By Christian Aburime
The culture of ubiquitous roadblocks and security checkpoints corruption has been a recurring feature amongst the Nigerian security and law enforcement agencies, even as their respective leaderships continue to speak strongly against the practice with threats of punitive measures against the offenders. Coming across a policeman on the road can be an exhausting experience in this part of the world. The Ak47 slung casually across his shoulder does little to reassure you about your safety. Even if you are up to date on everything, that doesn’t mean you can proceed with your journey happily. You are stunned when the officer would subtly ask you if there is “anything for the boys”, or draw your attention to the hot weather for some money to buy “pure water” to rehydrate the body from the scorching sun. This is the menace that confronts us on our roads especially during the Yuletide seasons when the majority of Nigerians travel home for Christmas holidays.
Recently the menace of the massive extortions being perpetrated by security agencies on the roads from Lagos to Onitsha, the Eastern part of the country was brought to the fore by Tony Onyema, a veteran journalist of no mean repute. A casual reader of Tony’s detailed profiling of the menace of extortions on that route will probably think the respected gentleman was perhaps showing his depth of journalistic skills in fiction writing. But for regular travelers on that axis, it is a normal occurrence that confronts us every day. And we have accommodated it with bitterness, anger and silent anguish.
A critical analysis of the number of mounted security check points as revealed by Tony on this route leaves you wondering if the nation is at war. According to him, “ by the time you arrive at the Niger Bridge, you would have counted 60 check points manned by either soldiers, police, customs, SARS, FRSC or a combination of the security agencies”. Not even in war-torn countries like Afghanistan or Somalia would you find such a high concentration of mounted road blocks with menacingly looking security personnel.
Suffice to say this menace did not start today. Earlier in January this year, the Amalgamated Union of Foodstuff and Cattle Dealers Association of Nigeria, (AUFCDA), during a courtesy visit to President Muhammadu Buhari, had lamented that the army, police and other security agencies have developed the penchant of mounting toll gates, (a metaphor for road blocks) within the South East and South-South to extort them heavily when ferrying their goods from the north to the two zones.
Reacting without mincing words, the President pledged that the Federal Government will look into the issue of illegal tax collections with a view to encouraging more private sector businesses to thrive in the country. He categorically reassured his guests that his administration had genuine intentions to eliminate illegal taxes in the country, despite the fact that ‘‘old habits die hard.’’
According to the President and quoting him, ‘‘I am appalled to learn that these illegal tax collections still persist. Bad habits are not easily dropped. But let me assure you that relevant security agencies will be reminded of their duties in preventing these bad practices and safeguarding people like you who go about their legitimate businesses. I will take up all your appeals and complaints in due course and together with State Governments, we will attend to your proposals.’’
Interestingly, before that heart-warming assurances given by President Muhammadu Buhari to his AUFCDA guests, there was a damning news that trended online of a report accusing the Nigerian security and law enforcement agencies of pocketing as much as N100billion in roadside bribery and extortion in the South-Eastern part of the country for over a period of three years before the report was released. This was as embarrassing as it was unbelievable!
The Nigerian Army and other security agencies who were mentioned in the reports immediately dismissed the report, insisting that their respective personnel operate with strict ethical standards and those identified for misconduct are usually promptly disciplined.
However, the report reinforces the fears that the controversial culture of bribery and extortions on our highways especially in the South East and South South has worsened despite decades of condemnation even amongst top security chiefs. It is also on record that successive police leadership over the last two decades have continuously ordered the removal of checkpoints, but compliance is sparsely enforced and hardly are errant officers punished as reported.
The endemic bribery and corruption on our highways by law enforcement personnel has indeed raised the corruption index bar to an embarrassing level. It will be recalled that this was one of the campaign mantra (to fight corruption) the Buhari administration rode on to come to power.
