A mysterious fire broke out and consumed parts of the popular Arts and Craft Village located in the Central Business District of Abuja. It left artisans in pain and penury. CALEB ONWE reports
The occupants of the Arts and Crafts Village, Abuja, would have wished that this year’s yuletide did not come, were they blessed with the gift of foresight to know that the season was going to be heralded by so much pains and anguish. Since the unfortunate fire incident occurred a fortnight ago, the twist of fate on these fellows has created a puzzle that might never get a satisfactory answer in the minds of many people.
Many sympathisers have continued to ask, why did God not prevent the disaster, when it was obvious that these hard working Nigerians had stocked their stalls with the latest arts collections, in anticipation of “tourists invasions” during the yuletide.
They know that in previous years, the patronage they received during the Christmas holidays was enough to make them smile to their banks, possibly in hard currencies. Some observers have described the incident as a double tragedy, considering that it happened just as the artisans were recovering from the troubles unleashed on them by the newly appointed Director General of National Council of Arts and Culture( NCAC) , Otunba Segun Runsewe ,who outlawed the conversion of the arts shops into residential apartments by some of the poor artisans.
Inside Abuja gathered that on assumption of office, Runsewe mobilized security agents and swooped on the village, alleging that the place originally designed to showcase the cultural heritage of Nigeria had become a safe haven for drug peddlers and prostitutes. He issued an executive order that destabilized those who had found the village as an alternative residences, due to the high cost of rented accommodation in Abuja.
He allegedly evicted those who had no legal rights to stay around the place for any business. Though the cause of the fire incident that razed up to 20 shops in the village, was yet to be ascertained, those affected are already counting their loses, which they say, ran into millions of naira. Spokesperson of the Association of Artists and Craftsmen in the village, Kenedy Eguakun, told Inside Abuja, that members of the association were yet to get experts to evaluate the looses and come up with the exact value of what they lost to the inferno.
Eguakun also told Inside Abuja that some of their members had in stock precious stones that cost up to N1million, while some had collection of ivory materials that are very expensive, and that all of these items were all consumed by the fire. “We have not been able to get experts to evaluate our looses because of the cost of such services, but I can tell you that some of our members had precious stones that cost up to N1million per ones some had ivory materials that are very expensive, and as you can see, all of these had been consumed by the fire”, he said.
Eguakun confirmed that the exact cause of the fire had not been established, but is pointing an accusing finger at unnamed government agents, whom he said were working in concert to eject even legal occupants of the Arts village for possible reallocation to proxies of those in the government of the day. Inside Abuja’s investigation revealed that at some point, the artisans decided to be sleeping in their shops, as a security measure, given the fact that the shops were made of thatch and thieves could easily break into them at night.
Inside Abuja learnt that Runsewe did not see any logic in the reason given by the occupants and ordered that nobody should be allowed to make the Arts Village a residential place. It was also gathered that when NCAC Boss swooped on the village, he said the operations became very necessary considering the fact that over 300 homeless persons have converted the exhibition huts in the arts village to residential homes with high profile crimes taking place there.
He said:”We realized that the highest numbers of drug peddlers reside here; also robbers were caught with guns in the booth of a car parked here; stolen cars are parked, and prostitution and other nefarious activities go on here. “And with help of policemen deployed by the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) in charge of the area, they were able to clear hoodlums from the place within three days.
So, we have been able to sanitise the place. “At nights, a minimum of 120 cars are parked in the place, and almost about 60 of them have no owners. So, if criminals steal somebody’s car in Wuse, it will be brought here”. Runsewe said that the arts village cannot be left to remain in disarray and a source of embarrassment to the nation’s capital and the country at large.
He also stated that the location of the arts village makes it convenient for foreigners, especially tourists to choose it as their one-stop-shop for crafts and other material. Therefore, the place will not be left for hoodlums and miscreants.
The fire incident
While the destruction caused by the inferno remained irreversible, the victims are counting their loses, and calling on the government to come to their aid as their means of livelihood had been lost to the fire.
Eguakun, who confirmed that some government functionaries had visited the village on their personal capacity to assess the damage, decried the lukewarm attitude of NCAC official, which he described as not encouraging to the people who are in pains and tears.
One of the victims, Awal Suleiman, said that they suspected that the fire was an act of sabotage by those who are looking for fault at all cost to eject the Artists and craftsmen from the village.
“When this DG was appointed, we saw suspicious moves, which we do not subscribe to. Before then, we had internal security arrangement here but immediately he assumed office, he demanded that we should stop sleeping at the work place.
He also promised that his office would provide security and other things at the village. Previous administrations, had come and gone with no policies of this sort. And immediately we stop sleeping here, the fire came and this for the first time in the history of the Abuja art village,” he said.
According to Suleiman, the reason for turning some of the shops to residential apartments by some members of their association was because of the nature of their jobs.
He stressed that some of them are tailors, sculptors, shoe cobblers etc.
“We are suspicious of government’s hand in this because we hear that this land is to be given to some top politicians but we are at the same time Nigerians with equal rights to live in our country. I want also to use this medium to call on the Federal Government that we all voted in the present administration into power and we also celebrated their victory.
So, we are calling on the authority to intervene on this matter”, he said.
Another shop owner at the village, Alhaji Adamu Garba, stated that the emergence of Runsewe has remained a nightmare to them, as it has been from one trouble to another.
According to him, some of the conditions and orders coming from NCAC were clear indications that some individuals in government were plotting to retake the property.
He said that the new NCAC, DG had earlier notified the occupants of the planned review of their stay in the place.
“Three months ago, the newly appointed DG told us that we should pack out of the village while he carries out some rehabilitations and with installations of security gargets such as CCTV and fire fighting equipments before we can return to our shops again. But I can tell you that the CCTV was removed few days after its installation..
Part of our suspicion is that all the three gates for entering and exiting the village has two of it shot weeks before the fire incidents as if to say that it was a premeditated attempt to shut people out of the village when the incident takes place. And that was exactly what happened there was no way to access the village during the fire incident because the gates were shut down” , he said.
Garba decried the late arrival of the fire service at the scene of event due to the blockade of the only entrance with a jeep by an unknown personality which also contributed a delay of the fire service to gain entrance. He said that it took the intervention of onlookers who joined hands to move the vehicle out of the entrance 40 minutes before having access to the place.
“I make bold to say that it was a planned attack on the properties of shop owners. Before the people could have access to the place, billions of naira was gone. As for me, I had just lost goods worth N20 million both in floating cash and in stock. I can tell you that we just received goods worth N1.2 million before the fire and likewise other shop owners,” he said.
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