The train blares its horn and traders, in their hundreds, respond thus: “It is coming ooh, it is coming ooh,” to alert colleagues of the approaching locomotive. They hurriedly pack their wares and scamper to safety only to return to display them as soon as the train is gone. This is the popular Sangana Street, Port Harcourt where you can buy anything from foodstuffs to clothing and a variety of household products.
The train runs from Oyigbo to Aba in Abia State on a daily basis and the unrelenting traders are primed to repeat this ritual every day at market located at the Diobu axis of Port Harcourt.
The market came to life after traders were displaced by the fire incident that gutted Mile One Market in 2005.
The traders care little about the looming danger as stand on a serviceable rail track. Every day the traders have a close shave with death, but they remain undeterred. In 2001 a middle-aged lady who was a petty trader was crushed to death by a train as she made her way towards the track. The incident generated angry reactions from the public, a development that made the then governor Peter Odili to shut market and set up a special taskforce to flush out traders from the place. The taskforce was also mandated to find an alternative and befitting place for the traders.
The taskforce immediately swung into action and destroyed all the makeshift structures along the rail track. Security personnel were also drafted to the market to make sure the traders did not return, but weeks after they came back in droves.
“We know quite well that it is very hazardous and dangerous to trade on the rail track; we know the danger it portends but we cannot help the matter. We have no money to rent stalls in the market,” explained one trader who gave his name simply as Jonas.
The number of traders at the market increased in 2005 after the Mile One Market was razed by an inferno. One of the traders displaced by the fire, said: “I had nothing left with me, but I was able to get little assistance from friends and relatives which I used to set up a small business at the rail track.”
The traders prefer displaying their wares along the rail track despite the danger because of it costs them little or nothing, explained Theresa Obi, a petty trader.
“The traders at the rail track do not need to erect a stall. What they simply need to do is to display their wares and be vigilant as to know when the train is coming. We know the time schedule of the train and the moment it is approaching we quickly remove our wares and bring them back as soon it passes,” she quipped.
“It is very difficult to rent a stall in Port Harcourt. One stall costs as much as N200, 000 per annum. Where will I get money to pay for such store,” she lamented. She added that government
had said the traders would be reallocated stalls as soon as the Mile One market was rebuilt but that was not to be as the stalls were allocated to those with connections, she lamented and called on the state government to look for an alternative and befitting market for them.
Another trader, John Meda, said the market is their only source of survival as they have no other source of earning a living. “I have a family of six to take care of. I had stalls at the Mile One market until the place was gutted by fire,” he noted, adding that some traders were lucky to be reallocated stalls after the first phase of reconstruction.
“I was not lucky to get a stall so the only option I have is this rail track. I know it is very risky but what can I do? The only thing there is to be very careful as to know when the train is coming,” Meda stated.
Ex-governor Celestine Omehia had in 2007 awarded contract for the reconstruction of the burnt market, which was to be done in two phases. The first phase awarded at the cost N2.1 billion was completed by former governor Rotimi Amaechi. Over 250 stalls were rebuilt and allocated to some traders while others were asked to wait for the second phase of the project.
Governor Nyesom Wike on assumption of office, visited the market and assured the traders of his intention to start the second phase, but the reconstruction work is yet to begin.
The governor recently met with hundreds of street traders at Rumuodomanya, Rumuokoro and Okoronuodo communities of Obio/Akpor local government area, and pledged to build new markets.
“I know that you are on the road to seek your daily upkeep, but it should not be at the expense of other road users and your own wellbeing,” Wike had told the traders. He said street traders along Rumuodomanya Road would be moved to a location provided by the community, adding that the new market would be ready within two months.
The governor said the area where the street traders clustered would be fenced off for the easy flow of traffic, and that it would also be beautified. At Rumuokoro and Okoronuodo, he also promised to construct markets at locations provided by the two communities as he called on the traders to continue to support his administration, pointing out that he will always protect their interests.
For residents of Sangana Street, the traders have become a nuisance, as some who spoke with our Daily Trust called on the state government to relocate the traders as to reduce the risk that confronts them daily.
One resident, Dick Boma, said: “The danger the traders face stares us in the face daily. I wonder how any human being can display his wares on a serviceable rail track. You need to see how they run helter skelter each time the train approaches to remove their wares from the track. We want government to find a suitable place for their business.”
Apart from the traders, armed robbers and pick-pockets find the rail track a safe haven to attack their victims. Daily Trust gathered that arm robbers attack and dispossess both traders and buyers of their belongings at random.
A victim who pleaded anonymity narrated how she was attacked at the market: “It was around 6.30 am I was at the market to buy fruits only to be confronted by three young boys. They accosted me at a gun-point and ordered me to surrender all that I had. They collected my handset, wallet containing a sum of N15, 000. They also cut off my necklace and made away with it.” She added that criminals who operate at the Sangana market are known to everybody but nobody dares to confront them.
“They are called ‘charcoal boys.’ They move around freely and nobody dares to question their criminal activities. If you try to confront them they will trace you and come after you in the night,” she added.
Efforts by Daily Trust to speak with officials of the Nigerian Railway Corporation in Port Harcourt on the activities of traders on the rail track failed as nobody was willing to speak on the matter. But a source said the corporation had on several occasions directed the traders to vacant the track, adding the directives always fell on deaf ears.