UNDERCOVER INVESTIGATION: For N16,500, security agents will allow you travel from Lagos to Abuja despite interstate ban _-cableNG
Twenty-four hours to the trip, Otos, a worker at one of the bus terminals in the Jibowu area of Yaba, Lagos, had given all the assurances that there is commercial transportation to Abuja, and, in fact, to any part of the south-east. With a giggle, and then a long hiss, he dismissed the directive banning interstate travel. As soon as we settled to talk, he reached for his chest pocket and brought out a bunch of tickets, assuming that his next passenger had arrived.
Nigeria recorded its index coronavirus case on February 27, 2020 and by March 30, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari had signed the “COVID-19 Quarantine Regulations” to enforce measures to check the spread of the disease in the country.
The quarantine act empowers the president to restrict movement when a “dangerous disease” breaks out in the country and on April 27, 2020, Buhari ordered a nationwide curfew from 8pm to 6am. He also banned interstate travel, sparing only those on essential services. The presidential directives had followed recommendations by the presidential task force (PTF) on COVID-19, as the committee described interstate travel as one of the major causes of community transmission of the disease.
For instance, the index case in Kano had travelled from Lagos through to Abuja to the state, which now has the highest number of cases after Lagos.
“Oga, this car will leave for Abuja latest by 7pm,” Otos said, pointing at a Toyota Sienna minivan with an open boot, suggesting it to be in a standby position.
“We have to move before 8pm that the curfew starts,” he added.
As expected, the charge is now almost double of what it used to be. But Otos justified the increment.
“We have to settle those security people on the road, you know,” he smiled.
‘AS LONG AS THE DRIVER IS NOT GREEDY’
By 6:30 the next morning, a crowd of rowdy park attendants descended on me as I was being dropped off around Jibowu. The rule of social or physical distancing was ignored completely. Like it is their usual way of doing things; as one was battling my shoulder for my bag, about two others had grabbed me by the wrist and I was almost choked with drops of saliva that came with their screaming. They barely wore face masks.
“Oga na one passenger remain,” one of them said when they had successfully dragged me to a middle-aged woman called Aliya, the ticketer who was already waiting. “N15,000,” Aliya said as she asked for my name.
Before now, about N10,000 or less was the charge from Lagos to Abuja.
As I waited for other passengers to arrive, Aliya began telling of how they have been “doing this business” despite the restriction order by the government.
“As long as the driver is not greedy and he is readily sorting those policemen on the road, you are good to go,” she said.
She recounted the ordeal of one of their drivers. Ishola, as she gave the name of the driver, had to pass the night with his passengers, somewhere in Lokoja (capital of Kogi) because he wasn’t “cooperating” with the police who had manned a checkpoint while enforcing the curfew.
The vehicle took seven passengers – three each on the back rows and one beside the driver – and we left around 10:30am. Jibola, the driver, asked that we put on our masks as we zoomed off, driving against a tail of traffic that was now crawling into Lagos.
As we neared Berger from where Lagos shares a boundary with Ogun, Jibola, jokingly, asked: “Please, is there any doctor or military man on board?”
He would later explain that the identity cards of a doctor or military person would easily pave way at roadblocks ahead. With none of these as his passengers, he exclaimed: “We dey on our own o, OYO lawa!” – an expression to mean we were at the mercy of security operatives manning roadblocks.
“What would then happen?” I asked. “Nothing, really. Aside from that we might be delayed and eventually pay our way through,” he answered.
The first roadblock exiting Lagos. The ‘pass’ here is for N2,000
Around OPIC area, now on the Ogun axis of the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, we met the first roadblock. The stationery truck bore the police insignia and also an imprint of an Ogun state security agency.
Jibola wore a mischievous grin when one of the policemen approached.
“He’s our person,” he said, as he pulled over. He stepped out of the car, and in about three minutes, he was back.
“He passed me two days ago, so na 2k I give am today,” he said as the barricade was lifted.
According to him, policemen at that point collect between N3,000 and N5,000 from commercial drivers. Here, “non-cooperating” drivers are turned back to the Lagos government secretariat in Alausa, a few kilometres away.
WITH JUST N200, YOU ARE GOOD TO GO
A police offer smiles as he receives bribe from the driver
The drive through to Sagamu and other towns of Ogun was without much stress. Operatives at the few in-state roadblocks readily lifted the barricade as the driver greased their palms with as little as N200.
Exiting Ogun into Ajebandele which marks the entrance into Ondo, the operatives were a combination of Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), police, Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) and soldiers. The different agencies manned roadblocks at intervals less than 500 metres from each other.
With NSCDC officials, it was N500. Next stop was that of the FRSC, and again we were freed after offering N500. Jibola begged the soldier, who watched from afar, while his proxy, a civilian hawker, approached the car, to take N300.
He attempted the same with the police, but the officer refused. He claimed he was more than N300. We wouldn’t leave until Jibola added N200.
“Well, it’s still manageable on this part,” the driver said, masking his frustration with a smile.
“My guy who shuttles between Abuja and nearby Benin drops nothing less than 22k,” he said.
