REPORT: Untold deaths, tears trail the closure of Abuja’s Arts and Craft village
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OVER 500 traders at Abuja’s Arts and Craft Village were sent packing from their stalls in February 2018, with their goods locked up and no alternatives provided. Having lost their livelihood, at least half a dozen of them soon succumbed to despair, diseases and, finally, death.
Sunday Boniface Ogbonnaya, 31, had a reputation as a cheerful, easy-going young man. He got along well with other traders regardless of ethnicity at the famous Arts and Craft Village, where he managed two stalls alongside his cousin. Even while he studied Computer Science at Ebonyi State University, he often spent his holidays selling craft and cultural items at the market.
After he completed the National Youth Service Corps programme in November 2017, he resumed at the market to support the family business and earn a living pending the time he got a corporate job offer. About a year later, after the National Council on Art and Culture’s decision to close down the marketplace, he started growing increasingly depressed. He lost a lot of money, some of which were from loans, lost access to the shops, lost hope, and then sadly lost his life.
It started with a mysterious fire incident in December 2017 that razed the bigger of his two shops to the ground, with everything in it. Thinking the situation could not get any worse, he quickly sought help from other traders in cash and kind and concentrated efforts on the second shop. But three months later, all of Arts and Craft Village was placed on lockdown under controversial circumstances and following instructions from the NCAC Director-General, Otunba Olusegun Runsewe.
“We thought it could be resolved in a matter of days,” recalls Festus Nwafor, Ogbonna’s cousin.
“We all went home. There was no alternative anywhere. No business. No money. No white-collar job. People were just living from hand-to-mouth, trying to survive. At a point, we all went to the market at Jabi, Airport Junction market. We pitched a makeshift tent but because we were new, we didn’t have customers. We were back to the same ordeal of no money, no business.”
Because of those challenges and the traumatising effect they had on him, Ogbonna started developing severe symptoms of High Blood Pressure.
Tossed from hospital to hospital
Sometime in May 2018, Nwafor discovered that Ogbonna’s phone was not reachable throughout the day. Out of concern, he made his way to his house as soon as he closed from work. Getting there, he met Ogbonna laying on the floor, almost unconscious. As fast as he could, he invited his younger brother to the scene so together they could get him to the hospital. The time was 7 pm.
First, they went to Wuse General Hospital but were turned back because there were no available bed spaces. From there, they proceeded to the Federal Medical Centre, Jabi. There, they were instructed to buy certain drugs. But then, the staff soon realised the department that could treat the illness was part of ongoing strike action and said there was nothing they could do.
Immediately, they took him to Nisa Premier, a private hospital also at Jabi. But they weren’t even allowed to take in the indisposed man. They simply inspected him while he was in the car and dismissed them because they “could not handle such situations”. Certainly, time was running out. Ogbonna was barely conscious during the chaos. His blood pressure around the time read 200 plus/150 plus, classified as hypertensive crisis.
When they got to Nizamiye, another private hospital a little over 6 km away, the staff there told them they had to first deposit N300,000 before Ogbonna could be admitted. Nwafor did not have up to that. The next stop was Limi Hospital but they weren’t lucky there either. They were told that branch, at Central Business District, does not administer treatment for heart-related problems, and the branch that does, which is located at Garki, did not have workers on a night shift.
“We moved from there to Asokoro District Hospital,” Nwafor narrates. At this time, it was already 5 the following morning. They had spent eight hours drifting from one hospital to the other.
“They also told us the whole hospital was filled up and they didn’t have any bed space. But after we pleaded and told them we were desperate for any option at all, they discussed among themselves and permitted us to manage a bed space by the reception.”
But it was too early to heave a sigh of relief.
Nwafor paid for a list of prescribed drugs. Soon after, a test was conducted on Ogbonna and the result placed in a CD. There was only one problem: The expert who could interpret the disc’s content had gone home. They waited for hours on end. The drugs and test result were useless and all the medical care Ogbonna actually received came from a drip.
From 5 am, all through the day, no treatment was administered. And then sometime around 9 pm, Ogbonna started breathing heavily. The nurses gathered and, “feigning seriousness”, brought all manner of items, manually compressed his chest, and supplied him with artificial ventilation. It was too late though as the young man nevertheless breathed his last.
Ogbonna was the only son among his mother’s three children. His death shook her vigorously and Nwafor thinks it was even miraculous she survived the phase because she was known to have underlying health conditions.
