By Jude Opara
Let me start by giving thanks to God Almighty for granting me journey mercies when I travelled to Imo State. In fact travelling on Nigerian roads especially the Eastern flanks and returning in one piece calls for a thanksgiving. There are a lot of things that have combined to make a road journey nightmarish!
From the bad roads to armed robbers; from kidnappers to bandits and from the ubiquitous articulated vehicles that constitute nuisance by indiscriminate parking to the now menacing security operatives who now see citizens as enemies that must be ruthlessly dealt with. I never knew that a journey from Abuja to Owerri could take up to two days until when I set out on December 28, 2021 and arrived the next day, 29th December. I will come to that later. One constant observation I noticed was the attitude of security operatives on duty in the South East—they operate as if they are at war with that region. They deliberately make life difficult for commuters in the area in several ways.
They block the roads in most cases at 200 meters intervals and openly extort the people, especially commercial bus drivers. At almost all the checkpoints, the drivers will part with a N100 Naira note and when I asked the driver that brought me back to Abuja on Sunday why he was giving them money, he said; “Oga, if I don’t give them the money, they will delay us here unnecessarily by ordering everybody down and one by one, they will demand to search individual bags and you know what that means”.
I indeed understood what it meant to waste precious time on the road given the fact that everybody was racing to be in company of other vehicles before night falls. But if it only ended with the open extortions, one could have been tempted to accept is a general Nigerian albatross, but honestly, I noticed a more troubling development which if not nipped in the bud now by heads of the Security Operatives, could explode one day and honestly nobody knows what will be the end point.
What I am talking about is the brutish attitude of the operatives to citizens in the South East. In fact I personally witnessed two disturbing examples on Sunday, January 9, 2022. The first one as early as around 7 am was in Owerri when one overzealous team made up of all the security agencies descended on one Sienna bus driver and willfully damaged his vehicles. It was at the popular Egbu Road where most of the public transport operators have their offices, so it was expected that on a Sunday before the resumption of schools and the next working week, many people will be travelling and they will besiege the area to catch their bus that will take them to various parts of the country, and this definitely could result to traffic jam.
That unfortunate driver was trying to drive out of the park when these gun wielding operatives menacingly came to the scene, some of them were hooded and they ordered him to reverse. In all honesty, the driver obeyed them and started reversing but because there was another vehicle that just came to drop off travelers behind him, he couldn’t move swiftly. One would expect the security men to be in their right senses to know that the Sienna driver will not ram his vehicle into the one behind him.
But what happened was surprising to many onlookers, as the security men used gun butts and sticks to break his windshield, side mirror and one of the headlamps. And when the embattled driver came down from the vehicle to assess the extent of damage and protest, these trigger happy operatives started shooting into the air.People like me who were not used to that kind of mad scene were surprised, terrified and equally confused all at the same time. For me in particular, it looked like a movie scene.
The second ugly display of raw power was at Obollo-Afor in Enugu state. I sat at the front of the Sienna bus I boarded from Owerri and it was a very smooth journey irrespective of the now usual bad roads and artificial gridlocks being created by security operatives who were busy collecting their ‘entitlements’ from motorists.
The two sides of the road were blocked by long vehicles and lorries that parked and also narrowed the road, so the smaller vehicles were all meandering to find a way of escaping until these siren blaring operatives of the Nigeria Air Force appeared. Our driver who was next to find a way out of the place was now trying to make a way for them to pass and like the Owerri episode, this operative just broke his side mirror with his gun.
The driver immediately jumped down and asked him why he would damage his vehicle and the result was nasty as three of them pounced on him and beat him up.Now one thing I noticed is that like what happened in Owerri, these drivers whose vehicles were damaged were courageous enough to confront the gun wielding operatives. In fact in Owerri, most of the people who witnessed what happened dared the security men to shoot them. During the incident at Obollo Afor, I wanted to record the scene with my phone but a lady who sat behind me warned me against it saying they could do anything and even shoot such a person and since it is in the South East, they will label the person as a member of IPOB or ESN and that is case closed!
And that is why I am advising the Service Chiefs to call their men to order unless there is an express order to be so ruthless when in engaging the civil populace in the South East. In fact, their attitude suggests so!Now talking of spending two days from Abuja to Owerri: that is also a fallout of all the other debilitating factors enumerated above.
The vehicle I boarded from Abuja decided to follow Enugu instead of Onitsha due to the reports that the Onitsha route has completely broken down. It was equally a smooth journey but for the traffic jams here and there.However, the first real trouble started just before Koton Karaffi in Kogi state where two trucks collided on the one-track bridge and of course blocked the entire road.
There we lost over two hours before men of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) managed to remove one of the accidented trucks.One other issue was at Ajaokuta also in Kogi state when the timing belt of the vehicle cut, but the driver was proactive as he had a spare but almost one hour was lost because the roadside mechanic that was on hand saw an advantage. He was deliberating wasting time but after over 40 minutes, he was done and demanded for N5,000 as his pay.
Our driver gave him half of that and we left.But mother of them all was just before the popular Opi junction in Enugu state where everyone was at a standstill for over three hours before we managed to cross over.By the time we left there it was already past 10 pm. Due to the bad roads it was difficult to move as we should. In fact, for me that was a period of prayer because the road was very deserted and the vehicles could barely go beyond 40km per hour.But by God’s grace we got to 9th Mile around 11pm and I decided to look for a hotel to pass the night. The first two hotels were fully occupied because many people suffered my fate. I finally located a certain Desperados Hotel where I slept.
My friend Victor Iroele is still making a case that I desperately located Desperados Hotel! But in the morning, a journey from 9th Mile to Owerri that ordinarily should not take more than two hours lasted for almost five hours; no thanks to the bad roads and the gridlocks created by security men, who will just narrow the road and allow people to be sweating inside their cars.
Honestly, travelling from other parts of the country to the East will only create the impression that the security men are at war with the people of the area. This ugly development must be checked before it becomes another regrettable episode in the nation’s history. The security should operate in Owerri the same way they will operate in Kano.
Jude Opara an Abua based journalist shared his experience traveling to the South East for Christmas on his Facebook page