One of the passengers who seemed to be familiar with security operations, especially that of the police, said the interstate travel ban had only created a money-making avenue for the operatives.
He wondered why there were so many officers on the road, concluding that not all of them were on legal posting.
From Akure, Ondo state capital, towards Owo, we met another in-state roadblock and again, the police officers insisted on N500 as against what Jibola had to offer. While going back and forth, a superior officer approached, and for the first time on the journey, the driver was asked if he had a pass to move from one state to the other.
PASS OF ESSENTIAL WORKERS IN THE WRONG HAND
Interestingly, Jibola nodded, and from a safe brought out documents that looked original — with the seeming approval from the presidential task force on COVID-19. But, no way, these officers wouldn’t fall for that. One of them jumped into the car, turned off the ignition and seized the key. Jibola got down and eventually gave them what they asked.
“They said I’m lying, that they know you people are passengers I picked from Lagos,” he said, as he settled back in the car.
All the while, he had told them he was only dropping us at a nearby town. At other roadblocks, I overheard him telling operatives that we were his family members.
As for the pass? Well, a week ago, he was hired by some essential workers who originally had the pass. After dropping them off at their destination, he begged that they leave the pass with him so he could have an easy ride back to base.
In Akoko-Edo, where Ondo shares a boundary with Edo state, the demand was the same from policemen on the Ondo exit and Edo entrance that were barely 50 metres apart — N500.
When one of the passengers asked why Jibola had to give money at a second and this close roadblock, he simply told him “that was for Ondo police and this is for Edo police.”
THE FEAR OF ISOLATION CENTRE
Angry officer turns off ignition when driver refuses to pay N500
A roadblock in Lampese, the next Edo town we were headed, Jibola said had a medical unit and that we should all be ready for our temperature to be checked.
“If your body is too hot, they will take you to an isolation centre,” he said, laughing.
We would drive past the supposed area around 6:30pm but the medical unit appeared to have closed for the day.
From here, we drove into Ogori-Magongo where the Kogi entry point is located, and there was no roadblock at the boundary like we saw in other places. Getting darker as we made for Lokoja, Jibola told us we could not enter Abuja as we would be held over the curfew. Two passengers would not take it easy with him.
“Why did we now pay N15,000 when you know you can’t enter Abuja this night?” one of them screamed at the driver.
Pleading, Jibola took his time to explain that from Abaji, the FCT entry point, to Abuja, we would meet at least 15 roadblocks and the people here do not go below N3,000.
“I will have to spend all the money I made on this trip for those security guys, and even after collecting the money, they might still detain us till dawn,” he said.
He then advised us to pass the night in Lokoja, which the opposing passengers, again rejected.
Through the drive to Lokoja, there were military checkpoints where soldiers only flashed their torchlights across the car and they beckoned that we drove on. At Abaji, the point of entry into the FCT, around 10pm, we met a gridlock with tens of security operatives at the roadblock. We would spend the next 40 minutes here as the driver and some of the operatives had it back and forth. A seemingly “compassionate” soldier who peeped into the car and saw the tired faces asked if we were coming from Lagos.
“Which road did you people follow? Ain’t you aware there’s a travel ban?” he asked, obviously joking.
He then told his colleagues to allow us to move on. With N200 per roadblock, we found our way until this particular one, few kilometres into Gwagwalada. For once, I thought it was time we were detained as the police officer, with a stern face, asked if we knew the gravity of our offence.
“You know I’m to charge you and all these passengers for violating a presidential order?” he said, pointing at the driver.
And then, he took a turn and said, “so, your money is N2,000.”
Jibola attempted to squeeze N500 into his hand and as soon as he saw it, he cocked his gun and his gesture was a threat to shoot. He was ordered to come down and join other “non-cooperating” drivers.
It was going to be N2,000 or we were held there, and the time was 11:30pm, and it appeared Jibola already found comfort with his co-drivers, and cared less about his passengers who eventually provided the money.
The morning after, the ride from Gwagwalada where we passed the night into Abuja was effortless. None of the two roadblocks asked that we stop. Nobody wanted to know if we were on essential duties. Nobody cared if an infected person from Lagos was being driven into the country’s capital city.
“N16,500!” Jibola responded with a heavy sigh when asked how much he had given to security operatives for the journey.
FROM ABUJA BACK TO LAGOS
Things looked scanty at the usually-busy park in Utako, and this is because some non-uniformed police officers were lurking around to see any vehicle boarding passengers. Well, the purpose of their presence, some of the park attendants said, was to simply extort drivers.
As a decoy, passengers who had come are made to sit quietly around the park and are secretly sold tickets. And then in batches of seven, they are walked some few metres to a nearby street, supposedly away from the watch of the police, where the vehicle comes, and off it goes to Lagos.
It’s a free world at the Gwagwalada park where vehicles set for different interstate routes are in open display.
