The setting is the old Public Works Department building, Onitsha North, behind Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity and the date was 23rd July 2012. It was around 4:30pm when the reporter sauntered into the premises. In a shade provided by a mango tree were several boys with blood-shot eyes. Some puffed on wraps of Indian hemp while others clutched bottles of beer in one hand with cigarette sticks in the other.
Others downed spirits and ogogoro and other local concoctions recklessly, a regular supply from a female vendor in a kiosk beside the gate. In the expansive compound were various disused and abandoned vehicles which have been converted to negotiating tables and unofficial offices for touts. Strolling down, you encounter two busy offices which the reporter learnt are for the Head of Enforcement and the Zonal Commander, Anambra State Traffic Agency (ASTA). The office of the Head of Enforcement manned by one rotuned short man identified as Ejike was the busiest.
Men,car owners and drivers queued at the front door waiting for their turn for ‘judgment’. On enquiry by the reporter, majority of them had ugly stories to tell- how they were stopped on the way by the ASTA operatives, their money forcibly collected from them before they were also forcibly removed from the steering and taken to a dungeon with their cars. On reaching there, they were given various bills ranging from N7,000 to N75, 000 according to their traffic offences. One of the victims, Wilfred Eze, a welder, explained to our reporter how they arrested him and collected N3,000 which was the only cash on him and were still demanding extra N7,000 for the simple reason that he did not use his seat belt.
When our reporter managed to enter the office to “plead” on behalf of Wilfred, the enforcement officer, Ejike said: “Even if Jesus Christ comes down here, Wilfred must pay N7,000 for obstruction, traffic violation and service charge” Pasted conspicuously on the wall inside the office was a bold inscription –“Please pay to the bank” and another, a list of offences with their penalties modeled after the style of the Federal Road Safety Corps. To the consternation of the reporter, Ejike and his group of boys who often beat their victims to submission collected various amounts in cash from people whose cars and heavy duty vehicles were impounded and their tires deflated. Efforts for further enquiries at the second office occupied by the zonal commander, Obinna Nwagbara was another shocker.
The lady receptionist after denying that the commander was not in office probed to know why this wanted to see him. She later asked for N200 bribe before I could be allowed in. On entering the office, despite introduction though with a pseudonym, Obinna said they were in the business to make money and if I came to plead on behalf of anybody, I should quietly cooperate with the enforcement people because they were doing their jobs. On returning to the enforcement office, in the full glare of the reporter, Ejike collected N32, 000 from a lorry driver before releasing the vehicle key, spare tires, jack and allowing him access to his vehicle whose tires had been deflated. The Driver with Reg.
No Anambra 311 NEN then hired a vulcanizer working with the thugs who charged him N300 to pump each of the tires. Shortly after, a lawyer, identified as Ikemba came with a client whose vehicle number plates were forcibly removed from the parking lot by the ASTA operatives. The client had earlier come and they told him to pay N6,000 for wrong parking. In his full legal robes, the boys chatted with the lawyer, cajoling him to pay N3,000 as fine for offence committed by his client. Barrister Ikemba in a jolly mood told them that he did not come as a lawyer rather he came simply as Ikemba. He gave them N1,000 which Ejike collected and the number plates were handed back to him as his client smiled home. At about 6:10pm as dusk descend, Ejike arranged all the money they collected from “offenders” that evening (about N480, 000), called the boys together and said: Bianu kam mechielu unu oru (come, let me close work and settle you today).
To some, he gave N3,000 while some others received N5,000 each. One of the boys who received the least amount of about N2,500 complained bitterly but Ejike called his bluff telling him to learn to be grateful considering that the boy was not diligent enough at harassing their victims into parting with more money. As this reporter sat a few meters away from the scene, Ejike divided the remaining money, stuffed them into different pockets of his clothes and zoomed off in his car. He left a message for his boss, Obinna that they will settle the following day. At another location, the Onitsha end of Niger Bridge Head expressway, a source at Intersociety, Nigeria told us that on August 1 2012, Chief Peter Onyenelisi, was ambushed by a group of ASTA operatives.
