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Roadblocks by the Niger: What Legalised Roadside Extortion Means for the people of the South

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In 2016, I traveled to Ekwulobia in Anambra State for a brand activation. As far as I knew, there was no war going on in southeastern Nigeria, but I couldn’t help but notice that the place looked like it was literally under siege. While crossing the Niger Bridge from Asaba enroute Onitsha, I spied a couple of snipers nestled atop the bridge, ballistic helmets and all. On getting into Onitsha, the main expressway

Reinforcing a Dangerous Siege Mentality

As I later got to find out, the military roadblocks and posturing were a show of force in response to secessionist noises from the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the leader of the group, Nnamdi Kanu. While the display seemed unnecessary and gratuitous for what was at the end of the day a largely nonviolent group, I could sort of understand the logic behind it. What I could not rationalise though, was the presence of police checkpoints seemingly at every few kilometres.

They did not seem particularly interested in anything except collecting an apparently mandatory amount from each vehicle, and we must have encountered no fewer than 6 of them between Onitsha and Ekwulobia. The other occupants of the vehicle openly voiced suspicions that the police and military roadblocks were all part of some grand federal government conspiracy to cage the southeast and put the people in a state of fear.

Even if such ideas can be debated on the merit of their practicality, what cannot be debated is the powerful emotional currency they hold, especially within the context of a part of the country that suffered something close to a genocide at the hands of other people it shares a country with. Demagogues like Nnamdi Kanu find great success by exploiting this rich seam of underlying resentment and then linking it – rightly or wrongly – to ongoing events and situations.

While exact figures are difficult to come by, it is clear that the biggest distinct regional trading partner of Lagos within Nigeria is the southeast. The economy of the southwest is intrinsically tied to that of Lagos, and the economy of the Niger Delta is dwarfed by the southeast in trade volumes, crude oil notwithstanding. The North and Middle Belt have economies that are not optimally aligned for trade with Lagos, which leaves the 5 southeastern states as the most economically active outside of the southwest.

Since rail infrastructure linking southeast to southwest does not exist and most people cannot afford air travel, that means that road routes between both regions are the busiest in Nigeria. Several armed services including the police, army, customs and immigration then set up checkpoints along these roads to take advantage of this trade volume to extract (illegal) rents from travelers. When those travelers are almost entirely from one ethnic group and it appears as if their region is being specifically singled out for such attention, it is not hard to see why Nnamdi Kanu can easily convince people to adopt overtly secessionist ideas.

The memories of 1967-1970 are still present, and the region in question knows better than anyone else how it feels to live under an actual siege. Triggering such memories – intentionally or otherwise – can only be a bad idea.

An Infected Plaster Over a Festering Wound 

Apart from the symbolic danger of their existence, these roadblocks also perform a horribly functional purpose by sucking cash out of Nigeria’s most prolific road travelers. They provide a sort of ad hoc funding arrangement to keep the Nigerian police functioning at a quasi-professional level. Without such unofficial but tacitly sanctioned fundraising ventures, the Nigeria Police Force would not be able to fund itself. 

Unsurprisingly, no government official will agree with this assessment, but the fact is that IGP Mohammed Adamu himself recently admitted publicly that without more funding, the police would not be able “to maintain neutrality and avoid compromises in the performance of its statutory duties.” What IGP Adamu’s words mean in plain English is that to see the end of the interminable roadblocks and their implicit safety and security hazards, there needs to be a new funding arrangement for the police.

In his words:

“Presently, the Police depend on the government for the provision of funds for day-to-day operations. However, the annual budgetary allocation for the Force, especially with regards to capital and overhead costs, does not reflect the enormous size, scope of responsibility and actual needs of the Force. For instance, as against a capital budget estimate of N342.9billion proposed for the 2018 fiscal year, the Force was given an appropriation of N25.5billion.”

Whether we like it or not, Nigeria needs a functioning police force with sufficient personnel strength as to make their presence impactful. Currently, Nigeria has about 301,747 police personnel for close to 200 million inhabitants. These men, who often go unpaid because there is simply no money to pay them with, are supposed to cover the whole country including at least two active conflict zones in the Northeast and Niger Delta.

Since the funding arrangement to make the equation balance is not available, there is a well known nudge-wink arrangement between top brass and rank-and-file whereby the officers on the roads extort travelers, keep a portion of the earnings and then funnel the remaining upward. Occasionally, a high ranking officer comes out to make a public declaration outlawing checkpoints, but invariably within the next few weeks the roadblocks return, and there is nothing anyone can realistically do about it until the basic problem of police funding is solved.

To solve the problem, many solutions ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous have been put forward. A new policy levy of 0.005 percent on Nigerian corporate profits was introduced earlier this year, which on the surface looked to be at least a step in the right direction, if not a particularly effective one. The real long term solution however, does not lie in introducing more taxes that will then have to find their way through the very system currently throttling the police.

The long term solution is for the Nigerian government to respect the Nigeria Police Force enough to dedicate the requisite funding needed for it to function optimally. According to the 2018 Transparency International report titled “Camouflaged Cash: How ‘Security Votes’ Fuel Corruption in Nigeria,” the country spends an amount equivalent to 70 percent of the the NPF’s annual budget on ‘security votes.’ This money does not go to the state police commands, but goes instead to state governors, which then begs the question: What exactly is a “security vote” and who or what is it securing apart from the state governors’ unofficial petty cash books?

According to the TI report, President Muhammadu Buhari has increased the number of ‘security votes’ embedded in the federal budget from 30 in 2016 to more than 190 in 2018, going up from $46.2 million (worth N9.3 billion in 2016) to over $51 million (N18.4 billion presently). If the IGP is on record all but pleading for more funding, and yet these potentially useful sums of money are being wasted on what are essentially slush funds for state governors, then it means that lack of funding for the NPF is not an existential problem for the government, but rather a problem of priorities.

As Nigeria teeters on the brink of a real financial crisis and the government refuses to trim itself and curtail its expensive habits, those in power will do well to remember that having more than a quarter of a million unpaid or underpaid policemen and women armed with military-grade rifles on our roads is a recipe for anarchy.

When the pin leaves our national grenade, not even ‘security votes’ will be enough to protect anyone from the resulting explosion.

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