By Ogaga Ifowodo
DELTA is a densely populated state that also happens to house a vast amount of oil and gas. The Sapele-Warri-Ughelli corridor, extending to Port Harcourt, is the industrial and commercial heartbeat of the state and has a high volume of vehicular traffic.
A testimony to the socio-economic importance of this corridor is the never-to-be-completed East-West Road that spans four states: Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom. Yet, it is precisely the short stretch of it between Warri and Ughelli that the Federal Government has managed to make motorable, seven years and N349 billion after, that exhibits the unbearable hardship of military checkpoints, MCPs, through which a permanent siege has been laid to the state.
If you have ever travelled on that road at peak hours, or worse, are a frequent commuter between Warri and any of the towns further south—Ughelli, Patani, and all of Isokoland—then a nightmare for you must be a dream of sandbags and oil barrels that create bottlenecks in the middle of your road.
On Saturday, the 15th, I set out from Warri with an older cousin—I call him Brother Reuben—and his wife on a trip to visit my mother in Otor-Owhe, but with stops in Iyede to attend a funeral and Oleh for a wedding. We crawled through the first MCP at Okuokokor in about 20 minutes, though from the DSC roundabout where the East-West Road begins to the checkpoint is less than half a kilometre.
At about 11:05 am, our progress was halted with sterner resolve as we fell into one of now-three-and-now-four lanes caused by the MCP just before Beta Glass Company. For 43 minutes, we stewed in the sun and expressed our frustrations in hisses and impotent rage.
As we passed through the checkpoint, we noticed that the sentry hut was empty and the two soldiers in the vicinity were chatting with someone in the nearby petrol station.
Thankfully, they had ensured to deploy helmets atop the sandbags to stand in for them! On our return, at 6:20 pm, we saw the gridlock ahead and turned just in time at Delta Power Station into the Otor-Udu Road, an alternative route to our destination in the Udu-Ovwian area of Warri. We might as well have gnashed our teeth through the Delta Glass MCP for we ran smack into another in Ujevwu! Suffice it to say that a journey of 20 minutes, give or take, from the Delta Glass MCP took a full hour longer. But we were lucky: I heard stories of two to three hours lost to the East-West Road checkpoints.
But why build roads, supposedly for the freer flow of traffic, and then erect obstacles in them to defeat the purpose? To combat kidnappers, I am told. Very funny! And not only because the soldiers do not check vehicles, do not do any actual policing—are indeed often not to be seen at the checkpoints—but also because I am yet to hear of any kidnapper arrested at a military checkpoint.
Despite being hemmed in by MCPs, Kelvin Oniarah, the alleged kidnap kingpin of Kokori was arrested in a hotel in Port Harcourt, while one Enueme Ogaga, his alleged sidekick, was nabbed in Ashaka far from a checkpoint. And outside Delta State, the report “Another kidnap kingpin, 6 robbers nabbed in Rivers” (Vanguard, 20 February 2014) informs us that the said kidnapper “was traced to a . . . bank . . . where he went to withdraw [the] ransom” paid for his victim.
Checkpoints are an extreme policing device suitable only for a town under military occupation. They are to be used sparingly and only for a specific and immediate goal, then promptly dismantled.
As I ranted against military checkpoints—they are a gratuitous infliction of pain; they hinder movement and economic activity and we mount them with glee only because we are not a productive economy, are not in competition with any other nation (crude oil and gas do not travel on the roads); they show us as a conquered people, a land rendered comatose by military dictatorship and civilian brigandage, etc.—my auditors recounted their experiences. On hearing me swear to write a column about the MCPs, Mr. George Okoro, a retired Shell Community Relations Coordinator, said: “Well, you may write all you want but our governments delight in seeing us suffer, that’s all.”
The next day, on a visit to Professor G.G. Darah in his Udu-Warri home, I was still in a huff and so, it turns out, was he about the ubiquity of checkpoints in Delta State. He had once counted, he said, “29 checkpoints between Auchi and Asaba.” Delta State, he declared, “is a war zone. You won’t see checkpoints coming from Abuja, until you leave Auchi.”
Elsewhere, countries that take themselves seriously strain to outdo their nearest competitors in lowering the cost of doing business, partly by shortening the time for travelling between two points. And so China develops its new high-speed trains with France, Japan and Germany as its competitors.
We do not have a rail transport system that would pass the laugh test; all we have are inadequate and decrepit roads. And yet we find every reason to bring traffic to a halt on them. Perhaps the powers that be who authorised the permanent military siege to Delta State might care to prove Mr. Okoro wrong?