Market reopened at the culmination of the initial closure period, following observable efforts by market stakeholders to comply with official Covid-19 protocols.
By Chudi Okoye
Eke Awka market, the main trading centre in the Anambra State capital, reopened today, 29th June 2020, after a two-week closure imposed by the Anambra State government. The market closure was occasioned by what the government said were observed violations of its Covid-19 containment guidelines by market stakeholders and participants.
The market closure had been announced by the Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Professor Solo Chukwulobelu, in a statement issued on Thursday, 11th June 2020.
On the Monday that Eke market reopened, there was an instantaneous return to the sizzle and crush for which the market – the largest in the Awka conurbation and one of the busiest in Anambra State – is known. There was a splurge of commerce, with boisterous transactions going on everywhere as needy patrons and eager traders tried to make up for lost time. It was as if the market had been in suspended animation.
Right from the early hours of the morning, shop owners were seen busily cleaning up their surroundings and setting up their wares, in eager readiness to resume trading. The market closure had clearly strained business and family finances, and market operators were desperate to re-engage their livelihoods.
The reopening of Eke Awka market came about after the two weeks of closure imposed by the authorities had fully elapsed. The government stuck rigidly to its two-week imposition despite initial entreaties by community stakeholders, clearly with the objective of modifying Covid-19 compliance behaviors in Awka town and environ.
The state government’s rigid imposition appeared to have chastened the Awka community, compelling an immediate response among local residents. Right after the government’s announcement of its plan but even before the market closure came into enforcement, Awka residents had begun to display a new level of Covid-19 sensitivity, many consciously observing the rules. People were seen studiously – some even ostentatiously – wearing masks, observing physical distancing rules, tidying up their environments, washing their hands, wiping with sanitizers, etc.
The public’s behavior modification was encouraged by sensitization measures put in place by the market administration and other stakeholders. National Youth Corps members were enlisted in the sensitization effort. Community information services were employed to drive higher consciousness about Covid-19 and to broadcast the need for improved compliance. For instance the popular community stentor, Mr. Issa Nwosu, was pressed into service making days-long announcements through the length and breadth of Awka town to drive awareness and compliance.
Apart from the gentle suasion, there was also a show of force by the government to compel compliance. Apparently working with Eke Awka market administration, the state government deployed contingents of enforcement task force to Eke Awka market and elsewhere around Awka town to monitor compliance, with the mandate to sanction defaulters. There were reported cases of instant sanction for defaulters, some fined, some whipped, others forced to perform some prescribed community service – for example by sweeping the streets and pavements – all carried out in open view to maximize the public shaming of culprits.
As all these measures took effect and Covid-19 compliance level observably improved, Eke Awka market stakeholders issued a statement pleading with the government to reopen the market. In the statement released on 23rd June 2020 at Eke Awka Administrative Hall, the market leaders rather cloyingly pleaded with the state government to “temper Justice with mercy.” The chairman of Eke-Awka Market Association, Mr. Emeka Jude Agumadu, who issued the statement admitted that there had been some traders and buyers who did not appear to believe the menace of the coronavirus, saying that partly for this reason earlier efforts to enforce compliance measures were unsuccessful. He acknowledged that this was the reason for the market closure by the government.
Mr. Agumadu said however that more stringent measures were now in place to ensure strict compliance with Covid-19 containment guidelines as laid out by the state government following standards prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
“We the management of the market are doing all we can to ensure 100% compliance, and we have also re-energised our Covid-19 Task Force to stand at every point of the market to ensure that both traders and visitors comply to the guidelines,” Mr. Agumadu said.
“I am also using this opportunity to warn everybody that all protocols must be observed when coming to Eke Awka market,” he continued. “If you have any intention of coming to the market, whether you’re a trader or a customer, be ready to comply or forget about coming close to the market or its environs.”
He also added that arrangements has been made to provide water and soap as well as hand sanitizers at every gate or entrance for people to use before they could enter the market. Agumadu disclosed that all the market lines and women leaders had been directed to ensure that adequate measures were put in place in their various lines to avoid a repeat of what led to the market closure.
Mr. Agumadu spoke to the confusion of Eke Awka market and street shops, noting that Eke Awka was on total shutdown while the street shops that were far removed from the Eke Awka environ had been open since they were not under the supervision of Eke Awka Market Association.
The market leader appealed to the governor of Anambra State, Chief Willie Obiano, to consider reopening the market to alleviate the suffering of the traders, particularly those plying perishable goods who only recently emerged from the nationwide lockdown in Nigeria and had re-stocked just before the closure. While the main market was closed, some frustrated food sellers desperately sought other makeshift outlets to sell their perishable goods, including Sammy Sparkle Lane and Umukwa village square. This was a significant inconvenience.
A representative of the market traders, Mr. Eugene Okeke, also pleaded with the state governor to reopen the market because of the economic challenges faced by traders.
Presumably in response to the pleas of the market stakeholders, but also following the culmination of its two-week timeframe, the Anambra State government on Friday, 26th June, announced that it would suspend the closure and reopen Eke Awka market on 29th June. A statement issued by the Anambra State SSG, Professor Solo Chukwulobelu, noted that the decision was made by the state governor, Willie Obiano, having “considered the various pleas by Eke Awka market traders and other stakeholders, and following assurances by the traders that going forward they will strictly abide by, and enforce the state government’s Covid-19 law and other directives on stopping the spread of the virus in the state.”
The SSG also indicated that “the [Eke Awka market] traders have signed an undertaking with the state government in that regard, hence His Excellency, on compassionate grounds, has directed that the directive to close Eke Awka market, which came into effect on Monday, 15th June 2020, be suspended.”
Professor Chukwulobelu said that Eke Awka market would reopen along with surrounding markets such as Oderah market, Uwakwe Ukaegbu market, Author Eze Avenue market and Zik Avenue.
He urged all market leaders in the state to enforce the terms of the undertaking signed with the state government relating to the implementation of Covid-19 safety protocols in their various markets.
“We are entering a new phase of engagement with market leaders in the state whose support is critical to stopping the spread of Covid-19 in Anambra State. The market leaders now know that sanctions more stringent than the almost 2-weeks closure of Eke Awka market will apply if they fail to enforce Covid-19 safety protocols in their various markets including wearing of protective face masks, maintaining of social distancing in the markets, provision of buckets and water for washing of hands etc.,” Professor Chukwulobelu concluded.
There is no knowing the full cost of the market closure to the Awka economy. There were concerns that government might have been a bit heavy-handed in selecting only Eke Awka market for closure. But the government’s decision was probably driven by data indicating that Awka South Local Government Area had the highest number of coronavirus cases among the 21 LGAs in Anambra State, representing about 34% of the cases as at the time of market closure on 15th June.
There had not been much public outrage against the market closure despite the strictures and privations arising from it. There seemed to be a strong consensus on the need to tighten compliance enforcement.
Public acceptance of the closure was also strengthened by several high profile deaths that occurred in the past few days in Awka, although it is not clear that all or even more than a few of the fatalities were connected with coronavirus infection.
As Eke Awka and surrounding markets reopen, it will be important for market participants to remain compliant and for the government to maintain a monitoring regime, to prevent another instinctive closure order with all the attendant costs for the market economy.♦
■ Awka Times reporters Stella Nzekwe and Pamela Henry-Igwe contributed to this story