By Arinze Chijioke
In this report, Arinze Chijioke travelled to Imo State from Enugu and back, to investigate how security operatives extort money from commercial drivers across multiple checkpoints and delay travel time for road users
Travelling from Garki, one of the major markets in Enugu State where several motor parks are located to Owerri, the Imo State capital, is a 138km journey that should take roughly 2 hours and 16 minutes.
However, commercial drivers spend an extra 1 hour and sometimes more before they get to their destination because they stop several times on the road, not for security checks but for drivers to pay different amounts of money to security agencies against their wishes.
From the park in Gariki to Owerri, there are usually a minimum of 20 roadblocks manned by different security agencies. On July 21, 2023 – when this reporter travelled from Enugu to Owerri as part of the investigation – there were a total of 30 security checkpoints, out of which 11 were manned by the Army, 15 by the Nigerian Police, two by the Federal Road Safety and three by officials of the Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO).
Among the areas where checkpoints were (are) located between Enugu and Owerri are four-Corner, along Ituku Ozalla, along Lokpanta road, at the boundary between Enugu and Abia State, along Okigwe and Umuna on Owerri-Okiwgwe road in Imo State, among others.
Some of these drivers have their papers valid and are willing to present them. But the security agents don’t want to see papers. They want to see the money. And when drivers insist on presenting papers, they are parked and sometimes forgotten for an hour, till they are forced to change their minds. It is common to see drivers and officers having confrontations by the road side.
Travelling along the Enugu-Owerri route, it was noticed that the amount to be paid is usually determined by the size of the vehicle and what it is carrying. For truck drivers, army officers collect N500 and more. For Sienna drivers, which is the common mode of commercial transport, both the army and the police collect between N100 and N200. But road safety officials collect N500 if a driver is carrying a load and N200 if it’s just the passengers.
It was also noticed that most of these checkpoints exist only a few meters away from one another. From one checkpoint, one could see officers stopping and searching vehicles in another location.
Across at least five out of the locations manned by the military from Enugu to Owerri, passengers were asked to disembark and walk past roadblocks on foot and get back into their vehicles. Oftentimes, drivers are not searched when they get to the points where they should be checked. Private car owners are rarely asked to come down.
Israel Njoku regularly plies the Enugu Owerri Road to work and has missed appointments on several due to delays along the road. He says the checkpoints unnecessarily prolong journey and make it a lot more inconvenient and stressful.
“I understand the security concerns, but I still believe the measures are excessive,” said Njoku who also argues that many of the checkpoints are there exclusively for extortion purposes as the policemen or army officers only reach for money rather than conduct any searches or ask for any documents.
Slapped for not paying N100
This year, Ken Ugochukwu, a Sienna driver – who plies the Enugu-Owerri Road – was slapped by a police officer at Umuna on Owerri-Okiwgwe road, Imo State, because he told the officer that he did not have N100 to pay.
“I told him it was a company vehicle and that I had my complete papers when he stopped me, Ugochukwu recalled. But he insisted that I Pay the money and slapped me when I refused, he also parked me for over an hour,” he lamented.
On several occasions, Ugochukwu had been stopped by the police – whom he describes as the most notorious – for carrying passengers with dreadlocks. And each time, their phones are checked and their bags scattered and even when nothing incriminating is found on them, they are forced to make transfers to the officers.
“I could use the ten or 20 minutes I waste at a checkpoint to cover a distance. I don’t even talk about saving up because that is only possible when there are not too many checkpoints on the road.”
In 2019, Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in Africa, conducted research wherein it found that the Police were the most corrupt institution even though the figure fell from 72% in 2015 to 69% in 2019.
Despite decades of criticism both by the Nigerian public and international institutions, the police and other agencies have on many occasions been reported to have shot drivers who refuse to pay bribe.
What is most worrying is that while some officers face disciplinary measures for extorting citizens, many more have been lucky to escape punishment. Successive police leadership have ordered the removal of checkpoints. But compliance is hardly enforced.
Ugochukwu also said that the roadblocks usually increase during the afternoon and evening hours and on weekends because they know that people are travelling more on those days.
