Magnus Eze, Enugu
As part of measures to curtail the spread of coronavirus in the country, the Federal Government recently placed a ban on interstate movement and instituted a national curfew between 8:00pm and 6:00am. In spite of these, however, different types of travellers have continued to dominate road usage across the South East zone.
More worrisome is the influx of youths from the North who hide inside trailer-trucks to cross to their different destinations.
Enugu and Ebonyi states have been in the news following the deceitful methods and tactics adopted by these migrants who sometimes find their way into the towns and cities before being intercepted.
Anambra State has a boundary with Kogi State. In Enugu State, the local government areas with boundaries with Benue and Kogi states are Isi-Uzo, Udenu, Igboeze North, Igboeze South, Nsukka and Uzo-Uwani.
Although the social media have been awash with tales that itinerant street urchins, better known as Almajiri, in parts of northern Nigeria were being moved in droves to the southern part of the country, findings revealed that those so far intercepted were northern youths from ages of 18 and above.
For instance, Enugu State Governor, Chief Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, while leading a team of security personnel to enforce the curfew imposed by President Muhammadu Buhari on May 12, intercepted a trailerload of cattle with 15 men hiding in the vehicle.
The incident, which happened at about 9:00pm near the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport flyover along the Enugu-Abakaliki Expressway, involved a trailer said to be coming from Bauchi State. The vehicle had beaten all security checkpoints on the highways and made its way into the state capital before it was intercepted by the governor.
In Awgu Local Government Area of Enugu State that has a boundary with Abia State, vice chairman of the council, Lotachukwu Ogbonnia, on May 7, intercepted a truck loaded with about 30 northern youths who claimed they were coming from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, and travelling to Kano State. Initially, the driver of the truck told the Agwu task force that he was carrying salt but when the team insisted on checks, human beings were discovered instead of salt. They were made to reverse and go back to wherever they were coming from.
On May 11, the Nigerian Air Force, at its Penox Junction checkpoint, along Enugu-Ontisha Expressway, intercepted over 60 northern youths packed into a 40-foot container who claimed they were going to Nasarawa State.
Public relations officer of the NAF in Enugu, Flt. Lt. John Ogili, said that the NAF team handed over the arrested men to the police. The police, it was learnt, reloaded the northern youths into an open truck that took them out from Enugu and headed towards the North while the truck that conveyed them was impounded.
Still in Enugu, some Shua Arab youths from Niger Republic were, on May 12, apprehended along the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway with some loads. After interrogation, the chairman of Enugu South Local Government Area, Monday Eneh, turned them back towards the northern boundary where they claimed to have come from.
Also in the Abia axis, along the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway, the Abia State Homeland Security team, led by the Commissioner for Homeland Security, Prince Dan Okoli, on May 5, intercepted a large number of northern youths concealed in a cattle truck.
These incidents raise fears that, since the intercepted northern youths have overgrown the age to be referred to as almajiri, they could either be herdsmen or terrorists in disguise with sinister missions in the South-East.
In Isi-Uzo LGA, as in all the 17 LGAs in Enugu State, security has been beefed up. At the border towns of Ikem and Eha-Amufu in Isi-Uzo, the local vigilance group was fortified to protect the routes, which had never experienced traffic except within this period of prohibition of interstate movement.
Daily Sun gathered that the 9th Mile- Makurdi Road, with a checkpoint after Obollo-Afor, which is the most popular road to the north from Enugu State, is where security measures were strongly concentrated. But the offending travellers diverted to using unpopular local community routes.
Chairmen of Isi-Uzo and Udenu LGAs, Jacob Abonyi and Solomon Onah, respectively, admitted that those illegal travellers used unconventional routes at the beginning of the lockdown to enter Enugu State. They noted though that, for over two weeks, the neighbourhood watch was strengthened with forest guards in all the communities to turn back the travellers.
Abonyi said: “They used to pass there due to the inefficiency of the security agents. But now, we have reinforced our internal neighbourhood security and brought the Divisional Police Officer himself. We also erected blockades with locks. There is no panic again.”
Onah, his Udenu counterpart, said that illegal travellers intercepted are handed over to the police in neighbouring Benue State.
“When we arrest them in Udenu, we contact the DPO of Ogbadibo Local Government Area in Benue State and hand the travellers over to him and his officers. They in turn hand them over to the next local government going backwards. We don’t just say go back, we hand them over to the next divisional police station, which would also hand them over to the next police post outside his local government,” Onah said.
