• Delta, Anambra Reach Truce On Movement Across Niger Bridge
For Nigerians living in one state and working or having daily businesses in another, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a season of pain and agony as a result of the 8 pm to 6 am curfew and restriction of inter-state movement.
It has been an unusual time for those residing but working in Ogun and Lagos states and vice versa, as well as Delta and Anambra, states, as the inter-state border closure has caused them unwarranted embarrassment and hardship in the last four weeks.
The scenario at the border points between Ogun and Lagos last week, when The Guardian visited, revealed the traumatic experiences the people pass through daily in a bid to cross over. At the Kara Bridge/Berger Bus stop on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, motorists and passers-by, including essential workers, are subjected to unpleasant experiences.
Reports from those living around Mowe, Ibafo, Redemption Camp, Magoro and Magada, among other communities, showed that majority of them have had to pass several nights at the border for failing to beat the 8 pm curfew time.
Miss Arinola Olugbose, a nurse who resides in Mowe, said she had slept on the road three times, as the security agents always displayed hostility, especially at night, whenever anyone approached them to pass through the border.
“I must say it is a very bitter experience for us at this time. I work in a hospital on Lagos Island and used to leave home as early as 5 am, but that is no more obtainable because of difficulties in getting vehicles as a result of the curfew.
“Even, contrary to the pre-COVID-19 period when you get a direct bus to CMS or Obalende, one can only get a bus to the point where the security agents mount their barricades, then you trek a long distance to get another bus. The situation is always worse at night, as people find it difficult to move to the other side because the security personnel are always hostile.
“What about the market women, the nursing mothers and the disabled, if you see the agony they encounter to get to their places of work, you would pity their situation. To tell you the truth, it has been a very tough period for us,” she recounted.
Lorry drivers and heavy-duty vehicles, who took advantage of the lockdown relaxation days, were denied entry into Lagos State by security personnel mounting barricades at the Odo boundary via Ikola in Ota.
As a result, the area has been turned into a mini motor park, as minibuses, popularly called Korope, tricycles and even commercial motorcycles make brisk money. Passengers dropped at the boundary resort to them to get to their final destinations, which are as far as Idimu, Ikotun, Command, Ipaja, Ayobo, Agbado Kollington and other areas.
A banker with one of the new generation banks, who resides at Odo Osi in Ota, Ogun State, Uche Edmund, described the experience as horrible.
He said: “The distance between my house and the Odo boundary is just five minutes drive, but while I get there under six minutes, it may take me over two hours to sort myself out at the border in order to get a pass. After getting to the other side of Lagos, getting vehicle on time is another challenge.
“Coming back is the most arduous. Even though we close by 3 pm and I usually leave office between 4pm and 4.30pm, but due to the rush to beat the 8pm curfew time, the traffic snarl begins to build long before one even gets to the border.
“That notwithstanding, the major challenges I always encounter is alighting from one bus and trekking through the boundary in search of another vehicle to convey me home. Most times, the fare is three times higher. In addition to this, security personnel enforcing compliance with the curfew are always on hand to harass even those that are on essential duty.”
The situation at the old tollgate in Sango on the Lagos-Abeokuta road is similar to the case of Odo boundary. Brick barricades are mounted across the road, leaving only a section open for vehicular traffic. The long queue of heavy-duty vehicles and a number of cars has forced commercial buses to drop their passengers’ mid way, where they have to trek hundreds of metres to the Lagos section of the road.
While motorists and pedestrians have their way in the day, the story is different at night, as most of them, including essential workers, have to seek alternative routes to get back home, with some forced to abandon their vehicles at the barricades erected by security operatives.
Alhaji Kilani Omosebi, who sells spare parts at the Jankara Market in Agbado, said he goes through gruelling times while making his way to and from the market.
According to him, apart from the long-distance, which he treks before getting on a bus, he now spends N1, 400 for transportation daily as against N400 to N500 before the pandemic broke out.”
A commuter bus driver, Uchendu Lawrence said what should have been strict enforcement of the border closure is compromised by security agents, who are using it to extort members of the public.
“What most people do, especially the rich is to engage police officers to travel with them. With that, they can pass through any boundary without anyone trying to stop them. As good as the decision to close the border is, the issue of extortion and favouritism on the part of the police will not work towards achieving the expected objectives.”
If there is any factor that has exposed the brazen corruption Nigeria represents, then the security arrangement at the River Niger Bridge is it. Little wonder the Anambra State Government erected a metal gate and put the place under lock and key to check the free movement of people to and from the two states during the 8 pm to 6 am curfew, a decision that did not go down well with the Delta State Government, which saw the action as a handshake beyond the elbow, especially as it negates the federal government’s directive on those on essential duties and vehicles conveying essential commodities, such as foodstuff, petroleum products and farm produce, among others.
From about 200 meters away from the former Abraka Market, which was recently demolished because of the activities of criminals, to the head bridge that borders the two states, about four main road barricades were seen, with the Covid-19 task force members brandishing different sizes of wooden batons and sticks on defiant commuters.
Though their official duty was to enforce the orders of Delta State Ifeanyi Okowa by ensuring that only vehicles on essential services were allowed access into and out of the state, but a visit to the location proved contrary, as each of the barricades served as a toll gate, where wheelbarrows, commercial motorcycles, tricycles and commercial buses owners are made to make illegal payments, with task force members watching with glee.
