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How revenue task forces are frustrating traders in South East

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…Some of them are rogues, they extort us —Traders
…It is settlement for political thugs, govs are aware of what they do —Market leader

COVID-19 Task Force in Anambra.

By Anayo Okoli, Vincent Ujumadu, Ugochukwu Alaribe, Ikechukwu Odu, Peter Okutu, Chimaobi Nwaiwu,Chinedu Adonu & Chinonso Alozie

ENUGU—ONE ugly and disturbing trend in the South East States is the embarrassing activities of the many task forces the states and local governments in the zone set up to drive for revenues for them.

They are everywhere, in all the roads, including federal highways. In the most embarrassing manner, they stop vehicles with planks hooked with nails, some of them, shamelessly and in Gestapo styles, jump into moving vehicles; situations which had led to fatal accidents. This is notorious in virtually all the states.

Sadly, the so called revenue never gets to the coffers of the government. It is believed that it was one way of settling some hard politicians who played parts, particularly, bad roles such as providing thugs during the election, who now engage the same boys to harass, extort and intimidate road users as their own dividends of democracy.

Their activities have been a nightmare to the residents and visitors to many South East cities.

Abia

In Abia, this is notorious and residents of Abia State have decried the activities of task force teams operating in the state. The number of task forces in the state for one operation or the other is legion.

In Aba and Umuahia, it is common to see task force teams chasing after vehicles and struggling for control of the wheels with the driver.

The situation had led to auto crashes with attendant deaths and in less serious cases, injuries. Sadly, most of them operate with policemen released to them by area commanders and divisional police officers

The task force teams usually operate in unmarked buses from where they jump out and attack motorists for alleged offences like obstruction, illegal parking, non-payment of daily toll, emblems, licenses; among others, with no courtesy of even explaining to the purported offender what he or she has done wrong.

In roguish style, there are other teams that confiscate vehicle number plates, even when they are parked clearly away from the road. Even places of worship are not exempted from attack by the task force teams.

The owners of seized number plates are made to pay between N10, 000 to N15, 000 to redeem their number plates. And in most cases, the monies are not accounted for as there are no receipts issued to the alleged offenders.

As one moves from one local government council to the other, the task force members are seen, some putting up aprons, and displaying the emblems of council areas on whose authority they claim to operate.

However, investigations revealed that most of them operate illegally. A truck owner who pleaded anonymity told  South East Voice that truck drivers are afraid to ply Aba roads during working hours due to the activities of task force teams who harass, intimidate and extort them for various levies, many of them illegal.

The state governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, had in December 2019, banned the removal of number plates by these elements in the name collecting revenues for the council areas in the state. The governor’s action followed public outcry against the activities of the task force teams in Aba and Umuahia and other areas as Ohafia and Umunneochi. But they are back to business in full force even as the ban remains in force.

The council areas notorious for the activities of task force teams are: Aba South, Aba North, Umuahia North ,Osisioma Ngwa, Umuahia South and Obingwa.

A resident of Aba, Okey Nwankwo, who narrated his ordeal with a task force team that seized his car number plate, said that most of them don’t work for the local governments.

“I parked my car on the front of my office along St. Michael’s road. It was clearly parked away from the road, but at the close of work, I discovered that my number plates were gone with a note directing me to visit the Aba South Council secretariat. I contacted the Chairman of the council, but he denied setting up a task force to seize number plates.

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“I later traced the task force to the Aba main motor park where over 20 people were gathered to recover their number plates. They collected between N15, 000 to N20, 000 to release each number plate. It is doubtful if the monies realized are paid into the government purse,” Nwankwo said.

Few weeks ago in Umuahia, a task force team nearly sent a pregnant woman to her untimely death as they struggled for control of a truck which rammed into the tricycle conveying her and other passengers. As soon as the truck hit the tricycle with the passengers sustaining injuries, the task force team fled in different directions.

While enforcing the lockdown along Opobo road in Aba, a task force team on COVID-19 beat to death, a tricycle operator as he made to escape from them.

The operator had rammed into an electric pole and hit his chest on the handle of the tricycle. He was allegedly dragged out from his tricycle and assaulted by the task force until he became unconscious.

On realising that he was unconscious, the taskforce members were said to have rushed him to a nearby hospital where he died.

Efforts to get the reaction of the Abia State government on what it is doing to check the trend was unsuccessful. Commissioner for Information, Chief John Okiyi Kalu, was yet to respond to calls and text message sent to his mobile number.

Anambra

Claim of insufficient funds to implement annual budgets is one main reason all manner of task forces exist in many states.

In Anambra State, the 21 local government areas have various task forces in place to shore up their Internally Generated Revenue, IGR. Unfortunately, most of the monies collected end up in private pockets, leaving the state government with paltry amount every fiscal year.

Most of the task forces are ceded to political party chieftains and the way they embark on the revenue collection often leads to chaos.

For instance, commercial drivers are made to pay for all kinds of tickets such that driving through the local governments is usually a nightmare.

