CHIOMA OKEZIE-OKEH (Lagos), ALOYSIUS ATTAH (Onitsha), OBINNA ODOGWU (Awka) FRED ITUA and JULIANA TAIWO-OBANLOYE (Abuja)
Although parts of the country have been locked down for four weeks, with other states following suit days and weeks after, the sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the country and the spread from three to 26 states indicated a problem in the standard measure to curb the Coronavirus pandemic. In Lagos, the spike in the last one week has sparked fears about silent community transmission. On the other hand, it also points to an obvious fact: that citizens have not been complying with the stay-at-home order. Saturday Sun reviews the state of compliance in some states.
Anambra’s case study
In Anambra, a commercial hub of the southeast with 63 thriving markets and a major transport nexus, the lockdown was flagrantly flouted. This was in contrast to the directive of Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra when he announced the first two-week lockdown from March 30 to April 13 at a time the state had not recorded any index case of the coronavirus disease. The confirmation of an index case on Friday April 10, forced the governor to extend the lockdown for another two weeks.
His address of April 11 unveiled a stricter measure that include closing of all boundaries with neighbouring states and ban of all vehicular or human traffic across all the boundaries of the state with the exception of vehicles delivering essential services.
The implementation of the directives, however, was a different ball game altogether. Findings showed the directives were grossly breached. The first two days of the second lockdown recorded substantial level of compliance as roads were virtually empty while various taskforces and security agents stationed across the roads implemented strict enforcement. On the third day, however, it became business as usual as law enforcement agents relaxed and instead turned the enforcement into money-making racket.
At Onitsha main market, Mgbuka old motor spare parts market, Obosi, and Ogbaru main market among others, Saturday Sun observed that despite the lockdown, traders still enter the market, hanging around the premises. While the gates are locked from outside, traders had unfettered access to their stores; the same gate opens whenever traders had to go in and bring goods for buyers who might have called them on phone for such demands. At the payment of some agreed fee to security men guarding the markets, they are allowed to enter and collect the goods for their customers.
Most of the medicine dealers trading at Ogbogwu, Onitsha drug market, reside in Asaba, the Delta State capital. Having been classified as essential services, their market was exempted from being closed down. However, the closure of boundary presented an unforeseen challenge. In principle, there is no way they could daily traverse the Niger Bridge from Asaba (Delta State) into Onitsha (Anambra State). In reality, it was simple.
Saturday Sun visited the Niger Bridge on Tuesday and Wednesday to ascertain how they navigate across the two states and discovered a parodying of the lockdown.
From the Onitsha end of the bridge, security agents collected a toll that ranged from N1, 000 to N7, 000 from wayfarers, depending on the type of vehicle and appearance of its occupants.
This racket was perpetrated by a patrol team of policemen in a vehicle branded Okpoko Police Division, a team of four soldiers and a handful of officials of the Federal Road Safety Commission. None of the vehicles heading to Asaba was turned back, Saturday Sun observed, despite that only a few displayed exemption documents and identity cards. There was no thorough checking of any luggage; instead, drivers of vehicles bearing cartons were ordered to park.
They subsequently engaged in negotiation with a police officer stationed beside the patrol vehicle and once settlement is struck, drivers paid to two plainclothes policemen who stood apart from the uniform cops.
At the Asaba end of the bridge, the business was brisk. Private and commercial vehicle owners gave financial inducements on demand to both Police and FRSC personnel as well as vigilantes and environmental health officials who flashed infrared thermometers on the forehead of motorists and in return collected bribes from drivers. The scenery was the same at Amansea Ugwuoba, the boundary town between Anambra and Enugu states. At the Awka old road axis, a policeman carrying an AK-47 rifle threatened to deflate the four tyres of a Toyota corolla car because the driver gave him N200 instead of N2000 that he demanded as passage fee to cross into Enugu State. Some Hausa Okada riders residing at Ugwuoba were also making brisk business conveying those desirous of crossing to Enugu across the boundary.