“They must’ve told you about one guy they called Imoh,” Nwafor continues. “He was an artist in the market. It was just last year somebody uploaded his picture and said he had died. There was one other guy called Muhammed. He recently died too. These guys mostly all died out of frustration and depression.”
Kanayo Chukwumezie, who has been President of the African Arts and Cultural Heritage Association (AACHA), the sellers’ trade union, since 2011, explained that the problem started in 2010, with the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) claiming ownership of the property has been transferred to it from the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA). Eventually, the disagreement between the two government agencies was resolved and NCAC emerged as the new sheriff in town.
Then came Olusegun Runsewe. He was appointed as the Council’s Director-General in 2017 and, under his administration, the Arts and Craft Village has faced unprecedented levels of unrest. In February 2018, despite a court injunction restraining such action, Runsewe ordered for the market to be locked down and alleged that firearms, drugs, and stolen vehicles were found in the premises. Chukwumezie denied the allegations.
“I called a press conference challenging him to bring the proof,” he said.
“You say you saw 24 stolen vehicles, tell us where they are. You say you saw guns, tell us where they are and in what shops you saw them. Who have you prosecuted? Who were the vehicles traced to? Even from the chassis numbers, we can tell who owns them. You don’t just try to give a dog a bad name to hang it.”
The closure, AACHA’s President said, affected over 150 shops, over 500 traders, and investment estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of naira. Having been uprooted from their vocation, many traders returned to their villages and the few who remained have shops scattered across Abuja.
“At the end of the day, whatever comes out of our struggle, we will know that we have exhausted all that is within our powers without fighting,” he said with contentment.
“Whether we win or lose in the matter is irrelevant, the record will show that there is a group that once fought to have this place to be what it is. Even if they remove it, they would say some people fought but did not succeed.”
When this reporter reached out to Chas Nwam, Special Assistant to Runsewe, he said the agency would not comment on the matter as some of the issues were in court. He also said an interview could not grant an interview until the lockdown in Abuja, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is lifted.
‘Have they opened the market yet?’
Alhaji Mudi Kabir’s death was slow and distressing. Long before he eventually gave up the ghost, he was already detached from the world ― no thanks to the shutdown of Art and Craft village shutdown.
Eighty-something-year-old Baba Oja (the market’s father), as he was fondly called, moved to Abuja in 2000. Before then, he sold cultural items at the famous Kurmi market in Kano. Auwal Sulaiman, his close associate for over 30 years, recalls they both set up shops at the Airport Junction market before moving to the craft market in 2007 as part of the first set of vendors.
“When he heard that the market had been closed, the news shook his really mind, more than any other person,” Suleiman says. “He had become accustomed to that market as if it was his own home.”
The effect it had on him could have also been partly because of the number of people depending on him for sustenance: including at least two wives and 19 children who stayed back in Kano.
Baba Oja was disoriented. He suddenly started acting irrationally and no amount of consolation from his colleagues seemed to help. “Have they reopened the market yet?” he would ask at odd moments of silence or when unrelated matters were being discussed. He was losing his mind. He would, for instance, sell products at less than half the price he bought them and his memory became impaired.
His health worsened with time and he had to retire to a hospital in Kano with the help of his family.
“When I went there to visit him, he could not recognise me even though I was standing right in front of him and we were the closest of friends,” Sulaiman recalls with grief. “He could not even mention my name due to how much he was traumatised because of all that happened. From there, things got worse and worse until we heard that he passed away in the hospital.”
Sulaiman himself nearly lost everything but his life. He was distressed. Some of his children had to quit schooling because he could no longer afford the fees. His belongings, those of his wife, and various household objects were sold to get enough money to feed.
By the time he was later granted access to his old shop after the lockdown, he was able to recover only some of the materials. Others had been damaged due to rainfall and disuse and he had to abandon them.
“When some of my kids were asked to bring school fees, I told them I had nothing honestly, so they had to remain [at home] till I was able to sell some of my things,” he says. “I could not even pay at once; I had to pay in part and I had to explain to their teachers what the situation was so they could give me time to give them the balance. It is very terrible!”
Now that he has returned to the Airport Junction market, he describes the experience as incomparable. It could take up to a week before he makes over N1000, he says, whereas this was at least a daily occurrence at the Arts and Craft Village. His only source of joy is that he still works closely with some traders who are in the same business.
Nwafor said about the unfortunate chain of events, “The story has not been told and everybody is behaving as if nothing happened. It shows we are living in a country where the lives of the people do not matter. It is so sad that a market, a place where people earn their living, could be treated in such a manner and nobody is talking about it. It is so unfortunate.”