Nobody should envy Dr Reason Onya at this time. He seems to have seen much more than he bargained for in the hands of traders who seem to be telling him that they own Port Harcourt roads and could do whatever they like on the roads.
Onya, the new commissioner for urban development and physical planning, a lecturer, may not have believed that he could give instructions to people and the instructions would be jettisoned with impunity. But that is what street traders in Port Harcourt are doing to him.
Last Monday, the former environmental rights activist defied the rains and went into the streets to talk to traders who ply their trade on the roads. As he got to the Isaac Boro Park flyover with his enforcement team as well as directors from the ministry, the traders started bringing down their umbrellas in readiness to flee. Those without umbrellas packed their wares and made efforts to run. Then the commissioner beckoned on them not to run away. Rather, he told his team to call all of them for a meeting under the flyover. He warned them not to touch any of the traders.
In a jiffy, the traders assembled and he addressed them. He told them why they should stop selling under the flyover. He begged them to leave the place and move into any of the markets in the city. They were happy that he did not touch their wares. And then, they promised to comply. But he had hardly got into the bus that took him there, before the traders returned to their spots. And business continued as usual.
From the flyover, Onya went to the Education Bus Stop axis. What he saw was not as shocking as what was waiting for him at Bishop Okoye Street in the Mile 3 axis of the town. At Bishop Okoye, the entire dual carriage way which the governor, Nyesom Wike inaugurated some months back, had been taken over by the traders. Apart from the pavement that divides the road into two, it would be difficult to know that the entire place was a road. From one end to the other, it had been turned to a full market. And the traders beam with smiles as they sell their stuff.
Even the barb wire which the state government fixed to prevent the traders from leaving their shops into the road had long been cut off. The traders just prefer to sell on the road. It is doubtful if there is any place in the entire world where traders do their business on a dual carriage way like what obtains at Bishop Okoye Street.
Onya was visibly angry when he got to the place. Chairman of the Mile 3 traders union was on hand to receive him. He was asked why the traders would choose to leave the market to trade on the roads. He had no clear answer, rather than to say he had done his best but that the traders would not listen.
So, the commissioner asked to be allowed to talk to the traders. A handful gathered. The others were still doing their thing. And then he did what he did at the flyover, pleading with the traders to leave the road. He warned that if he returned there to see them selling on the roads again, he would arrest and prosecute them. As he said that, some of the traders laughed, as if to say 'we have heard it before.'
Maybe they did not know that a new Sherriff had come to town. The following day, Onya struck. About 17 people were arrested. They were taken to court. Some were granted bail and their bail conditions perfected. So, they went home, with a scar, as they wait for their next appointment with the court. The others were not that lucky. They are currently cooling off at the Port Harcourt prison.
Ironically, the following day, trading did not stop on Bishop Okoye. It did not matter whether arrests were made the previous day. As you read this, business is still going on there.
Apart from Bishop Okoye, the Eleme Junction flyover is another flash point. At this flyover, anything and everything happens. Apart from traders that have positioned themselves on top and below, all kinds of criminal elements also ply their trade there. It is worse in the evening hours. You are not sure of the next person you are seeing on that flyover. From pick-pockets to phone thieves, they are available and on duty always at the flyover.
On Thursday last week, some officials of the urban development and physical planning ministry were there to chase the traders away. As usual, the ding dong game played out. As the officials were chasing people from one part of the flyover, their counterparts at the extreme end were busy selling and displaying their wares. When they sighted the officials, they quickly parked their goods and hid somewhere, only to resurface when the men had left.
Can Onya win this war against street trading. Or, will the traders survive the coming onslaught against them? Onya believes the war will be fought and won. He told TNN in an interview that no same government could allow such malaise to continue. In fact, he said if it meant sleeping on the roads with the traders, he would do it; if it meant arresting all of them and prosecuting them, he would do it. He vowed to use all legal means to get the traders out of the roads to give the city the look it deserves.
The state government has already given the traders an ultimatum of seven days to leave the roads. The ultimatum expires on Wednesday. From that day, the battle line would be drawn. Who wins? Onya or the street traders?