CoronaGates: How security operatives are sabotaging Wike, Obiano’s efforts

Reading Time: 8 minutes

■ Commuters pay between N400 and N1000 to pass gates 

■ Anambra, Delta clash over River Niger bridge gate, 2 SSGs reach truce

The aphorism that ‘desperate times demand desperate measures’ was given expression when the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike and his Anambra State counterpart, Willie Obiano, respectively erected massive iron gates at two major entry points to their states.

Governor Wike erected a gate in Oyigbo Local Government Area at the Imo River border between Rivers and Abia State while Governor Obiano similarly erected an iron gate at the River Niger Bridge entry point to Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of the state.

However, Obiano’s action nettled Delta State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa as he considered it an affront and consequently directed that the gate built on the Asaba side of the Niger Bridge, which had caused severe traffic gridlock that affected movement within Asaba, the state capital, be pulled down.

This ultimately led to flurry of phone calls between key official of the two states and consequently an emergency meeting to resolve the issues and avert looming ‘war’ over the gate.

Following the outbreak of the Coronavirus disease in the country, Wike had proactively taken the step to declare a closure of the major entry points at the boundary between the state and other states, to curb the importation of the virus into Rivers.

When the monitoring exercise embarked on by the governor to evaluate the effectiveness of the ban on vehicular and human traffic in and out Rivers showed that the move had not proved to be a strong deterrence, the state government decided to build a metal barricade at the Imo River, the border between Rivers and Abia State to strengthen the enforcement of the border closure.

The Aba-Port Harcourt expressway is a major highway from Port Harcourt to Enugu and from the Coal City links to Benue State and other parts of the North. There are two other major roads between Rivers and Imo, Rivers and Bayelsa, as well as Rivers and Akwa Ibom State.

During the course of the lockdown, there were allegations of corrupt practices by security agencies manning the closed boundary points. Wike while expressing frustration over the lax enforcement of the boundary closure directive had accused the security agents of compromise and contributed to the rise of COVID-19 cases in the state.

Nigeria Daily day Nigeria Daily  reporter who visited the Oyigbo boundary at Imo River observed that security operatives were very active collecting tolls from motorists and other commuter bus drivers and allowing them to enter or exit from the state.

Some of the commuters who passed through the Wike’s barricade to enter into Aba told Nigeria Daily day Nigeria Daily  that the drivers had to sort out the security operatives manning the gate with N500, the same with those manning the Niger Bridge Obiano’s gate, who were collecting N1,000.

However, it was learnt that any day the Chairman of Oyigbo LGA, Gerrard Oforji, visited the River’s barricade, travellers would groan as there would be strict enforcement. A commercial motorcyclist told Nigeria Daily day Nigeria Daily  that one could spend more than four hours with security agencies there.

Another person, Emmanuel, further revealed that for the duration of Oforji’s stay at the border, no vehicle or person would cross the border, but when the council chairman leaves, security agencies would revert to their ‘main business’ of collecting tolls to ease movement in and out of the state.

Nigeria Daily day Nigeria Daily  noticed that everybody trekking across the border, no matter the age, had to pay N400, which was collected on behalf of the security operatives by some community boys dressed in reflective apron.

Commercial cars, buses, heavy duty and private vehicle drivers paid different rates. Some drivers, who did not want their names mentioned in print, said the border closure was not in the interest of the poor people as the expenses incurred in settling the security operatives was passed to them in terms of higher fares. They argued that many poor families depend on daily income before they eat.  For instance, a journey to Aba from Obigbo which used to be N400 is now N900.

A Port Harcourt-based trader, Obinna Nwachukwu, told the reporter that travelling to Aba to buy goods was an inevitable choice. He said: “This lockdown has shown us that life is not what and how we think it is. It is not easy. Just to cross to another state, people are suffering in this manner. It is unbelievable.

“To buy goods from Aba and convey to Port Harcourt, under this COVID-19 border closure causes pain in the heart. Unfortunately, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Government, in the guise of fighting COVID-19 pandemic, erroneously created an opportunity for security agents to enrich themselves. The poor people are suffering for it.”

Anambra State Governor Obiano, whose territory gives access to the rest of the Southeast found his administration in the discomforting position of being inundated by a flood of suspicious night travellers passing through or terminating their trips in the state and possibly bringing with them the dreaded COVID-19 that could worsen the situation of the state and further burden the healthcare system.

To checkmate this dangerous trend, the Anambra State Taskforce on COVID-19 moved in the night of Saturday, May 23 to erect an iron barrier on Onitsha bridgehead aimed at controlling both vehicular and human movement into the state.

By Nigeria Daily day afternoon, the gate had not been opened, resulting in untold hardship to motorists, truck drivers and pedestrians, who became stranded for hours before it was eventually opened.

Reacting to the frustrations expressed by aggrieved victims of the measure, Senior Special Assistant to Governor Willie Obiano on Parks and Markets and Chairman of COVID-19 Taskforce at Onitsha Bridgehead, Mr Anthony Obieze, said that the taskforce, which is made up of youths, political appointees and security agencies, was set up to man the boundary and check people coming into the state.

His words: “There is no way we shall satisfy human beings. We put the barricade to stop travellers from coming into the state with the virus especially at night. We noticed that despite the ban on interstate travel, some people always travel from one state to another. So, what they do is to stop at the Asaba end and walk into Anambra across the bridge and then continue their journey to their various destinations.

