Checkpoints, roadblocks, bottlenecks
The experience on Nigerian roads can easily be likened to a journey to hell. The deplorable state of these roads is one enduring feature you will find, no matter which part of the country you are in. It will be one of the miracles of the 21st century to travel a 100 kilometre stretch of road in Nigeria without encountering craters, gullies, potholes and other hazards. However, the scandalous shape of most roads in Nigeria is not really our concern in this piece. Today, our focus is on checkpoints, or better known as roadblocks in local parlance. You cannot traverse five kilometres on any major highway in Nigeria without encountering either policemen, soldiers, customs men or immigration officials or a combination of all the foregoing. They are on our roads ostensibly to keep us safe from all manner of evil men and women who are on the prowl seeking who to harm and dispossess of their properties.
It will surely be difficult to argue against the presence of these security men and women on the highways. But because of the great inconvenience they sometimes cause on the road, almost everyone who has any business on Nigerian roads has some story to tell. And I can bet that much of these stories are not pleasant. In fact, many of them are disheartening.
At police checkpoints, the good, the bad, the ugly are usually in full display. Most of what we witness and experience in these places are a reflection of how developed or otherwise we are as a society. Is it not amazing that on a particular road, let’s say the Benin-Sagamu Expressway where you have checkpoints literally 100 metres between each other, the policemen at one point cannot communicate with their colleagues at the next point? You cannot but wonder whether they are really out to combat crime.
Today, I will relate a few of my experiences that span more than one decade. Ok. Let’s begin the trip. In January 2009, I had gone to an event in Ekiugbo, near Ughelli in Delta State. As it was approaching 4 pm, I decided to get back to the road and head to Port Harcourt, hoping to get there before the day got dark. Just two kilometres into the journey, we were stuck in a terrible traffic jam. We spent over two hours in less than one kilometre stretch. This was before the reconstruction of the East-West Road. By the time we managed to get through the horrible traffic, behold there was a checkpoint manned by policemen. When I informed them of the sad experiences of motorists less than 300 hundred metres from where they were and pleaded that they should go there and help with traffic control, they looked at me scornfully and hissed: “You want to teach us our job, abi?”
I quietly told the driver to speed on, praying that we get to Port Harcourt before it was too late. That evening, I counted 27 checkpoints, from Ughelli to Port Harcourt on a 167 kilometre road. That was an average of once checkpoint per 6.1 kilometres. Some waved you on; some checked for the validity of the driver’s licence; some checked for the “chassis number” even in the dark. On that same road some months later, I was driving from Port Harcourt to Ekakpamre on a Saturday morning. After Ahoada, the policemen brusquely asked me to park.
They checked my driver’s licenced, checked the booth and the bag inside, and checked the almighty “chassis number” with the aid of a chalk. It was a brand new car, so there was no problem to manufacture. After about 20 minutes, one of the policemen then asked me to give them “something”. I just exploded: “You want me to give you something, and you have been wasting my time since. My friend, are you serious!” One of his colleagues soon joined him and they put head together, and they asked me to “carry your wahala go”. If I thought a brand new car is an insurance against police harassment on the highway, I found out in 2015 how grossly mistaken I was.
I was being driven from Lagos to Warri when we were stopped just a few kilometres after Ijebu Ode. The police sergeant searched the car; scrutinised the driver’s licence; the vehicle particulars; even the tyres of the car. A bit lost searching for “incriminating evidence”, with the sheets of papers in his hands, he experienced an epiphany of sorts. He asked the driver: “Where is the Certificate of Road Worthiness?” That was when I got very angry and came out of the car.
I asked him whether he noticed the date the car was purchased. Which month was written there? He said July. Which month are we in? September. And this is a brand new car and you are asking for Road Worthiness certificate? Obviously, you don’t know what you are doing. He got very angry and pointedly told me not “to teach me my job”. He now asked that we should produce the manual that came with the car, if it’s true that I own it. I was still screaming at him on how he is a disgrace to the uniform he is wearing, when one of his colleagues came from the other side of the road to find out what was wrong. My driver quietly explained to him. He then proceeded to collect our papers from the cantankerous Inspector, gave them to us and we continued with our journey.
There was a particular trip I embarked on from Abuja to Benin. I left Abuja a bit late, in the early afternoon, and I was alone in the car. Just after I passed Okene, I witnessed a head-on collision between two commercial buses trying to avoid a bad portion of the road. Many of us motorists came down from our vehicles trying to rescue some of those trapped in the vehicles. Quite a number were dead, including children.
I called the police numbers in Lokoja that I had with me. They promised to send their men from Okene. Half an hour later, no help. Some of the motorists managed to put some wounded persons into their vehicles and raced to nearby hospitals. I looked at the sky and it was getting dark. Never liked travelling in the night. I jumped into the car and drove off. Less than two kilometres was a police roadblock/checkpoint. When I informed the policemen of the accident, they calmly informed me that it was not in their jurisdiction. I shook my head and drove off.