SOUTH EAST: A ZONE UNDER SIEGE
For most other Nigerians, the South East geopolitical zone is still at war. The Nigeria-Biafra war which started in 1967 is still raging fiercely in the zone, never mind what we were told, or rather what the world was told that the war ended about fifty years ago, on January 15, 1970, to be specific. Everywhere in the South East zone, there are clear signs of the raging war.
As you made to enter the South East zone from any part of the country, you begin to see scores of stern looking military and paramilitary personnel – soldiers, policemen, members of civil defence corps, customs, immigration, road safety corps officials, etc., lined up all the routes going to the zone. At every kilometre apart, there must be a check point.
Those manning these checkpoints will flag you down as you approach, thoroughly search you and thereafter extort money from the driver, before they let the vehicle go. It does not matter whether or not such vehicle carries any contraband. The driver must pay the necessary toll.
Last Monday, as I was coming back from Lagos to Enugu, I counted not less than 35 security checkpoints, from Ore to Asaba, each manned by different security officials, they call them “tax collectors”. The driver had so mastered the trick that he already had his money in N200 denomination, which he dolled out at every checkpoint before they would let him go.
However, when the driver had exhausted all the money he had somewhere along Benin Bypass, and he was no longer able to pay the toll, his vehicle was impounded for being used to “convey a stolen item”. This was because the man was not able to readily lay hands on the payment receipt for the item. We were all kept there for almost an hour as the “tax collectors” ignored our pleas.
Because it was getting too late in the day, and everybody was worried, each of the passengers was forced to make some contributions to settle the case. Immediately a whopping sum of N1,500, was parted with, the charges preferred against the driver were “quashed”, and he was allowed to go with the “stolen item” and his vehicle!
The same scenario usually plays out in all the other entry points to the South East – stern-looking policemen, military and paramilitary personnel wielding automatic rifles, flagging down innocent motorists, as if they were out to battle the dreaded Boko Haram insurgents, or the Fulani herdsmen bearing AK47 rifles.
Inside the “conquered territory” itself, that is, the South East zone, the story is not totally different, except that the number of checkpoints have significantly increased, about 500 metres apart. Everybody knows the game – Keke NAPEP operators, Okada riders, Taxi and commercial bus drivers, and even private vehicle operators, each will be asked to bring “white”. They all know what it means. If you have a higher denomination, they will dutifully break it down, and return to you the balance! You see, they do everything with impunity, “nothing go happen”. And we are fighting corruption.
To any first time visitor to the South East zone, the belief, with the presence of these heavily military and paramilitary personnel, is that every everybody in the area is a criminal, a thief, or a rogue.
The irony, or the unfortunate aspect of the whole thing is that with the heavy presence of these security personnel in every corner of the South East, kidnapping, armed robbery and other criminal activities have not abetted. Rather, they continue to increase by the day.
We now ask: why is the South East so heavily policed? In other words, why is the South East zone under siege? Why is there heavy presence of military and paramilitary personnel everywhere in the South East zone?
The simple answer is that these security personnel were sent to the South East to continue the unfinished war to bring the people of the area down on their knees. Since the former Biafrans could not be totally wiped out of the surface of the earth in the battlefield, while the various post war policies aimed at decimating the people of the South East, such as the twenty naira entitlement for every bank deposit before the war; the exclusion of the people from ownership of federal government owned industries through the Indigenization Decree, etc., did not yield the expected result, there must have to be some other ways to deal with the people.
The economy of the South East depends mainly on commerce, buying and selling. Since there is no seaport in the whole of the South East, no rail, no international airport, everything must come through the road, the people must have to pay through their nose to have their goods ferried in and out of the area, via the dilapidated roads of the South East.
So, when the security personnel extort money from motorists, the latter will in turn hike the transport fares to accommodate the “taxes” they pay on the roads, while the traders on their part, will increase the prices of their wares, and then the consumer will be made to bear the cost of everything.
By the time you calculate all the costs involved, both monetary and non-monetary, the result of the efforts would no longer be the worth. The economy of the South East would be crawling, if not altogether, collapse. The people of the South East would no longer be able to raise their heads, to be counted in Nigeria.
Thus when a people are denied an economic bases, denied a voice, they no longer exist. That appears to be the game plan.