June 8, Lagos was just waking up to its usual hustle and bustle when I set out for the Iyana-Ipaja Interstate Garage about 5.30am. The curfew imposed by the Nigerian government had been relaxed to last between 10pm and 4am.
As usual, the ubiquitous yellow buses, popularly called danfo, hugged the roads as workers made their way to offices that misty Monday morning.
The Iyana-Ipaja Interstate Garage, which has become popular with travellers, especially residents of Alimosho and beyond, was in its usual elements, as both interstate and intra-city commuters jostled to get a space in vehicles to their various destinations.
I arrived the motor park to meet a horde of other passengers negotiating their trips to various destinations as bus conductors screamed atop their voices to win over travellers.
I was travelling undercover and my mission to Abuja was to have a field experience of how the government and its citizens were responding to the global pandemic.
Locating the driver I had spoken with a night before to make reservations for the front seat of the Sienna Space Bus was herculean, as the flurry of activities and noise at the park made telephone conversations a nasty experience.
Eventually I located Kelekun, my pilot, as what turned out to be the most tedious cross-country undercover journey I ever had was about to begin!
Understanding the issues
When on February 27, 2020, the dreaded COVID-19 disease made a land fall in Nigeria, governments, both at state and federal levels swung into action, in what many Nigerians believed to be a well thought out response to the global pandemic.
Though several others were of the opinion that the response was a bit late in coming, especially with the initial refusal to close the nation’s airspace after the index case was discovered, some of the steps taken were believed capable to contain the spread of the virus.
State governments in different parts of the country directed the closure of their borders before the Federal Government, in an address by President Muhammadu Buhari on the 29th of March, 2020, announced the ban on interstate travels. This was supposed to control and contain the interstate spread of the virus, especially to states that were yet to record any case at that point.
The President, in his address, also laid out what could have been a water-tight procedure for allowing interstate movement of essential goods, including thorough checks of drivers of trucks conveying essential goods from one part of the country to the other.
Despite the measures put in place, the virus found its way to almost all the states in the country. Curiously, the spread to the yet to be affected states happened during the pendency of the various lockdown in the states and the one ordered by the Federal Government.
The situation no doubt pointed to one fact, and that’s the possibility that some, if not all the measures put in place were not being properly implemented.
The mission by Ripples Nigeria, to unravel the level of the implementation of Nigeria’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, turned out to be eye-opening, exposing lies, sabotage and double standards in the control and containment efforts.
The tedious cross-country trip also exposed the decaying road transport infrastructure in the country, against claims by governments at different levels, and the tragic way a state has continued to live in denial of the dreaded coronavirus.
Taking advantage of a bad situation
As I made to board the unbranded bus taking me to Abuja, the risk of travelling with an unstructured transport company dawned on me. The interstate lockdown had put the likes of GIGM, GUO and Chisco out of circulation.
Kelekun, my pilot, and many of his kinds filled the void and took full advantage of the ban on interstate travels to exploit people who had urgent needs to move from one state to the order.
I glanced to see if some COVID-19 protocols were in place but was shocked to find none. This was an unstructured bus terminus with operators out in the open. People mingled freely with little respect for social distancing.
We all embarked the vehicle without washing or sanitizing our hands, though each had a face mask on.
For this reporter, whose first destination was the nation’s capital, Abuja, a seat in one of the many Sienna vehicles cost N15,000 as against the normal N7,000 for the same kind of vehicle and destination.
Though many of the passengers were visibly disappointed at the over 100 percent hike, our road experience sometimes turned into pity for the driver who literally had to ride through hell.
But Kelekun didn’t seem to want our pities. For the drivers, it was time for brisk business and, notwithstanding the risks of arrest and prosecution, as this reporter thought would be the case, operators were more concerned at maximising the pandemic for profit.
We were five in the bus, instead of the regular seven, and as the driver revved the bus engine for take-off, he cautioned, perhaps in obedience to one of the COVID-19 protocols, that we must ensure that we had our face masks on once we approached security operatives on duty. He gave assurances that the number of passengers was in respect to the social distancing rule.