All genuine efforts by the administration to fight corruption has only recorded limited success. As they say, when you fight corruption, the hydra-headed monster also fights back. The monster, therefore has been institutionalized in all facets of the economy. Little wonder that the Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in its 2017 corruption survey (among the ordinary Nigerians) said that 32% of adults who had come into contact with public officials had been asked for a bribe. The security personnel at various check points are no exception.
The NBS, in its analysis says a total of 82 million naira ($230,000; £170,000) was paid in bribes to public officials in Nigeria in the previous 12-month period. This equates to an average of one bribe per person per year including the ones given on our highways
To stem the tide of the high level of extortions and road blocks especially on the Lagos-Benin, Benin-Onitsha, Onitsha-Owerri, Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressways and to other parts of the Eastern and South South region; the Anambra Alliance, a group of eminent professionals from different walks of life have taken the bull by the horn to enlighten and educate motorists/travelers to the Eastern part of the country on the steps to take with law enforcement personnel at the numerous road blocks.
The organization has massively embarked on a public service campaign tagged “Travelling by road made easy…steps to take”. It has distributed printed flyers in Lagos and other adjoining states to motorists, transport operators and other intending travelers to the East this Yuletide.
The message in the flyer advised all motorists and travelers not to drive without valid driving license or with expired vehicle license, not to drink and drive. It further advised motorists and travelers to observe speed limits, show courtesy and respect security officers and to pull over when stopped by a police or any law enforcement officers. It also stated that motorists and travelers should ensure all relevant customs papers are obtained from point of purchase.
On the flipside, the message advised that motorists and travelers should insist on their rights with due respect to the law enforcement officers; and should note the name(s) of the officers who try to extort money from them if no law has been contravened. The message further stated that should any motorist or traveler be manhandled, legal action can be sought through the Organization’s Attorney, by calling the following numbers: 08037506954, 08028080017
When contacted for the rationale behind the organization’s action; Mr Joe Anatune, a staunch member of the Anambra Alliance who is also a communication consultant and public affairs analyst said the organization decided to embark on this public enlightenment campaign due to the numerous complaints and reports received by it, bordering on the many security road blocks and massive extortion activities being perpetrated on the roads from Lagos to the Eastern and South South parts of the country by law enforcement agencies. He said his organization also set up a committee to review and investigate the complaints which he said were later found to be genuine. He said the reports turned in by the committee was mind-boggling. As the report indicated that the various Nigeria security agencies have unleashed their strength on the peaceful geopolitical zones of South East and South South where there is no real serious security threat; through the use of roadblocks/checkpoints with the intent to extort, intimidate and molest innocent Nigerians.
Anatune said it is disturbing that from Control Junction in Owerri, the capital of Imo state, to Rumuokoro Junction in Port Harcourt, Rivers state, a distance of about 99 kilometers (61 miles), has 39 security checkpoints/Roadblocks with heavy armed security agents. He noted each commercial driver pay as much as N100 to the police and N200 to the military personnel. Continuing, he said from Owerri city to Onitsha, a distance of 78 kilometers (48 miles) has another 15 security checkpoints which he said is uncalled for.
In comparison to other zones of the country, Anatune said, there are only 12 security check points from Lagos to Ilorin, a distance of 258 kilometers while there is just 9 security check points from Lagos to Ibadan a distance of 121 kilometers. The check points he said are located within 20 to 30 kilometers apart from each other.
Based on the following, he said Anambra Alliance ,(AA) reckoned and is indeed of the opinion that aside from the unnecessary duplications of security checkpoints in the South East, the bribery and extortion by security agencies will also rise astronomically as millions of Easterners will be heading home during the Christmas holidays to visit families and relations. He also revealed that the recommendations/representations made by the organization’s committee on ways to address the duplications of roadblocks as well as the bribery notoriety on the Eastern highways will be forwarded to the relevant authorities for possible action. He therefore called on the state governors of the South Eastern region to close ranks and work in harmony towards addressing the issues his organization has raised!