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Opinions of Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney

The president and the market queens

By George Sydney Abugri

For a country where fire outbreaks at traditional markets have become endemic, it is surprising that some media did not pick up President Mahama’s soundbite on markets while on the campaign trail last week: The president who visited the major traditional markets in Accra last week and hobnobbed with market queens, promised to upgrade all major markets if voters hand him a second term.

So endemic indeed have market fires become, that a nation-wide hunt was launched a couple of years ago to catch Ghana’s villain of the decade, an elusive fellow who keeps making big bonfires of the country’s major traditional markets. The government actually placed a GHc 25,000 bounty on the head of the elusive spook.

In these hard times, many a jack-about-the streets could really do with the cash but the problem has been how to catch this invisible vandal of a saboteur. President Mahama’s administration even called in a team of investigators from the United States to dig through the debris from some of the fires for clues that might lead to the apprehension of the disappearing arsonist. He not been caught up to date.
Maybe, it has something to do with the very nature of our traditional markets: Each of Ghana’s major markets is for the first-time visitor, a confusing maze of suffocating, narrow passageways forming a very complex network of connecting routes through a vast expanse of stalls, sheds and storerooms.
One of the markets he may want to start with in fulfilment of the promise if he wins the election, is the Tema Community One Market which is like the Labyrinth of Crete!

Even a veteran bush ranger armed with a state of the art compass of the future will get hopelessly lost in that market if he is entering the place for the first time. A labyrinthine maze of needle-narrow passage ways form a very complex network of connecting routes through the vast expanse of stalls and storerooms selling everything with a name.

So hemmed in is this vast but stuffy commercial enclave, that a first time visitor is easily gripped by a feeling of claustrophobia. So narrow are the passageways through the market that two adults cannot walk abreast through them.

Should the kind of fires which have swept through many of the country’s major traditional markets in recent years ever occur at the Tema Community One Market when the place is busy, talking of a possible catastrophe would be an understatement.

There is no way any fire engine can get into the heart of that market place save it were preceded by a fire-proof bulldozer with hydraulic wheels, whatever that might be!

In the event of a fire, it would be practically impossible to get out of the place, not with hundreds of people trying to stampede through those connecting fairy tunnels. There are no emergency exits in this huge potential trap.

The Abossey Okai automobile spares market at Kaneshie is another national commercial death trap. If the market has been spared a major fire to date, it is probably because the good Lord Himself would not be able to stand the likely scale of its devastation if one occurred there.

The market fires which keep breaking out across the country are often attributed to electrical faults. If that is the case, I keep asking myself why the central government, local government authorities, the Fire Service and the Electricity Company cannot engage in a bit of skull scratching and come out with a solution. Strangely enough, the fires occur only at night, see?

Again and again, the Kantanmanto Market in Accra exploded in massive tongues of fire hungrily reaching out for sky. Again and again big bonfires have been made of colossal amounts of goods and cash in hundreds of shops in that market.

The Kantamanto Market is not your ordinary market: It is not all the senior civil servants, pastors, sophisticated looking con-men and swindlers, and even corporate executives you see in dark suits who bought the stuff from Marks and Spencer: Some bought their suits from this famous Market off Liberty Avenue.

The last fire at the market occurred in an election year and as you might expect, politicians of the two leading parties were right on hand to play poker with the disaster. The fire broke out late at night but politicians from the NDC and the NPP were at the scene in minutes to sympathize with traders wailing as if the apocalypse had come.

Do you reckon politicians would have rushed to the scene of the fire were it not an election year? If the answer were truly "yes" then we should have seen political will go into improved fire safety in markets throughout the country long ago, don't you think?

Thanks to this strange phenomenon the investments of thousands of our small and medium scale entrepreneurs in the informal sector of the economy keep going up in smoke.
If we are to believe the news headlines we usually read after every market fire disaster, the causes of the mysterious market fires which keep recurring in Ghana range from Almighty God {in retribution for unspecified national transgressions}, random power voltage surges and fluctuations through politically ill-motivated arsonists, substandard cables and faulty wiring, to the nation’s ever recurring power outages and ravenous mice.
Mice? Yes, Mickey and nibbling, gnawing friends. The rodents it appears {from the perspective of some experts}, have a taste for electrical cable insulation materials and love to make a great banquet of the materials in the country’s traditional markets. The result? Uninsulated electrical cables are coming into contact and sparking off the fires.
Why it has been happening on such a scale and with such frequency is the puzzle. We are inclined to ask if the the mice get electrocuted when they sink their teeth into the cables and begin to eat away at the insulation!
If poor and old electrical wiring of the markets is indeed the key cause of the fires, the president’s promise to refurbish them if fulfilled, should see an end to frequent market fire disasters.
Website: www.sydneyabugri.com/Web