“It is sad that the security operatives have abandoned their jobs of protecting lives and now extort commuters, they don’t search vehicles again. Some drivers move with expired documents because they don’t ask for papers. They don’t even care about the increase in fuel price. All they want is the money.”
A police officer who prefers not to be mentioned for fear of victimisation told this reporter that on daily basis, officers are usually given targets by bosses at the top like Divisional Police Officers (DPOs) before they head out for the day’s job.
“Sometimes, some commissioners are aware of what is happening. And that is why we try as much as possible to ensure that we meet these targets before each day runs out and as soon as we return, we remit the money,” he said.
Last year, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, (HURIWA) asked former Inspector-General of Police, Usman Alkali Baba to check the menace of illegal checkpoints in the region which had resulted in some deaths.
In 2022, at least two persons were killed and others injured after a truck rammed into six vehicles held up at a police checkpoint along Ihiala–Onitsha Expressway in Anambra State. Sometimes, there are over 30 cars waiting to be allowed to pass because security forces are trying to get change for a particular driver or they are haggling over what amount should be paid.
Working but earning almost nothing
Bright Ndudiri drives a Sienna on hire purchase and regularly plies the Enugu-Owerri route. But he considers quitting the job because he hardly returns home with any money at the end of each day. He is married with four children.
“I am still doing the job because I don’t want to stay idle as a family man, hence I keep working till I get something better. There is almost nothing left from the money that passengers pay, we are making it for security agencies and fuel,” Ndudiri lamented.
Ndudiri used to embark on four trips, but that was before the checkpoints along the Enugu-Owerri increased. Now, he says that is not possible given the hours he spends on the road due to roadblocks.
“Sometimes, I only return home with N1000 after I have bought one or two items for my children. I only earn money whenever I get waybills from passengers or go for charter,” he said.
Crunching the numbers
Before each day ends, Ndudiri usually embarks on two trips From Enugu to Owerri. For each of these trips, a passenger pays N4500. That is N31,500 for seven passengers per trip.
Out of this amount, he spends N14,000 on fuel, N5000 on commission before he leaves the park, N3000 on settling security forces at various checkpoints and N7500 back to the owner of the car. That is N29,500 only on expenditure. At the end of each trip, he is left with only N2000.
At the end of the day, he collects N63,000 from 14 passengers but spends 59,000 on expenses, including N28,000 on fuel, N6000 on checkpoints, N10,000 on commission at the park and N15,000 on return to his boss. He returns home with N4000.
Breakdown of daily earnings and spendings by Sienna drivers from Enugu to Owerri
|No of passengers for Sienna||Total amount paid by passengers at N4,500 each||Amount spent on fuel per trip||Amount spent on road blocks at N100 each||Commission at the park||Amount driver pays to Vehicle owner or keeps for maintenance|
|Total per day||14||N63,000||N28,000||N6000||N10,000||N15,000|
Total income=N63,000-N59,000 total expenditure
When he is travelling, Ndudiri keeps at least N4000 in his dashboard for settlement of security forces so that they don’t park him and waste his time. According to him, “all they want is money because the times I have been stopped and showed my papers, they asked me if that is what they will eat?
“Formally, I used to return home with at least N9000, but all of that has changed because of the fuel hike and the money I spend on the road. Sometimes, they intimidate and threaten to shoot if I refuse to pay and try to show my papers,” he said.
He said that his wife always thinks that he spends money on frivolities whenever he returns home and cannot provide to refill the gas for instance or provide any other items lacking. She always reminds him of how he wakes up as early as 5 am daily to work yet returns home with almost nothing.
Ndudiri’s experience captures the exact situation for hundreds of drivers who ply the South-East on a daily basis, trying to earn money for themselves and their families.
Billions pocketed in three years
In its report on the activities of security operatives in the South-East, covering July 2020 to July 2023, the International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law (Intersociety) found that there were an estimated 6000 police-mounted roadblocks on Trunk A (federal roads), Trunk B (state/inter-state roads) and Trunk C (local government/community roads) motorised roads spreading across the South-East and South-South.
“These roadblocks are mounted by over 40,000 police personnel and at least, 550 police roadblocks per state and seven extortionist police personnel at each roadblock,” the report found.
