From Tony John, Port Harcourt
The East-West Road, which cuts across some South-South states of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers, has been a hotbed in recent times. Most notorious is the Bayelsa/Rivers axis. Plying the road irrespective of the hour of the day, takes a strong mind because of incessant kidnapping and robbery that occur on the road.
On several occasions, commercial buses and passengers travelling out of Port Harcourt, or returning, had been hijacked and diverted into the bush. Some unlucky passengers and drivers had in the process, lost their lives in the hands of these bandits who brandish sophisticated weapons.
This section of the road, particularly the Mbiama-Ahoada-Emohua-Ndele-Rumuji-Nkpolu-Ogoni, has become a nightmare to motorists and other road users. Crimes are committed along this axis of the East West road. Most worrisome of this ugly development are numerous police checkpoints on the road. Yet, the spate of attacks has become unabated.
What has compounded the problem is the deplorable state of some parts of the road, particularly Nkpolu in Obio/Akpor Local Government Area of Rivers State. In the past, residents and visitors to Port Harcourt rode smoothly. It took them between 50 minutes to an hour to other neighbouring states in the South-South and South East zone. The journey then was pleasurable as the roads were relatively good.
The story is different today. Palpable fears grip travellers and motorists to such states following the rising insecurity on the highways. Hundreds of commuters had reportedly been abducted on the road by notorious rings of kidnappers operating within the South-South and South East states. Some have even lost their lives while trying to escape and some still missing.
Drivers and passengers, who cannot afford costly flight rates, now avoid the roads once it is 5pm. To show how dangerous the road is, even multi-national oil companies with retinue of security men, avoid the East-West Road. They travel through Port Harcourt-Owerri Road, another dangerous route and a den of kidnappers.
The Nkpolu section of the road in particular, is a death trap. This is because the two sides of the road have become impassable with gullies. Heavy-duty vehicles, trailers with containers, commercial vehicles and commuters are always trapped, with no feasible escape route.
Some of the road users described the Nkpolu section of the road as government’s level of insensitivity. They argued that the road, which constitutionally is the responsibility of Federal Government to effect rehabilitation, has led several people to untimely death.
Earlier this year, a violent protest erupted in the area by aggrieved youths. What sparked off the protest was as a result of the death of a pregnant woman on the road. Report said the woman was in labour and the husband was trying to rush her to the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital (UPTH), Choba, but he was trapped in traffic. Because of the gridlock, the woman could not make it to the hospital.
The husband’s cry attracted sympathy from drivers and other road users, as well as hawkers and it resulted to fierce protest. At the end of the protest, vehicles and other property were destroyed. Even attempts by security operatives to contain the situation, escalated the protest.
Speaking on the ugly development, a resident of Nkpolu, Chibudum Michael, said the road has paralysed because activities in their area. He chided the Federal Government for ignoring the road, adding it worsens whenever there is rainfall: “Even you (referring to the reporter) will not like to come to this place again. If it wasn’t as a result of your job, will you wish to come to this place again? How many shops are you seeing open?
“I reside in this place. Whenever I want to go into Port Harcourt town, I have to start thinking about how to avoid the road. The most unfortunate thing is that there is no other road to follow. If you look in front you will see a lorry that fell down.
“I think something urgent needs to be done by government. No businessman would like to live in this neighbourhood because of this road. How can a traveller withstand this situation?
“What I am saying is that lives of people making use of this road are endangered. If you live in Port Harcourt, you must have heard about the pregnant woman that died along this road. Do you think that woman would have died?” He appealed to Federal Government to come to the aid of the community and travellers: “Many people lose valuable items of property on the road to criminals, especially in the evening.
“The painful side of this situation is some travellers and drivers are robbed along this road after they have suffered the agony of the road. The boys strike towards evening and you wouldn’t see any security man around to rescue you.”
He lamented that the problem has affected the nation’s economy. He stressed that the idea behind the police surveillance, should be operationalised in the area to checkmate the excesses of hoodlums.
A driver with a transport company, Chukwuemeka Okeke, attributed the highway security challenges to bad roads and irresponsible security personnel on the highways. He said that without good road network, even security operatives would not give optimal service:
“Many of us avoid this Nkpolu-Choba-Emohua because it is too bad. The potholes give criminals, especially kidnappers and armed robbers the opportunity to attack us. They succeed because of bad road, because we cannot speed, so they attack us and succeed.
“What disturbs us and we keep asking is, with the number of police checkpoints, the attack and kidnap and hijack increases everyday. Any driver that follows this road either going or returning to Port Harcourt risks his life and that of his passengers.
“Drivers no longer get satisfaction from the job because of the risk involved. Some of my colleagues have left driving or relocated to other states not prone to criminality. Government should rise to its responsibilities.”
Some drivers and commuters, who spoke under anonymity, blamed bad road and security personnel for the insecurity on highways. They alleged connivance between policemen and the highway robbers and kidnappers.
However, respite came recently when the new Commissioner of Police, Mustapha Dandaura, said the command adopted new strategy to end perennial kidnapping on the East-West and Elele-Owerri roads:
“The state has been in the news for violent crimes such as, cultism, kidnapping, armed robbery, killing and pipeline vandalism. I am here to fight these crimes and bring them to a tolerable level. Rivers State will no longer be conducive for criminals.
“My arrival will see the decimation of criminals on the East-West Road and that of Elele-Owerri Road as well as other violent crimes in the state. I strongly pledge to end the attacks on the East-West Road. With my deployment and re-strategisation to produce results in the shortest possible time.”
He said Rivers, being a major economic hub of the country, must not be allowed to fall and be in the control of criminals: “To this end, my administration will rest on five strategies, including, intelligence-led policing, constructive engagement and community partnership, as well as recovery of illegal arms.”
The CP’s declaration was given a boost by Governor Nyesom Wike with the launch of a new security outfit, “Operation Sting’” and deployment of operational vehicles and equipment.