In Nigeria, politicians have the penchant of promising the electorate ‘dividends of democracy’ and to a very large extent, what these politicians mean by dividend of democracy is resurfacing, reconstruction and patching of existing roads and highways most of which are in terrible conditions.
In the last 20 years of the country’s return to democratic governance, many of the highways have seen considerable improvement coming after several years of budgetary allocations such that some roads, like Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Lagos-Benin-Ore Road, Enugu-Onitsha Expressway, etc have been under reconstruction in the past 10-15 years.
Now, at a time when the people should be celebrating the improvement on the state of these highways with pleasurable rides, less accidents, reduction in journey time, and safety of lives and property, they are contending with insecurity on these highways, making life miserable for them.
With what is happening on the highways today, it has become pretty difficult to understand what political office holders mean when they talk about dividends of democracy, more so, if this is all Nigerians can get from 20 uninterrupted years of democratic governance in the country.
In the last four years, the experiences on the highways have been, to say the least, horrible. Until most recently, especially since ‘change’ made a bold entry into governance, travellers on the country’s numerous highways dreaded only two major things- accident and highway robbers.
Unarguably, Nigeria had lost many souls owing to bad roads, reckless driving and armed robbery activities. Some years back, it was usual to see portfolio and itinerant pastors and prayer warriors at various motor parks in the morning rendering prayers and giving travellers assurances of safety on the roads.
The story appears worse today. Nigerians have returned to an era when journeys, whether in the day or at night, on any Nigerian highway, is a huge risk akin to what King David, in his book of Psalms, describes as “walking through the valley of shadow of death”. Kidnapping, killing and raping have become everyday occurrences despite the ubiquitous police and army checkpoints on the highways.
Nigerians so dread travelling by road now that, many days to a planned journey, prayer and fasting sessions are mounted, and pastors are contacted for special intercession. It is sad that, though Nigeria is not in a defined war situation, life is so unsafe that it seems as if there was a civil war going on.
From what has happened and keeps happening, it now seems that inter-state journeys have become rocket science while the roads themselves have been turned into ‘highways to hell’.
Many Nigerians are at a loss as to how these highways which criss-cross the entire country came to this sorry passé. Though some people attribute the on-going kidnapping, killing and rape to collapse of values and rise in cult activities, others blame it on leadership failure reflected in the action and inaction of government.
“Yes, I agree with you that values have collapsed in this country. People, especially the younger generation of Nigerians, neither believe in the dignity of labour nor do they believe in the virtues of hard work. Again, the society no longer interrogates people’s source of wealth but celebrates them,” Cyril Gbadebo, a social commentator, confirmed to BDSUNDAY on phone.
Gbadebo explained that most of the people who are engaged in these activities, which are acts against God and humanity, are young men who are not ready to work, but want to get rich quick. “They know that their activities are bad and even risky, yet they do it because they are driven by uncontrolled and inordinate ambition to dare the devil,” he noted.
But Ernest Makinde, a political scientist and convener, Good Governance for People’s Welfare, an NGO, thinks differently. He blames these social vices on what he described as “failings in governance fueled by leadership errors.”
Makinde explained to BDSUNDAY that the failure of government to create jobs is the reason for the high unemployment level in the country that has left many young people idle, pushing many of them into crime and criminality. “But that is the social and economic dimension to it,” he noted.
“There is the political dimension to it,” he continued, adding, “This is where the leadership errors comes in. If somebody from a particular section of the country wins a election and becomes the president of the country, it is expected that he becomes the president of the entire country; but that is not the case in Nigeria today which, to me, is the cause of our present travails.”
He said that many Nigerians believe, wrongly or rightly, that the insecurity in Nigeria that is holding the entire country hostage today is because government seems to be looking the other way as fellow Nigerians are killed, kidnapped and raped by criminals now dubbed ‘bandits’.
“We have succeeded, as a people and even as a government, in emboldening criminals because none of them has been arrested, prosecuted and jailed to serve as a deterrent to others. Social misfits are now lording it over the rest of honest Nigerians who can no longer move about freely in their own country for fear of being killed or kidnapped and several millions of naira demanded for their freedom,” Makinde lamented.
Increasingly, criminality, especially kidnapping, is becoming big business and those engaged in it are not only bold, but also daring as reflected in a recent kidnap incident in the Ode-Omi, Ogun Waterside Local Government Area of of Ogun State where kidnappers abducted three people, collected N3.5 million, a carton of schnapps, 30 liters of palm oil and 10 tubers of yam as ransom before releasing their hostages.
Social life, inter-state transport business, others shrink
Currently, families are rescheduling engagements, students are scared of traveling, and motorists lack courage to hit the road as the killers are increasingly laying siege to preys on highways, with hefty casualties every day. Moreover, businesses such as transportation, haulage, and logistics are at the verge of suffocation.
“When you hear someone was killed by these terrorists, you will hardly feel it until someone you know falls victim. My business associate lost his brother in an attack along the Abuja-Kaduna highway in March. The dead has not been buried because they are from Taraba State and insecurity is high in that area. It is sad seeing what Nigeria has degenerated to”, Luke Janah, an Abuja-based business man, said.
In same vein, Mbamara, an Aba-based business man, decried that the ugly development would disrupt business flow, decline transaction volume and also run many out of business if security is not restored soon along the highways.
“I know online payment is the in-thing, but I need to be at Tin Can Port Apapa to do some paper works in order to clear my goods. So, if I cannot travel again, that will delay the clearing, cause scarcity of the product, and increase cost if I have to pay extra to get someone to clear it. At the end, I will push the avoidable expenses to customers”, Mbamara decried.
