A solution to Nigerian market fires — you might not like it

Onitsha market fire. Copyright The Sun Nigeria

On October 16, 2019, a tragic fire incident occurred at the Onitsha market, leading to major property losses (The National Emerency Management Authority could not confirm if any lives were lost). The incident trended on social media. After a few days, treated to the usual thoughts and prayers, threads and counter threads, we all moved on. Of course, the governor of Anambra State paid the perfunctory visit and usual audio-cash donations poured in.

After the ash settled, the people who lost lives and property realized they had only themselves to look up to. No help is coming. They were either going to rebuild their lives, or not, but no help was coming. This is just how the Nigerian existence is. You either pull yourself up by the bootstraps or die.

But yeah, everyone moved on. Until another fire happened at Balogun market, one of Nigeria’s largest markets less than 4 weeks after the Onitsha fire, so market fires are back on as a topic of conversation.

But market fires have been happening in Nigeria since Father Abraham was a boy, and Cyril Stober would bring us the news on NTA with an appropriately sober face, before his co-anchor would say “In happier news…” and smiles would return to their faces as they move on to report a government official celebrating his child’s sixth birthday party.

So what has been done about these fires?

Nothing.

So what then?

Help yourselves! I’m going to hope this isn’t taken as me being insensitive, but the people who trade in markets need to realize no help is coming and actually help themselves.

Every major market in Nigeria should reinvent itself, self regulate, enforce preventive measures and provide amenities to ensure that if an emergency happens, they can combat it without the government.

How?

  1. Organize. Markets are some of the most politically organised places. They already have strong governance structures, so why not use that organization to fix the existential problems in the markets?
  2. Invest in owned infrastructure. Every market leadership needs to ensure that thier markets have a fire service unit attached to it. They can tax yourselves (which they already do), buy fire engines and install hydrants in strategic locations in the market.
    If the market owns it’s own fire fighting infrastructure, they won’t have to wait when fire breaks out, before putting those equipment to use.
  3. Ensure all market stalls have working fire extinguishers and train everyone to use them. No person should be able to sell in a market without an extinguisher and basic fire equipment in their stalls. Since you’re a market organization, you can have these equipment supplied in bulk by vendors, that way it’s cheaper. As Mr. A pays his market dues for the year, he gets a new fire extinguisher and fire bucket for his shop. If he doesn’t pay, he doesn’t do business.
    Self-regulation is understanding that if Mr. A refuses to pay for an extinguisher, he is a danger to my stall and I have a duty to report him, even if he’s my brother.
  4. Use that existing market organization power to get group fire insurance for all members. Insurance companies would die to cover an entire market. It could also be organized in such a way that the insurance company signs up the market as a group, and builds the fire station as an add-on, which actually makes sense for the insurance company — reducing risk saves them money that would have been paid out in premiums.
  5. Build IPPs, ban individual generators. Small generators cause fires all the time. The solution to that is to build a central power plant, let people buy prepaid units to power their shops — if you don’t need power, you don’t buy. But no generators. This does not only provide round the clock power for the market, but it’s also cheaper. It will also mean better-organized power connections. Those haphazard wires that fly over the entire market are fire risks, and they should go.

I know this is possible because people are doing it

I’ve lived in Lagos for 11 years, 9 of which I’ve had regular power supply (23.999/7), decent estate management and security. All of these are privately funded. In many cases, several estates came together and built a power plant, which actually reduced the cost of power. In my current estate, the cost of power is N65/Kw which might seem high, but the cost of running a decent sized generator is way higher.

At N65/kw, you have constant power, no generator noises (for most of us) and peace of mind. You don’t have to deal with generator repair people or any of those headaches.

But it wasn’t always like that. But people started realizing that coming together to build communal infrastructure is cheaper than running individual ones.

But it’s expensive

Yes, at the beginning. Also, market fires are even more expensive. But remember, the business pays for the party. It is better to spend money on what makes you money, than open yourself to risk that would take that money away.

So what about the government?

Very good question.

Seeing as you’ve used your own money to build power, fire and water infrastructure, why do you really need the government? You don’t. But they need you now. They’ll come for tax. And other orishi-rishi. They will also come to ask for votes. That’s when you catch them.

Now, instead of aligning to one party and being taken for granted, you can leverage your support for the one that actually aligns with your objectives. If the new guy agrees to your terms to add a fire engine to the one you bought by yourself, aha, that’s something you can hold the person to. If they don’t, openly support the opposition and run the cycle till you get what you want.

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