Checkpoints of nightmare: Southeasterners, motorists, commuters decry proliferation of security posts in region

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Rights group, the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety), sometime in its report, alleged that a whopping sum of N306 billion had been paid at gunpoint in the past 50 months, covering August 2015 and October 2019, by citizens of Eastern Nigeria to estimated 600 military and 6,300 police roadblocks in the Southeast and South-south regions.

A 2018 report by the group, claimed that the security agencies made over N100 billion in three years by extorting road users in those Southeast checkpoints.

This reports seem to have opened the eyes of the people of the region to know that they are not only on siege by armed security operatives, but are also being extorted of their hard-earned money by men who mount roadblocks in the guise of protecting them.

Leakblast investigations revealed that the people of the Southeast are no longer happy over this.

President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo had described as unusual the number of military, paramilitary and police checkpoints in all routes leading into and within Igbo land.

Painting a gory picture of the situation, Nwodo said that at least 60 checkpoints were between Lagos and Onitsha; a major route for the Igbo traders, saying the action explained that travellers from Lagos to Ore would confront 24 checkpoints, Ore to Benin-23 while there are 13 checkpoints from Benin to Onitsha.

In a recent letter to President Muhammadu Buhari and Inspector General of Police Mohammed Adamu, the Ohanaeze boss noted that checkpoints in Enugu State alone were uncountable.

Nwodo said that the interpretation of Ndigbo was that these checkpoints which were primarily concerned with extorting money from numerous Igbo passing through them were mere toll gates.

He, therefore, pleaded with them to use their good offices to bring to an end these “discriminating, intimidating and extortionist practices of our security agents on all routes leading into and within Igbo land.”

The Igbo leader argued that modern security was all about information gathering, digital monitoring and preventive mechanisms, not about Gestapo-like checkpoints.

Regrettably, he noted that in all other routes leading out of Igbo land to other parts of Nigeria, checkpoints of the nature that characterize the routes into the Southeast were nowhere to be seen.

“We have continued on our part to appeal to our young men and women to restrain their anger and outrage in order to ensure that they do not resort to self-defence,” he stated.

For a journalist and youth activist, Charles Ogbu, the ‘one-pole-one checkpoint’ phenomenon in parts of Southeast, was dehumanising.

According to him, “in some Southeast roads, the checkpoint is at every pole such that while you were being searched and interrogated with your vehicle particulars at a particular checkpoint, you would be seeing the next checkpoint right in front of you where you are equally expected to stop for another round of humiliation.

“In some of these checkpoints, young men who are passengers in a commercial vehicle are taken to a nearby bush with a senior officer waiting to thoroughly search their phones with absolutely no justification.

“In fact, in some of the military checkpoints, youths posing as hawkers are used by soldiers to extort monies from big trucks and trailers.

“As a result of these checkpoints, a journey from Lagos to the East on commercial vehicle takes about 12 hours while traveling in a private car to the same location could take far longer as both customs and police and army would demand every paper related to the car at each of those uncountable checkpoints.

“This situation is even worse if you are traveling from an Igbo city like Onitsha to Enugu. And any argument with them on any of those checkpoints could end in your death or at best being delayed for hours as punishment.

“How many of those checkpoints are on Northern roads, the headquarters of security problem in Nigeria?”

Since raising the issue on the floor of the Senate had proved ineffective; Ogbu, therefore, urged Senators Enyinnaya Abaribe and Ike Ekweremadu to mobilize fellow Igbo lawmakers in both chambers to stage a walk out in protest against this “deliberate attempt to continue to treat us like children of a lesser god.”

He added: “In the last five days, I travelled to Imo, Anambra and Enugu and back to Lagos. And I know what I went through. I can only imagine what our people going home for Christmas will go through in those checkpoints.”

National Vice Chairman of Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN), Dr Laz Eze, said that the preponderance of military and police checkpoints in routes leading to Southeast were vestiges only seen in a conquered territory.

“In December 2018, I counted 27 checkpoints when I drove from Abuja to Enugu. The distribution was as follows: Abuja to Otukpa Junction (Benue State) – 5; Otukpa Junction (Benue) to Opi Nsukka Junction (Enugu) -15; Obollo Afor to Opi Junction – 2 and Opi Nsukka Junction to Enugu Town -7.