The report also found that a minimum of N60, 000 estimated to be illicitly collected daily by each of the estimated 6000 police roadblocks, N360m is illicitly pocketed daily, N10.8b monthly and N130b yearly; further translating to N390 billion illicitly collected from motorists and other road users between July 2020 and July 2023.
According to the report, there are also an estimated 2500 military roadblocks involving 25,000 military personnel, with an average of 250 military roadblocks per state and an estimated ten military personnel at each military roadblock.
“At an estimated minimum of N100,000 illicitly collected daily by each of the estimated 2500 military roadblocks, a minimum of N250m is illicitly collected daily, N7.5b monthly and N90b yearly further translating to N270 billion from July 2020-July 2023.”
Put together, a total of N660 billion was extorted across checkpoints manned by the Nigeria Police and military in the eleven South-East and South-South states examined in the past three years.
It had released a similar report in December 2018 where it accused the Nigerian security and law enforcement agencies of pocketing over N100 billion in roadside bribery and extortion in the region in three years. Its findings in the report began in August 2015.
Both the Nigerian Army and Road Safety denied the allegations of extortion at the time, insisting that they do not condone corruption or corrupt tendencies amongst their personnel.
“But it is still what is happening now; the roadblocks have even increased and motorists continue to be exploited against their wish,” said Chairman, Board of Trustees of Intersociety Emeka Umeagbalasi.
According to him, what is most worrying is the fact that despite the multiplicity of checkpoints in the region, criminal activities continued to hold sway, even in spots where there are roadblocks.
“We have had several cases of kidnaps along the roads that are manned even by the military and it gives us a cause to worry in the zone. And there are hardly responses to these kidnaps,” he said.
Police, other security agencies lobby for posting
Among the reasons for the increased rate of extortion in the South-East, Ikengaonline findings show, is the fact that security operatives lobby to get posted to roads in the South-East now considered a gold mine.
An officer of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) revealed the scenario thus: “We have different classes of officers and interests. For Policemen and Army officers, yes they prefer serving in the South-East. And they lobby to be posted there.
“For Civil Defense, officers prefer the South-South and Abuja. The first two make money from the South-East without disturbance; it therefore serves as a gold mine. Then the last make their own money at South-South and Abuja that’s where their treasure pot is.”
Emeka (not real name), a senior police officer serving in Anambra, revealed that there is lobbying in the entire security system and that every officer has the opportunity to lobby for posting.
According to him, there is a general preference for officers to be posted to the South and South-East in particular, because of the chances of making money, especially, during crisis periods.
“Currently, in the North, there is not too much money there, hence an average officer wants to serve in the South, the South-East in particular.
“Some of us would never want to leave the road even with the risks involved,” he said.
On what it takes to lobby, the officer said “a letter could be written; and someone could solicit on another person’s behalf. (If it becomes difficult, you give them money).”
For checkpoints, he said the lobbying is not always a matter of preference.
“Some who prefer being on the road take it that the risks are temporary. But there are still some officers that prefer not to be on the road, but in offices. For them, no matter the gain, they prefer being in the office than the roads. So, if you post an officer to the road and he complains, others are more than willing to go.”
Corroborating this, another officer who works in Abia State revealed that officers of the police consider the South-East more economically viable and safer than other parts of the country.
“Typically, commuters in the South-East do not want to be delayed on the way and so, if you stop them, they have value for their time and will be ready to pay money to continue their journey, unlike in other parts of the country,” he said.
Heightened insecurity, reason for checkpoints?
While the army says that the strategy of asking commuters to come down and trek past checkpoints is intended to check the rising cases of attacks by unknown gunmen and also help fight growing insecurity in the zone, commuters say the process is frustrating and time-consuming. Others say it is worrying because it is not the same scenario in other parts of the country.
This July, the Chief of Army Staff, Maj. Gen. Taoreed Lagbaja directed troops of the Nigerian Army to assert control over the region following the constant directives by a self-acclaimed disciple of Nnamdi Kanu, detained leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, imposing a sit-at-home order.
The Director of Army Public Relations, Brig. Gen. Onyema Nwachukwu was quoted as saying that the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, in collaboration with other security agencies, has been directed to conduct robust patrols, secure flash-points, and ensure that citizens can freely carry out their lawful activities.
