Closing Creek Road Market
Madam Godday now goes home with spoiled bread. A market trader, Madam Godday used to sell all her bread before evening, and bring back enough money to feed her husband and children for the next day. But now that markets have been shut down by the Governor, she is forced to find more discrete places to sell her bread, dodging the Governor’s cronies as she goes. Most days now, her family — and her customers — are going hungry.
On Thursday, 26 March, the Governor of Rivers State, Ezenwo Nyesom Wike, gave a broadcast announcing the first official positive test case of COVID-19 in Rivers State. He also announced several new preventative measures to curb the spread of the virus, including ordering that all markets in the state should remain closed starting Saturday, 28 March, 2020. In the broadcast, he highlighted that task forces led by the local government authorities throughout the state would be established to ensure that markets remain shut down. Furthermore, the task forces were authorized to confiscate the goods of defaulters.
This announcement was met with widespread fear and concern with many families losing their main source of income. Many worried about how they would be able to continue to feed their families in this already precarious period. This was further exacerbated by the fact that the decree was not supported by any official plans to distribute food, or other support programs for residents. With only one day before the shutdown was put in place, people rushed to markets to buy what they could, despite very inflated prices in reaction to the existing closure of state borders and subsequent disruption to the supply chain. With no end date in place for the resumption of trading activities, the risk of acting against the Governor’s orders, was worth it.
On the first day of the market lockdown, Governor Wike led a special monitory task force to ensure the closure of markets were properly enforced. As part of his citywide tour, he visited Creek Road Market which is known as one of the biggest markets in Rivers State. Despite the official proclamation, many traders continued to sell their goods in the market. Upon finding much of the market still open the Governor ordered the security agents with him to arrest the traders still operating in the market.
Discontented with disruption to their livelihoods and angered at the impending arrests, some of the traders threw bags of sachet water at the Governor and his entourage. In response, several of the security agents with the Governor shot several rounds of live ammunition in the air before driving off. Several minutes after the Governor departed, the Mayor of Port Harcourt arrived at Creek Road Market with a mix of security agents and Cultists (local gang members). The group beat up some of the traders and destroyed their goods, including burning down over 20 market stalls.
The ‘incident’ set the tone for the rest of the lockdown, with violent altercations between traders and security forces happening on a weekly basis. Many of our major markets have soldiers stationed around them. We have heard rumours and threats that if sellers disobey the Governor’s order, he would place that entire community on an indefinite 24-hour curfew.
Subsequent preventative measures announced by the governor contradicted themselves. By the end of March, the city was placed on a dusk-to-dawn curfew. By the end of April, some parts of the city were put on lockdown, followed shortly by a total lockdown of the city at the beginning of May, when the Governor once again took to the streets, personally arresting anyone he came across without ‘proper’ paperwork proving they were carrying out an essential service.
Aleka, the owner of a mini-store at Aggrey, was caught leaving his shop open past curfew time. Police informed him that if he didn’t pay them N10,000, he would end up spending the night in a jail cell, and would have to pay N20,000 to bail himself out the next morning. Police officers have always taken every opportunity to extort us — now they have even more opportunities.
The lockdown was lifted several times — once for two days, and then again for eight — to allow people to restock. During these eased lockdown phases, roads and markets were jammed, with desperate and hungry people paying no regard to social distancing. On 26 May, Wike lifted the lockdown but still maintained a mandatory curfew, restrictions on large public gatherings and mask requirements. Some markets were allowed to reopen, while several major markets were to remain closed — namely some of city’s largest meat markets.
Throughout this period, tales of deadly encounters between traders and taskforce agents spread quicker than the market fires they set.
Stay tuned for more about the impacts of these initial market closures on our communities, and for updates on how markets and traders are responding to the pandemic.