“Since this year, I can’t even keep count of the new military checkpoints across the Southeast, especially with their much talked about Atilogwu Dance and Operation Positive Identification (OPI),” Eze told Sunday Sun.

The situation in Enugu and Ebonyi states

Driving from Obollo-Afor, the border town between Benue and Enugu states, the first military checkpoint is located at Ulo N’ubollo, a community located just a few minutes from Obollo-Afor town. The second check point is located a few kilometers from Opi town in Nsukka local government area in a community known as Agu Opi. The third checkpoint is located at Ekwegbe community also in Nsukka local government area just a few kilometers from the other checkpoint, while the fourth one is at Ibagwa Nike in Enugu East local government area.

It was observed that soldiers manning these checkpoints collect money from commuters depending on the level of perceived offence or the type of vehicle. For instance, the driver of the bus in which this reporter travelled in had to part with N100 at each of the military checkpoints. This was because the bus was obviously overloaded with crayfish and other commodities. It was also observed that heavy-duty vehicles pay as much as N200 before they are allowed to pass.

According to a postgraduate student of the University of Nigeria Nsukka; (UNN), who plies the Opi-Nike road regularly, an ordinarily 25 minutes ride now takes about twice the time because of multiple checkpoints.

The Enugu-Okigwe-Umuahia-Aba-Port Harcourt axis has more presence of military and police checkpoints, apparently because of the recent spate of kidnapping in the Awgu area by suspected Fulani herdsmen.

More checkpoints were introduced in the area to beef up security immediately after a reverend father was murdered around the area while a royal father and his wife were abducted few days after. Commuters on the road said that they are determined to bear with whatever delays they faced so long as their safety was guaranteed.

Of the about eight checkpoints on the Enugu-Abakaliki road; two are manned by military men. While the soldiers there appear to be civil in their operation; Sunday Sun gathered that they allegedly have some agents who collect money for them especially from heavy-duty vehicle drivers. In some occasions, the drivers might park ahead, while the conductors would make haste to make the “contribution”. The transaction is usually such that they do not talk about balance (change).

Commuters in commercial buses coming from Onitsha are usually asked to come down while passengers, particularly petty traders of Ebonyi or Cross River origin coming home, are diligently searched. Some of these people, going home with some electronics and other household appliances are delayed and made to cough out huge sums of money, even when they have the receipts of the items.

Not even the huge signboards mounted by the military at some of these checkpoints forbidding collection of bribes could deter the officers on the road.

The story was not different on the Abakaliki-Afikpo road where four checkpoints exist; but the situation on the Abakaliki-Ogoja road, was indeed horrible. Although there were five roadblocks there, Sunday Sun gathered that the recent closure of the nation’s borders had heightened security intimidation on the route. The implication is that commuters now pay more while they also spend more time on the road.

The situation in Anambra

In Anambra State, motorists said that what happen at the over 65 checkpoints mounted across the state was equivalent to daylight robbery.

Although respondents said the Exercise Atilogwu Udo has no tangible negative effect on residents of Onitsha and its environs; they all agreed that the checkpoints were cash points for the security agents.

Being the gateway from the Southwest; six checkpoints exist at Bridge Head alone, the Army, Anti-Terrorist Squad, Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) and police are found on the River Niger Bridge, while the National Security and Civil Defence (NSCDC) and Police operate under the bridge.

At Upper Iweka, there were over seven checkpoints including members of “Operation Nkpochapu”; one at Ziks roundabout, another at Nkpor Junction, three at Nkpor-Umuoji road, one at Ogidi Oye Olisah and another one at Abba Junction.

Sunday Sun also identified five checkpoints along the Onitsha-Awka Expressway and many along Atani road, including three naval and police checkpoints. Also along Onitsha-Otuocha road, there are about four checkpoints, among other places.

A common feature is that all these checkpoints cause serious gridlocks and are mainly avenues for extorting money from motorists, especially commercial drivers and Keke riders. It was gathered that commercial drivers operating on some routes contribute money weekly to settle the security men on the roads.

But the Chairman, Human Rights, Liberty Access and Peace Defenders Foundation (HURIDE), Dede Uzor said that apart from Aba in Abia State where there are incidents of intimidation, harassment and glaring human rights violations, the army in Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi and Imo states respectively are friendly.

According to him, the Atilogwu Udo exercise has had no serious threat against members of the public in these areas even as he did not rule out cases of extortion.