The fees paid range from N1000 to N10,000 and those who fail to pay on demand are often humiliated and their vehicles confiscated and dumped at the local government headquarters.

Even government agencies set up to ensure law and order have turned themselves into task forces and anyone who contravenes is publicly disgraced.

For example, agencies like the Ocha Brigade and Anambra State Transport Management Agency, ATMA, have more or less turned to extortion agencies and it has become a common scene to see officials of these agencies engage in open fisticuffs with people on the streets.

There is also what appears to be another surprising task force created by the police. The policemen operate on motorcycles and are stationed close to traffic lights and those who contravene are made to pay.

Although these policemen would instantly tell the offender that the offence attracts a penalty of N25,000, they prefer that the culprit pays them amount ranging from N5,000 to N10,000.

Also, the over 100 markets in the state have task forces for revenue collection and the failure to account for the monies collected had become a source of friction among the traders.

READ ALSO: Expert seeks a special task force to tackle environmental challenges

Recently, some traders at the Head Bridge Market in Onitsha were up in arms with their leaders who they accused of embezzling over N80 million revenue collected in the market.

Officials of the state Ministry for Commerce had to invite the feuding parties to their office where they were busy exposing and accusing each other of using illegal task forces to extort money from people.

At the state Urban Development Board, many workers there had constituted themselves into task forces and moving from street to street to harass those embarking on housing projects.

Rather than prevail on the property developers to pay the prescribed fees into the appropriate state government account, members of these task forces preferred that such monies were paid into their private accounts, thereby denying government the necessary revenue.

While parading some members of the illegal task forces in the markets before his redeployment to another ministry, former Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, Dr Christian Madubuko warned that those involved would be prosecuted. However, nobody has been charged to court and the impression people have is that those involved in the illegal acts were untouchables because they were operating for highly connected persons in government.

In Nnewi and Onitsha, the manner the task forces operate has become a thing of shame and scorn, an embarrassment to the state government to say the least.

They are everywhere, from markets to streets and roads in Nnewi and Onitsha it is the same story of harassment, extortion and intimidation by men of the uncountable task forces parading the cities.

From Niger Bridge Head to Upper Iweka, to Onitsha Owerri, New Motor Spare Parts Market, Tazan Junction on the Onitsha Enugu expressway to Afor to Nkpor Junction, Nkpor Park to Obosi road, Awka road to Old Market road, to Ose Okwodu market, Onitsha Main Market, New Market road to Oguta road and New Cemetery road, they are seen violently and illegally collecting money from people.

Residents accuse the  Anambra State government of encouraging the activities of these revenue touts who masquerade as government task force officials because the state government has refused to ban them and properly identify those they authorized to work for them.

However, in a rare show of courage, the Divisional Police Officer, in charge of Fegge, Mr. Rabiu Garba, was angry over the activities of some these task forces as he wondered what kind of levy a woman who sells vegetable will be paying and he banned them from operating anywhere in his Fegge Police Division till day.

Mr Garba did not only stop the illegal revenue touts from extorting women and traders of unapproved levies, he also ensured that Policemen from his division did not give any illegal task force group protective backing.

Today, Fegge has been rid of such illegal task force men and the DPO has not relented in ensuring they do not operate in the area and the residents of the area are happy for that.

Worried by the ugly activities of the task forces, a human right activist and Chairman Board of Trustees of  Human Rights, Liberty Access and Peace Defenders Foundation, HURIDE,  Dede Uzor A. Uzor, decried it as a bad way of shoring up revenue.

“This is a new trend in revenue generation by our respective commissioners and one wondered how they got the so called authority which they armed themselves with and operate in the state.

The Commissioners should be held liable for incessantly issuing atrocious, offensive and fraudulent authorities in the name of generating revenues for the government. These illegal revenue thugs should be disbanded and arrested without further delay.

“Government at the local government level cannot be exonerated from the illegal and menacing activities of the task force men operating either legally or illegally.

No doubt for good intention, the local governments set task force to assist in revenue drive and sundry issues, but the members of such task forces have often abused the opportunity to embarrassing levels, while the council chairmen who set them up fail to monitor them thereby allowing infiltration of bad eggs into such task force,” Uzor said.

Enugu

Enugu State may not be parading many task force teams as was the case some years back before the administration of Sullivan Chime. But the activities of the task force under the Ministry of Transport, MOT, is getting embarrassing as the members have literally abandoned their basic duty of decongestion of traffic within Enugu metropolis with some of them now indulging themselves in extortion through illegal impoundment of vehicles and intimidation of tricycle operators.

Despite the government-sponsored training to many of the MOT operators under the Ministry of Transport, works have deviated from the original concept and now they operate like thugs in Enugu metropolis.

They are often seen in one obscure and lonely corner negotiating with their supposed offender for ‘settlement’.

Also, residents of Enugu North Senatorial District of Enugu State have decried what they called undue harassment and extortion by task force personnel in their areas.

The task force personnel mount roadblocks in the district, especially on local market days to sell vehicle and motorcycle emblems and rates, as well as collect, produce charges from road users.