At the former toll gate, where a Hilux van was parked with four members of the task force seated at the back, wearing the team’s tag, a middle-aged man was seen collecting N100 from each tricycle driver.
A few metres close to ‘God Is Good Motors’ garage is a Police checkpoint, with a young man in mufti collecting N100 from each tricycle, while market women with their loads on wheelbarrows paid between N50 and N100, depending on the strength of their bargain and quantity of load being conveyed.
Then just after the ‘C’ Division Police Station by the head bridge is a flurry of activities, with a senior Police officer directing affairs, while Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) personnel were at a checkpoint and a group of boys were seen extorting money openly from fully-loaded commercial buses, not minding the social distancing or wearing facemasks as ordered by the state and federal governments.
A market woman, Mrs. Jecinta Ogoegbu, who was returning from Onitsha with her goods on a wheelbarrow had a near fist cuff with some touts demanding N100, as she retorted: “How many people will I be paying this money to?”
In a chat with The Guardian, she explained: “These people are just wicked, making things so difficult for traders. After buying expensive things at Onitsha Market and trekked that distance, they will be here demanding money at every point. Does the lockdown mean illegal collections without receipts?”
A commercial tricycle operator, Chidi Nweke, added: “This is surely a bonanza time for the security people and the touts that they are working illegally with. Imaging these people (security men) who are supposed to be checking and ensuring that people are obeying government orders collecting N100 from each of the over 1,000 tricycles Keke that ply this route.
“They come in morning and night shifts, making so much money from us.”
It would be recalled that due to the illegality at the head bridge, which had thwarted government directives on inter-state lockdown, the Anambra State Government decided to erect a metal barricade and locked out everybody, leading a gridlock that stretched from the head bridge to almost the Asaba Airport in neighbouring Delta State.
In Awka, an Anambra State Government source said it erected the barriers at border posts to stop the smuggling of persons by security operatives.
The source stated irked by the clear inability of security operatives to restrain the cross-border entry of persons in compliance to the lockdown protocols at the many borders linking it with Enugu, Delta, Imo, Abia, Rivers and Kogi states, the state government was forced to erect walls and iron gate barriers at some of these points.
The source stated that the government was worried, having watched security operatives turn the posts as a money-making venture, where they charged N1, 000 per vehicle and N500 per adult to allow them to cross from one side to the other, especially in the nights, the government initially posted its top officials to the border posts to ensure full compliance, but did not help matters, as the more officials posted, the more the sharp practices.
That lasted for a couple of days before a truce was reached between the two states last Tuesday to ensure the free flow of traffic on the River Niger Bridge at a meeting between their officials at the Asaba end of the bridge.
Briefing newsmen on the outcome of the meeting, Secretary to Anambra State Government, Prof. Solomon Chukwulobelu, in company with his Delta State counterpart, Mr. Chiedu Ebie, said both governments had decided to work together on the enforcement of the lockdown as it concerned movement on the bridge in the interest of the suffering masses.
According to the SSG: “The agreement was intended to free the bridge of heavy trucks constrained to be on it for long periods and ensure that the integrity of the bridge was not compromised.
“Both states resolved to push back their processing points a bit further from the bridge to ensure that heavy vehicles do not get stuck on the bridge. There would be an exchange of personnel from both states to ensure the integrity of the screening being conducted on human and vehicular traffic at the border post.
“On behalf of the Anambra and Delta states governments, we are very pleased to have met at the foot of the bridge on the Delta side to see for ourselves and hear from those who are impacted by the lockdown. After discussing and taking advantage of the various issues concerned, the two governments agreed that Anambra will move further beyond the bridge and Delta will also try to move further behind the foot of the bridge.
“The idea is that those trucks that are not essential or carrying essential commodities can be processed and turned back very quickly, so that those that come into the bridge can have faster exit on the bridge, thereby ensuring that there are no heavy trucks on the bridge at any point in time.”
He added: “We have also agreed, and this is for the benefit of the truck drivers, that each truck should have just the driver and two other persons only. If you are carrying more than three, that truck will not be allowed to proceed further; it will be turned back.
“We further agreed that if you have no business coming unto the bridge, that is a trucker, and you are not carrying essential goods, please do not try to breach this arrangement because you will be turned back.”
He disclosed that the federal government had given approval to some construction companies to return to the site and assured that both states governments would do everything possible to ensure they were not affected negatively, noting: “We appreciate that this is a very difficult time for every person, but so far, people living on both sides of the bridge have been conducting themselves very well and we appeal that they should continue in that direction.”
On his part, Ebie apologised on behalf of both states governments for the inconveniences and hardship being faced by truck drivers as a result of the steps being taken to ensure implementation of the inter-state lockdown.
He added: “We have agreed to ensure a free flow of traffic on the bridge and we will work hard to ensure that there is no stationary traffic on the bridge as well.
“We appeal to transporters to note that inter-state movement is still banned and they should make it more difficult for us because it is already so now. It is taking its toll on everybody and we ask that they cooperate with us and work with us to ensure that we keep Anambra and Delta people safe at this period.”
He commended the two states commissioners of Police and members of their task forces and security agencies for their support.
Delta State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Charles Aniagwu, warned that any truck not on the essential list would be impounded, reiterating that movement of people in large numbers was also prohibited.
“The decision is to kill COVID-19 and not to kill the businesses and that is why we are intervening the way we are doing,” he added.