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Managing frequency of infernos, unanswered questions in Balogun Market

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Incidences of fire as a natural disaster is not a strange occurrence in Nigeria or anywhere in the world, but there are some cases that give room for concern, especially the frequency and timing of fire occurrences at the Balogun Market, Lagos Island. ADEYINKA ADENIJI reports

Fire outbreaks are like flood disasters. They are either man or nature-induced. Mitigation is the best way to avoid the ruinous impacts of these disasters, as they usually usher in an era of mental, financial, and social destitution for sufferers.

Victims have usually been robbed of property and unquantifiable valuables, more often than not. Many were displaced with numerous others dead. Other than adequate mitigation measures, which are the best way to fight outbreaks, resultant risk minimisation mechanisms must equally be accorded premium consideration because fire disasters are like offences that can’t yet but be.

Floods, after occupying any given space for a few hours, days, and in exceptional cases, weeks, as has been witnessed in the ravaging widespread flooding that created humanitarian crisis for some weeks across Nigeria; may leave the premises with partial damage, but in yet repairable conditions. Raging infernos are very different.

Neglect of predictions

In what has been held as the fulfillment of periodic /seasonal climate predictions (P/SCP), particularly the National Hydrological Development Agency’s Annual Flood Outlook (AFO), over two two-thirds of states across Nigeria have suffered massive overflowing flood waters arising from precipitation. This has largely been linked with some foretold factors like official negligence in not building a counterpart relief dam in case of over-flooding, deforestation, the LU:LC ratio of total surfaces, natural abuse in form of deforestation, and encroachment on water spaces in the name of urban development and the effect of climate change and global warming.

While on the contrary, fire disasters may be similarly nature-induced, but it cannot be predicted by any specialist. One may however foretell the likely outcome of environmental abuse and flouting of fire and building safety codes. Destruction of investment in forms of farmlands and building properties, damage to public infrastructures, and physical displacement which becomes permanent homelessness for millions of victims are mutual outcomes of the duo weather-related disasters of fire and flooding. With fire accidents, any space, whether field or farmland, office, factory, warehouse, market, residence, or any other location of human patronage becomes heaps of ashes just a few hours or minutes after an inferno is triggered.

Yaba Goshen Clothing Plaza

On Tuesday, November 2, 2022, an inferno in the Yaba Goshen Clothing Plaza, popularly known as “The Kitchen” outbreak was said to have consumed the entire place within 30 minutes. Owner, Goodwill Okorie, sounded suspicious as he narrates how he became a helpless spectator for about 30 minutes while his multimillion Naira property investment was razed down by a raging inferno.

“I was called immediately the fire started. I got here within five minutes and in less than 30 minutes, the plaza was down. Everyone ran out because they were trapped. The whole plaza went down, but no life was lost.” the popular imported fabrics in imported fabrics. Such a scenario, however, depends on the environment, in which the market is located; the urban development level, and the classification of their outbreak, among other factors.

The frequency or occurrence of fire outbreaks also depends on varying factors and dynamics. These may include and are not limited to; poor urban planning, poor maintenance culture of equipment and appliances, use of inferior wiring and electrical materials, negligence on the part of the people, lack of or non-enforcement of basic environmental and building safety codes, weather condition – which has of recent been subject to some destructive alterations, courtesy climate change and global warming. While there are various forms and manifestations of fire outbreaks, both in dimension and impact – immediate or remote – there are as well as many distinct manners and dimensions of loss.

Again, while certain forms of fire outbreak rarely occur in modern markets, the mostly chaotically laid-out communities and slums of some parts of Africa and other underdeveloped nations are considered highly prone to same (fire) occurrences. The peculiarity of certain forms of fire outbreaks in certain socioeconomic environments is not far-fetched. It is also a truism that thoughtfulness of holding on to the manners of and frequency of outrages as a yardstick to measure the efficiency, or otherwise, of fire safety codes enforcement and governance, in general may not be logically faulted. Nonetheless, a fair knowledge of the classes of this outbreak is believed would also aid in decisions in the face of crises. They are classified into residential fire outbreaks, industrial fire outbreaks, market fires, institutional fires, and other recreational or commercial locations.