On Tuesday night, the reporter was also at the Abuja and Lagos parks within the Onitsha Upper Iweka area. Though government closed all parks officially, the reporter was surprised to come across vehicles plying Lagos and Abuja routes loading for trips. Four luxurious buses were loading for Abuja that night, though they conducted their activities covertly by switching off all the interior lights of the vehicles to avoid drawing attention.
Bus touts mistook the reporter for an intending traveller, threw caution into the wind and mobbed him, each trying to sway him to his bus. His enquiry opened a floodgate of information: the buses charge N5,500 per seat because they settle police on the way; the final bus stop in Abuja is Gwagwalada where they drop all passengers to find their way into the town.
At the Lagos park, the small buses charge N10,000 per seat. A tout who tried hard to convince the reporter to board his bus, explained to him the reason for the unusually high fare: to help defray the cost of settlement along the road.
“We settle the police at the bridge head with N7, 000 before they will allow the driver to cross and continue. We continue to settle on the road and also ensure that we enter Lagos before dawn or else LASTMA can seize the bus. One of our buses was impounded in Lagos because the driver entered the city late, but we have to do this because man must survive,” he said.
Dr Christian Madubuko, the Anambra State Commissioner for Transport, when contacted, affirmed that security agents undermined government’s effort and objectives for the lockdown.
“Yesterday, I left Amansea border in anger because despite all we do, they abuse the whole process. They have formed a very big park there, supervised by the security agents there. We closed the parks and borders and told the police to enforce it but the operatives have seen it as a jamboree. They even allow dead bodies from the North to come into this place for burial at night. Please report what you saw on ground and don’t hide anything because that is the best way that you assist us in the exercise. It is not new that they are collecting money from people there,” Madubuko raged.
Anayo Umensofor, a trader who resides in Asaba, told Saturday Sun the gains that should have been recorded in the lockdown were lost from day one because of the compromise by security agents.
He said: “Government is just suffering us for nothing saying they are preventing the spread of coronavirus. There is no lockdown for anything. This is just a revenue office created for the security agents. They are so brazen in their extortion that you don’t have any option than to pay and go your way if where you are going is important to you. They say everybody stay at home but you can see that bikes, tricycles, buses and other vehicles enter Onitsha from every part of the country through the Niger Bridge. Who is fooling who?”
When Saturday Sun contacted Haruna Muhammed, Public Relations Officer of the Anambra State Police Command, he affirmed that Commissioner of Police John Abang has set up a monitoring team to ensure that those on duty do the right thing.
“He periodically visits those places also to see what is going on and I can assure you that any policeman seen compromising on his assigned duties will be dealt with. We also take up any reported case seriously so don’t hesitate to inform us in case of any shortcomings,” he said.
In Awka, Anambra State capital, it was glaring that the lockdown has suffered complete collapse. Human and vehicular movements are unrestrained daily. Compliance lasted only a few days after the lockdown was announced as a good number of business owners soon reopened their shops and commercial tricycles and shuttle buses flooded the road. Shortly afterwards, buses going to Onitsha, Nnewi, Ekwulobia and other parts of the state began to ply the roads.
While the state government banned movement across the state’s boundaries, findings by Saturday Sun indicated that people still travelled to Enugu, Delta, Abia, and Imo states. It was not clear if commuters cross into Rivers State from Anambra State and vice versa along their boundary area. Within the capital city, vehicles passed through security checkpoints with ease. At some of the points, commercial tricycle operators queue and load their Keke NAPEP right in front of police checkpoints as though there was never a lockdown in the first place.
At the Awka–Onitsha expressway end of Regina Caeli Junction, some of the Keke NAPEP operators could be seen loading passengers for onward movement to either Eke-Awka or Amaenyi. One of them told Saturday Sun the policemen manning the roadblock there do not disturb them.
“We have been loading here. The police do not disturb and I don’t think they will even disturb us. They are not happy with the lockdown declaration by the government. We learnt that police don’t support the lockdown”, said a Keke NAPEP operator who craved anonymity.
The true picture of citizens’ compliance with the COVID-19 lockdown can be seen across the city: checkpoints set up by security operatives at Aroma Junction not functioning; the usual gridlock at the Eke-Awka axis of Zik Avenue returning a few days after Governor Obiano’s announcement of the total lockdown of the state; roadside sellers thronging the market area everyday for their businesses and shop owners opening for business along the Zik Avenue every day. It was business as usual, with no regard for social distancing.