“The renewed threat by IPOB to compel the people in South-East Nigeria to sit at home is not only appalling but a violation of the fundamental rights of South-Eastern Nigerians and, therefore, unlawful. This will never be condoned,” Nwachukwu said.
Secretary General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Alex Ogbonna agrees that the numerous checkpoints in the South-East are aimed at ensuring security and stabilising the region.
He however frowned at the increasing rate of extortion, which according to him, does not tell good of the image and integrity of the security agencies whose job should be the protection of lives and property of the citizens.
“Apart from the hike in fuel price, the extortion is also contributing to increasing transport fair because drivers also have to consider what they spend on the road. They must understand that their uniform should be treated with honour,” he said.
He recalled that Ohanaeze complained about how commuters were made to trek past checkpoints to the current chief of Army Staff who was the GOC of the 82 Division at the time and it was relaxed.
“Now, the reports are coming again, we will inform him about it and see what happens. However, we must appreciate the security agencies for the risks they are taking in the protection of lives and property of the people, some of them have lost their lives as a result.”
He said that while the security agencies cannot be asked to leave the roads, especially giving the current security challenges, they need to focus on their jobs and treat the people with respect and dignity.
Modern security methods, way to go
Chairman of the Enugu State Chapter of the Guild of Public Affairs Analysts of Nigeria, Dr. Ambrose Igboke says that modern security strategy has outgrown just deploying physical presence of boots on the ground.
“Nigeria’s security strategy is too overt for modern security. Standing on the road, blocking it and ransacking motorists and even pedestrians and flipping car documents to search for ‘particulars,’ are relics of colonial policing,” he opined.
He regretted that most of the security organisations in Nigeria lack adequate possession of modern security, hence they rely on physical strategy, which is primordial.
According to him, it is also worrying that the South-East is heavily militarised with the highest number of roadblocks in the country even when compared to the North-East, which has been a theatre of war for more than 11 years.
He however noted that there was a need for the government to invest in more technology methods of security with the use of gadgets such as drones, CCTV cameras and precision GPS which will not only improve the security of lives and property of the citizens but also reduce exposing our security personnel to attacks as we have recorded in the past.
Training, improved welfare for officers
A branch chairman of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) in Imo State Sylvanus Ikechi (Not real name) said that while the multiple checkpoints have improved the security of lives and property of commuters, the multiple payments leave drivers with little or nothing at the end of the day.
“Economically, we are badly affected because it is like paying multiple taxes.
“We have had drivers complain about how they spend money on fuel, spare parts, maintenance of their vehicles and then checkpoints but security operatives have often said it is a policy,” he said.
He also said that it is necessary for all security agencies to consider the training and retraining of their officers to ensure that they are professional enough in the discharge of their duties of ensuring security of lives rather than extorting the citizens.
“The government should also look at ways of improving the welfare of officers, particularly, those of the police because they also have families.
“That can help to reduce the way in which they force drivers to pay money on the road,” he asserted.
Police, Army react
When contacted, Imo State Police Public Relations Officer, Henry Okoye, more or less confirmed the allegations of extortion by Police officers. He however said that the Commissioner of Police in the state, Mohammed Barde, had mandated all Area Commanders, DPOs and Tactical Team Commanders to ensure that they embark on a strict supervision of officers deployed on stop and search and other forms of operational duties.
“The goal is to ensure that they are highly professional and desist from extorting motorists as well as uphold the tenets of the rule of law while discharging their duties.
“The CP also inaugurated an investigation team charged with the duty of supervising these officers.”
He said that road users would not be complaining about multiple checkpoints if officers were carrying out their duties professionally because there is a need for the police to be everywhere to ensure the security of lives and property.
“But we are going to set an example with some officers who have refused to adhere to the standard operation principles of the force,” he said.
The spokesperson of the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Jonah Unuakhalu, also said that he will investigate the allegations as he had also received similar complaints about the unprofessional conduct of some officers deployed on the roads.
This Report is part of activities by the Ikenga Media & Cultural Awareness Initiative (IMCAI) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability Project, a multi-level intervention for media independence and government accountability, managed by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) and supported by MacArthur Foundation.