On April 27, President Muhammadu Buhari during his third nationwide broadcast on measures taken by the government to curb the spread of the coronavirus announced a ban on non-essential interstate travels. The president also declared a nationwide curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
What Mr Buhari may not have realised was that his directive would create an extortion bazaar for security personnel, state government officials and other non-state actors across the country.
A PREMIUM TIMES investigation across the six geo-political regions of Nigeria revealed that state governors who had originally called for the ban on interstate travels did very little in their domains to ensure full compliance; with some choosing rather to erect easily breached flimsy gates at major boundaries with neighbouring states which did little or nothing to stop motorists willing to bribe security officials or residents of surrounding villages from travelling through.
For five days, PREMIUM TIMES' reporters travelled across 21 states and Abuja with little or no restrictions gathering pieces of evidence from tens of security checkpoints, bus terminals, towns and villages across their routes.
Breaches at Bus Terminals
The first sign that many Nigerians, especially non-essential commercial transporters, did not think much of the presidential directive and that state governments were not keen on enforcing it could be observed at major interstate bus terminals across the country.
Penultimate Sunday, at the popular Jibowu and Berger bus terminals in Lagos, business continued as usual for a lot of transport operators. Though the offices of branded and registered interstate transport bus operators were closed for business in compliance with Mr Buhari's directive, business was booming mainly for operators of Toyota Sienna minivans and owners of unbranded buses.
At Jibowu, touts made no attempt to hide their operations as they openly solicited for passengers and goods into several Toyota Sienna minivans parked along the main road and adjoining streets. No security personnel or state government enforcement officials were seen around.
In Abuja, the story was not different. About 20 minutes' drive from the Garki headquarters of the Nigeria Police, commercial vehicles at Nyanya Park in Abuja convey passengers travelling to Kaduna daily, breaching the interstate travel ban.
Inside the Nyanya park, also commonly called El-Rufai Park, on Wednesday morning, passengers were expressing fears about a possible arrest for breaching the government ban order, but one driver allayed their fears.
"You know El-Rufai (Kaduna State Governor) blocking entry into Kaduna and we may be arrested or have to be quarantined for 14 days before entering," said a worried passenger, taking a piece of furniture to Kaduna.
"We will go and get to Kaduna," the driver said. "We will pay the security (agents)."
Travellers first hint of the free-for-all extortion on the roads was the astronomical hike in fares. In some routes, passengers were charged up to 160 per cent more than the usual fare. A trip from Jibowu to Onitsha and other parts of the South East that usually cost between N6,000 and N7,000 now cost travellers between N15,000 and N18,000. A trip from Lagos to Uyo which usually cost between N7,000 and N8,000 now cost at least N20,000.
"Oga, shaybi you will be in the car as we go, you will see how much we will give to police before we get to Onitsha", said the driver of a Toyota Sienna minivan conveying one of our reporters when questioned about the hike in the fare.
The driver said he spends about N50,000 bribing policemen, soldiers and other security operatives before he gets to Onitsha. The reporter thought he was making things up to justify the hike in the fare. But things turned out to be worse than the driver had narrated.
Extortion Bazaar to Owerri
The journey from Jibowu Terminal to the Sagamu Bypass on the Sagamu -Benin Expressway was uneventful as there were no police checkpoints at the Berger boundary between Lagos and Ogun. But as soon as the minivan passed the Sagamu bypass, the extortion bazaar began.
Almost all security outfits in the country - the police, the military, the Nigerian Vigilante Group, the Federal Road Safety Corps, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and even officials of states' COVID-19 taskforces and employees of the construction company, RCC, participated in the free-for-all shakedown of mainly commercial motorists flouting the presidential order.
Our reporter counted 58 checkpoints from the Sagamu bypass to the Delta State end of the Niger Bridge. Despite the proliferation of checkpoints on the road, all the driver of the minivan he was travelling in and other commercial vehicles needed to do to be passed through was to pay at least a bribe of N500 at each checkpoint.
Though many of the checkpoints were just a few metres apart, the heaviest clusters of checkpoints on the route were at state boundaries. Here, the bribe is usually doubled to N1000 at each checkpoint before they were allowed through.
At the boundary between Ogun and Ondo State on the Sagamu- Benin Expressway, there was a cluster of about 10 checkpoints made up of officials of the FRSC, different units of the Nigeria Police, military personnel, officials of the COVID-19 taskforces of both states and a checkpoint manned by employees of the road construction firm, RCC.
