Security agencies extorting motorists, sabotaging COVID-19 lockdown in Rivers State
As governments continue to devise strategies to fight the pervading Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) that is ravaging the country, some unscrupulous operatives of security agencies in the country are making brisk business by extorting members of the public in Rivers State.
Investigations revealed that security personnel deployed to enforce the directive at different locations in the state have allegedly turned their duty posts to revenue-generating points, where they extort motorists and other travellers at will.
Following the spread of COVID- 19, the Rivers State government closed all borders on March 26, 2020, and directed that no one comes in or goes out of the state. But there are still rapid movements in and out of the state, and this is facilitated by security agents manning the border posts.
Inquiries from truck drivers at Mbiama, a border town that connects the state to Bayelsa State, as well as at another location that links Rivers and Abia states, revealed that security operatives collect between N50, 000 to N80, 000 from each truck driver to enable them to gain entrance into, or exit the state. Most of the trucks sighted at these borders were loaded with foodstuffs and other basic consumer goods.
Other border posts, where criminal activities are being perpetrated by security agents are Aba-Ndele border, Ogoni/Akwa Ibom border, and Owerri/Port Harcourt border.
Apart from being extorted, the truck drivers spend between two to three days queuing at the border before they are cleared by the security operatives after rigorous negotiations. This delay exposes perishable items like tomatoes, pepper, watermelon, onions, potatoes among others to damage.
Interestingly, this damage has led to a sharp rise in the price of foodstuffs and other basic consumer goods in the state, as the owners of the goods end up spreading whatever they have spent on security personnel on the goods.
For instance, a bag of garri which was sold for N10, 000 last month, now goes for over N20, 000; a basket of tomatoes, which went for N7, 000 now sells for between N18, 000 to N30, 000. Also, a bag of sweet potatoes, which was selling for N6, 000 now sells for N12, 000.
Fruits, vegetables, detergents, and beverages have also witnessed a sharp increase in their prices, thereby forcing more hardship on residents whose sources of income have already been condensed, or obstructed due to the lockdown.
Alhaji Mohammed Wusari, a truck driver, told The Guardian at Mbiama border: “In the North before now, vehicle owners charge us N400, 000 for any trailer that is going to Port Harcourt, but now, it has risen to N700, 000 due to several settlements, at different locations, in various states. Yet when we get to this border, we still pay between N50, 000 to N70, 000 to security agencies before we are allowed to enter the state. So, when we finally enter Rivers State, certainly the prices of whatever goods that we have brought down will increase drastically because we have to cover our expenses.
“Also, before this lockdown, it took us about three days to come from the North to the South South, but now, we spend over six days on the road and sometimes, before we get here, some farm produce like onions, tomatoes, pepper would have been damaged,” Wusari noted.
The Guardian also discovered that interstate transporters operating from Rivers State have also hiked their charges despite the downward review in the price of petrol.
The increase according to a bus driver plying Port Harcourt/Owerri route (who craved anonymity), was to enable them to meet up their daily target after giving out huge sums of money to security operatives at the border.
He disclosed that those, who travel through the major Elele-Owerri route pay higher at the border post, adding that each passenger also pays N500 to enable him/her to cross with the driver, while those following inner routes pay less.
The Guardian, which disguised as a passenger travelling to Owerri, Imo State, observed that saloon car drivers were collecting N2, 000 as transport fare from each passenger going to Owerri, instead of the usual N800 or N1, 000.
Because of the nuisance constituted by these security operatives, some of the drivers now pass through Etche Road to Owerri, instead of the main Elele/Port Harcourt Owerri route. Observations also revealed that youths in some communities where these drivers pass through were also extorting them.
Some security officers, after obtaining bribe from commercial vehicle drivers, volunteer to show the drivers the shortest routes to wherever they are going to.
For instance, on March 28, 2020, just two days after the Governor Nyesom Wike announced the lockdown, a soldier, Private BJ Lazarus, was seen allegedly aiding a truck driver from Rivers State to enter into Imo State through Ubimini Community in Emohua Local Council before he was intercepted by the President of Ubimini Youths, Mr. Ikechukwu Wordu, who is also a member of the COVID-19 compliance monitoring team in the area.
The soldier was said to have left his duty post at a farm in Egbeda, and relocated to the boundary to extort money from motorists and travellers. Wordu, who spoke to The Guardian said: “On March 28, 2020, a soldier was aiding a truck that was carrying illegal petroleum products to get to Imo State through Ubimini Community. I stopped him and told him to go back that the state government has banned all movements in and out of the state, but he asked me to call the highest authority, and I called the Divisional Police Officer at Ubimini, who also ordered him to go back. It was at that point that the soldier started fighting me that I was the one that reported him.”
It was, however, gathered that the errant soldier has been redeployed, while the DPO has deployed more police officers to man the Ubimini border. Another resident who recently returned from Owerri to Port Harcourt, Mr. Uchenna Ibe said: “I paid N2, 000 as fare from Owerri to Port Harcourt. The driver passed through Etche to Port Harcourt, but on our way, he settled some youths, who may likely settle the police officers at the border.”