“You can see that our effort will be fruitless if we continue to watch and allow such activities to go on without checkmating the movement, to curtail the spread of the virus and stopping those that may import it into the state.  We put the gate to check the travellers with the necessary devices before we allow them to cross to ensure that they are not infected with the disease.”

He said that they were told to allow only vehicles with essential commodities like food, medicines, etc, “but you will see some other vehicles with passengers trying to force themselves into the state.”

The President General of Bridgehead Markets, Chief Nigeria Daily day Obinze commended the state government and the taskforce for taking the bull by the horn by putting the iron barrier in a bid to curb importation of the virus into the state.

He blamed the security agents at the bridge for the initial poor enforcement of the governor’s directive, which necessitated erection of the barricade at the bridgehead.

A resident of Asaba, Mrs Chinwe Nwuzor, lamented the hardship they suffered due to closure of the bridge against the residents and motorists, saying that those doing business in Onitsha found it difficult to cross.

“We normally make use of pedestal walkways, but now they closed it completely with iron bars and we cannot use there again. So, now everybody is using the major road, which is dangerous for us who cross on foot. I’m appealing to them to reconsider and open the pedestrian walkway for free movement,” she pleaded.

Meanwhile, Anambra and Delta state governments have agreed on strategies to check the heavy human and vehicular traffic across the Niger Bridge amid the ban on inter-state travel.

The Secretary to the Government of Anambra, Prof. Solo Chukwulobelu and his Delta State counterpart, Mr Chiedu Ebie, held a meeting at the Asaba end of the bridgehead where they agreed on best modalities to tackle the border issues.

The Commissioners of Police as well as COVID-19 Task Force teams from both states were also present during the meeting.

The meeting was held to douse tension between the two state governments over the iron barricades built on both sides of the bridge.

Chukwulobelu who addressed newsmen after their meeting said that both governments had agreed to move their checkpoints far from the foot of the bridge to enable free flow of traffic.

His words: “The idea is that those trucks that are not on essential service or not carrying essential commodities can be turned back very quickly while those that come into the bridge can have faster exit. This will ensure that there are no heavy trucks parked on the bridge at any point in time and further minimise the suffering of people and time wasted on the bridge.”

The Anambra SSG also said that both parties agreed that each truck crossing the bridge would have just a driver and two helpers.

“If you are carrying more than three people including the driver, that truck will not be allowed to proceed and may be impounded. The two state governments have agreed to ensure that construction workers and materials, especially those for Federal Government projects are not hindered from crossing,” he added.

The Delta SSG promised that the state government would collaborate with the Anambra government to ensure that the strategies were implemented to guarantee flow of traffic.

“But our plea to everyone is that if you have no business on the bridge, respect yourself and stay away. Those who defy the directive will have their trucks impounded; before you depart your station, please ensure you are not carrying frivolous goods.

“We have noticed that some commercial transporters play smart by discharging their passengers shortly before the bridge and then crossing to pick them up at the other side. We will be smarter this time around to ensure that such buses are impounded as well,” Ebie warned.

He apologized on behalf of both governments for the inconveniences and hardship being faced by truck drivers as a result of the steps being taken by both governments to ensure implementation of the inter-state lockdown as ordered by President Buhari.

Ebie thanked the Commissioners of Police and members of the Task Forces from both states and security agencies for their support.

The meeting between the two top Anambra and Delta states officials was prompted by the iron-gate mounted at the Asaba end of the River Niger Bridge in Delta State by Anambra State COVID-19 Taskforce, which irked Governor Okowa, who ordered that it be dismantled within 24 hours.

However, the removal of the barrier has resulted in the build-up of traffic on top of the bridge as a result of screening at both the Asaba and Onitsha ends to ensure that only vehicles conveying essential goods are allowed access. Meanwhile, pedestrians, motorcyclists and tricyclists get unfettered access at both ends of the bridge.

Madam Udoka who hawks Abacha, a local delicacy in Asaba, comes from Onitsha every day to sell. She told Nigeria Daily day Nigeria Daily  in Asaba that she usually crosses the bridge on foot with her wares borne on her head, adding that at times she boards a tricycle or motorcycle if available.

“They don’t stop Okada or Keke on the bridge. It is only cars and trucks that are checked. Whenever I cross over into Delta, I will trek down to the tollgate area to board commercial bus going into Asaba,” she said, adding that business has been stressful since the implementation of the inter-state lockdown.

Also Musa, an assistant on one of the trailers stuck on the Niger Bridge (at the time of the report), said that a lot of man-hour was being lost every day as a result of the screening being done at both ends.

Musa said a lot of perishable goods, including fruits and vegetables had been destroyed in the course of trying to negotiate to get to their destination. He lamented that the screening always took too long, leading to heavy vehicular traffic on the expressway.

“The other day, tomatoes and fruits went bad in the vehicles that were bringing them because of the long queue of vehicles. There was nowhere to preserve the goods. This is what we go through every day in trying to provide essential services,” Musa said.

Meanwhile, security agents and other officials enforcing the lockdown are having hectic time with the traffic at the screening points. The rule that no vehicle should carry more than two persons is being by-passed by truck drivers.

While the screening is going on, some private vehicle owners who are on essential duties do actually help those not on essential duties to cross.

“Human beings are always difficult to deal with,” said an official of the Delta State taskforce, adding that “some private vehicle owners will come here and show us identity card or a permit because they are on essential duty, but what we are finding difficult to deal with is the fact that some of these persons do actually carry their loved ones across.

“What they do is to stop some meters away, drop those not legally permitted and pass the screening, only to pick up the same set of persons he/she had dropped off, to continue the journey into Onitsha.”

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