Dear Mr. President,
Travelling from Lagos to Anambra State on November 9, 2019, I counted 67 “checkpoints” mostly manned by armed men of the Police Mobile Force along the 371 kilometre stretch from Sagamu to Asaba. Travelling the same route again on Thursday November 28, 2019, I counted 64 “checkpoints”. I was on each occasion behind the wheel, meaning that my calculations may have missed or added a number of “checkpoints”. On November 30, 2019, however, Chief Tony Onyima, a respected journalist travelling as a passenger, counted 60 checkpoints on the same tortuous stretch, noting the precise location of each and every roadblock. This means that, on average, there is a “checkpoint” every 6.28 kilometres of the way. It suggests that the notorious stretch boasts more “checkpoints” than Hanoi and Saigon combined ever did all through the 20 years of the Vietnam War.
I lived in the United Kingdom through a third of the three decades of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Not on any single day throughout this period did Armagh or Belfast or Downpatrick or Enniskillen or Londonderry or any of the roads connecting these Northern Ireland cities bear one hundredth of the roadblocks on the Sagamu-Asaba expressway. Strangely enough, there are less than 20 “checkpoints” on the Asaba-Sagamu side of the expressway, demonstrating clearly that the multiple roadblocks on the other side are in praise of Corruption!
Inside Onitsha, the multiplicity of “checkpoints” wears an extortionate hat and blows an ear-tearing whistle. Every day starting from about 3pm, a traffic gridlock is created by bribe-taking soldiers and policemen and women at the Niger Bridgehead. The traffic jam lasts until about 9pm, ensuring that all goods-carrying vehicles, all cars, all busses, all trucks and all trailers are tolled. The tailback runs the span of the quivering 54-year-old bridge that was never designed to bear such deadweight. At the other end, the tailback extends as far as the perimetres of the Premier Breweries. On a daily basis!
You will notice, Mr. President, that in this letter, the word “checkpoint” is always in quotation marks. That is because neither inspection nor clearance takes place at any of the numerous stops imposed on innocent and hapless Nigerians by security men and women under Your Excellency’s watch. Not on one occasion in all my journeys on that highway did I find a policeman or a soldier or a Customs officer or an Immigration officer or an officer of the Civil Defence Corps bothering to inspect the underside of a vehicle.
Not once did I ever see any of these “checkpoint” champions lift a bonnet to inspect what is under it. All they do is train assault rifles on innocent and hapless Nigerians, intimidate them, scream commands and bark orders upon their unfortunate heads, speak at them rudely and spitefully, and then stretch out their hands to collect bribes. Once money changes hands, the vehicles are waved on.
This scandalous trend goes on in the full view of everyone at hand, including foreigners. How does it feel, Mr. President, that the military you enlisted in 58 years ago, and which served meritoriously in The Congo and many other troubled parts of the world, is the same force that has men in uniform collecting bribes in broad daylight, in order for their fellow nationals to purchase the freedom to drive on roads built with their taxes?
The nature of these “checkpoints” is a cause for serious concern. Barricades are made of tree stumps, tree trunks, logs, sawed timber, debris from dilapidated buildings, disused tyres, sand-filled drums, twisted steel from accidented juggernauts, even planks spiked with nails. When your security personnel abandon any of the “checkpoints”, they do not bother to remove these obstacles, or take with them the debris they painstakingly assembled in the first place. Because the abandoned debris lack luminosity, vehicles plunge into them mostly after nightfall with predictable consequences.
Some of your “checkpoint” operatives never bother to don uniforms, creating the problem of distinguishing between real security personnel and plain criminals and impostors. The only uniformity in their presences is the ubiquitous assault rifle. Some of them appear in sweat shirts, or in T-shirts, or in overcoats in the sweltering heat. Some others have their name tags pinned upside down. Most have no name tags.
A good number screen their eyes, bandit-like, behind very dark googles. Others have their felt hats turned front backwards. Occasionally an errant member of the lot is seen straying across the road, wielding a half-full or half-empty bottle of liquid content, or puffing away, regardless.
The cost to the nation of this lamentable aberration is enormous. It could be that the aim is to kill the Nigerian spirit and subjugate the peoples. Still, the unintended consequences of this terrible blight deserve to be stated. Many of the vehicles on the roads are articulated, underscoring their propensity to topple on uneven terrains and cause avoidable destruction and aggravated traffic jams. Many of the vehicles are tankers bearing highly inflammable and combustible liquids and substances liable to ignite at the slightest impact with other vehicles, or because of heatwave, unimaginable developments that could reduce whole kilometres of the freeway to a conflagration, only for such a calamitous result to be sacrilegiously ascribed to “an act of God.”
These “checkpoint” operators on Your Excellency’s watch are under the sun day-in and day-out, collecting “rogers” and pocketing same, unaware that they are pocketing other collateral damages as well. They wear no protective masks over their mouths and noses. Therefore, they inhale in large, dangerous doses carbon monoxide and other toxic agents which could trigger pulmonary conditions that, even if latent in them, could manifest in their offspring as full-blown cases of asthma, bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, pneumonia and lung cancer. Some of them court skin cancers, given the sun’s fiery rays on uncovered portions of their skins for at least eight hours every day.
These “checkpoint” personnel are not equipped with ambulances. They have no first aid boxes and, therefore, administer first aid to no one, including themselves. They are not known to offer care to the distressed. They bear no walkie-talkies, and no other forms of radio communication exist between any particular checkpoint and another.
To be concluded tomorrow Iloegbunam writes from Abuja