Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
For traders at Ogbo Ogwu International Market, Bridge Head, Onitsha, Anambra State, it is time to confront a seeming bad situation after suffering in silence for a long time.
The Onitsha Bridge Head Market harbours over 20,000 traders, including pharmacists, importers, representatives of pharmaceutical companies dealing in medicines and other medical products.
Unable to bear what they described as constant intimidation, coercion, harassment and large-scale extortion from the police, actions they described as capable of crippling their businesses, the traders recently embarked on a public protest.
After locking up their shops for over four hours, the traders marched through the Main Line and adjoining streets in the Fegge area chanting war songs and calling for help.
But for the mature attitude of the government-appointed caretaker committee in charge of the market, the situation would have escalated to anarchy, as the traders wanted to take their protest to the Fegge Police Station.
They were eventually restrained by the committee members after sensing that hoodlums might seize the protest to engage in looting while some of the agitated traders might not control their emotions along the road or within the police station.
The traders, while expressing their grievances against the police, singled out a serving police officer, one Ogbonna, as the brain behind their ordeal.
Ogbonna, a sergeant attached to Fegge Division, Daily Sun learnt, was formerly attached to the National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
Bemoaning the alleged excesses of the policeman, the medicine dealers accused him of illegally arresting, harassing and intimidating their customers from far and near in order to extort huge sums of money from them.
The traders carried placards with inscriptions like “Sgt. Ogbonna, leave us alone,” “Sgt. Ogbonna, stop chasing away our valued customers,” “Sgt. Ogbonna, shame unto you,” “Sgt. Ogbonna, the authorities concerned should remove this bad egg in police force for us,” “Sgt. Ogbonna, we are not fools,” and “How did you manage to own fleet of cars and buildings? EFCC should investigate him properly.”
Not satisfied, after the protest, the traders embarked on a prayer session at the Main Line. Led by Mary-Chaplet Igboamaeze, the traders called down heavenly fire and solicited divine intervention over their situation in the hands of the policeman.
Speaking to newsmen shortly after the exercise, chairman of the market caretaker committee, Mr. Anthony Ezioba, said the protest was the most civilised option adopted by the committee to express their anger to the authorities. He said what the traders actually wanted was to launch a physical attack against Ogbonna, while he was carrying out his alleged nefarious operations inside the market.
Ezioba claimed that whenever the traders had an opportunity to interact with the said Ogbonna, the policeman usually boasted to them that he made financial returns to the police authorities, after extorting as much as N5 million, N8 million or N10 million as the case might be, from them.
Also speaking, the public relations officer of the market, Uche Mary-Chaplet Igboamaeze, described the policeman as a thorn in the flesh of the traders. He said some other policemen, including those who operate on bikes, usually waylaid customers at the various exit routes from the market and this had created a situation whereby they have lost many of their customers. He said any victim of such large-scale harassment and extortion would not come back to buy from their market.
“I have called Ogbonna several times to stop molesting us and our customers. I also told him to come with a valid search warrant if he has been sent on a mission to search our market, but he had continued in his ways,” he said.
Another member of the committee, Fred Ezenwa, lamented that Ogbonna had been profiting from the traders. He said there have been instances where Ogbonna and his team raided the motor parks within the market and commandeered truck drivers with loads of drugs to the police station on trumped-up charges, claiming that the drugs purchased were fake or adulterated. Ezenwa said the team would start demanding millions of naira from the owner of the goods.
Another stakeholder in the market, Obodoeze Ogbodoson, disclosed that Ogbonna allegedly shared about 50 mobile phones to his spies in the market. He said the spies would tell the sergeant on phone about the movement of customers, goods and cash within the market and the policeman would then swing into action and get their targets without much stress.
The traders also lamented that some of the products confiscated by Ogbonna and his team, following the inability of the owner to meet the high monetary demands, have always found their way into the market through other sources.
Also, in a press statement, the committee noted that since the inauguration of the caretaker committee by the state government in November, last year, the committee members have tried as much as they could to be law-abiding and adhere to all the stipulated guidelines and directives issued by both the Federal Government, Pharmaceutical Council of Nigeria, NAFDAC, Ministry of Health and other relevant bodies in sanitising the market.
“We have never obstructed NAFDAC officials, the police or NDLEA from carrying out their duties. We have also advised our members and give relevant information that could aid these agencies to succeed in their functions. The market has been sanitised of fake, adulterated and pirated drugs. But, unfortunately, Ogbonna and his spies have turned us into cash cows, milking our members dry and crippling our businesses.
“Hiding under the cover of NAFDAC, just because he was attached to NAFDAC, Ogbonna has the penchant for demanding operational licences from our registered members. Coercion and threat of involving NAFDAC has been his usual style of operation and we are raising this alarm because he has overreached himself. He has constituted himself and his lieutenants and informants into a powerful team arresting, prosecuting and financially sanctioning people here.
“We therefore call on NAFDAC and police authorities to redeploy Ogbonna. We also call for a probe into his activities in Onitsha Bridge Head drug market. The relevant anti-graft agencies like EFCC should beam their searchlights on him and evaluate his assets and investments, whether they are commensurate with his legitimate earnings as a police sergeant.
“We pledge our continued allegiance to the relevant government authorities and renew our commitment to carrying out our businesses with utmost decency and regard to the best ethical standards,” the statement noted.
When the reporter tried contacting Ogbonna on phone for his reaction over the allegations, he was not forthcoming. After introductions and explanations by the reporter, Ogbonna declined comments and immediately hung up on the reporter.
But the Divisional Police Officer at Fegge Division, Rabiu Garba (CSP) told newsmen on phone that he was not aware of the rift between Sergeant Ogbonna and the drug dealers, adding that the committee never drew his attention to the issue.
Also, the Divisional Police Officer at Bridge Head drug market, Eddy Okeke, a lawyer, told newsmen in his office that he was unaware of such complaints from the traders.
However, the Anambra State police public relations officer, SP Haruna Mohammed, when contacted over the matter, urged the traders to channel their grievances in writing to the Commissioner of Police, who would in turn look into it critically and, if need be, summon Ogbonna for interrogation. He said such a public protest was unlikely to yield positive fruits.
Some of the traders said they were already making moves to file a formal petition to the state commissioner of police over the situation.