Chuks Onuoha, Umuahia
Umuahia, the Abia State capital, was on Monday shut down by tricycle operators, popularly known as Keke Drivers Association.
They were protesting alleged multiple taxation, harassment, injury of their members and many other wrongs meted out to them by alleged revenue agents of the state government, led by TIMAS. They called for a ban of proliferation of several keke unions in the state, which they claimed were always on their neck collecting levies, both legal and illegal.
The protest began at 9am at Isigate area of the capital city, considered the busiest centre of the town.
From there, the protesters marched to old Abia Abia Tower inside the town, by Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) building and later to the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) junction and beyond.
The incident threw the city into a chocking traffic snarl, which attracted the arrival of anti-riot policemen from the Central Police Station,who pleaded with the operators to no avail.
The arrival of the policemen further infuriated the operators, who increased their tempo in a manner reminiscent of a war situation. The keke riders then began a war song, singing, drumming and clanging their bells.
They displayed placards in which they listed their miseries, challenges and anger, and placed demands on what should be done to appease them.
Their members, who loaded passengers offloaded them forcefully and the passengers were forced to trek long distances to get to their destinations.
Many people were seen at various bus stops waiting for the transports that were not available. This situation caused a terrible hardship for passengers as they were forced to trek long distances to their destinations.
The protesters later tried to storm the government house,but were repelled by security men. They later headed to the state House of Assembly at Governments New Layout through Ikot Ekpene Road.
At the Abia State House of Assembly, they pleaded with the new Speaker, Chinedum Orji to save them from the multiple revenue collections, taxes and traffic regulations imposed on them by agents of government.
The speaker promised to investigate their complaints and urged them to be peaceful.
At Umuahia North Local Government Area headquarters, the council secretariat was protected by an anti-riot police vehicle, to prevent the council from being invaded and looted by the group.
The newly reappointed Chairman of the local government area, Kelechi Ezechukwu, when called on phone, promised to look into the matter to bring a lasting solution.
Two keke riders, Kennedy Anyanwu and Tochukwu Osouwa, claimed they had been reduced to cash cows by alleged revenue agents of the state, through imposition of various taxes as well as harassment by unrecognised tricycle unions.
“Can you believe that we are even made to buy tickets and other levies on weekends. If you refuse to pay, they impound your keke.
“They impose unthinkable levies on us every day, even on weekends and public holidays. Now, my wife is pregnant and I have no money to take care of her, because most of my earnings go to these people,” Osuwa lamented.
He said keke operators are law-abiding, and contribute about 40 per cent to Abia IGR.
“We were sometime ago forced to pay N9,000 each for the repainting of our keke. We pay hundreds of naira in illegal tax on daily basis, yet, they won’t let us be. If they push us out of job, do they know the crime it would cause?” he queried .
But when contacted, an official of TILMAS, who refused to give his name and alleged to be harassing the keke riders, denied the allegations. He however, conceded that his members only applied force on any keke rider who became violent during arrest.
The TILMAS official further maintained that the capital city had been sanitised through the sustained efforts of TILMAS.
“We are not brutal as these keke boys are claiming. We are civil. We deserve commendations for sanitising the city of gridlock and obstruction,” the TILMAS official noted.