Owerri, the Imo State capital, was on Saturday thrown into pandemonium following the death of a 10-year-old boy, Somtochukwu Ibeanusi, who was allegedly shot dead by soldiers from the 34 Artillery Brigade, Obinze.
The soldiers, PREMIUM TIMES learnt, were deployed to maintain law and order during the demolition of the Owerri Main Market, popularly known as Eke-Ukwu Owerri, by the state government.
But the soldiers allegedly opened fire on residents protesting the demolition of the market.
The father of the deceased, Isaiah Ibeanusi, who was in tears at his No. 9 Oguamanam Street residence, close to the demolished market, told reporters that his son died instantly after a bullet hit him on his head.
Mr. Ibeanusi further said the tragic incident occurred while he was trying to remove his goods during the demolition exercise, which was supervised by the army, police, State Security Service, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, and the Air Force.
“I told my little son to come and assist me remove my goods from the shop before the people demolishing the market got to the place.
“When we were crossing the road we all raised our hands up but these soldiers just drove by and opened fire and shot my son in the head. The bullet hit him in the eye and came out from the back of his head and he fell and died.
“I want justice. I don’t want the killers of my son to go unpunished. He was just a little boy, he was not armed. I don’t know if I can bear this.”
Some neighbours who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES described the victim as cool headed and easy going.
But the Army spokesperson for the Brigade, Haruna Tagwai, a lieutenant, denied that it’s soldiers shot anybody.
“Please, don’t go and write what you don’t know. The soldiers deployed to the market did not shoot anybody,” he said when contacted on Saturday.
Controversy had dodged the decision of the Governor Rochas Okorocha administration to demolish the market.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the governor had asked the traders to move to a new site arguing that the market constitutes a serious traffic and security challenge.
But the traders and natives of Owerri refused, leading to an impasse even as the government bided its time and plotted its next move.
While the traders vowed not to move, the natives said they have an emotional attachment to the market.
On Friday night, the government moved several heavy equipment to the area with armed security personnel to provide cover, a situation that heightened tension in the city.
The machines began demolition at midnight, and by dawn the expansive market had been reduced to a pile of rubbles.
The traders were shocked when they turned up for business in the morning to see most of the shops had been demolished.
Unable to bear the sight of what had become of their former stores and shops, the traders began a protest.
The soldiers stepped in to quell the protest, allegedly shooting to disperse the protesters.
Hoodlums had a field day looting goods including mobile phones, electronics and clothes worth millions of naira in the wake of the pandemonium that ensued.
PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the traders and other youth had, on Friday night, set bonfire along Douglas Road, in the hope that this would deter the government from carrying out the demolition.
Some of the traders said they were not given enough time to evacuate their goods before the demolition.
They accused the security men of colluding with hoodlums to loot their goods.
“How can they be shooting at traders who are trying to evacuate their goods?” a trader said.
The President-General of the market, Felix Ngoka, at a press conference on Friday, had vowed that they would resist the demolition of the market with their lives.
He said they had gone to court and government had been restrained from demolishing the market.
He said their ancestors had “warned sternly against the relocation of the market and we will not succumb to any pressure to relocate the market because if we do calamity will befall us. It is better we die resisting it.”
Soldiers cordoned off the popular Bureau de change area popularly known as ‘Ama Hausa’ following an attempt by hoodlums to loot it.
GOVERNMENT SAYS EXERCISE WAS PEACEFUL
But the state government described the demolition exercise as peaceful and successful.
The Chief Press Secretary to Governor Okorocha, Sam Onwuemeodo, said in a statement that “with the relocation of the market to a better area, the government will now go ahead to rebuild Douglas Road and realise its lofty dream of making Owerri a befitting city.”
He also denied that anyone was killed during the demolition.
He said such rumour was part of the efforts of enemies to blackmail the government.
Mr. Onwuemeodo said: “Ekeukwu Market Owerri has finally been moved from its current location at the centre of Owerri, the state capital, to its new location at Ohi near Owerri amid jubilation by patriotic residents. The relocation of the market is in line with the Urban Renewal programme of the state government.
“The market was moved Saturday morning and for almost two years the state government has announced its good intention to relocate the market to a more conducive site in the spirit of its Urban Renewal pursuit.
“The government has taken this noble action to equally recover Douglas Road that connects the state with other neighbouring states which has remained a refuse dump for the traders in the market and to deal with once and for all the prevalent criminal activities in the area like robbery, cultism and kidnapping.
“The governor, Owelle Rochas Okorocha, and the Rescue Mission Government which he heads, commend the traders and the people of the state in general for their cooperation and understanding. By the peaceful conduct of the traders, they have shown that they appreciate government’s intension to make Owerri and enviable state capital.”