12th March, 2012
Before my father died on July 24, 2004, he gave specific instructions that his body should be buried the day he passes on. He warned us not to take his body to the mortuary even for a day. He threatened that he will get up to deal with all of us if we flout his instruction. It was his last wish and we made up our minds to keep it to the letter.
So when the news got to us by 3a.m. on July 24, 2004 that our father had passed on, we left Lagos by 5.30 a.m. to get home before the body is committed to mother earth. The first son lives in Ikotun area in Lagos and I and my other brother live in Surulere. We left Lagos almost the same time and got home by 7.pm that day. We did not see our father’s body before burial. They waited for us till about 4p.m. before the elders in the family decided to go on with the burial.
Police check points from Lagos to Nnewi in Anambra denied us the opportunity of seeing the remains of our great father before burial. We would have made it but the police at Bridge Head Onitsha finally nailed that opportunity. It must be on record that Bridge Head Onitsha harboured one of the most notorious criminals the Nigerian Police produced and it endured until the decision of the Inspector General of Police, IGP, Mohammed Abubakar, to dismantle the check points on Nigerian roads recently.
The first son of our father was held by the police somewhere along Benin-Onitsha expressway until we met him. We pleaded and pleaded but they will not listen until we parted with some money. But the police at Onitsha end of the Niger Bridge took us to their station right inside the heart of Onitsha. Reason: Letter J was mistakenly missed in the Chasis Number of my brother’s Mercedes Benz car. After wasting our time, they still collected money from my brother before allowing us to go. That is their modus operandi and it may surprise the IGP that those gangs at Onitsha extort monies running as high as N50,000 to N100,000 from hapless travellers and this is no exaggeration. The Nigerian Police denied us the opportunity of witnessing the burial of our father.
Since then I have been fighting a one man battle to get the police to dismantle the checkpoints on our roads. I have travelled extensively to other parts of Nigeria but what I saw on Lagos-Benin-Onitsha corridor before IGP Mohammed Dikko Abubakar decided to put a stop to the monumental fraud was something else. Police check points on Lagos-Benin-Onitsha Roads became a multi million naira business on a daily basis.
On a certain day I and my friend Mr. Peter Claver Oparah, on a journey from Lagos to Nnewi, tried to count the road blocks and got 355 from Lagos to Onitsha. It was like a war situation as intimidation, humiliation and attacks on commuters by policemen were left unchecked for many years.
The extortion and criminality were unexplainable. The ever busy roads became huge markets for the police and others. Local government officials also joined in the brigandage to rob innocent Nigerians of their hard-earned money on the highway. They carted more than N5 million everyday from commuters. We have lived with the fraud for years before IGP Abubakar took the centre stage.
The police check points from Agbor to Asaba were as numerous as they were scandalous. The length and breadth of the road from Agbor to Onitsha was completely seized by marauding extortionists who mount road blocks within every thirty meters and most times, these road blocks cause traffic hold ups that stretch from one illegal check point to the other. Big logs of wood, empty drums, wreckage and all manner of bulwarks were massed up to ensure that Nigerian roads are impassable. The man hours these road blocks add to the normal travel time between Lagos and Onitsha is between six and seven hours and when you add the usual five hours, one ends up spending eleven to twelve hours on a journey between Lagos and Onitsha.
But Nigerians must know that this is not the first time the road blocks have been dismantled in Nigeria. Some Inspectors General of Police had banned roadblocks in the past but they had no courage and the political will to sustain it. It was all noise and no substance. It was all tall orders without anybody obeying it. Sometimes the order will be obeyed for just a few days and then they return to business as usual. Sometimes they resort to blackmail by staging armed robbery operations that will result in many deaths just to get the IGP to rescind the order. A luxurious bus can be attacked to score the point. The thing is that once such deadly robberies are carried out with great casualties Nigerians will call for the police to return. This has been the drama until IGP Abubakar was appointed.
I travelled last week and discovered that commuters now make it to Onitsha from Lagos in less than five hours. It was a revolution and I hope the IGP will stick to his gun on the matter no matter whose ox is gored. I say so because it is an organised crime and thousands of officers are involved in the scam.
Police can still be on Lagos-Onitsha roads and other major roads in Nigeria to checkmate crimes but not to extort money. As we see in advanced countries the police should use Patrol Vans and Power Bikes to patrol the entire stretch of the major roads in Nigeria without resorting to extortion. There is no need to block free passage of passengers and goods on Nigerian roads again and one believes it demands the IGP to be vigilant and set up Special Enforcement Task Forces in all states of the country. Such task force should have the will and capacity to enforce compliance with this order and ensure quick and adequate punishment against non compliance. I must say that there are still deft efforts by the police to come back. The other day, I saw the police in Berger, still mounting roadblock and frisking vehicle particulars. The IGP should move in quickly and ensure that his latest order on roadblocks is not sabotaged for I believe that solving the big question of police corruption will start with the dismantling of these notorious points of extortion.
I know young business people that have sold their vehicles because of harassment and intimidation at the police road blocks. On my own part, I have been lucky because I have been driving with green number since I joined the Lagos State Government in 2006. I have had cause to stop to plead with families held hostage by the police. I have fought the hoodlums from fictitious local governments who use opportunities provided by our bad roads to extort money from commuters for the so called radio/television licenses, fictitious tickets and emblems, and so on.
IGP Abubakar has done a great job unprecedented in the history of Nigeria. We need to support and encourage him to sustain this ban. He has by this singular action solved a big problem for Nigerians. The road blocks must never return!
•Igbokwe writes in from Lagos.