Clusters of grim-faced but extremely angry traders clad in traditional mourning attire (composed mainly of red and black colours). The traders numbering several thousands, stood in the smouldering smoke and were either wailing uncontrollably or hurling expletives at the government.
The agitated traders are probably the only sign of life amidst the ruins of the once bustling commercial centre in the heart of the capital city, Accra.
Hundreds of market stalls in Kantamanto?Accra?s hottest spot for all kinds of second-hand merchandises?on Sunday May 5, 2013, was completely razed to the ground by a freak fire the previous night and the traders are smelling foul-play.
Piles of wood and burnt metal containers which used to house the traders and second-hand clothes lay at either sides of the market.
Debris and discarded second-hand clothes lay scattered on the ground a few meters from the entrance to the Kantamanto market. A few steps from the entrance lay vast acres of empty space that once housed all the stalls
The traders who now rest their chins in their cupped hands or loiter aimlessly among the ruins have recently been battered by over 300 anti-riot policemen dispatched to the market by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA).
Six days after the inferno, traders who have lost hundreds of millions of cedis in goods are still filled with extreme angst at the apparent insensitivity expressed by the AMA in the wake of the fire outbreak.
Barely 24 hours, and hardly had the embers of the inferno died out than the AMA rolled in with bulldozers to level the rubbles to give way for plans to construct a multi-purpose shopping centre in place of the ramshackle stalls of the previous Kantamanto commercial conclave.
Almost a week after the fire, the only visible activity taking place on the land which used to accommodate the over 500 traders affected by the fire, are tractors and bulldozers moving up and down the length and breadth of the market clearing the remaining structures.
A group of police personnel and their parked pick-up vehicles were present to maintain law and order as the last phase of the demolishing exercise takes place.
It?s been six days now since the tragic event of the fire outbreak occurred in the Central Business District of Accra and traders at Kantamanto market, the venue for the sad event, are in a dilemma as to what actions to take to get back into business.
The fire outbreak, the third in two years at the market, started around 4:00am, destroying almost all the structures in the entire market, and displacing hundreds of traders.
When firefighters from the Ghana National Fire Service got to the scene, the fire had virtually gutted every market structure in its flames, leaving the fire-fighters with little to do to salvage the situation.
Traders who had rushed to the scene upon hearing the about the fire could do nothing but stand and watch their investments go up in flames.
Those who could not stand the sight of the damage wailed uncontrollably with some of the traders collapsing on the sight of the raging fire.
No casualties have been recorded so far from the unfortunate incident and adjoining industrial and commercial buildings were also spared by the time the firefighters had quenched the fire after several hours of fighting it.
It is believe that the fire started in one of the second-hand clothing shops behind the Ghana Commercial Bank (GCB) building and subsequently spread to other wooden structures, consuming the entire market.
Deputy Public Relations Officer (PRO), Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS), Prince Billy Anaglate, said the fire service got a distress call around 5:45am that the Kantamanto market was on fire.
He said personnel were quickly dispatched to the market within eight minutes after the call came. However, there was little the fire personnel could do to salvage the situation as the fire had already spread to other structures.
Mr. Anaglate indicated that the service had to send reinforcement of seven additional fire tenders to help bring the situation under control and also prevent the fire from spreading to the Ghana Commercial Bank.
He attributed the extensive time the service used to bring the situation under control to the lack of access to the fire ground due to the congested nature of the market.
Mr. Anaglate also noted that the fire was able to spread easily because the structures were mostly made up of combustible materials, noting that investigations were underway to actually ascertain the cause of the fire outbreak.
Politicians have seized the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the desolate traders. Vice President Paa Kwesi Amissah-Arthur and the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) presidential candidate, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo visited the market to sympathize with victims and traders who lost their wares and cash.
Mr. Amissah-Arthur expressed worry over the huge loss, saying, ?This is another disaster that should never have happened.?
Akufo-Addo also showed his deepest condolences to the victims and described the incident as ?a very sad day in the history of Ghana.?
On Monday, the AMA boss, Alfred Oko Vanderpuije, issued a flurry of directives to clear the traders from the site. Hardly consoling them, he started ordering the traders to go occupy unused stalls at the ?Tuesday market? and the Pedestrian Shopping Mall at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle.
The Mayor followed this directive with an announcement of a demolishing exercise to make way for the construction of a new market to replace the burnt one starting July, 2013. According to him, National Democratic Congress (NDC) government has secured funding for the construction which would be done by a Chinese construction firm.
The extraordinary speed at which all these arrangements were articulated has opened up serious grounds for suspicion. Critics are wondering whether it was ever possible to put together such a grand plan within a day of the disaster.
Besides, some eye-witnesses around the area claimed they saw a helicopter hovering around the market and spraying some unknown substance into the market a few hours before the fire started.
