By Collins Onuegbu
24th December 2018
I don’t have the data. But the migration of the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria homewards for the Christmas season is one of the biggest migrations in Africa. I need to be convinced that there is any other nationality in Africa that does as much as Igbos in going to their ancestral land during the Christmas and New Year’. Reason is that the nationality is dispersed all over the world and there is a compulsion, almost a duty to visit home during this period
The struggling Nigerian economy and the logistics of coming home has always been a damper. The roads are bad. Flying is a pain. But the resilient ones still go. There are lots that happens when this migration happens. Wedding, funerals, fund raising, project development, community development. And just the joy of being with family and friends in this season of joy and celebration.
Police, Customs and the Army lay Siege
Of recent though, the experience of home coming has become synonymous with a state siege on those going home. In the very distant past, it was mostly the police. They would mount road blocks a few kilometers apart from Lagos or Abuja all the way to almost your compound in the East. Asking the same question as if in-between the checkpoints, you recommit whatever offence the last checkpoint accused you of. It has always been an extortion operation orchestrated with support from the top of the police hierarchy. Targeted at all those who dare to travel home by road to celebrate.
Not to be outdone, other agencies of the state have piled into this extortion bazaar. Today customs lines up on the road from Lagos to Onitsha. Searching and seizing goods bought from the open markets of Lagos. You buy certain goods in the shop beside your house in Lagos, it becomes contraband once you are on the Lagos Sagamu road. My wife bought bags of rice she gives to the less privileged when she is in the East, Transporters refused to carry them. Reason was that Nigerian customs would seize it on the way. Rice bought in open markets in Lagos. Try driving your own car home. Both police and customs will invent crimes attached to having the audacity to buy and drive a car home.
And as you pass the Niger bridge into the core Eastern heartland, the army blocks the poorly neglected Federal roads in the zone. Or the fairly motorable ones. Like a zone that just went through a war. That you would have an army of occupation in a zone that is not at war with the state, I cannot understand. Nigeria is fighting a war with Boko Haram in the North East. And Boko Haram is killing our soldiers. Armed Herdsmen and killing farmers in most of the North of Nigeria and at last count killed over four thousand people this year.
But the army chooses to blockade the East. In the absence of any real thing to do, the bad ones among them can be seen openly extorting, money from travelers and competing with police.
Why is the East prone to officially orchestrated extortion?
The Igbos are the loudest in Nigeria about their money. In a corrupt Nigeria, they are an easy target for any agency of state that wants a piece of their money. The Nigerian police was the first to get in and take advantage. And the typical Igbo person. nervous and impatient to deal with state agencies is a perfect target for police extortion. Police will always find something that is wrong with you or they will create an imaginary crime you don’t have the time to deal with as you race home to your country home. They understand the psychology of the traveler and use it well. Many years ago, in protest of this police corruption, I ended up in police station on a few occasions along the way from Lagos to the East. I even once slept in a police station with my then young wife because I was not quick in settling the police for no offence other than driving a car I owned. So, most would settle the police than end up in a police station where there is no redress. The corruption goes all the way to the top so why bother?
Complacency of the Igbo politicians and Elite
The Igbo elite mouth marginalization from Nigeria when it suits them. The politicians use it to fight for federal appointments. But being selected for state sanctioned extortion is for me one of the fights the Igbo elite, from politician to civil society and anyone else should fight for. The tax this extortion puts on the eastern economy and the wealth of the average Igbo is unimaginable. And that it makes the entire zone a place to avoid for business is even a worse burden Most from the zone don’t realize this. It was things of this nature that forced many eastern business men to relocate from the zone. And outsiders who want to come to the zone for business to avoid the zone entirely.
And the state Condones it
The Nigerian government is complicit in this siege. Nigerian Customs officially defends why it should consider rice bought in open markets as contraband as it heads East. And why cars that have documents that have been cleared to drive in Lagos or Abuja suddenly become contraband once they head East. The Nigerian Police has paid lip service to disbanding road blocks. Last week, they announced another of those annual bans. But the road blocks will continue to exist, and no one will be punished. In the period when every phone has a camera, its inconceivable that police leadership will deny knowledge of the open extortion that happens during this period by their men.
And the army of occupation in the East? It even has a name. Python Dance. Given to it by the Army. I wish we can do a python dance against Boko Haram. Or the armed Herdsmen. Or those who steal Nigeria oil in the high seas. But against defenseless civilians in the East? There is civil criminality in the East. But that’s the reason for the police in the first place if they will leave their corrupt ways and face their job.
Fear of the state.
As we head homewards this season. we know there is risk of criminality on the way. But that’s not our biggest problem. We know the road to the East are bad, Neglected both by the federal government and the states. But we will get by. We know that prices will go through the roof and make things unaffordable when you get to the East., But that’s been factored into our plans. These will not we our biggest worry. Most people will worry more about encounters with agents of the state. Will police arrest you? Will customs seize your car or domestic belongings? How much money do you have to put aside to settle police, customs, army and any other agency that turns up? How much time will they waste as they mount road blocks that create traffic on freeways? I once had an accident caused by one of the agencies as in their haste to stop a motorist, I ended up hitting the car in front of me. Damaged car. Traumatized family. I nursed the car all the way home and spent Christmas with mechanics.
This Siege Must stop
This siege has gone on for too long and should not be allowed to go on any longer. The state owes citizens the simple joy of a season. Nigeria is a tough place to live in in ordinary times. But Christmas and New Year offer the opportunity to forget the hardship and just enjoy the season. Like the rest of civilization. It is out rightly unfair and unjust that a people can be subjected to additional hardship to have this simple joy of living. Very unfair. And that we accept it as the way things should be makes all of us complicit.