They forced him to park in the middle of the road and swooped on him in a murderous manner. Onyenelisi, a Kaduna-based Igbo union leader and businessman was forced out of his car, a Gulf wagon with registration number BT 600 GWA. The boys forced him with the car to the office under the Niger bridgehead. On entering, a group of ruffians clutching sticks of Indian hemp descended on him and beat him to a point of terrified submission. They forced him into a hidden corner of the office and dispossessed him of all his personal effects including the sum of N15, 000. They tore his shirt and pockets to ensure that no dime was left and accused him of not having “emblems” for his private car.
As if that wasn’t enough, he was threatened with instant death unless he called somebody to rescue him with an extra sum of N20,000. Left with no other choice, Onyenelisi called one of his sisters resident in Onitsha who brought the money and they collected it without any valid receipt. Thereafter, they were beaten and pushed out of the compound . The most shocking aspect of it was that when Onyenelisi threatened to inform his Igbo brothers and sisters residing in Kaduna to stop coming home with their private vehicles, his captors boldly informed him that: “Peter Obi sent us and has asked us to do what we are doing”. Before the boys drove him out of the premises, they dropped in his car the state commissioner for transport’s plastic bucket containing sundry revenue stickers, permits, badges and receipts totaling 27 in number.
The contents of the plastic bucket made available to Sunday Sun contained various fake receipts majority bearing Oshimili North LGA Delta state. Among the contents were a 2012 drivers and conductors badge clearance receipt of N10,000 issued by the Anambra State Commissioner for Special Duties, Anambra State Motorcycle Riders Permit, Community/infrastructural development oil land permit of Oshimili L.G.A, Delta State, Oshimili South L.G.A Certificate/ permit 2012 of Delta state, Niger Delta Youth employment, development and Airport route clearance certificate/permit 2012 of Delta state, vehicle outdoor radio and state vehicle scratch card 2012 among others.
Terror in Anambra The aforementioned experience from two different locations in Onitsha aptly capture the situation and predicament of the people on daily basis. Succinctly put, today, the fear of Anambra Revenue/Traffic agency and Emblem people is the beginning of wisdom for both residents and travelers on transit in Onitsha. According to a memo issued by a civil society organization, Intersociety, the Anambra State Traffic Agency (ASTA) was formed to enforce traffic regulation on Anambra urban roads including the busy trunk A, B, and C roads. The agency is mandated to ensure free flow of traffic in major and semi major cities. They are supposed to caution and apprehend those genuinely causing obstructions on the road and remove or impound obstructing objects including wrongly parked and moving vehicles with defaulters made to pay prescribed receipted fines or transferred to the prosecutorial authorities for prosecution on charges of statutory traffic offences.
The state in order to shore up its revenue base also created a consolidated emblem for commercial vehicles. Regrettably, checks by Sunday Sun revealed that the operations of these two agencies have been hijacked by thugs working for some unnamed political appointees while the boys take delight in brigandage, thuggery and diversion of these revenues into private pockets. One of the ASTA operatives after a generous tip by this reporter and being assured of strict confidentiality revealed that the office generates between N750,000 to N1,000,000 daily but a large chunk of the cash goes to different “big men” in the state who collect their daily returns.
The same source in justifying the act said: “This is our own settlement by the government. Since there are no vacancies in the civil service as government is not ready to employ more hands, it is therefore necessary that this avenue was created so that hunger will not kill boys in town or do you want us to take to armed robbery?” he asked. Revenue agents as kidnappers Further investigation by Sunday Sun revealed that most victims of brutality and extortion in the hands of the revenue thugs are often helpless. What the thugs do is that they approach their victims, collect their car keys and tell them to enter their bus to settle with their boss. Once the victim enters their bus, they lock the vehicle immediately while the heftiest among them takes charge of the door.
They then proceed to ransack the victims’ pockets and demand for more money . In most cases, they beat their captives and also prevent them from making calls. Another victim, 76-year-old, Lazarus Dim, narrated to the reporter how he was abducted by the same group recently and held hostage until he paid N50,000. He said he later made a discreet call to some of his union members who came to his rescue. The group later abandoned another set of revenue receipt bundles in his car and fled. Dim said he later identified his abductors and went to Fegge police station to lodge a report but surprisingly, the Divisional Police Officer, Rowland Omotojo pressured him to drop the case. Reporter’s close shave with death Following several cases observed against the revenue agents, this reporter decided to visit the same Public Works Department building Onitsha for the latest clue on their activities prior to filing this report.
