From Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
In Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of Anambra State, there is growing concern over the activities of multiple, mostly illegal, revenue agents scattered across different parts of the city.
To put it mildly, businesses owners, traders, commuters and visiting customers who throng the city for their various purchases are bleeding from the activities of multiple revenue agents who have literally taken the city hostage.
In Onitsha, the fear of revenue collectors is the beginning of wisdom. Red-eyed hooligans, usually wielding long sticks, the revenue collectors would not hesitate to inflict bodily harm on any uncooperative person who dares challenge their authority or waste their time before parting with money.
From Upper Iweka down to Bridge Head, Fegge, Main Market, Old and New Market Road, Obodoukwu Road, Onitsha-Owerri Road down to Awada, Odoakpu and Okpoko, they are everywhere issuing all manner of receipts.
Drivers, tricycle operators and roadside foodstuff vendors are not left out. It is usually a chaotic situation, despite efforts by government to control them.
On December 6, 2020, angry truck drivers and youths shut down the Asaba-Onitsha expressway in protest following the death of one of their members. The man was killed in an accident while escaping from suspected revenue collectors at Onitsha-Asaba Bridge Head.
The deceased, identified as 25-year-old Michael Chimezie Okoye, a driver of an articulated truck, was reportedly pursued by the tax collectors stationed after the bridge in Onitsha when he suddenly lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a concrete barricade.
Brother to the deceased, Maduabuchi Okoye, who was with him at the time of the incident, said they had paid N3,500 to the collectors and collected receipt, but another group demanded another payment and pursued the driver when he refused to pay.
In the process of getting away from the men, his brother hit a concrete barricade near the Coca-Cola Market, by the roadside and the wood the truck was carrying fell on them.
The police rushed the deceased was rushed to a private hospital where he was confirmed dead on arrival.
The incident caused heavy gridlock in the area, as hundreds of aggrieved drivers blocked the highway with bonfires. The situation remained chaotic for hours until the police combined the skills of persuasion and mild force before the situation was brought under control and the road was reopened to traffic.
Daily Sun gathered that the deceased driver had taken off around 4am that Sunday in order to beat the multiple revenue collectors. But he not only became a victim, he also paid the supreme price.
After the incident, government issued a statement banning all forms of toll collection along the highways. The statement, signed by the Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, C. Don Adinuba, confirmed that the multiple revenue collectors did not pay any money into government’s coffers and prescribed severe punishments for such people when caught.
“With immediate effect, the Anambra State government has decided to ban all forms of road revenue collection. No person should pay to anyone on the road claiming to be a state revenue agent or official. People should resist such intimidation and extortion. In fact, any person who purports to be a revenue officer or agent and demands payment on any of the roads in the state should be reported immediately to the nearest law enforcement officer.
“The name and, where possible, the address of such a person should be provided quickly to the authorities. Photographs of such individuals, which are easy to capture in these days of smart phones, should also be provided.
“All law enforcement agencies in the state, including the Anambra Vigilante Group (AVG), are directed to ensure the strict implementation of the decision on the ban on revenue collection on all the roads in the state. All market and transport union leaders are directed to take this order very seriously and work in collaboration with government officials to provide security, joy and happiness to our people,” the statement said.
The commissioner stated that government had received reports of the growing menace of gangs demanding and collecting money “from mostly travellers in our cities and towns, especially Onitsha, Obosi, Nnewi, Amasea, Ogidi, Nkpor, et cetera, who pretend to be agents of the state government.”
He said their illegal, violent and brazen activities have resulted in serious security breaches and harassment of law-abiding citizens.
“None of the revenues so collected has ever been paid to the government or any of its agencies. Anambra State is governed by law and order, and the Governor Willie Obiano administration will not brook any attempt by gangs of lawless and self-serving elements to make life miserable for Ndi Anambra,” the statement added.
Despite the seemingly tough stance of the state government, the revenue touts have continued unhindered since then in Onitsha and its environs.
Though the state government constituted a task force that has clamped down on some of them and made some arrests in recent times, the illegal revenue collectors have continued to operate across different parts of the city.
A public affairs commentator, Victor Ibemesi, chided the Anambra State government for dilly-dallying on the persisting illegal revenue collection in the state.
He said the scores of touts harassing people along the road and forcefully collecting money from them were working for some political appointees in government, which was why they have remained untouchable.
“Arrest them today and they will be released the next day when their bosses that they are working for make one or two calls and reach out for them. We have heard this type of public service announcement but nothing practically has changed positively. Rather, things are degenerating into more anarchy.
“The fact remains that the state government is not sincere in its handling of the nefarious activities of revenue agents in the state. Many lives have been lost in Onitsha due to the activities of these touts. The state’s top government functionaries know the sponsors of these touts so this holier-than-though attitude means nothing to me,” he said.
Taking a critical review of the situation, the Onitsha Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (ONICCIMA) said more than N3 billion has been lost to the activities of touts, hoodlums and illegal toll collectors within Onitsha and environs in the past three years.
President of the body, Sir Chris Ukachukwu, a pharmacist, further said that, while businesses worth over N3 billion may have been lost directly, another N100 million was indirectly lost through the activities of the miscreants in the state within the period under review.
He regretted that the menace had continued unabated despite government’s proscription pronouncement, just as he lamented the aspersions such activities have cast on the image of the once-bustling city of Onitsha.
“Their despicable activities, which include incessant harassment, damage to property and illegal toll collections particularly in the Bridge Head and Upper Iweka axis of the city, have contributed immensely to the diminishing business fortunes of Onitsha business community.
“Their operations do a lot of disservice to Anambra State’s bid to leverage investor confidence and attract much needed foreign and local direct investment.
“The consequences are already noticeable, as most customers now prefer diverting their businesses to neighbouring states. The obvious implication of this is the loss of revenue both for the people as well as the state. Worse still, these touts appear to hold the city to ransom, working with impunity and parading themselves as representing the government in the full glare of security operatives.
“Notwithstanding the numerous pronouncements by the state government banning the activities of these illegal revenue collectors, there seems to be concerted efforts by unknown persons to provide effective backing for these miscreants, thereby creating a perception of lawlessness in our community.”
While lauding government efforts in flushing out all manner of illegalities on state roads and markets, the ONICCIMA leader maintained that decisive stand on those found contravening its directive would go a long way in turning around the economic fortunes of the state.
“The chamber implores the government to take strong measures in clamping down on whoever is providing support for the nefarious activities of these miscreants. We urge the government Anti-touting Squad, under the supervision of the Commissioner for Trade, to sustain the fight head-on without fear or favour.
“Sentiments and bribery are among the factors that could hamper the success of this operation; thus, the team should avoid every temptation that ultimately leads to compromise. Areas of focus are the Bridge Head stretch of the expressway, Onitsha-Owerri Road, Menax Hospital axis, Venn Road, Ochanja axis, Obosi Road, Obodoukwu Road and many other flashpoints.”
Ukachukwu said ONICCIMA remained confident that, with sustained and committed efforts, the government would rid the state of these individuals who have “contributed nothing to the growth of the Onitsha business community but have continued to deny the government much-needed revenue as a result of their illegal activities.”