Two weeks earlier, the Member of Parliament (MP) for the area, Nii Lantey Vanderpuije had promised to pull down the scanty stalls at Kantamanto and give the commercial centre a ?face-lift?. Two weeks after, the market was suspiciously razed to the ground.
The posture of the AMA boss further fuelled the possibility of a systematic government conspiracy to displace the traders to make room for a more modern structure.
The traders claimed they have a bona fide right over the market, because they have a 50-year leased agreement with the Ghana Railway Authority (owners of the land occupied by the traders) in 2008 for GH?200,000 with a ground rent of GH?30,000 annually.
The traders are certain that when the new structure is completed, they would be edged in the stead of government cronies.
The suspicions and the feeling of injustice caused some agitations and a consequent protest from the traders who burnt car tyres and cordoned off the entrance to the market in an attempted to prevent security personnel and city authorities from carrying out the demolition exercise.
The action by the traders resulted in a clash between them and the security personnel on Monday night.
The police were forced to call for reinforcement before they were able to disperse the traders who were rioting in the area.
In the process, the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the traders. Some of the traders were arrested for initiating the riot.
The arrested traders, numbering 10, were subsequently put before and Accra Circuit Court to face charges related to rioting and were granted bail of GH?5000 each, with a surety.
Samuel Amoah, chairman of the Kantamanto Traders Association, who was affected by the fire lost over GH?20,000. According to him, there was some misinformation.
?What we heard was a rumour, but when the Mayor said that nobody should build on the land, it resulted in confrontation between the security personnel and the traders on Monday evening,? he said in the Twi dialect.
Amoah further indicated, ?it was true, we saw the tipper trucks coming towards the burnt market so we though what we heard was true.?
He however attributed the incident to the pain and panic that the traders were feeling at that moment but said the association has cautioned traders not to engage in such activities.
?It is not something that we condone; we have condemned that act by our members. The police are also human beings like us and so they will defend themselves if stones are thrown at them.?
Kwaku Antoh, the trader whose shop was believed to have caught fire first said the Mayor of Accra did not sympathize with them but rather came with tractors and caterpillars the day after the incident to clear the land.
?He didn?t tell us anything. All we heard was the Mayor speaking on radio that we should go to the pedestrian shopping mall. If we have lost our goods and you also come and drive us from this place then you are depriving us from getting our daily bread,? he said in Twi.
The Mayor of Accra has however refuted the allegations of a grand conspiracy.
In a press conference last week, he claimed government had no intension of displacing the traders from the land, however, he said the incident called for security personnel to investigate the issue that was why the police were brought in to secure the place to facilitate investigations.
Vanderpiuje said, ?The best out of this situation can never be anything short of the best in modernizing the market. As AMA we have plans to develop all of our markets and if this situation has happened we will quickly start rebuilding proper market.?
Government, during the week, invited the leadership of the traders to the seat of government to discuss the fire outbreak and impasse between the traders and the city officials as well as the next step to take in rebuilding the market.
The government also assured the traders that they would be given the priority to own stalls when the reconstruction was over.
According to Amoah, the authorities told them that the area has become a disaster zone and officials were investigating so they should not interfere.
The traders were assured during the meeting that the proposed rebuilding of the Kantamanto market is to put in place safety facilities and hand the place over to the traders whose items got destroyed by the ferocious fire and not because it has been sold to another developer.
Amoah said the trader made it clear to the government that they wanted to build their own structure since they did not want to be sidelined after the structures have been completed by government.
?We told them we wanted to build our own structures so we requested that the government should help us with the drawings of the plan of the market so that when we finish it wouldn?t be as if another person has come to build the market,? he said.
He said they are willing to accept government support in rebuilding the market. ?We want to do our own thing but we are asking government to help us with the plan,? he said.
The victims of the disaster are appealing to government and the local government authorities to help them get back to work.
While some traders were asking for the loans they have taken from the banks to be written off, others wanted government to give them some financial support to help them start over again.
Abena Attah, one of the victims of the fire outbreak said the incident has devastated her.
?I have taken more than one loan. I owe people, and one bail of clothing is GH?800. Fifteen of mine got burnt, costing over GH?20,000. I didn?t take a pin from my stock,? she said.
She wanted government to come and help them pay the debt they have incurred as a result of the loans they have collected.
?Government should help us pay the loans because it is left with us and our God,? she said in the Twi dialect.
Antoh also wanted government help the traders with a start up capital especially the older women and men who had lived their entire lives at the market.
?For me I can go and push truck to get some start-up capital but what about the old women and men whose entire savings have been destroyed?? he asked.
Amoah said the leaders were taking details of the traders as their documents got burnt in the fire in order to know how to channel support should the government provide one.
?We want to know the number and details of the traders so if government will help us it is informed about the number to deal with because all our documents got burnt,? he said. ?We are waiting patiently for government.?
By Jamila Akweley Okertchiri