Some of them in a bid to apprehend road users cause road mishaps and constitute other nuisances which continue to worry the residents.

A shop owner at Ibagwa  Road in Nsukka Local Government Area who pleaded for anonymity, told  Vanguard South East Voice that the task force members usually harass rural traders going to either Nkwo Ibagwa in Igbo-Eze South Local Government Area of Enugu State or Eke Ozzi in Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area.

He narrated how one of his customers escaped death by whiskers when a motorcyclist while trying to escape from the hot chase of the task force personnel, lost control and nearly hit the buyer, adding that those caught riding motorcycles without emblems or rates pay at least N2000 for an item that costs N150.

Similarly, following the directive by Nsukka Local Government chairman, Cosmas Ibeziako, for every motorcycle operating in the council to have number plates in order to check incessant motorcycle theft in the council, some task force personnel have cashed on the opportunity to extort money from cyclists who do not have the number plates and allow them to go scot-free.

But reacting on the development, the Secretary to the local government, Damian Eze, said that the council chairman has disbanded all task force personnel, urging the residents to deal mercilessly with anybody or group of persons posing as one before reporting them to police.

He said the local government uses only officers of the Nigerian Police Force and Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC to arrest violators of orders in the council area, adding that those selling emblems and rates on the roads are doing so on the orders of the state government.

At the boundary between Imufu and Aji, both in Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State, the personnel welded nails on a long iron bars through which they block any vehicle with farm produce to extort money. The money so collected is not receipted for and would certainly not be adequately accounted for.

Also, at the livestock market at Obollo Afor in Udenu Local Government Area of Enugu State, and in fact, all the local markets in the district, buyers of animals pay between N150 and N200 depending on the nature of animals bought.

Imo

In Imo State, residents of Owerri metropolitan city also decried the embarrassing activities of the task force groups and called for the disbandment of all forms of vehicular and market task force groups in the state capital, saying they constitute more nuisance than anything good.

They urged the government to work out decent ways of collecting revenues and stop the huge embarrassment the members of some the task forces are causing the people and the government itself.

READ ALSO: Truck owners, drivers protest as Task Force impounds trucks

They lamented that thugs have infiltrated into the groups and now intimidate, harass and forcefully collect illegal levies from motorists, market women doing their business even to the extent of beating them.

They called on the government to centralize payment of taxes or designate offices where motorists and market women should go and pay their taxes and have their receipt as proof of payment.

They also pleaded with the government to construct conspicuous bus stops within the Owerri capital city to guide motorists who fall prey to the men of the illegal task forces on daily basis.

A petty trader at Eke Ukwu market in Owerri, who sells vegetables, said: “I pay on a daily basis up to N1000 to N1200 to different groups as they come one after another and claim to be from the government and if you refuse, they will carry your wares.

“Sometimes, we end up fighting each other. The other day, we fought and they stole my phone”.

Another woman, a fish seller, who gave her name simply as Madam Peace said: “It pains me the amount of money we pay as levy to these thugs sometime up to N1, 500 in a day.

“There is a week it will be so much that we can’t endure it again. We want the government to stop these people and tell us where we can be paying taxes than different groups coming to collect money as if they asked us to keep money for them.”

It is almost a daily occurrence seeing the task force men fight with commercial drivers in different parts of the city.

According to a taxi driver, Mazi George Ndubuisi, “What is remaining is to fight these thugs and it will happen very soon. Somebody will come to look for money to feed his children and somebody will come intimidate you in the name of tax and asked you to pay N500 and sometimes they claim that it’s obstruction and collect money.

“We want the government to build bus stops so that we know where we can stop and pick passengers as well as carry our passengers”.

Ebonyi

The different task forces constituted by the government have also in some cases deviated from their mandate assigned to them and engage in illegal activities.

And, some, while pursuing their assignments caused more harm than good to the present Administration.

However, the Governor David Umahi-led administration claimed they had never condoned their excesses, illegality, harassment and betrayal as the Governor is said not to waste time in disbanding such task force that embarks on illegal activities.

Government’s recent disbandment affected those under the Àbakaliki Capital Territory Development Board, ACTDB, when the Governor felt, they fell short of their mandate of ensuring that houses built in the State follow due process.

In a telephone conversation with the Commissioner for Internal Security and Border Peace, Mr Stanley Emegha, he described the Government of Governor David Umahi as responsive and responsible towards what affects its citizenry.

“We are a responsible Government. This government is not a bully. The task force has been educated to follow laid-down rules and regulations, even though, at times, people complain of some of their activities.

“They have been educated to respect the rights of citizens. And also, citizens should obey and abide by the policies of Government. Most times, some citizens are the ones that tempt or push the task force agents into doing what; ordinarily they were not assigned to do.

“Citizens should obey agents of Government even as we condemn any action that would cause pain to our citizens. What is needed is cooperation.

You need to know that these task forces are under purview or jurisdiction of Ministries in the State. They are usually set up to assist Ministries to achieve certain legitimate objectives of Government. I handle issues bordering on internal security and if any case on Security comes to my table, it is handled amicably.”

Vanguard News Nigeria.

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