Date was September 15,2012 at about 02:15pm. On entering, “business” was going on as usual. This reporter noticed a group of boys deflating tires of a Toyota Sienna with Reg. No. Lagos LND 477AJ. Acting as an unsolicited helper, he approached the driver of the car identified as Chidubem Collins whom the boys were threatening to go and bring more money if he didn’t want to sleep in the premises. Chidubem told me that the boys accosted him along Awka road on his way back to Lagos from Enugu, hijacked the vehicle from him and forced him to the place. He said they collected N9,000 the only cash on him after fuelling his car. As a private car owner, the boys demanded N45,000 from him as emblem fee or in the alternative pay extra N24, 000 if he didn’t want to collect the emblem. As this reporter opened his mouth to ask further questions, one of the boys shouted “who is this man, so you came to spy on us?” All of them, seven in number then descended on him kicking and hitting him at the same time. The biggest among them hit him in the chest and he collapsed.
As he gasped for breath, another picked a log of wood nearby and rested its full weight on him. He shouted for help but they threatened to kill him and nothing would happen. Another among them said: “You came to spoil business for us, do you know how much we remit to our Oga and the Commissioner who sent us to do this work. Also, don’t you know we pay the driver and the owner of this chattered bus?” “With the last strength in me, I managed to run out of the lion’s den and flagged down a passing taxi cab that took me to the hospital.
I later went to the police to lodge a complaint and also sent a text to the Commissioner of Economic Planning, Prof. Chinyere Okunna who later called back and promised that every thing would be properly taken care of.” Calls for codification of agent’s activities Miffed by numerous reports of illegal activities of the revenue agents, the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law, in a petition made available to Sunday Sun has written the state governor and the relevant Commissioners and Special Advisers on the need to proscribe ASTA and other revenue agents in the state or in the alternative, urgently codify their activities. Signed by the Chairman, Board of Trustees, Comrade Emeka Umeagbalasi and Head Publicity Desk, Justus Ijeoma, the group said there was no difference between the kidnappers den and that of the revenue agents.
They called for the creation of a data base of all revenue agents in the state and the members subjected to forensic identification. “If collection of fines must be part of its sanction code, then it should be modeled after that of the Federal Road Safety Corps. All the commissioners and special advisers/assistants through which this letter is addressed should be thoroughly questioned to ascertain their remote or immediate links or otherwise to the gross misconducts complained of with a view to disciplining them if found culpable” the group said. Government’s response Several efforts made by our reporter to get the reaction of Robert Okonkwo, the former Commissioner for Transport in the state (now commissioner for Commerce) who the various groups claim they work for was futile as calls made to his cell phone were not answered. Text messages sent were also not replied.It was the same situation with Dr. Collins Chike Ohamobi, the new commissioner for transport. But the Chairman, Anambra State Joint Revenue Board, Nwanne Ejikeme eventually spoke.
Though he graciously called back when he didn’t pick the calls earlier made by the reporter, he was evasive in tackling the issues raised by the reporter on the need to put a final stop to the ugly image portrayed by the revenue thugs in the state. “We cannot prosecute people we do not know. Onitsha people are to be blamed for allowing these so-called thugs to molest them. Why should people agree to follow such group to an unknown place when they don’t carry arms? I cannot go around Onitsha alone in one week. People have to change their attitude here.
The people we employed have no power to restrain or stop a vehicle along the road but when they harass anybody, people will begin to fidget and offer them money. Government doesn’t run business in the backyard”. When reminded that the revenue thugs brutalize people even with weapons, he said: “The people lack powers of arrest and detention. If somebody therefore succumbs to fear and intimidation, there is nothing the government can do about it but the most painful thing is that we don’t see the money they are collecting”.
From ALOYSIUS ATTAH (firstname.lastname@example.org)