It is a season of misery in way specific to two Nigerian cities: Otukpo in Benue State and Lagos in Lagos State. In Lagos, the misery came from the explosion in Abule Ado Sunday. Explosion, like collapse of buildings, has become highly naturalised in popular psyche. Tankers, pipelines and all sorts of things explode every now and then, leaving horrifying outcomes followed by ritualistic statements by leaders, prayers to God and a round of blame game before everyone settles down till the next explosion. The newspapers are reporting 20 dead so far in this round, including that of a young husband his w ife. What a pity!
In Otukpo, the misery and ordeal is also from a fire outbreak in the main market. Nobody would have competently calculated the damage yet but it is sure to run into hundreds of millions of Naira. For such to happen in a backwater of Nigeria at a time of global business contraction makes this fire most unfortunate. Many businesses might not survive it, most of them being small scale levels and with the huge level of destruction in the absence of functional fire fighting mechanism. Added to that must be the nature of goods, most of which must be perishables and less likely to have been insured.
Otukpo has too many overwhelming disadvantages. Although it is a multicultural melting point and a trade route served by a rail line, it has only one main market, a case of putting all eggs in one basket. To make matters worse, it is not a built up market but a pack of makeshift stuff. The level of destruction could thus not but be much, especially as fire fighting was not on. Till now, it is not clear why that was the case. Either it was not anticipated or there is a fire fighting brigade that, as usual, didn’t have water or the access is blocked. In other words, Otukpo is not saved from the scourge of town planning crisis across Nigeria: most of the markets emerged out of communal space practices, not out of planning. This is all over the country.
The worst disadvantage a must, therefore, be that Otukpo as well located and as old a city as it is, remains an unplanned settlement even as the cultural and business capital of the Idoma nationality and the home of its wealthy and the powerful. What a striking contradiction?
It is difficult to imagine any other thing as important as the main market in Otukpo. In the absence of government, legacy of qualitative governance and industries, the market is the only space of exchange of the level that can sustain life in a town such as Otukpo, well located to be a nerve centre, being just an hour or so from each of Nasarawa, Enugu, Cross Rivers and Ebonyi states. It has the potentials for many good things as well as many bad cultural influences. So far, it has been a welcoming and peaceful place with bouts of violence only in few times. The expectation is that the Idoma power elite will do everything to make it a signifier of a melting pot.
The expectation too is that both the Benue and Federal Government would take this as an opportunity to plan Otukpo in a big minded way rather than put up some cowsheds and call it a main market. It remains puzzling that Otukpo is so vulnerable even with the Idoma and their wise saying: “with a son like this, a father should not be vulnerable to the lion”. Idoma has so many sons but Otukpo and the whole place is vulnerable to the lion which comes in the form of intra-elite quarrels, bouts of violence around its nine LGAs, mass poverty, funny educational and health services, monkey bridges, crater-ridden roads, its own share of destructive cultural inwardness sweeping across contemporary Nigeria and now the gutting of the main market. The development of any place is not the business of individuals but the structures, (government and its institutions). However, in the age of agency, the Idoma elite cannot but be implicated in Otukpo’s rundown existence.
It is time for Otukpo’s dusty, one main avenue and corrugated skyline to give way to modern infrastructure. How this comes about cannot but be a multi-stakeholder process but not without local consensus. In the absence of that, Federal and Benue State emergency financial support may end up an exercise in effervescent generosity!