In August 2010, the then Inspector General of Police Ogbonna Onovo ordered all men under his command to dismantle all the checkpoints on the road and pronounced them illegal. This effectively meant that no policeman in Nigeria should be found at checkpoints except there was an emergency that required some lockdown or other exigent situations. They set up a task force to enforce this directive and some scapegoats caught.
Then in February 2012, the current Inspector General Mohammed Abubakar assumed office and one of his very first acts was to order all policemen to leave checkpoints and declare them illegal. A new task force was set up patrolling and arresting scapegoats. There were arguments for and against the directive but no one asked a critical question. Where did the 2012 checkpoints that Abubakar banned come from, if his immediate predecessor had banned the same things less than two years before? There had been no order reversing Onovo’s ban, yet the checkpoints had come back with a vengeance such that it required Abubakar banning them again.
But like the proverbial cat with nine lives, a little over two years into Abubakar’s tenure, the checkpoints are back. I have checked everywhere and even tweeted at the Nigerian Police Force’s twitter handle severally to see if I could find the order reversing the current IG’s checkpoint ban. It therefore follows that every checkpoint on the road today is illegal. But if the policemen that mount them know this, they simply do not give a damn, to borrow that popular phrase. Between Festac and Shomolu, there are four police checkpoints. There’s one descending to face Orile, another at the bridge that takes one to Costain, yet another at Onipan beside the police station and a final one near Alade Police Station. There’s a checkpoint at the very busy descent from Eko Bridge into Marina, just before UBA House. For motorists going to or coming from work via Third Mainland Bridge, they are harassed daily by policemen at Adekunle on both sides (ascending and descending) of the bridge. All of these checkpoints are mounted in broad daylight, many within walking distances of police stations. This either means that the policemen at the checkpoints do not fear any disciplinary action from their superiors at the stations or that they are there with the support of these superiors, which is the more likely scenario. One will therefore not blame citizens when the roll their eyes in disdain when they hear such bans from the police command.
I thought about it – would the Chief of Army Staff go on record and give an order that all army officers in the country are expected to adhere to, and any soldier dare to blatantly disobey the order? I strongly doubt that is possible. Why then do police officers have the audacity to repeatedly disobey not one, but several IGs on this checkpoint matter?
I spoke with some policemen on this puzzling matter, and a few points started to become clear because they recurred in all the conversations. Our policemen are paid salaries that are simply unable to provide a decent living. They therefore resort to getting what they can from citizens directly. Apart from people who have cases and come to the stations themselves, the only way they can meet the people is to set these checkpoints up. Many added that the running costs for the most basic of things in their police stations came from the checkpoints. While they might have been lying, I do not want to discount what they have said with a wave of hand. Many of us have experienced calling the police for urgent issues where they demanded for money to fuel their vehicles before coming. These guys confirmed that in many cases, they truly didn’t have fuel in the cars and there was no money to fuel them. It is the justification they gave for their dark creativity in coming up with other means of extorting money from helpless citizens. Of course, none of them would ever admit to the greed that was literarily dripping from their justifications.
Hence, it is clear why the checkpoints will keep on resurging in direct disobedience to the IG’s orders. The root cause that has made the problem perennial needs to be addressed. First, pay the policemen decent wages. Ensure that the police stations are decent and the running expenses provided for. Face squarely the culture of greed which many years of extorting citizens at checkpoints have created in the rank and file of the officers. Then issue the order to ban checkpoints and pursue with consistence and vigor discipline of officers who flout this order. If it is possible for the police to institutionalize the checkpoints, then it is equally possible to dismantle that conundrum of corruption and build a structured method to ensure that it doesn’t reoccur. It is the citizens that bear the brunt of the checkpoint extortion that the Nigerian Police has institutionalized. Imagine an individual heading home after a long day’s work whose had driven through V.I. traffic and then Third Mainland traffic. Upon descending the bridge at Adekunle, he is stopped by rifle wielding policemen who employ every trick in and out of the book to delay him. He knows all his documents are complete, but yet they delay him. He cannot leave until the officers permit him to. One officer says he wants to see his chassis number and goes to buy pure water to wash the dirt off. He goes for fifteen minutes and doesn’t return. Tricks, tricks and more tricks, yet this unfortunate tired citizen cannot leave. The person eventually gets the message and settles. Citizens form their opinions of a government over such encounters with government institutions and the police force is one which has not given the government a great image in a long, long time. It would do the government of the day a whole world of good to begin to pay more attention to the police and kill these checkpoints once and for all. Only proverbial cats have nine lives, and these checkpoints are not proverbial; Nigerians experience their reality daily.
Tunde Leye @tundeleye is a fiction writer. He believes that the stories written form a priceless resource that is the basis of society, all the other arts (film, music, theatre, visual arts) and hence he is committed to telling stories out of Africa that show it as it was, is, and is going to be.