Following the worsening situation, some transport companies are considering engaging police escorts to lead their busses across the country, but are deterred by the cost.
“We have over 100 buses that leave and enter Lagos every day, if you engage police escorts, it means over 100 police per day. If you multiple the cost per week and month, transport fares will rise from N7,000 now to about N15,000 from Lagos to Aba”, Lawrence Ezuma, a staff of a popular transport company with headquarters in Lagos, said.
Harry Isu, a passenger at Libra Park Okota, said that it is better to pay more for safety than to ply the ill-fated highways unescorted. But a driver with over 10 years experience with Young Shall Grow Motors, said what he has been seeing on the highways in recent times are beyond police escort. “If you have a police escort with one riffle and your bus breaks down along the dreaded highway, he cannot face five gunmen. The Army should flush them out”, he said.
Isu said that government can always tackle the challenge if they want to and also leave politics out of it.
As many people call off their trips by road, it presents good business opportunity to domestic airlines. Michael Ocheme, a business strategist with the Lagos Chamber of Commerce, said if flights are cheap, a lot more people would fly because we have good safety record in the air for now.
“To get more passengers to fly, domestic airlines need to deploy low-cost aircraft like in Europe, charge competitive fares and people will hit the airports for as low as N12,000-N15,000,” Ocheme said.
He noted that the airline business is about volume and frequencies of flight; hence airlines can get many flights a day at cheap fares to make up for the high fares small flight frequencies they have now.
But a domestic airline executive, who craved to be anonymous, said the tax paid to government agencies form 70 percent of air fares, and if government reduces such taxes, flights can go as cheap as N10,000 from Lagos to Kano or Maiduguri.
Safe journeys now pure miracle
Gone are the days when it was taken for granted that a traveller from one part of the country to the other would get to his or her destination in one piece. Today, as soon as a Nigerian takes off on a journey, all his/her relations and friends go into intercessory mode. They only heave a sigh of relief when there is a call from the traveller that he/she has arrived the destination in peace.
Killings and kidnapping of innocent Nigerians on the nation’s highways were treated with mere rumour until Friday, July 12, 2019, when the 58-year old Funke Olakunrin, second daughter of Afenifere leader, Reuben Fasoranti, was murdered by suspected Fulani herdsmen.
Olakunrin, was travelling from Akure to Ore in Ondo State.
Long before this deadly incident, there had been series of reports that virtually all the highways in Nigeria have been taken over by alleged killer herdsmen.
These herdsmen have been accused of extreme violence in these parts of Nigeria. They have also been accused of masterminding series of killings, forceful abduction, rape of victims and extortion of monies worth millions of naira for the release of their kidnapped victims.
Formerly, it was Boko Haram insurgency, which thrived in the northeastern part of the country, but today, the game has changed from insurgency to kidnapping and banditry as many have been reported dead due to the reckless activities of these hoodlums in Nigeria.
A middle-aged lady, who gave her name as Joy, narrated her recent ordeal in the hands of killer herdsmen along the Benin-Ore Road on her way from Lagos to her country-home in Akwa Ibom State.
Joy told BDSUNDAY that she was abducted alongside five other passengers for over 5hours before only four of them were released.
“On approaching the popular Okada Junction, 5-hefty men with guns suddenly emerged from the bush and ordered all the passengers to come down and lie down flat with their hands on their heads. People were also asked to submit their phones and monies in their position without hesitation.”
“After that, five of us including were taken into the bush where we were brutally assaulted by our abductors and we sustained various degrees of injuries and in my case, my left foot was badly injured after it was hit with the head of the gun. I saw so many other captives, who were mostly travellers abducted on that route as well. People were also forced to tell them how much they think their families can pay as ransom for their release,” she added.
According to her, “They collected our phones and access codes, ATM cards with our pin numbers as well as our monies. It was after we were released that I realised that about four other 18-seater buses were captured by the hoodlums and their passengers also abducted.”
Another pathetic incident happened recently when the passengers of a Toyota Sienna car travelling from Lagos to Owerri was also shot at and the passengers were herded into the bush from where their family members were contacted by the kidnappers.
A mother of three children, who gave her name as Chioma, was travelling to her village in Imo State with her elder brother for the burial of their mother, when both of them fell into the kidnappers’ net.
They were taken to the bush from where her husband was contacted by their abductors. The husband was asked to pay the sum of N10 million for the release of his wife and brother-in-law. The husband of the victim ended up paying the sum of N3 million and the wife was released after being raped and brother-in-law brutally wounded before his release by the abductors.
Tales of escapes by a whisker
The social media is awash with stories of miraculous escapes of some people, whose vehicles were shot at, but they managed to evade being kidnapped. The Lagos-Ore-Benin road is the most notorious.
Ubiquitous check points, increasing menace
In its effort to arrest the unfortunate situation, the Federal Government, through the Army authorities appears to have flooded the highways with soldiers. As commendable as this is, some victims have also alleged that they were intimidated, molested and extorted by some of the uniform men on the road. Some Nigerians also do not feel comfortable whenever they run into these check points because, the kidnappers also are known to mount road blocks to confuse and deceive unsuspecting Nigerians.
“I travelled to my village recently from Lagos. I was scared at the number of check points we passed on the road. It dawned on me that Nigeria is in a serious trouble. From Lagos to Uyo, everywhere was militarised. At some points, whenever they stopped our vehicle, passengers would be edgy because anything could happen. When I got home, everybody was asking if I really came by road. It is a serious matter. What I don’t know is how serious government is taking the matter,” a civil servant, said, craving anonymity.