Residential fires

Fire outbreaks in houses are mostly caused by a surge in electricity supply, which is more triggered by the use of inferior electrical materials. The harsh economic condition has forced a decline in the quality of gadgets and appliances, including electrical appliances. Another factor that inspires the usual occurrence of domestic fire outbreaks is bad urban planning. Poorly laid-out residential environments, with arbitrarily jam-packed buildings that choke environmental ventilation are more prone to the crisis than upper-crust settlements with access roads, well-laid electric poles, and houses finished with quality materials. Negligence and impunity, under the indulgence of unenforced fire and other safety codes, among others are reasons for this. On October 2, 2020, the Lagos State Fire and Emergency Management Authority received related distress calls within the frame of 3 hours from the Somolu-Bariga axis of the state. Midnight infernos, claimed properties and the life of a 50-year-old male, according to Adeseye Margaret, Director, Lagos State Fire and Rescue Service, preliminary investigations revealed negligence as the undercurrent cause of both fires which led to an electrical upsurge where lives and properties were destroyed.

Fire outbreaks in industrial premises

Fire outbreaks in industrial premises or fields have a greater impact in terms of the financial worth of loss. They also constitute great environmental hazards. Industrial Chemicals and other highly inflammable substances are involved and they pose far-reaching health dangers that in the long run dwarf values of properties lost to the fire, usually in form of heavy equipment, industrial raw materials, and other work-in-progress. Sometimes arising from human errors, other stimulants of industrial fire outbreaks include but may not be limited to; Improper management of combustible dust; inappropriate handling of flammable liquids and gas; hot-working process; incidents from mechanical equipment and machinery, and electrical hazards, mentioning some of them. Though not as common as the domestic and market variant, industrial fires are adjudged as the most calamitous with effect on public or environmental health. Regardless, Nigeria has witnessed some of the goriest occurrences of industrial fires, though at soaring successions, unlike other variants. Over 100 persons were reportedly killed in a Nigerian illegal oil refinery blast on April 23, 2022 in the Abaezi Forest, located in the Ohaji-Egbema Local Government Area of Imo State. “The fire outbreak occurred at an illegal bunkering site and it affected over 100 people who were burnt beyond recognition,” the State Commissioner for Petroleum Resources, Goodluck Opiah,” said.

Other forms of fire disasters

Other forms of fire disasters are judged as peculiar to environments and they are a viable yardstick for the level of overall socioeconomic status of dwellers in such localities or countries. Market fire disasters are more regular features of urban markets, especially around densely populated communities. Unlike the more organised modern shopping malls and plazas common within the metropolis. For instance, “The Palms” chain of malls, popularly known as Shoprite, is a type of market just like the Ojuwoye market in Mushin or Upper Iweka, Onitsha. Differentiating characteristics between the two, however, lie in varying factors which include, but are not limited to the generation of such markets, nature, sophistication, environment, manner of commodities traded on, and accessibility by emergency responders in the face of an outbreak, among others. In March 2022, the popular Kugbo Furniture Market in Abuja was razed down by fire. Traders and invariably, the Nigerian economy listed hundreds of millions of naira in a fire outbreak described by one of the affected traders, Azi Francis as the worst ever in the market. He lost stocks running into millions. He also lost a customer to the inferno. The market recorded such incidents in 2013 and 2020. But they may have sent Azi out of business completely. He lost 3 shops and a warehouse. Though the police declared that about 200 houses were razed in another fire outbreak at Karimo Market, an eyewitness said he counted 309. In all, billions of naira were lost and shutting hundreds out of direct and indirect employment. While fire outbreaks had been witnessed at various kinds of markets, whether local or modern malls, an undeniable fact is that the severity and impact of outbreaks are greater with local markets like Oja Oba market in Ibadan, Amu in Mushin, Oke Aa, rin and Balogun on the Lagos Island. A state-by-state analysis of fire incidents reveals that market forces are most common, with Lagos having the highest number of outbreaks, followed by Anambra. Historically, markets in Lagos have suffered some of the gravest damage to traders and the national economy. The state had recorded 22 occurrences followed by Anambra with 15 fire incidents. This results in great damage to the state and national economy. Individual and family job losses; as most shops are operated by members of a family. It is not uncommon to see two generations of a family involved in a business, this is most common with local markets in Ojuwoye and Amu, Mushin, The same applies to Balogun, Jankara – Idumota, Apongbon on Lagos Island, Agege, Yaba, and other local markets across the state. After much familiarisation and assurance of safety by New Telegraph Correspondent, a roadside shoe and bag seller at a major bus stop along the Lagos – Abeokuta Expressway, who gave her name as Khadijat Adedoyin agreed to speak. She is the type of trader you find along Docemo Street, Idumota, displaying her wares boldly at the bust stop with her two-year-old daughter lying on some pieces of fabric, a third consecutive fire outbreak at Balogun Market sent her extended family out of business. She said that the latest in her family calamity coincided with exactly two months after her father-in-law, who headed the fabric trading outfit that involved her husband and mother-in-law took a loan from their bankers. Life has never been the same for her entire family. She now sells by the roadside, shouting out every evening, calling attention to her wares. She had no choice but to get shoes and bags on credit from her friends on the Island who were able to raise startups after they were mutually bedeviled. And then sell in the unpopular “Gbanjo” manner on the mainland.