Also, Mrs. Agness Tombari, who travelled out of Rivers State penultimate week said: “We paid N2, 500 as fare and when we got to the border, each passenger parted with extra N500, all of which were gathered and added to the bribe offered by the driver to the security personnel. Upon receiving the bribe, the security officers drove ahead of us and showed our driver route to follow.”
Alarmed by the ugly development, which had been going on for some time, Governor Wike had during a state-wide broadcast on Monday, April 27, berated security agencies for allowing travellers to enter and leave the state at will, despite the border closure.
Wike said that activities of the security personnel were endangering the lives of residents of the state and exposing them to avoidable risks.The governor said, “ These unscrupulous security officers are deliberately putting our state and the lives of our people at risk, as our health system can hardly cope should there be any surge in COVID-19 cases.
“As of April 26, there were six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Rivers State, two fully recovered; two confirmed deaths; two active cases that are presently receiving treatment. He, however, noted that his administration would establish a task force to man the state’s borders to protect the residents from the pandemic.
Last Thursday, Wike pointedly accused the Deputy Commissioner of Police in-charge of Operations, Adamu Abubakar, of “sabotaging” the lockdown imposed on Port Harcourt and Obio-Akpor local councils.
Speaking after monitoring the compliance level of the lockdown in both councils, Wike alleged that the police chief “is issuing illegal letters to companies to defy the curfew,” stressing that “it was unfortunate that the deputy commissioner of police in charge of operations in the State would issue letters to companies to operate in defiance of the executive order of the state government.
While insisting that there can never be two governors in Rivers State at the same time, Wike maintained that any approval outside that issued by his office remained illegal.
When contacted, the State Police Public Relations Officer, Nnamdi Omoni, told The Guardian that his boss would respond to the governor’s allegation, or permit him to speak on the matter.
Asked to comment on alleged atrocities going on at border posts, Omoni said: “There have been a team monitoring activities of our officers even before the lockdown and the closure of the state’s border, but currently, we have re-energised, rejiggered the monitoring unit, and position it for a more effective task. We have all the complaints about officers that are there, but we are not closing our eyes to re-modelling them. It is a systemic thing that we are dealing with and we do know that with time, we will duly conscientise them.”
The police spokesman, who noted that there were other security officers at the border, including the state government task force, affirmed that everyone was working jointly towards achieving the goal of protecting residents of the state and their property.
Reacting on the development, the Public Relations Officer of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC), in Rivers State, Mr. Michael Oguntuase, said officers of his command do not get involved in bribery.
His words, “ As far as the issue of compromise is concerned, our men don’t get involved. We have monitoring teams that visit these border points often to see if our men are doing the right thing or not. We have a WhatsApp platform where communication takes place within the command, and where members of the public report the activities of our men. So far, no report has come in as far as the issue of doing their duties effectively is concerned, neither have they been accused of compromising in the course of their assignment.
“The duty at the border post is a joint operation, and in the places that I have visited, our men sometimes are in front, while others are at the main location so that they can jointly tackle any resistance incase there is any. But as far as the issue of acting in an unprofessional manner is concerned, the NSCDC personnel are not in any way doing that. If other agencies are doing so, I don’t know,” he said.
On his part, the spokesman of the Six Division, Nigerian Army, Major Charles Ekeocha, said he could not speak on the activities of troops enforcing the COVID-19 border closure in the state, stating that it is the duty of the COVID-19 committee put in place by the state government.
His words, “Any issue concerning the deployment of troops on this COVID-19 either at the border, or wherever is under the care of the state government’s COVID-19 Committee because the operation that the troops are carrying out now is under the care of the state government”
Asked if he was aware of the soldier, who was allegedly aiding a truck driver out of the state, Ekeocha said: “The state government and the state Commissioner of Police are in charge of the operation, we are only aiding them. So, when you have anything to rectify, call them, they will give you any information that you need; it is their operation and we are only supporting them. So, whatever that goes wrong, ask them and they will respond adequately. I cannot speak on what I don’t know.”
Worried by the situation, a clergyman, Dr. David Dunamis reasoned that setting up an additional task force to enforce the border closure may not be the way out, even as he advised the government to deplore health workers at the various borders to carry out tests on anyone coming into the state to ascertain their health status before they are allowed in or out.
David who is the President of Swift Messengers Ministries condemned those that are using the epidemic to make money and rip the people off. On his part, the Chairman of Civil Rights Council, Prince Wiro, wants close supervision and monitoring of those posted to the border by the authorities to ensure that they are above board.
Wiro, who also recommended unscheduled visits to the border by high-ranking government officials said such moves would ensure that the men on duty there are always on their toes.
“If possible, CCTV cameras should be deployed to monitor those posted to the border because even if the state task force takes over at the border, without keeping an eye on their activities, there is the likelihood that the aim of setting them up would be defeated if stipulated measures are not adhered to.”
Also, a resident, Augustina Ashaya, urged the government to give special consideration to drivers conveying foodstuffs to stem hunger. A human rights activist, Sebastine Kpalap, urged the government to keep to its promise of sourcing foodstuff from local farmers for disbursement as palliatives, noting that bringing truckloads of food items from the North may not be the way to go.
This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check Project.