An Open Let­ter to Buhari on po­lice ‘check­points’ (1)

The Punch - - VIEW POINT - Chuks Iloeg­bunam

Dear Mr. Pres­i­dent,

Trav­el­ling from La­gos to Anam­bra State on Novem­ber 9, 2019, I counted 67 “check­points” mostly manned by armed men of the Po­lice Mo­bile Force along the 371-kilo­me­tre stretch from Sagamu to As­aba. Trav­el­ling the same route again on Thurs­day, Novem­ber 28, 2019, I counted 64 “check­points”. I was on each oc­ca­sion be­hind the wheel, mean­ing that my cal­cu­la­tions may have missed or added a num­ber of “check­points”. On Novem­ber 30, 2019, how­ever, Chief Tony Ony­ima, a re­spected jour­nal­ist trav­el­ling as a pas­sen­ger, counted 60 check­points on the same tor­tu­ous stretch, not­ing the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of each and ev­ery road­block. This means that, on av­er­age, there is a “check­point” ev­ery 6.28 kilo­me­tres of the way. It sug­gests that the no­to­ri­ous stretch boasts more “check­points” than Hanoi and Saigon com­bined ever did all through the 20 years of the Viet­nam War.

I lived in the United King­dom through a third of the three decades of the North­ern Ire­land Trou­bles. Not on any sin­gle day through­out this pe­riod did Ar­magh or Belfast or Down­patrick or En­niskillen or Lon­don­derry or any of the roads con­nect­ing these North­ern Ire­land cities bear one hun­dredth of the road­blocks on the Sagamu-as­aba Ex­press­way. Strangely enough, there are less than 20 “check­points” on the As­aba-sagamu side of the ex­press­way, demon­strat­ing clearly that the mul­ti­ple road­blocks on the other side are in praise of Cor­rup­tion!

In­side Onit­sha, the mul­ti­plic­ity of “check­points” wears an ex­tor­tion­ate hat and blows an ear-tear­ing whis­tle. Ev­ery day, start­ing from about 3pm, a grid­lock is cre­ated by bribe-tak­ing sol­diers and po­lice­men and women at the Niger Bridge­head. The traf­fic jam lasts un­til about 9pm, en­sur­ing that all goods-car­ry­ing ve­hi­cles, all cars, all busses, all trucks and all trail­ers are tolled. The tail­back runs the span of the quiv­er­ing 54-year-old bridge that was never de­signed to bear such dead­weight. At the other end, the tail­back ex­tends as far as the perime­tres of the Premier Brew­eries. On a daily ba­sis!

You will no­tice, Mr. Pres­i­dent, that in this let­ter, the word “check­point” is al­ways in quo­ta­tion marks. That is be­cause nei­ther in­spec­tion nor clear­ance takes place at any of the nu­mer­ous stops im­posed on in­no­cent and hap­less Nige­ri­ans by se­cu­rity men and women un­der your watch. Not on one oc­ca­sion in all my jour­neys on that high­way did I find a po­lice­man or a sol­dier or a cus­toms of­fi­cer or an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer or an of­fi­cer of the civil de­fence corps both­er­ing to in­spect the un­der­side of a ve­hi­cle. Not once did I ever see any of these “check­point” cham­pi­ons lift a bon­net to in­spect what is un­der it. All they do is train as­sault ri­fles on in­no­cent and hap­less Nige­ri­ans, in­tim­i­date them, scream com­mands and bark or­ders upon their un­for­tu­nate heads, speak at them rudely and spite­fully, and then stretch out their hands to col­lect bribes. Once money changes hands, the ve­hi­cles are waved on.

This scan­dalous trend goes on in the full view of ev­ery­one at hand, in­clud­ing for­eign­ers. How does it feel, Mr. Pres­i­dent, that the mil­i­tary you en­listed in 58 years ago, and which served mer­i­to­ri­ously in The Congo and many other trou­bled parts of the world, is the same force that has men in uni­form col­lect­ing bribes in broad day­light, in or­der for their fel­low na­tion­als to pur­chase the free­dom to drive on roads built with their taxes?

The na­ture of these “check­points” is a cause for se­ri­ous con­cern. Bar­ri­cades are made of tree stumps, tree trunks, logs, sawed tim­ber, de­bris from di­lap­i­dated build­ings, dis­used tyres, sand-filled drums, twisted steel from ac­ci­dented jug­ger­nauts, even planks spiked with nails. When your se­cu­rity per­son­nel aban­don any of the “check­points”, they do not bother to re­move these obstacles, or take with them the de­bris they painstak­ingly as­sem­bled in the first place. Be­cause the aban­doned de­bris lacks lu­mi­nos­ity, ve­hi­cles plunge into them mostly af­ter night­fall with pre­dictable con­se­quences.