Entering into Kogi after Abaji, we barely slowed down as the soldier manning the roadblock passed us with a wave of his hand. About 18 kilometres into Lokoja, we met a roadblock which had a quarantine post/clinic. Anyone moving beyond this point is to have their temperature checked, and anyone whose temperature is beyond normal is expected to be kept in the standby clinic. But, we moved on as the officials only stopped vehicles that wouldn’t part with bribe on time.
“Safe journey,” one of the policemen even wished us.
HARD-WORKING POLICE OFFICERS?
At a roadblock between Obajana and Kabba, the police officers here seemed to mean business, or so it seemed? Their concern, however, was not about the interstate travel, they held the driver to explain what was sealed in two cartons he had picked in Abuja as parcels.
Soap, fragrance? Not even the driver knew what exactly it was, as he was ordered to unseal the cartons.
And then, the policemen began to narrate how they had intercepted many criminals on the highway.
“Just 20 minutes ago, we stopped those boys. They said it was yam flour and they wanted to deliver it to a woman in a nearby village. I thought to taste the thing and it turned out to be cocaine,” one of them told us.
“We just took them to the station now,” he added.
There was also a case of a woman trying to traffick a baby.
“I say madam, oya breastfeed am, but her breast no get water. That was how we caught her as she later confessed,” the officer said.
While being held, other vehicles drove past, shaking policemen’s hands with naira notes.
And then, one of the two officers by our vehicle said it’s easy for them to collect money from motorists and allow them to move, but sometimes “the spirit will just tell you that no, don’t collect that money, search this vehicle properly”.
We were freed 15 minutes later, and they didn’t demand a dime from the driver.
TURNED BACK AT ONDO, BUT THERE’S A WAY OUT
It appeared as though the journey had ended when approaching Akunu, an Ondo town bordering Kogi, as officers at the roadblock denied us access.
The team here consists of policemen and officials of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN). With N1,000 in hand, the driver begged the VGN official who had asked us if we had an interstate travel pass.
“There’s no way we can allow you to pass,” he said, shaking his head and rejecting the driver’s offer.
He explained that the next roadblock ahead had cameras monitoring vehicles coming and they could lose their jobs should we be allowed to proceed.
The vigilante official who turned the vehicle back in Ondo, ‘but offered advice’
“Even if you give us 20k, we will return that money to the authorities with tears,” he said.
He maintained that we had to turn back into Kogi state. He would, however, advise us to make use of (Ajowa), another entry point into Ondo.
“Turn back, follow Ayere. There’s no camera, and your money might be useful to the policemen on roadblock there.”
Indeed, with N1,000, we were granted access at Ajowa.
JOURNALIST ALMOST CAUGHT
Stopped at a roadblock before Akure, the team of police here specifically asked the three of us occupying the first back row to step out, and with our bags and phones. We had the boyish look, different from other passengers who were older persons, and we immediately became suspects or so we thought.
I was last to be searched, and I could only laugh when the officer asked for the receipt of a laptop I have been using for over two years. Then he asked for my phones. I wanted to resist, but handed them to him. I was shocked the officer had started accessing the phones I thought were locked with passwords. Of course, my email and photo gallery were going to give me out as a journalist. Yes, there were moments of bribe-taking policemen captured along the road.
Somehow, the officer missed the key folder on the phones. He then asked me to identify myself, and after a while, we were freed.
SMOOTH RIDE DOWN TO OGUN, BUT LAGOS IS CLOSED
From Ondo, through to Sagamu in Ogun state, the ride was smooth. Lesser roadblocks, and those around were good to go with between N300 and N500.
The journey stopped at the Long Bridge stretching into Lagos. It was now 11pm, and the curfew was in full enforcement.
Thousands of travellers were going to spend their night just right here, until 6am when the curfew is over.
POLICE: OUR MEN ARE DOING A GOOD JOB
‘Doing a good job indeed’
As police officers were mostly seen at the roadblocks, the force authorities said the officers should be thanked rather than criticised.
In a telephone interview, Frank Mba, force public relations officer, said he does not know how to authenticate the allegations made, but noted the fact that there are exceptions from the general movement restriction rule.
“If you are a pathfinder, there will be no way for you to move. Most of the persons you see on the road are persons that fall within the exemption,” he said.
“You know it’s funny in this country, but that is the luck of the police. There is nothing we do that will not be criticised. If we choose to enforce this law strictly, you people will cry that police are blocking everywhere; there is no movement; journalists, doctors are not allowed to move. If we enforce with human face, you people will accuse us that we’ve allowed the borders to be opened. So, we have chosen to carry our cross.
“But, are we doing the job? Absolutely we are doing it. Our men are performing excellently well even in the very difficult situation. Those who try to break the law don’t follow the major road. They go through bush paths, irregular and unconventional routes. And that is why the IGP ordered the deployment of police horses to some selected bush paths that we have uncovered, because those bush paths are almost impossible for us to patrol. We have also discovered that some desperate citizens also take advantage of the proximity in the internal borders.”
Mba said to move from one state to the other would be like passing through the eye of a needle, and if the police were not there, the whole of the road would be busy.
“I think people should recognise this and pay respect to the men and women of the force,” he added.