Close to Okada in Edo State, the driver of the minivan who had become increasingly cranky after spending a good chunk of his earned fare on bribing security personnel tried to evade a checkpoint manned by operatives of the police highway patrol units, he was pursued and intercepted at a checkpoint less than 300 metres away manned by operatives of the same team whose blockade he had tried to breach seconds ago. The driver was handcuffed to the police van and the commuters driven back to the original checkpoint by a policeman.
One of the operatives threatened to shoot the driver on the spot adding that nothing will happen if he did.
"I will shoot you and say I did it because you tried to kill us with your car," he said calmly.
He then demanded that the diver of the minivan buys enough fuel to fill up the tank of the unit's van. After negotiation for about an hour, the policemen settled for a N5,000 bribe before allowing the minivan and passengers through.
Just before we entered Benin City, the capital city of Edo State, commuters were asked to alight from their vehicle and were screened by health workers with a temperature gun for fever and asked if they have had a fever or have been coughing before being allowed to continue with their trips.
At Isiele Ukwu in Delta State, a team of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the police apprehended the minivan and threaten to charge every occupant before the state's COVID-19 mobile court for flouting the ban on interstate travel.
The policemen later demanded a bribe of N15,000 to let the passengers and minivan go. After about 40 minutes of negotiation, they reduced it to N5,000. At this time, the bus driver had become full-blown irritable and said he was not going to pay the bribe from the fare: his passengers had to raise N5,000 among themselves to pay off the policemen.
At the Delta State end of the Niger Bridge, the traffic of vehicle into Anambra State extended to about three kilometres. At this point, the driver of the minivan, who had been following a police motorcade driving against the traffic, refused to continue the trip Owerri, our original destination.
Passengers either had to walk the about 6 kilometres to the Niger Bridge or take commercial motorcycle at N700 to the Anambra end of the bridge before walking around a yellow and black spiked gate the state government had erected in a futile effort to stop persons from crossing into the state. The police and military checkpoints at the head of the bridge did nothing to stop pedestrians walking into the state.
Our reporter had to take a bus from the foot of the Upper Iweka flyover bridge at Onitsha to continue his journey into Owerri. He paid N3,000 to Owerri instead of the usual fare of between N600 and N1,000.
At the boundary between Anambra and Imo State, the police operatives manning a gate erected by the Imo State Government refused to let anyone through because it was past 8 p.m., which was the start of the curfew.
"I am following the order of the governor. Nobody is going to pass through this gate tonight," he said. You can go and follow your normal way if you like. But no one will pass through here until tomorrow morning," he added declining to allow a Catholic priest and other motorists who were pleading with him to allow them through.
The "normal way" the policeman spoke about was through nearby villages around Mgbidi in Oru West Local Government of Imo State. As we drove from one narrow path to another, we encountered a different kind of extortion - youth from villages along the paths had erected blockages and were charging motorists N100 at each blockage to be allowed through. PREMIUM TIMES counted no fewer than 20 of such blockages.
At Owerri, interstate commercial vehicles to Aba, Port Harcourt and neighbouring states in the South-East and South-South operated openly without hindrance despite the ubiquity of the officials of the state's COVID-19 taskforce.
Our reporter spent more than 14 hours from Lagos to Owerri. The trip usually takes less than 8 hours.
Owerri To Aba
Our reporter's trip from Owerri to Aba the next day was not devoid of drama. Residents of villages around Okpala along the Owerri-Aba Expressway who were protesting the alleged killing of two youth by soldiers attached to the nearby Nigerian Navy Finance And Logistics College, Owerrinta, while enforcing the ban on interstate travels, blocked the expressway and other major roads out of the area, leaving throngs of travellers and motorists stranded.
Motorists from Owerri who were determined to get to Aba had to drive through villages where they were also extorted by villagers who placed blockages on roads.
Though the COVID-19 taskforce in Aba appeared to be more effective in curbing the activities of interstate transporters, than in other states previously visited, very little was achieved. Operators hid their buses away from the main park and the view of taskforce officials, but when they gather enough passengers, they move them to where the buses are hidden.
