By Anote Ajeluorou
What would strike a first-time visitor to Delta State Central Senatorial District is the ubiquitous military roadblocks. The consequence of that presence is the inevitable snarling traffic it causes on roads that are ordinarily free of potholes. Motorists are constantly on the look out for such needless jams and they try their best to avoid them by taking long and windy ways with more roadblocks.
Among these roadblocks, there are the notorious ones that keep commuters for long before they can crawl through. The first is the one just before the roundabout on entry into Warri from Benin City on the famous East-West Road. Depending on the time of the day, it can keep motorists on either side for as long as 30 minutes or more just to drive through. The same applies to the other two on the way to Ughelli. First is the one on the way to Agharho town just after the PTI Junction. Then, there is a second one before Ughelli town.
At these points and others, the soldiers watch the vehicles with a keen eye and are ready to pounce on any motorist, who tries to outsmart the long queue. Old and young men have been made to sit down on muddy waters just because they tried to jump the needless queues of vehicles to get to their destinations. Others, especially okada riders and other young offenders, have also been made to cut grass or sand fill defence bags at the military posts nearby under the watchful eyes of military personnel.
Also on the Osubi Road towards Eku and just before the road leading to the Warri airport, another roadblock checks motorists’ smart quest to beat the main Warri-Benin City expressway. On the Sapele-Eku-Abraka road, the story is the same. At almost every three kilometres, a roadblock checks motorists’ progress. One or two have been abandoned but the drums, planks and other materials that slow down vehicles still stand.
Before entering Jesse, a town made famous by devastating crude oil fire in 1999, a roadblock is also mounted. The soldiers are jovial, as they even crack jokes with the locals and respond to greetings in Urhobo language. They behave like regular town’s folk. Inside Sapele town, there is a military checkpoint after Amukpe Market. It causes massive traffic jam during peak periods.
Interestingly, despite all these roadblocks, no serious checking of vehicles takes place. One or two soldiers just stand guard and direct drivers to stay in line and behave. Beyond the occasional mild rebuke, motorists are waved on. But even at that, precious time would have been lost in the snarling jam before motorists get to the checkpoint proper. It’s usually in exasperation at the aimlessness of the whole that some motorists try to beat the long queue, causing them to trigger the soldiers’ anger and the consequent occasional punishment.
Regarding the general security of the entire Delta State, the military has this to say, “The Sector 1 Operation PULO SHIELD under the command of Brig. Gen. Pat Akem is deplored in Delta State to ensure security of lives, property and create a conducive environment for individuals to go about their lawful business. The crimes in Delta State include kidnapping and armed robbery among others”.
No doubt, this includes erecting of roadblocks in the state, particularly Delta Central Senatorial District, which seems to bear the brunt of this security necessity in the form of roadblocks.
IN a taxicab from Sapele to Kokori through Okpara Waterside two weeks ago, a conversation suddenly ensued among the passengers and the driver. The conversation confirmed the travel lore that drivers, ferrymen and other transport operators are usually the traffickers of local news. It is from them that you get firsthand insight into vital information that reveals the underbelly of communities.
And so it was that one of the ladies in the cab remarked rather regretfully about the burial that would take place that day of one Darlene (Darlington) in Sapele. For her and the other two men in front plus the driver, Darlington’s death was one of those mystifying events that defy logic. In his hey days, they all agreed, Darlington was one of those fellows, who courted trouble with glee and saw to it that trouble fled from him in trepidation. He was that tough. But of late, they also said, he’d apparently calmed down and went about his business without molesting anyone as he was wont to do.
This, then, was why they couldn’t fathom why it had to be him that met death in the tragic circumstance that he did, and in the hands of soldiers endlessly patrolling the town to maintain peace.
Darlington and many others were at a party enjoying themselves when a military patrol vehicle pulled up. The party wasn’t without a little trouble though, but it had simmered down, it seemed, when the soldiers pulled up and sought to know what was amiss. As the party organisers were assuring them that everything was under control, Darlington and a few others told the soldiers to mind their own business.
When Darlington and his friends didn’t stop even as the soldiers were moving back, one of the soldiers’ guns went off in apparent self-defence. Darlington was hit in the eye. The sight, they said, was simply horrifying and gory.
In amazement, the driver couldn’t help wondering what the soldiers were doing in the entire area (Delta Central) and how ubiquitous they had become. Working among a people that stare down and dare a man with a gun, who are not afraid to say their minds even when guns are trained on them, the driver said, the soldiers would have a hard time doing whatever security job they had been detailed to do in Delta State, especially his part of Delta.
That same day in Ughelli (Thursday, December 5), two young men, both okada riders, were shot. The main target died on the spot while the soldiers rushed the other one to hospital. What was the offence? The offending okada man reportedly failed to heed the warning not to cross a certain point, where the soldiers had mounted watch over a construction company. When a soldier accosted the okada driver, the latter was said to have seized the soldier by the collar and also hit him with his helmet.
Sensing that his colleague was in trouble, another soldier shot the okada rider. But just at that moment, another okada rider, who was appalled at his colleague’s brazenness, and was rushing to separate them, was also hit. He was the one rushed to hospital.
Almost on a daily or weekly basis, news of soldiers’ brush with the locals is becoming rife. So also is the number of casualties. This is to the apparent discomfort of citizens of Delta Central Senatorial District, who have suddenly found themselves under heavy military siege.
WHILE ordinary folks complain about the inconveniences of these military checkpoints, especially motorists that ply the roads (such as the taxi driver mentioned earlier), many others are actually pleased, especially prominent Deltans, that the presence of the soldiers has brought a measure of security to the area, which had become volatile with the upsurge of militant activities for resource control and lately, kidnappings for criminal intent. In the recent past, Edo and Delta States became playgrounds for kidnapping activities, with state functionaries and prominent persons as targets.
According to a local media consultant and community leader from Jesse, Prince Oma Whisky, the inconveniences of the roadblocks are nothing compared to the security needs of the area, which he said the military had come to enforce and maintain. Before the presence of the military and the roadblocks, Whisky said kidnappers made life unbearable for many citizens of the area and other parts of the state.
Said he: “The people bear the presence of the military because of the high level of insecurity in the area. People were usually taken away with impunity. But now, it’s difficult for any person to be adopted and taken away. So, it’s a way of addressing insecurity. The inconvenience caused by insecurity is worse than the presence of the military and roadblocks. In any case, roadblocks are in other parts of the state such as Patani and others.
“Kidnappers are now forced to go into the hinterland and even that is not easy. I have been kidnapped before; the horrors of the experience is better imagined”.
Efforts to get Delta State Government to comment on the matter proved abortive. Telephone calls to the Commissioner for Information, Chike Ogeah, and the House of Assembly member, representing Ethiope, O.J. Oshevire, were neither picked nor returned before press time. However, Chief Press Secretary to the governor and chief security officer of Delta State, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, Sunny Ogefere, said it was strictly a security issue for which he had no competence to make comments and referred this reporter to the military formation for clarification.
But whatever the security needs of Delta Central Senatorial District or those of the entire state are, it must be managed with care and should not be seen as a siege against the people.