Although, Commissioner of Police Abang made it clear that the police would not hesitate to clampdown on the violators of the COVID-19 directives of the state government, the reality on ground contradicts his utterance. What’s worse, there are allegations that some police officers are exploiting the lockdown to extort road users.
Lagos lockdown loopholes
At the Berger axis of Lagos, lockdown ends by 5pm, unofficially. Berger sector is Lagos major exit-entry point. There, security checkpoints are mounted on both sides of the road, leading to a long stretch of vehicular movement in and out of the state.
According to one of the policemen who spoke with Saturday Sun, majority of the motorists have legitimate reasons to be allowed access. “ You know that several persons working in Lagos are resident in border areas in Ogun. There are also a lot of companies exempted by federal and state governments. They are the ones that are going up and down except a few which we have arrested.”
However, a stone throw away at the Ojodu Berger trunk, several commercial buses were seen on the road picking and dropping passengers. A tout who was seen collecting tolls from commercial drivers confirmed to Saturday Sun that most of the drivers usually wait till 5pm to resume work.
“There is no lockdown in this area from 5pm. If you are coming into Lagos, make sure you get here around that time. You will get a bus to any part of Lagos. We will settle them and they will leave us alone,” he claimed.
Also spotted around the Berger axis was a middle-aged woman, who had just arrived Lagos and was waiting for a bus that will take her to her final destination.
She confirmed to Saturday Sun that she boarded a company truck from Ibadan to Lagos. “I was able to get a ride from Ibadan to Lagos.
It’s a water packaging company and I pretended to be a staff of the company. They already have a letter that they normally present to security men that we saw on our way. I paid N3000 for the journey because I don’t have a choice. I am waiting to board another bus to my sister’s house in Egbeda,” she said.
On why she decided to take such a risk, she said: “I am based in Lagos and I travelled for a wedding before the lockdown. I do not know how long this lockdown will last and I do not have money again. I borrowed N5, 000 from a friend, which I will pay back. I am an hairdresser, if I don’t work, I won’t eat. I have to return because my customers have been calling me to come and make their hair. God will continue to protect us, He will not allow Coronavirus to come to my area.”
In Abuja, transporters as saboteurs
In the early days of the lockdown, residents of satellite towns in Nasarawa and Niger states who have businesses in Abuja or are on essential duties had tough time commuting to and fro the Federal Capital Territory as security agents enforced the lockdown to the letter.
For the first two weeks, those coming from Karu in Nasarawa who could not pass through the Mararaba axis of the state, resorted to using Abacha Road through old Karu as alternative route out of the area. The influx, however, was slowed by the diligence of the combined team of police, VIO and FRSC personnel who insisted on a show of an identity card to ensure if road users fall within the categories of exempted citizens or essential workers.
The long stretch of traffic disappeared the moment the FCT authority announced the introduction of Mobile Courts in the third week of the lockdown to try violators of the presidential lockdown order.
There are however concerns that despite the lockdown and the placement of security agents at the three main entry points into Abuja, transporters and other travellers still beat the blockade to sneak in and out of Abuja.
There are also claims that the growing number of patients testing positive in far northern states may have been infected by travellers who sneaked out of Abuja.
Findings by Saturday Sun, revealed how transporters and travellers beat the checkpoints at the three major entry and exit points into the city, namely Zuba (linking Niger and Kaduna states), Nyanya/Maraba (linking Nasarawa State) and Abaji (linking Kogi State).
From 8 am to 7 pm when the combined teams of security agents are stationed at the major arteries of the city, a relative compliance is observed by residents of the FCT, but by sunset, the Abuja life resets back to business as usual.
Transporters barred by the lockdown order, now ply their trade at night.
They have also abandoned the conventional approved motor parks and have opened secret parks where passengers travelling to every part of the country flock to. And between 10 pm and 5 am, before security agents who abandon their duty posts return to work, travellers move in and out of Abuja.
A transporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity alleged that they bypass security checkpoints by offering bribes at interstate checkpoints.