The only difference from the trip between Aba and Enugu and the trip from Sagamu to Onitsha was the fewer number of checkpoints on the Aba-Enugu route. Security operatives and officials of the Abia, Imo and Enugu states COVID-19 taskforces brazenly demanded and took bribes to allow commercial and private motorists through.
There were remarkably fewer checkpoints on the Enugu- Abakaliki Expressway between Enugu and Ebonyi State. Also, Ebonyi seemed to have taken the ban on interstate travel more seriously than others.
The driver of the bus our reporter took from Enugu explained that before last week, people could travel easily from Enugu to Ebonyi but the state government replaced the police unit at the boundary between both states near Nkalagu with another unit made up of soldiers, policemen and operatives of the NSCDC which is largely adhering to the ban on interstate travels.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited the checkpoint at the boundary, only trucks carrying essential goods were allowed into the state. Commercial motorists and motorcyclists were prohibited from coming within 500 metres of the checkpoint and even some pedestrians who tried to cross the barricades were apprehended and detained at the checkpoints. Several villagers along the route resorted to crossing across to the Ebonyi and back using footpaths that lead into nearby bushes.
The Return Trip to Lagos
Our reporter spent 48 hours on the trip from Aba to Lagos. The trip usually takes between 8 and 10 hours. This reporter arrived in Delta after 8 p.m. and had to spend the night with other travellers caught by the curfew at the old toll gate in Asaba, Delta State, on a plastic chair in the open.
Even here, the extortion did not stop. At about 3 a.m. an official of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria started waking up the commuters and collecting N100 from each of them. When asked what the money was meant for, he explained that it was for the security personnel providing security as the stranded passengers slept.
But before we arrived Asaba, the driver of the minivan this reporter took from Aba made a detour through River State to avoid the checkpoints on the main road, making nonsense of Governor Nyesom Wike's much publicised zero tolerance on entry into the state.
However, that decision almost ended in tragedy as a drunk policeman manning a checkpoint along Okehi Road in Etche Local Government Area threatened and seemed ready to shoot at the driver and our reporter who was seating in the front passenger seat but for the intervention of one of his colleagues because the driver gave him N500 bribe instead of the N1000 he had demanded.
On our trip from Asaba to Lagos, most of the checkpoints this reporter encountered on his trip to the South-East were still there and unrelenting in their appetite for extorting motorists and other travellers.
The Incident at Mowe Police Station
At Mowe just outside Lagos, a team of policemen had erected a checkpoint just outside the police station and were impounding mainly interstate commercial vehicles. The minivan our reporter was in was impounded, and the driver directed to drive into the police station where we were accused of violating the state's lockdown order and ban of interstate travels. Our driver was directed to talk to an Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), Tajudeen Olaleye, who was overseeing the entire extortion operation. Mr Olaleye demanded a bribe of N5,000 before the minivan would be released.
At one point when Mr Olaleye suspected that our reporter was looking at his name tag, he boasted in Yoruba thusly: "look at my name tag all you want. I am a real Egba man and there is nothing you can do with it. I know a lot of influential people."
This reporter also observed that the policemen at the station kept a register of the vehicles impounded and the bribe paid by each vehicle.
They used a code that involved the names of the months of the year to keep a tab of the amount collected from each vehicle. If a driver paid the N5,000, Mr Olaleye would instruct the policeman handling the register to write your name in May. Those who negotiated to pay N1,000 had their vehicle plate numbers registered under January, February for those who paid N2,000, March for those who paid N3,000 and April for those who paid N4,000.
After about an hour, our driver succeeded in pleading with Mr Olaleye to collect a bribe of N3,000 and his plate number was registered under April.
But as we tried to drive out of the police station, a female police sergeant, Titilayo Suleiman, refused to open the gate until we paid another bribe of N500. When told that we had paid Mr Olaleye and his team N3,000, she replied that it was not her business how much we had paid and insisted that the vehicle was not going to be allowed out of the police station until she is given N500. Our now thoroughly despondent driver paid, and we were allowed to leave.
A few kilometres later, in Ibafo, we encountered another police checkpoint and the bus driver pleaded for about 15 minutes before the policemen accepted a bribe of N2,000.
Trip from Abuja to Kaduna
The extortion along the Abuja - Kaduna route started immediately the bus drove out of the park. The driver had to "settle" FRSC officers with N1,000 and another N200 to sneak through a police barricade. We were also allowed to pass without any check at a military checkpoint at Bwari before exiting Abuja for Garam in Niger State. At that point, the driver had indeed broken the order banning interstate travels with just N1,200 and the "kindness" of soldiers manning a checkpoint.
