In 2012, when the former Inspector General of police, MD Abubakar, ordered the dismantling of police roadblocks on the highways, it was due to the incessant reports of heavy extortion by the policemen manning the checkpoints, especially, on the East-West road and other intra-state highways.
He said: “All intra-state and highway road blocks which constitute nuisance especially on the roads of Lagos, Edo and South-Eastern States should be dismantled immediately.”
The order stirred mixed reactions, while some were praising the development, others were expressing the fear that it would amount to an increase in armed robbery activities on the highways. Moreover, it was not the first time such an order was given to the men of the Nigerian police; they always flouted it with all impunity.
But to everyone’s surprise, the order was followed, and there was a decrease in armed robbery cases on the East-West roads. Travelers who had been caught up in the time wasting tradition heaved a sigh of relief and prayed that proceeding IGs will maintain the status quo.
On the 23rd of November, I set out on a journey to the Southeast, considering the condition of the roads; it’s going to be a long trip. So leaving Lagos as early as possible will cut me a slice of time that potholes and semi-volcanoes on the federal highways will take, and so I did the early bird thing without minding other elements as time consuming factors. But it didn’t take long before I realized how wrong my pothole-based calculation was.
The first police checkpoint was minimal, not the kind that gets all vehicles to a stop. That was more like the police setting up a subtle roadblock in fear of violating a standing order, I thought. A few miles after the first checkpoint, I realized how wrong I had been once again. The proliferation hits with imaginable awe, it’s a lineup of roadblocks narrowed to accommodate one vehicle at a time.
One after another, vehicles succumb to snail pace and submit to the barking orders of rifle-wielding officers who point to the roadside shouting “park! Park! Park!” Fortunate are you when you don’t get pulled over, for you will have a little time to save compared to those who will undergo the interrogation aimed at fault finding that will result in fines. However, it’s not something you should be happy about; that you scale one doesn’t mean you will scale the others – future roadblocks beam with uncertainties.
As we moved further through Ondo, I had counted 11 checkpoints, and they kept getting increasingly closer, 13 poles gap in between, each with a maximum traffic impact.
It was all sighs in the bus, the intra-state travel realities of pre 2012 have come back with full force, and the impact is so glaring.
By the time we got to Ore, I counted over 20 checkpoints manned by different security agencies but mainly, police divisions. The Nigerian Custom Service (NCS) stationed themselves in strategic places looking for vehicles with goods, the Army concentrates on trucks, collecting N100 to N200 from them. It’s not new; it’s something the Nigerian Government knows about.
In 2017, following the report of a task force set up by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) to determine the reason for the high cost of food items, the Federal Government of Nigeria blamed the hike in food prices on extortionist practices of men of the Nigerian police, Army, and the NCS at various checkpoints. The then Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbe said he has written to the heads of the agencies to see if that could be curtailed.
In 2018, the then IG of police, Ibrahim Idris ordered once again, the dismantling of roadblocks, saying it’s obstructing the highways and enabling extortion by the men of the Nigerian police. The order was obeyed but not for long.
After the killing of Olufunke Olakunrin, the daughter of Pa Reuben Fasoranti, the leader of the pan-Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, by alleged Fulani herdsmen in Ondo State, on July, 2019, armed forces saw an excuse to return the dismantled roadblocks, and this time, it is prolific.
Before we got to Benin, I had lost count at 49 checkpoints. The rest of the trip to Onitsha was not spared the roadblock-induced traffic either. It was a “standstill welcome” to the southeast, though those coming didn’t appreciate the greeting. Unfortunately, our hissing and growling did nothing to help, and when we thought we had scaled it all, the Army checkpoint in Awka, taught us a lesson in patience.
It was about an hour of slow movements and stillness. The single carriageway was barricaded to a narrow space, forcing vehicles on each lane to take turns passing the checkpoints. It’s a long waiting hour to cross over to the other side of your journey, and that happens at the order of the Army officer in charge.
We got to Enugu by 10 pm, the journey that started by 8:00 am, and should have lasted for eight hours, gulped 14 precious hours, all thanks to police checkpoints.
On our way back, the trip would have been easier since the concentration is on commuters coming from Lagos. But that didn’t happen.
As we got to the boundary between Enugu and Anambra States, the mobile police men from the Oji River Division spotted a co-passenger with an iphone, and ordered him out the bus and whisked him away. Our bus turned back in pursuit of the police van heading back to Enugu, with no destination in mind. It took over an hour for us to catch up with them. By then they have extorted N30, 000 from the boy. It was more like a movie if not that cameras were not rolling, and most of the characters did not audition for any of the roles.
As the festive season beckons with journeys through the highways, the suffering is likely going to double. There will be more cars and people, and roadblocks are likely going to increase to meet up the extortion target of the men in uniform.
The Akanu Ibiam International Airport is closed, so there is practically no alternative to the East-West highways. If the current trend of roadblocks continues, Christmas travelers will have long suffering trips.