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2015: another year of fires

When government decided for the first time to institute a ministerial committee on fires late last year, people breathed a sigh of relief as the damage caused by the fires was at last getting the attention of the highest offices on the land.

If this attention would not lead to a reduction in incidences of fires razing down markets or other buildings, thereby damaging property worth billions in kwacha in the process, people hoped that the fires would at least receive a rapid response from authorities to prevent more damage.

And, the committee which is currently inactive was meant to investigate and establish the root cause of market fires and come up with strategies that could reduce or possibly end the incidents.

A statement released by the then Minister of Local Government, Tacizio Gowelo, who chaired committee, stated that the market fires had been exacerbated by failure to punish culprits; a handouts culture which incentivizes potential offenders; poor capacity of the councils to effectively deal with market fires; poor enforcement of bylaws; and too much congestion of the markets which compromises their security.

The committee also found out that the Malawi Police Service, under the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security, was then yet to identify the causes of the fires in the two markets, Tsoka in Lilongwe and Taifa in Mzuzu.

It also stated then that investigations had been intensified to come up with conclusive evidence on the causes of the fires.

But since its institution, are Malawians relieved of the fires that have razed down many markets and other buildings in the country?

More fires in 2015

Apart from hearing any report on the cause of the fires by the committee, Malawians are still yet to see an end to these fires as the year 2015 has also had its share of such unwelcome incidents.

With about six markets razed down a year after the committee was instituted by President Peter Mutharika’s administration, people in the country are yet to reap any fruits from the committee which then comprised of top Cabinet ministers.

The month of October saw a fire gutting Vigwagwa Market in Mzuzu.

In almost all instances, officials either failed to give reasons as to what caused the fires or blamed it on live fires left behind by vendors after knocking off; the case of Vigwagwa Market in Mzuzu.

Recently, fire also razed down a library at Mzuzu University, destroying 45,000 books in the process, including the Malawiana Section which had facts about the country. Up to now authorities are yet to establish what really started the fire.

Again recently, fire damaged a kitchen at Blantyre Secondary School.

In all these instances, property worth millions was lost.

Although officials have given various reasons as main causes of the fires, little has been done to ensure a reduction or even an end to these occurrences, even with a ministerial committee in place.

Earlier this year, Minister of Local Government, Kondwani Nankhumwa, said the problem is that most markets in the country are made of makeshift materials such as cardboards and woods.

These materials, he said, could be the major cause of such incidents.

“As government, we now want to explore the possibility of constructing markets using fire-proof materials which would in turn help attract insurers as opposed to the current scenario where most property and structures in our markets is not ensured,” said Nankhumwa then.

Lack of capacity by authorities

The Mzuzu University library fire, like most other fires that have destroyed various properties, has placed the ability of Malawi’s fire brigade to respond in time to fires under test.

In the Mzuzu University library incident for example, reports indicate the fire brigade, which is under the city assembly, failed to respond in time and with the required materials, hence the massive damage caused.

In fact, they were stoned by irate students when they went back to the campus, this time around with water in their tanks, only that the fire had already caused considerable damage to the facility.

As usual, an assessment on the damage caused is yet to be conducted and results made public.

Speaking to journalists a day after the incident, Mzuzu University Vice Chancellor Robert Ridley, said he could not speculate on what caused the fire although most students stated it could have been an electrical fault.

“We don’t want to speculate, so we are still waiting for authorities (government) to make an assessment as to what caused the fire and how much has been lost,” said Ridley whilst confirming that 45 000 books and computers had been burnt.

Who loses and who gains

Going back to the issue of market fires, different stakeholders have given different reasons as to what really has been the problem.

In Mzuzu, for example, vendors claim city officials deliberately burnt Vigwagwa Market as a ploy to chase them out of the area.

So, who loses and who gains? Of late government has been disbursing some money in the form of handouts to the affected vendors to help them start their businesses again.

Recently, government through Nankhumwa gave K 7 million to the vendors at Mzuzu Market which was gutted by fire in October this year.

The vendors were expected to get K 31,000 each but ended up receiving K15, 000 and K8, 000 each against the collective damaged goods said to be in millions.

Now moving forward it would be important for government to establish the main cause of the fires and come up with strategies on how best they could be prevented.

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