At Garam, a slumbering Niger village - through which a long unpaved, crooked road offers travellers a shorter journey to Kaduna using a new expressway built by SCC and by avoiding Zuba - there was a tent for health workers conducting a thermal check on commuters before entering Niger State and then a barricade by a joint team consisting of soldiers, police officers, and State Security Service (SSS) agents.
"Go back, go through Zuba, no road here," one security official said, announcing to dozens of halted vehicles. But one person, who only identified himself as a civil servant, said the security agents were only using the delay as a psychological tactic.
"The drivers will later go beg with money and the security men will have the advantage to charge more," the civil servant said. As predicted, after an hour of delay, the security agents started collecting N500 from each driver as they opened the barrier and allowed passage through Niger State to Kaduna.
There was no checking if the travellers were essential workers on duty, who are exempted from the restrictions.
Exiting Garam after a taxing journey, a set of policemen stood to collect N200 bribe to allow vehicles pass to the expressway, which indeed meant entering Kaduna State and again breaking the presidential restrictions order.
As the journey continued, another security roadblock lied ahead at the SCC Bridge in Kagarko Town, Kaduna State This roadblock had police offers who "meant business" and would not collect a bribe to open the barrier. The order was effective there.
However, instead of effecting an arrest of travellers violating a public health emergency restriction order, a police officer at SCC Bridge was the one advising drivers to use another route to get to Jere and further to the city of Kaduna.
"Turn back and go through Issah to get to the other road, in less than 20 minutes, you will be in Jere," the cop said.
From Mararaban Issah to Jere, there was no security barrier enforcing the travel restriction order before Toll Gate just at the entrance of Kaduna city. The police officers at the Toll Gate mounted a roadblock pretending to be preventing unauthorised interstate travel to Kaduna city. But they were collecting bribes to allow passage.
A driver would have to get out of the vehicle to pay N500 to the officer sitting in a police truck parked on a side of the road before clearance to enter the city is granted.
This journey from Abuja through Niger State to Kaduna showed how non-essential travellers have been breaching the presidential order aided by security agents.
Northcentral, Northeast too
Nyanya is Abuja's last neighbourhood to Nasarawa State, where a part of the neighbourhood is in Nasarawa. On both Abuja and Nasarawa parts of Nyanya, despite a combined military and police presence at the boundary, commercial vehicles were found operating, taking passengers across state boundaries from Abuja to as far as Benue and Cross River States.
Unlike the Abuja-Kaduna vehicles, the Abuja-Makurdi operators ensured no distancing as they had four passengers on the middle seat, three at the back of their space wagons. Abuja-Kaduna operators would take only two per seat, allowing some space between the passengers.
From the Nasarawa side of Nyanya through Mararaba, Keffi, Akwanga and Nasarawa Eggon to Lafia, there was no security barrier to enforce the interstate travel restriction order.
But between Lafia and Makurdi, 12 military, road safety, civil defence, and police checks were counted, all either collecting bribes to allow passage or just seemingly getting weary of working, thereby doing nothing to stop non-essential travels.
But at other points, the security agents were collecting as little as N50 to aid the violation of the travel ban.
There was no difference moving from Benue to Taraba State, northeastern Nigerian. On the road from Makurdi to Wukari (Taraba State) through Gboko, Buruku, Zaki Biam, Sankera and Kyado, police officers and soldiers, at over a dozen positions, mounted barricades for the collection of N50 from drivers to allow them to pass.
Travellers, avoiding the long and bad Katsina-Ala route, would have to cross River Benue at Buruku to access Zaki Biam en route to Taraba State. There was no security to check the crossing nor prevent non-essential interstate travel.
In a bizarre style, the police and soldiers on this route were using local civilians, mostly young persons, to harass drivers for a bribe. The civilian would then take the collection to the sitting officer.
"Wetin dey for oga?" one young man asked the driver in Sankera, apparently working for soldiers who took that point of the road to extort travellers instead of enforcing travel restrictions.
Also, at Kadarko between Lafia and Makurdi, while soldiers and police officers blocked the highway effectively ensuring no movement, they looked away as travellers made use of an unpaved path near the main road. They could not just care.
