The closure of the drug market in Sabon Gari Market, formerly called Abubakar Rimi Market, by the Kano state government took a nasty turn when a group of aggrieved drug traders launched attack on other traders at the market, warning them to also close their businesses.
The attack on Wednesday, which left a jeweler and another trader seriously injured, was part of a long-drawn battle between the government and the drug sellers operating under the banner of the National Association of Patent and Propriety Medicines (NAPPMED). Earlier, the Kano state government issued a directive to NAPPMED to leave the Abubakar Rimi Market in Sabon Gari by December 31, 2012, saying the practice of selling drugs in the open in Sabon Gari market "like vegetables or grains" was unacceptable and has allowed free circulation of substandard, fake and expired drugs, which he said, are inimical to public health.
But shortly after issuing the directive, about 5,000 drug sellers closed their shops and took to the streets to protest the order, which they described as "an injustice", before rushing to a federal high court where they obtained an injunction that stopped the government.
The court order issued by Justice Fatun O. Riman, with suit no FHC/K/CS/57/12 and dated December 10, 2012 joined as respondents, the governor of Kano state, the Attorney General of Kano state, The pharmaceutical Council of Nigeria, the Kano state Commissioner of Police, the Minister of Health and the Attorney General of the Federation.
The applicants, Nigerian Association of Patent and Proprietary Medicines (NPPMED) and 15 others had filed a motion ex-parte "restraining the defendants, by themselves, officers, privies or anybody acting for or purporting to be acting for and on their behalf from ejecting and or attempting to eject the plaintiffs from Abubakar Rimi Market, Sabon Gari pending the hearing and determination of the Motion on Notice."
The state chairman of NAPPMED, Hussein Labaran Zakari said his union members decided to seek the injunction order after all their efforts to meet with government officials to discuss the issue with a view to finding amicable solutions failed.
"We are confident that the government was misinformed that was why we tried to meet with the officials, but when our attempts failed, we felt we had no choice but to take the case to the court of law," he said.
Responding to allegations that some patent medicine stores were selling fake drugs, Zakari conceded that though "there are unscrupulous traders that engage in the act, just like there are irresponsible and corrupt government officials, doctors and journalists; you cannot punish an entire group over the fault of a few bad apples."
"As a union, we have always worked to sanitize our trade and in some cases we have even handed over some fake medicine dealers to the government for punishment. Therefore what the government should do is to try to identify those selling the wrong products instead of punishing us collectively because that would be injustice," he said.
He also warned that the move could have serious implications on the economy of Kano state which he said was already facing setback.
"By pushing us out of business, the rate of unemployment in Kano would increase and patients buying our drugs will also suffer," he said.
However, despite the drug traders’ outcry the state governor stuck to his guns maintaining that evicting the drug sellers would curtail the rate of drug abuse among youths for which the state is becoming notorious.
Kwankwaso grumbled that “empirical statistics have shown that Kano ranked number one in drug abuse in the country.”
He said, "A NAFDAC’s committee has already confiscated and destroyed fake and adulterated drugs worth over N600 million recently and has also discovered and sealed warehouses containing similar medicines in Kano."
"No government can stop the sale of drugs; we are not fighting anybody. What we are saying is that anyone who wants to sell drugs must abide by the rules. You can open a chemist or a mall to sell drugs but let it be duly approved by law in accordance with professional standards," he said.
On December 31, the government’s deadline, several packs of men believed to be security agents in plain clothes stormed the market very early in the morning and locked up the shops. It was learnt that none of the traders opened that day and that most of them had already moved out their products from the stores.
Nonetheless, hours after the closure, the state chairman of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), Ahmad Gana Muhammad said he received at least three death threats from anonymous callers vowing to end his life and those of other members for their alleged role in convincing the government to shutdown the drug market.
Two days later, a group of angry drug traders, seething with rage invaded the Sabon Gari market hurling stones at traders of other commodities and ordering them to also close their businesses.
Following the attack, feelings of fear and uncertainty have seemingly grasped members of the PSN who fear they could be attacked by the rival patent medicine dealers that were thrown out of business.
Similarly, since the government announced the decision to close the drug market, the issue has been drawing divergent views from residents. While some welcome it as an efficient step to check the rate of drug abuse in the state, others have condemned it as a reckless action that could set off scarcity of drugs and spike their costs.
Umar Danyaro, a resident, said that "closing the market would help to wipe away the unflattering image of Kano state as an environment replete with drug abusing youths that commit crimes and other atrocities. The government has really taken a step in the right direction."
For Nasiru Kofar Na’isa however, the closure of the drug market was wrong because, "Kano is a populous state that cannot rely on a few pharmacies and hospitals for its drug needs."
He said the number of hospitals and pharmacies in the state are not sufficient enough to meet the drug demands of residents.
"The repercussion is that drugs will be scarce and their prices would skyrocket, making them unaffordable for poor residents. You must understand that most of those drug sellers in Sabon Gari sold their drugs at cheaper prices than their counterparts in hospitals," he said.
There are also insinuations in some quarters that the government might have conceived the idea of chasing away the drug sellers at Sabon Gari in order to force patronage on its own newly established Lafiya Jari patent medicine stores which opened across the state as part of its youth empowerment programme.
For now, the government shows no sign of backing down on the policy, but it remains to be seen whether the drug traders would able to at least extract a compromise.