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OKOBABA FIRE: Some powerful persons trying to claim land, behind the fire –Victims

• The area was also gutted last year
• We have to start from scratch after losing everything

A massive fire that swept through the popular Okobaba Sawmill, a slum in Ebute Metta area of Lagos State, last Sunday left many completely shattered. Many houses in the slum were up in flames as residents were said to have run helter skelter trying to salvage their belongings. Locals were also said to have tried to put out the fire with bales of water in the absence of the officials of the Lagos State Fire Service and other emergency services without much success.

Since the incident, many of those whose houses were burnt have taken refuge with mosquitoes outside as they now sleep in the open spaces. One of those who said he lost everything he had worked for, a 66-year-old man, identified simply as Temitoye, has however, blamed the incident on those he called “powerful individuals”, who, according to him, are bent on claiming their land of being behind the fire that razed buildings, factories, and many shanties on Sunday night.

The incident, which Temitoye recalled started about 7pm, rendered many victims homeless, leaving them sleeping at the burnt site since then. Though the cause of the fire had not been ascertained as of Wednesday when our reporter visited the area, Temitoye said they were convinced that powerful individuals, who had been a torn in their flesh, have been doing everything possible to “flush” them out of the area.

He said: “It is not a mystery fire like many are insinuating. We know those behind the incident. They have been terrorising and intimidating us here with their money and connection. They just want to drive us out from here so they can claim the land to build their dream estate.

They are mostly those who could not own properties in choice areas like VGC and Banana Island. Three weeks after they threatened us with forceful ejection, the so-called mystery fire occurred and wiped out all that we have laboured for, for years; can’t you see? Do we need anybody to tell us they are behind the fire? “Look, there are some bad boys here, who are jobless and some of us believe they were the willing tools they used for the criminal act. All these areas were our houses, businesses; how and where do we start from now? But our God will repay them in their own coin. No matter what they do, we are not moving anywhere.”

Temitoye is not alone in this anguish. Anetorufa Ayebanua, 57, who also claimed to have lived in the area since his childhood, echoed the same sentiment. According to Ayebanua, “we are all aware of those who want us out of this place at all cost. They have been coming to intimidate us with all manner of gimmick; sometimes they make use of those bad boys here, who would unnecessarily cause trouble to dis-credit the neighbourhood.

They look for all manner of excuses to justify their evil plot and they have always failed and will continue to fail. “We have been resisting them, and have made complaints to the appropriate quarters a number of times, yet no positive solution to our plight because we are not important to them.

The same big and powerful people make use of the woods from the Sawmill here to build their expensive houses but they won’t let us be. What happened last Sunday was the second in about a year. We don’t have anybody but God and we are hopeful He will fight for us,” Ayebanua said. A middle aged woman fashion designer, Omotalani Lawal, has been in tears refusing to be consoled since the fire incident.

Lawal was still in the church with her husband when news got to her that fire had razed down her community. She ran like a mad woman to the scene but what she saw broke her down. She narrated: “We were still at our white garment church that Sunday because we usually close a bit late. Suddenly about 7.30pm, I saw a neighbour rushing into the church shouting fire, fire, fire. We tried to enquire what had happened but the woman was too dazed to explain.

As she ran back, we ran after her, and when we got to the place we had called home for years, behold, it was in ruins. The houses, factories, shops, everything was burning. In that confusion, we couldn’t salvage anything from our home. By the time I ran to check my fashion shop, it had been razed completely and I fainted. I can’t tell how I was revived. “My sewing machines, people’s clothes, all gone with the fire. My husband works here too.

He was with me in the church at the time. My fashion shop was worth over N200,000. I started it after my freedom three years ago. I started with one sewing machine a butterfly that I bought for N45,000. It is white garment I wore to the church that I have left.

It was a neighbour that gave me this one that I’m wearing now. “We have been sleeping outside since that Sunday with mosquitoes as our new neighbours. But my main worry now is how to repay the loan I took to buy more machines for my shop. I got the machines less than four months ago and I’m still paying for them.

We have started the Christmas season work and my customers’ clothes in the shop were burnt too. What I am going to tell my creditors, my customers? I’m finished! It would have been better if the fire had claimed me as I’m now a living dead. Government should please come to our aid as we can’t bear this loss alone. Lagosians should also come to assist us to rebuild our ruined lives.” For Adedokun Dipo, who said he lost his house and block making machines to the fire, “we have lost words to describe what happened here that fateful Sunday.” According to Dipo, “we tried our best to stop the fire but to no avail. It started from one small shanty and spread within minutes to engulf the entire area. We lost over 150 buildings to the fire. The ruins you are looking at now used to be people’s buildings and belongings. “I live and work here at this block industry where we sell blocks, it belongs to me. When the fire was raging, seven block machines in the factory got burnt and they were big ones we bought on credit. We have not even finished paying for them. All my goods got burnt, my house and all the things in my house too. We couldn’t pick out anything as we were confused at the time. This trousers and shirt on me are my only remaining properties. “I am married with four children and we have been sleeping in these ruins ever since; nowhere to go to as we have no money to rent another apartment for now. Only God knows for how long we are going to remain like this. If there is anything you can do to help, please do it for us. Where do we start from now? We lost everything, and would appreciate it if the Lagos State government and the good people of the state can come to our aid. We need help, and urgently too.” Like Dipo, another resident of the area, who also lost all her belongings to the inferno, Balikis Dauda, said: “We didn’t know it was going to be like this but I thank God that we were awake at the time. If we were not awake, a lot of people would have lost their lives. As the fire raged, we all tried our best, our husbands and other sympathisers, but we could not put off the fire. “What I want now is help wherever it can come from because we don’t have money and cannot afford rent elsewhere; feeding self has become a nagging issue for now. Our children can’t go to school any longer as their uniforms, shoes and books, all got burnt. Presently, we need food urgently before we start dying. The weather too has not been friendly and there is this perpetual fear of the unknown among us, especially those of us who have been sleeping outside since the fire incident.” Another victim, a 48-year-old Togolese, Kossi Nadege, told this reporter that many families were still struggling to pay off debts used to rebuild their burnt homes when a similar fire incident engulfed the neighbourhood last year. Nadege, who works in the Sawmill, said he would have been a victim the second time if he had not relocated. He lost everything in the inferno last year and left the community for Makoko, Yaba, and came to work from there.

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