Effects of market fire

The multiplier effect of market fire outbreaks is unquantifiable. While Khadija’s family only lost their investment, many of their neighbours lost loved ones in the same incidents. On November 5, 2019, while efforts were underway to minimise the loss of goods and properties from a raging inferno on Martins street, Balogun, news broke on the internet that another trading premise on Docemo Street, all on Lagos Island was also on fire. A life was reported lost at Balogun, while the alertness of responders, which had been triggered by the Balogun incident, saved the day at Idumota, it ended like killing a bird with two stones for the firemen.

The Balogun experience

While it is regrettable that market fires slip investors and employers of labour in socio-economic deprivation, with the resultant general impact on victim’s mental health, added to a negative effect on national productivity; it is also worthy of note that the Balogun market may have constituted a chunk of the total monetary loss of N42 billion. Having recorded the highest number of fire outbreaks by any single market in recent years. A major fabrics trading hub in the country, Balogun is the name of a collection adjoining and interwoven streets, avenues, and lanes on Lagos Island where trade commodities are predominantly fabrics.

It has no particular address just like the Ojuwoye Market, Mushin, an allbudget textile trading hub. Both roadside and shop frontage is occupied by different trading concerns other than the main shop owners, who may mostly in their multiples, coexisting to display their imports, with what houses locked within the locality for bulk/wholesale buyers.

Regrettably, fire incidence happens at Balogun like other similar archaically structured markets like Amu, Mushin, and Idumota on Lagos Island; but more worrisome is that the market is particularly notorious for its unfortunate annual third-quarter outbreaks of incidents.

Whereby, affected traders are always left to grapple with the impact of an outbreak in a sub-sector that may have been undermarketed by insurance policy sellers, since disasters especially those that are induced by an ‘act of God cannot but happen, adequate loss minimisation mechanisms would have served as veritable shock absorbers in the face of eventualities. Another market in the old Balogun, situated on Lagos Island is the Yaba/Tejuosho Market on the Mainland.

The victims of Tuesday, November 1, 2022 fire in Tejuosho must have weighed their options, and considered the pros and cons of the situation before appealing to their creditor’s banks, and other loan facilitators for a compassionate review of loan facilities. Their appeal was revealed in a statement by the Southwest coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Ibrahim Farinloye while giving an account of a post-disaster loss and needs assessment. The statement quoted a leader at the Tejuosho Traders Association as appealing to the banks for more loans and possibly reviewing the terms to ensure they remain in business and fulfill their obligations to creditor banks. “The Chairman appeals to loan facilitators to kindly consider the calamities and grant them more loans to enable start and redeem all the loans,” Farinloye said in the statement.

Equally revealed by Farinloye’s statement is that almost 2000 direct and indirect jobs would be affected in the mid-Tuesday inferno that gutted 80 shops. Over 1600 industrial sewing machines were also burnt beyond repairs or refurbishing.

Anecdotal accounts had attributed Tuesday’s disaster at Tejuosho to abuse of the fueling process of a generating set, where a man was said to be topping the petrol tank while the set was in operation. Like other fires where the cause is seldom known, the cause of Tuesday’s disaster nonetheless remains unascertained, as the leader of the affected traders however debunked the rumour, citing the manner and speed at which the fire spread across the market as suspect. “However, the Chairman of the Traders, Comrade Godwill Okorie contested this saying the way the fire started and spread throughout the whole market within minutes makes him dispute the general rumour.”

Therefore it becomes imperative for policymakers and enforcers to be proactive in the formation stage, in the realisation that the unthinkable might always be more likely and with alterations to climate change through global warming, such disasters become more likely.

It is also instructive to note that the common features of big non-modern structures markets like the Balogun market are equally ironically the major ingredients of most destructive fire disasters. Poor road network, jumbled electric wires under staircases of multi-level structures, and makeshift unauthorised electric poles with which trained electricians are sorted in a process that abuses electricity connectivity and safety codes. Another characteristic of these markets is the inaccessibility to firefighters during the crisis, which is occasioned by unrestrained street trading that causes pedestrian traffic in the daytime as well as constitutes hindrances to fire engines during emergencies, which mostly happen before the market opens for the day.

