Like every Zambian who cares about mother Zambia, I was very saddened by news of the devastating inferno at Lusaka City Market on the morning of 4th July 2017. I am however saddened by the fact that the unfortunate incident has not united Zambians but even further divided us, with more important matters being overlooked.
When terrorist acts were committed in the United Kingdom recently, there was such a strong spirit of togetherness and so many people ready to help out. Cab drivers took people home for free and everyone who could helped carry injured people from the scene. It didn’t matter whether you were white, black, Christian, Muslim, Conservative, Lib Dem or Labour. Everybody worked together as one big family.
Yet in my own home country Zambia, instead of seeing a spirit of unity and ubuntu, all I see is accusations and counter-accusations, fake news, squabbling and dangerous statements being thrown around in a manner that feels like politics trumps everything. When Lusaka City Market burned down, people from all tribes, races, religions and political parties were affected. It is not only supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) who are affected, but also the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) and every other party with supporters in the market.
I do not want to take sides but give my thoughts on what I believe to be the real issues that need addressing away from the current blame game. Regardless of who is right or wrong in the intense debate that has dominated our news cycle, I would like for us as Zambians to focus on the real issues starting with what could have been done to prevent this catastrophic fire (or at least mitigate its effects) and how to do things better in future. We need solutions and not complaints or finger pointing.
For a start, there were serious gaps in the security of the market if it is true that someone could just walk in and set the place ablaze just like that. There was clearly lack of effective policing and regular patrols. There was no proper vetting of people who enter the market to clean at 4am. Even if the explanation is much more mundane such as something flammable accidentally falling on a brazier left temporarily unattended in the cold weather, one again asks why the fire was not spotted quickly enough and stopped in its tracks before it raged out of control.
It seems there were no fire extinguishers in the market and obviously no training in how to use them even if there were there. There were no smoke alarms to quickly alert people and the materials used in the structure were highly flammable with lack of stall compartmentalization. But the worst part of this unfortunate fire is that there was no fire insurance taken out by the management of the market on behalf of the marketeers in a large group policy to which every trader can contribute monthly.
I find it very disappointing many days after the fire, no one from the local authorities has bothered to explain to us why the fire engines apparently took too long to get to the market and therefore fail to control the fire. The Church Road fire station is not more than 3 minutes away with almost zero traffic at 5am which is close to the time the fire started.
THE WAY FORWARD
I heard on radio that the market collects something like K50,000 per day in revenue. There is more than enough money to buy and install smoke alarms from China in bulk, not to mention fire extinguishers in the new structure that will be built. The market should have at least six fire hydrants (minimum one per side) which can easily be tapped into when fire engines run out of water, not to mention fire hose-pipes at major points in the market.
Every trader in the market must be compelled to contribute to fire insurance and the smoke alarms, extinguishers, pipes and hydrants will make the premiums affordable, especially if there is also mass training in fire safety and how to stop fires quickly. Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras must also be installed.
Every market worker must be properly vetted, fingerprinted, photographed and issued with photo identification. This simple little procedure would have prevented unauthorized people entering the market since they would not have a photo ID. If a fire is maliciously started, you already know who to round up and interrogate from the list of approved workers which include security officers.
And of course the new market must be built well with very good security locking mechanisms and security personnel must also be properly vetted before employment. In short, all the loopholes must be closed so that it is easy to investigate and get to the truth in any future incident. One would hope that people will be more serious this time around and put in place proper measures around security and fire safety.
The introduction of market management boards will go a long way to make the management of markets professional so that the kind of ideas I am suggesting can be more easily implemented. We must move away from this culture where political cadres with no idea of market management are the ones at the forefront of running things and pocketing revenue. When disaster strikes as it did on 4th July, their incompetence is exposed and we end up with grieving mothers on TV.