South West/North Central Routes
On the South-West and North-Central routes, the level of extortion was nothing compared to what was observed along the Sagamu -Benin Expressway. And commuters no longer face many difficulties crossing states' boundaries.
It was also easier for private vehicles, such as the one used by this reporter, as they were hardly stopped from the interstate trips in the regions.
Apart from Asejire, the boundary between Osun and Oyo States, where security operatives insisted on proper checks before vehicles are allowed to move either out of or into Osun State, movement from Lagos across Oyo, Kwara, Osun and part of Ondo States was seamless in the past week.
Our reporter journeyed through major interstate boundaries from Lagos to Ibadan, Oyo, Ogbomosho, Ilorin, Offa, Osogbo and Owena before returning to Lagos through Ibadan, the Oyo State capital. Other motorists who spoke to our reporter said the enforcement of the interstate travel ban used to be stricter than it was last Wednesday when our reporter travelled across the routes.
There were, however, instances of extortion of commercial vehicle drivers by security men on the roads.
But this is contrary to the experience of commercial drivers earlier into the ban on interstate movements. Some of them, who spoke to our reporter, said regardless of what your vehicles were loaded with, whether they fall in the category of exempted commodities or not, they were bound to give between N1,000 and N5,000 before being allowed to pass.
Our reporter experienced this between Erin-Ile in Kwara State and Odo-Otin in Osun State, where a police officer stopped a commercial bus carrying kegs of palm oil and insisted the N100 bribe offered was not enough.
The police officer, who had insisted on seeing the documents of our reporter's car, protested against the release of the vehicle by his colleague.
Tunde Glory, a bread supplier with Fortunate Bakery in Ilorin, Kwara State, said the strictness of the security operatives at the borders has since been relaxed.
The 55-year-old Mr Glory, who distributes bread from the North Central state to Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State capital, and parts of Oyo State, such as Saki, Igbeti, among others, said movement into other states was difficult.
He said; "Things have improved now. Before, at Oko-Olowo checkpoint, which is a major point of entry into Ilorin, the security men used to collect between N1,000 and N5,000 depending on the size of the vehicle. You would see long lines of vehicles with rotten commodities due to prolonged waiting time on the road.
"From Ilorin to Ekiti, I could meet as much as 15 checkpoints and each of them would expect that you "settle" them. They are not concerned whether you are carrying food or ammunition."
From Berger in Lagos to Iwo Road in Ibadan, there were more than 10 checkpoints on the road on Wednesday but almost none was checking or stopping private vehicles. But our reporter noted that commercial drivers were exchanging bribes with security officers.
Siji Alani, popularly known among his colleagues as 'Alaye", a commercial bus driver who plies Osun to Lagos every other day, said the experience on Wednesday was far better than his experience in the past weeks.
Mr Alani, who takes fruits such as watermelon, banana, mangoes, among others, from villages in Osun State to Mile 12 in Lagos, said the security officers on the road usually made trips to Lagos too tedious for him during the first two weeks of the ban on interstate movements.
He said; "You either settle at every checkpoint or have your vehicles impounded. There was a time I was stranded for more than 10 hours because we could not raise the N5,000 demanded by the officers at Ogere in Ogun State."
Nothing to say
When reached for comment, the spokesperson of the Nigerian Governors' Forum, Abdulrazaque Barkindo, said he has no comment as he has not been authorised to speak to the media on the issue.
The spokesperson for the Nigeria Police Force, Frank Mba, did not answer calls to his mobile phone. He also did not reply messages sent asking him to comment on the role of police officers in flouting the interstate travel ban.
Bisi Kazeem, the spokesperson of the FRSC, said the agency does not condone corruption.
"Bribery is not institutionalised here and whoever engages in it is on his or her own. They were sent to carry out specific assignments of the PTF and nothing else is expected of them. We need specific information and evidences to nail anyone caught in the act. We believe that majority are doing the right thing, but any bad egg reported shall be summarily tried."
Sagir Musa, spokesperson of the Nigerian Army, did not return calls made to his mobile phone neither did he reply a text message sent to him requesting for comment. Also, despite reading a message sent to him on WhatsApp he did not reply.
On Sunday, the chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, said his committee had made new recommendations to President Buhari on interstate travels, closure of schools and religious houses, and other decisions affected by the coronavirus pandemic. He, however, did not state what their advice was. Mr Buhari's decision is expected to be announced on Monday.