Some of your “check­point” op­er­a­tives never bother to don uni­forms, cre­at­ing the prob­lem of dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween real se­cu­rity per­son­nel and plain crim­i­nals and im­pos­tors. The only uni­for­mity in their pres­ence is the ubiq­ui­tous as­sault ri­fle. Some of them ap­pear in sweat shirts, or in T-shirts, or in over­coats in the swel­ter­ing heat. Some oth­ers have their name tags pinned up­side down. Most have no name tags. A good num­ber screen their eyes, ban­dit-like, be­hind very dark gog­gles. Oth­ers have their felt hats turned front back­wards. Oc­ca­sion­ally, an er­rant mem­ber of the lot is seen stray­ing across the road, wield­ing a half-full or halfempty bot­tle of liq­uid con­tent, or puff­ing away, re­gard­less.

The cost to the na­tion of this lam­en­ta­ble aber­ra­tion is enor­mous. It could be that the aim is to kill the Nige­rian spirit and sub­ju­gate the peo­ples. Still, the un­in­tended con­se­quences of this ter­ri­ble blight de­serve to be stated. Many of the ve­hi­cles on the roads are ar­tic­u­lated, un­der­scor­ing their propen­sity to top­ple on un­even ter­rains and cause avoid­able de­struc­tion and ag­gra­vated traf­fic jams. Many of the ve­hi­cles are tankers bear­ing highly in­flammable and com­bustible liq­uids and sub­stances li­able to ig­nite at the slight­est im­pact with other ve­hi­cles, or be­cause of heat­wave, unimag­in­able de­vel­op­ments that could re­duce whole kilo­me­tres of the free­way to a con­fla­gra­tion, only for such a calami­tous re­sult to be sac­ri­le­giously as­cribed to “an act of God.”

These “check­point” op­er­a­tors on Your Ex­cel­lency’s watch are un­der the sun, day-in and day-out, col­lect­ing “rogers” and pock­et­ing the same, un­aware that they are pock­et­ing other col­lat­eral dam­age as well. They wear no pro­tec­tive masks over their mouths and noses. There­fore, they in­hale in large, dan­ger­ous doses car­bon monox­ide and other toxic agents which could trig­ger pul­monary con­di­tions that, even if la­tent in them, could man­i­fest in their off­spring as full-blown cases of asthma, bron­chi­tis, cys­tic fi­bro­sis, em­phy­sema, pneu­mo­nia and lung can­cer. Some of them court skin can­cers, given the sun’s fiery rays on un­cov­ered por­tions of their skins for at least eight hours ev­ery day.

These “check­point” per­son­nel are not equipped with am­bu­lances. They have no first aid boxes and, there­fore, ad­min­is­ter first aid to no one, in­clud­ing them­selves. They are not known to of­fer care to the dis­tressed. They bear no walkie-talkies, and no other form of ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­ists be­tween any par­tic­u­lar check­point and an­other.

If the en­throne­ment of re­pres­sion is the aim of these road­blocks, its fail­ure is a fait ac­com­pli and it is ex­pected of some­one of your knowl­edge and in­ter­na­tional ex­po­sure to point this out. There are many ques­tions you could ask the con­jur­ers of tyranny, like these: Where is Adolf Hitler to­day? Where is Ben­ito Mus­solini to­day? Where is Au­gusto Pinochet to­day? Where is Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu to­day? Where is Anas­ta­sio So­moza to­day? Where is Muhammed Zia-ul-haq to­day? Where is Joseph Stalin to­day? If the ex­am­ples of non-african dic­ta­tors are too far away for com­fort, you could ask those at­tempt­ing to strike a match be­side an ocean of gaso­line what be­came of Ma­cias Nguema? What be­came of Hast­ings Banda? What be­came of Mobutu Sese Seko? What be­came of Omar Al-bashir? What be­came of Idi Amin? In­deed, if your “char­ity” of ques­tions does not be­gin at home, you could end it here in Nige­ria by ask­ing what be­came of Sani Abacha?

To be con­cluded

•Iloeg­bunam, a vet­eran jour­nal­ist, wrote in from Abuja

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