and Wonodi said they were satisfied with the quality of work on the project so far. They noted the slow pace of work in the last two weeks, and appealed to government to impress on the contractor on the need to keep to the October end deadline, as most of their members were suffering untold hardship as a result of the crammed environment they now trade in.

Iheme noted that about 1,700 traders were relocated to the Rumuwoji Playground and the premises accommodating the uncompleted building near the Silverbird Galleria, and expressed happiness at the government’s promise to allocate available stalls in the new market to the displaced traders, as a priority. The chairman lauded the governor for touching the lives of the poor, especially the traders at the market, and pledged their support and loyalty to the development aspirations of the government.  

On the other hand, Wonodi appealed to government to ensure that their 50-member traders benefit from the new allocations in the complex. He also suggested that the contractor re-enforce the window glasses, especially those on the ground floor, facing the roads, with burglary proofs to check criminals from looting their goods in the stalls at night. Although, he noted the arrangement for a permanent security presence in the market, but said that was not enough, given their past experiences.

The Project Manager, one Mr Desmond could not be reached for comments after seven attempts to meet him personally at the project site office. When contacted on phone, he promised to call back but never did. He also did not respond to text messages from Development Update on a number of issues. But a senior official of the company handling the contract told Development Update yesterday that he was optimistic the project would be delivered within the next 10 days, saying that the management was working round the clock to raise funds to complete the project. He agreed that work has slowed down at the site, but attributed it to lack of sufficient funds to fast-track the project delivery process.

Now, if the contractor delivers the Rumuwoji Market by the end of this month to government, it means that the hopes and anxieties of the traders would have been doused. It also means that a significant milestone would have been achieved by the government in delivering sustainable development projects to the people of the state. It would further give a facelift to that area of Port Harcourt. Besides, it would raise a glimmer of hope that a safer, decent and more orderly environment now hovers as the countdown continues for the utilisation of the 1,000 lock-up stalls at Rumuwoji Market in Port Harcourt.        

Readers’ comments are welcome.

 

Nelson Chukwudi