He also alleged that there are over 64 roads blocks in Anambra State alone.

“They extort money; the extortion is based on understanding and compromise. N50, N100, N200, including the Navy who also demand money from tipper drivers plying Idemili and the Army too.

“The presence of security agents on the road has not led to the improvement of security rather enrichment of their pockets, they concentrate so much on how to get drugs and other implicating items from traders for a better bargain,” Uzor stated.

A commercial driver, Mr Eugene Ideke lamented that half of the money he makes daily goes to security agents on the roads even without committing any offence.

“They use intimidation to collect money from us or they will delay you unnecessarily or even discharge your passengers for committing no crime just because you refused to give them money, some may even accuse you of crime you don’t know about, just to extort you, it’s alarming.

“The Army and Navy have well organized extortion and are worse if you fail to comply, they won’t talk to you; they can only give you sign to park. In some cases and places they have fronts that collect the money for them or the driver or conductor will go down to drop the money at a place. They collect between N100 and N200 depending on the route and type of vehicle you drive. In their checkpoints, you don’t talk or beg, they will discharge your passengers and tell you to seat under the scorching sun or on mud water,” Ideke stated.

A commercial tricycle operator, Mr Uche Nwadiulo said that on his route; Onitsha to 3-3 Omeife, they contribute money every week to settle police and other security agents in that route to avoid harassment and disturbance on the road.

“The police and the FRSC don’t disturb us again since we started paying them weekly, but they still block road and cause hold-up on the road maybe for other vehicles. I have lived in the North; you can’t find this type of thing over there. We are being seriously marginalized and maltreated here in our own land.

“Most of them don’t check your documents and those who check do that to look for fault to nail you the more, just to extort money. We want the government to help us from this organized robbery on the road,” Nwadiulo pleaded.

In Awka and environs, there is only one military checkpoint at the moment and it is mounted on the Amansea axis of Awka–Enugu old road. Although the checkpoint has been on that axis of Awka North Local Government Area before Exercise Atilogwu Udo was launched, it has continued to serve the purpose for which it was mounted in the first place.

Recently, the checkpoint, which was mounted very close to the boundary area between Anambra and Enugu states was moved from the spot it used to be to another spot, but still on the same old road that leads to Enugu State from Awka.

However, there are military checkpoints mounted along the different roads leading to Ekwulobia, Oko, Nnewi and other locations from Awka capital territory.

Moving from Amansea through Oji to Udi in Enugu State; Sunday Sun witnessed several military and police checkpoints.

The gridlock caused by the presence of the military on the Amansea area has remained a source of concern to motorists and passengers. There were occasions when people were stranded for upward of 5 hours because of the checkpoints and deplorable state of the road.

In several other checkpoints, the financial transactions go uninhibited; but the military team at Oji River allegedly make use of agents.

Some residents of Amansea told Sunday Sun that they did not have issues with the presence of the military on the old road that passes through their community and would not have, provided they restrict their activities to the expressway.

The situation in Imo

The military Exercise Atilogwu Udo has invariably increased the checkpoints on the major roads in Imo State. On Okigwe road, opposite the Assemblies of God Retreat Camp, which is a short distance to the Okigwe-Owerri Junction, soldiers have been permanently stationed there since the last Operation Python Dance in 2017.

As a result, all commercial vehicles plying that road must stop at the checkpoint for ‘routine’ checks, even commercial motorcyclists and their passengers are not allowed to drive pass as they must first disembark before they would be allowed to pass. The commercial drivers would stop their vehicles and disembark, go behind the military personnel’s makeshift tent, drop their “offering” which is usually N100 and enter their vehicles and continue the journey. During this “break in transmission”, a stern-looking weapon-wielding soldier would be peeping into the bus and dared anybody to complain over the delay.

Most commuters and residents in the area have expressed disgust over what they described as army occupation of the area.

One of the commercial drivers who simply identified himself as Ejikeme said that the only thing the soldiers there do was to collect money from motorists.

“We must give them N100 every time you cross this checkpoint no matter how many times. The trailer drivers pay them N500 each. These soldiers who are mostly from the northern part of the country who have been here since 2017 during the Operation Egwu Eke have remained here. They don’t do anything else except to collect money.”

Of particular concern to commuters was the military checkpoint at the Umuowa-Airport Junction manned by the Air Force personnel who have effectively blocked the two sides of the Owerri-Aba road from the opposite directions thereby causing perennial traffic snarl along the road. Commuters could be held up in the traffic for over 30 minutes before they could be passed by the military men.