Igboeze North LGA is one local government that provides complex security challenge because of the vast land boundaries with Kogi State. However, reports from the area also indicated that illegal travellers were detained at the police station at Enugu-Ezike.
The Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF) has condemned the movement of the northern youths and called on the South-East governors to work with security agencies to barricade the boundaries, in line with the Federal Government’s directive within this period of COVID-19 lockdown.
ADF spokesman, Chief Abia Onyike, argued that it would not have been possible for the northern youths to move in droves into the region if the governors had sustained the lockdown policy.
“It means that some people are disobeying the Federal Government directive or sabotaging the efforts of government in that regard.
“There are many thoughts about it and we also want to believe that some of them are part of the terrorist organisations ravaging the country, especially the Fulani herdsmen. And right now in parts of the South-East and South-South, in Igboland precisely, there are more than 139 villages where these Fulani-herdsmen have taken hold of and are domiciled in.
“Sometimes they keep bringing in people from northern Nigeria to replenish their stock and we want to believe that this can also be part of their supply line. Apart from that danger, some of them may be coming with some infections, the COVID-19 infection, which to a large extent threatens the lives of our people in Igboland,” he said.
Similarly, president-general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo, expressed concerns that many of these young men had no place of habitation and no legitimate business of engagement.
“It is interesting that this is coming at the same time youths from outside Nigeria have invaded Katsina State and had clashes with the local community and the President has drafted the army to engage them. But the President and the entire security look away from this continuous movement of people to the South,” Nwodo said.
He explained that the influx of the northern youth was worrisome to the people in the South because of past threats made by Boko Haram against the region and recent issues of kidnapping.
Nwodo added: “Northern governors have also taken a resolution banning the movement of Almajirai within their states and they ordered that all Almajirais should be returned to their home states.
“Not too long ago, Boko Haram boasted that they were going to start a war from the South-East and South-South.
“We are all witnesses of the invasion of the west after the murder of Chief Fasoranti’s daughter and several kidnappings along Lagos and Ibadan and Ondo. We are beginning to get worried and we have spoken out and have called on the Federal Government to address the situation.
“We are being as vigilant and trying to turn back as many Northern youths.”
And for the Association of South East Town Unions (ASATU), the solution was for all the communities in the region to volunteer people that would immediately form a Civilian Joint Task Force in their areas.
The Civilian Joint Task Force, according to ASATU President, Chief Emeka Diwe, will collaborate with the conventional security forces in ensuring compliance with the presidential ban on interstate travels.
While urging all communities in Igboland to be vigilant and resist any violation of the lockdown, ASATU noted that self-preservation is the first law of nature. The group also warned any persons living in the bushes in Igboland to leave immediately, saying that such people constituted a security risk.
“It is very difficult to follow up with people living in the bush. Everyone in Igbo land must have a known address with contact details. People come from the bushes, commit crimes and dash back there. Anyone that wishes to reside in Igboland must rent or buy an apartment. Vacate our bushes and forests immediately,” ASATU warned.
In his reaction, chairman of South East chapter of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), Alhaji Giddado Sidikki, said that those being intercepted in haulage were violators of the rule of lockdown. He said such people might have never gone to Arabic schools, noting that they were falsely being described as Almajirai.
Sidikki said that some of such people were claiming to be doing businesses either from the South to the North or from the North to the South, while some of them claimed they were in the South to work.
“It’s not every northern youth that will be Almajiri. Almajiri is a different set of people; they are there to go to Arabic school and they allow them to go for street begging,” Sidikki clarified.
On the violation of the lockdown by migrating northern youths, the Miyetti Allah leader said: “You know anybody who defied government rule, whatever you call the person is acceptable because the government said everybody should stay at home. But you know some of them were staying here before to do their business. They go back home and now they think they can go back home as they used to go but it’s not like that.
“Now, we are vigilant because anybody who cannot comply with the rule, we can tell government that such a person was not here before but has come so that the government can come and test him. We don’t want our people to mingle with some others who have come from other places.
“We, however, take exception to calling them herdsmen. It’s not all herdsmen that are criminals. When we say there are sets of people among herdsmen that are criminals, I cannot vouch for everybody because you may stay with somebody that you don’t understand his business but all I know is that not all herdsmen are bad. The herdsmen I know are the ones doing their legitimate rearing of cattle.
“Miyetti Allah is doing its best to sensitise our people to stay where they are because what government is doing is in everybody’s interest.”