Street traders like in Ipodo, Ikeja, Kola Market, Agbado, and other old-generation markets, usually live their ridden tables and chairs chained right where they sell and partially make their livelihood. Sadly, in the last seven years, the Balogun market has recorded major fire outbreaks around the third quarter of every year.

A few weeks ago, precisely October 9, New Telegraph reported a fire outbreak in the popular market. Also recollect that before that, Balogun had witnessed raging inferno that destroyed goods worth hundreds of millions in November 2019, 2020, and 2021. This medium has also reported cases of destructive fire accidents in the market since 2015. Sept. 2015, about three persons were reported dead, and some others were injured after they jumped from various floors of the affected building to escape. In February 2021, about three shops were razed by fire at markets. In Dec. 2019, a fire outbreak was recorded at the market after a previous one a month before. In Feb. 2018, a fire reportedly started around 11 a.m. local time and razed six flats at the Balogun market.

In 2017, a similar case was reported. A grave issue of concern to observers however remains the fact that the causes of these infornos are never known. Robbing society of any clue as to forestalling further occurrences based on lessons of and from the past. As was stated earlier, Balogun possesses every ingredient of uncontrollable fire outbreaks. During emergencies, accessibility is hindered by poor and narrow roads.

Some buildings are structurally accessible and safe for only pedestrians. A jumbled web of electricity ropes haphazardly installed on both sides of the street and in the structures. It is not a rare occurrence for ones’s attention to be called to the need to be mindful of his head while climbing staircases to avoid contact with electric wires. Efforts by the Lagos State government of Babajide Sanwo-Olu in the area of responsiveness to emergencies, sophisticated engines are of little or no effect, when access are denied to emergency scenes. It is also advisable that spaces be created as a matter of urgency for mini fire stations within any market with over 200 shops.

Whether the mysterious order or archaic native, this has proved effective as firefighters from UBA fire station on Broad Street have saved numerous potentially ugly occasions when there is a fire emergency at Balogun market. It behooves states to take responsibility for fire-fighting as they are the direct hit in terms of revenue and other budgetary losses.

More so the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola has called on state governments to take responsibility for civil defence. The minister also recently stressed the need for the general public to take up the right fire fight fighting attitudes as the season approaches. Speaking recently in a public appearance, Aregbesola also urged the Federal Fire Service to embark on massive campaigns on fire prevention and safer campaigns. “Although there are naturally occurring fire accidents, most accidents are man-made, accidentally, negligently or on purpose, (arson), and this can be prevented mostly if there is enough awareness.

Nigerians should be made to know the various categories of fire and what the first responders should do before the arrival of the fire officers.” While there is no scientific data on the major causes of fire incidents at Balogun, the timing – towards the year ends – succession, the market has regrettably maintained the top chart as the most inferno-ravaged in the whole country for seven years running.

While other unverifiable reasons had been alluded to as the cause of the annual fiesta of a destructive fire in the market, every ensuing narrative also found its ground based on their social and religious observation. Somehow bizarre was the agitation of and pleading by a group which identified themselves as the Association of Traders 39/41 Martins Street.

This is a major street within the sprawling Balogun market; it is also about the most ravaged. The traders fingered one of them, Mrs. Fausat Fesugboyi (Brasas Fabric), as being ‘the masquerade’ behind the incessant fire outbreaks in the market. In a letter dated October 14, 2022, and addressed to the Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu and signed by their Chairman, Mr. Mbachu Chibuzo, the traders urged the governor to come to their aid and investigate the fire incidents immediately to prevent future occurrences.

“We are mindful of the right to our property as guaranteed by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But this right is not to infringe on other people’s right to life, to commute, and engage in legal business amongst others. “The fire incident of the property above is a misery because the property always gets burnt every other year. For instance, the property got burnt in the following years to wit: 2017, November 2018, 11th October 2019, and the recent occurrence was on 9th October, 2022. “The frequent inferno of the property, which the owner, Mrs. Fausat Fesugboyi ought to put an end to but did not, and her nonchalance attitude made our members and other citizens around the vicinity lose their business and sustained various degrees of health issues,” the inferno victims pleaded.

While there may not be empirical evidence to substantiate their claims, the African society for them has taught a lot of lessons on the hardness of the heart of man and the power of metabolism. One of them who agreed to speak to our Correspondent but pleaded anonymity because they, “have executives’ who said the alleged shop owners had never denied the allegation, but were such audacious people.

“If you meet her she doesn’t budge! She maintains nobody can send her out of the market,” the source said. Efforts to reach the alleged Alhaja Fausat were abortive as calls to her given number never went through. It was also impossible to reach a spokesperson of the group, whose name our source gave as “Oga Tem ‘’ over the telephone.

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