Residents have complained severally over the maltreatment meted to people on that road by the military men. Chief Whip of the Imo State House of Assembly; Tochi Okereke who represents Ngor Okpala state constituency lamented that people could spend 30-40minutes at the Umuowa-Airport Junction checkpoint waiting to be passed by the military personnel.

“I don’t really know what they are doing there because you will end up spending about an hour at the Airport Junction for a journey that would have ordinarily taken 25 minutes from Owerri to Okpala because of that checkpoint. But the worst is the harassment of people by the military personnel”, he stated.

Also, Cletus Anaele, an indigene of Umuowa noted in anger that the Air Force personnel had brought siege mentality on the community as they constantly harass the natives, especially young ladies.

“Since the coming of these Air Force personnel to this junction, besides the money they collect from transporters they have done nothing else except harassing the people here especially the young ladies. If they buy something from you on credit; when you ask them, they will not pay, saying that you’re supposed to give it to them free because they are protecting you. They beat up people on the slightest provocation, including motorists.  We have complained severally to the police authorities, but they always advise that we go to their superiors and lay our complaints”, Anele bemoaned.

He regretted that in spite of the presence of the military personnel, criminals carted away underground armoured cables, including the ones at their base, last month.

“It was the youths of the community who apprehended them and there were also similar cases. Even along this road, armed robbers have continued to attack people both at night and day time”.

Similarly, there is the Ukwu-Oji military checkpoint along Owerri/Onitsha road; one of the oldest checkpoints in the Southeast.

A traditional ruler from the area, Eze Kenneth Emetuma decried the extortion of money from motorists there.

He said that “they are not doing anything but to extort money from the people; the amount of money they collect is enough to repair the roads”.

This task force are really working like a team, while the soldier stays guard on the road, their sister agencies do the collection ranging from N50 for commercial vehicles and N200 and above for heavy duty vehicles.

From Ukwu-Oji down to Owerri Assumpta road, policemen were seen in seven various locations also extorting money from motorists.

On the Owerri-Port Harcourt road, the military checkpoint at Obinze right in front of the Federal University of Technology junction (FUTO) has remained a nightmare to travellers.

Even though they do not harass motorists, Sunday Sun discovered that this team has different departments: somebody stops the motorist and the driver immediately knows what he means.

According to a commercial bus driver, “once one of them stops you, quietly walk up to another by the corner sometimes in a vehicle and hand over N50 to him”.

Aside the military checkpoint from Owerri to Obinze junction, five other police checkpoints also exist. The extortionists along this route allegedly hide their proceeds in nearby bushes.

A resident of the area, Mr Luke Ochiaya said that he does not know the essence of the checkpoints. “Several kidnap and robbery incidents have taken place on this road. I don’t think they are helping matters, these hoodlums come from mostly Ohaji/Egbema, Umuagwo and sometimes Port Harcourt; they kidnap and keep their victims inside those bushes,” he said.

Also, member of Board of Trustees (BoT) of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), in Anambra State, Chief Rommy Ezeonwuka has condemned the indiscriminate police road blocks in various highways and interstate roads across the country. He said the situation had become worrisome mostly in the Southeast of the country, citing Onitsha to Lagos highway as an example.

He advised the Nigeria Police to adopt patrol system formula which he said was inline with global best practices in crime fighting, adding that the police should avoid using a formula that antagonized the road users.

Ezeonwuka who is also the Special Adviser to Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State on Vigilante Service while lending his voice as a backdrop of the outcry called for the attention  of the Inspector General of Police, Adamu Mohammed and State Police Commissioners to as a matter of urgency to look into the matter with a view to saving the public from inconveniences, especially during the Christmas festivities.

He advised the IGP to give a fresh directive to state commissioners of police to abolish the checkpoints across the nation.

He said: “As the spiritual leader of the Igbo nation, I am sure the police authorities at the federal and state levels are not aware of what is going on the roads with reference to mounting of roadblocks here and there.  So, let me draw their attention to the outcry against roadblocks being mounted here and there by junior police officers assigned for crime fighting.

“Let them use patrol formula to monitor and arrest criminals instead of checkpoints because blocking the road is causing traffic jams, which inconveniences the transporters and other travellers.”

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