A chat between this reporter and the driver revealed that many of them had been travelling interstate, even in the lockdown, without much troubles.
According to Kelekun, he had no option than to keep working as doing otherwise would have an adverse effect on his family’s livelihood.
“I have been travelling every other day, conveying passengers from Lagos to Abuja. I have no option because this is the only job I do.
“If government truly wants me and my colleagues to obey the ban on interstate travels, they would have provided the necessary palliatives for interstate transporters.”
Asked if he was not afraid of arrest, Kelekun laughed, saying this reporter will see things for himself.
“Bros, don’t bother about that, you will see how it goes today. This is Nigeria and we all know how things work”, he said with confidence.
Commercializing the pandemic
The journey progressed well from Iyana-Ipaja until we got to the boundary between Lagos and Ogun States, where this reporter had thought there would serious hassles passing through the barricades.
After minutes in the traffic bottleneck, occasioned by the two checkpoints mounted closely, and manned by security operatives from both states, each on their sides of the boundary, a mere exchange of N500 notes gave us a safe passage to continue the journey to Abuja.
At the Lagos end, a Police Sergeant walks up to the side of the driver, peeps inside the vehicle for a moment, then looks at the driver, who obviously got the message and quickly stretches out his left hand for the exchange of money.
The swift banter between driver and security agent at the checkpoints left me wondering if both parties had been old acquaintances.
I probed Kelekun to find out why the police man took a hard look at the passengers and he said it was precautionary.
“That’s what they do, they look at faces in vehicles to be sure no one inside will implicate them, as if it is written on the face”, Kelekun said, saying the same ritual will be repeated all through the journey.
The scenario also played out at the Ogun State side of the barricades, just as at every checkpoint which were many as we had stops at almost every five kilometres in the journey that lasted more than 24 hours before arriving Abuja.
As we breezed through the freeways, I made mental notes of the number of checkpoints where we were made to stop between Lagos and Abuja. It came to about 30! And, that includes those mounted by local vigilantes in different states.
However, the return journey proved worse, as travelling through the Benin-Ore-Shagamu Expressway is a nightmare on its own for drivers.
At some checkpoints, the security agents were so brazen that they named their price, ranging between N500 and N1000, with a threat to turn back the vehicle or detain the driver. But knowing he was on the wrong side of the law, the driver had no option but to part with what they demanded.
At the checkpoint just before Ogere on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the team of security agents were novel in their approach, as they instantly tell you what to pay. Once the driver tries to argue, he is asked to park and delayed until he is tired and succumbs.
Kelekun’s stubbornness at Ogere fetched us over an hour delay because he was reluctant to part with N1000.
Running from the law
Instead of turning off the expressway from Lagos to join the Ibadan-Ilesa-Akure Highway, Kelekun continued straight towards Ojo, onward the Oyo-Ogbomosho Road. I was the first to raise an eyebrow over the diversion, since I was conversant with both routes.
Continuing on the Oyo-Ogbomosho route, from my knowledge, would lead us to Eyenkorin in Kwara State to Bode Sadu onward to Jebba-Mokwa Road on the way to Kaduna in the Northwest. However, a detour at Bida junction would lead us to Kutigi, Bida, Lapai, Suleja, all in Niger State and then to Zuba junction in the FCT.
Despite protestations, Kelekun continued, explaining that drivers have had to abandon the Ibadan-Akure to Lokoja route because of the hassles they experienced in the hands of security agents.
According to him, Owena, shortly before Akure had been under total blockade by security agents, including the military.
“We don’t go through that route anymore. None of our vehicles passes through there because of the blockade at Owena. Even when we are able to manoeuvre our way, it is at great cost. And the security checkpoints along that route are terrible, you will be delayed for a long time before they even collect whatever they have named as their price. So we don’t go through that route again”, Kelekun explained.
For those whose destination is Lokoja, Kelekun offered to give them N1,500 he said was the cost of fare from Zuba Junction in the FCT to Lokoja. At this point, I knew we were on for a long tortuous journey, as the route had been a nightmare for travellers for several years.
But back to the onward journey to Abuja, a funny scenario played out between the driver and the Kwara State boundary patrol contingent at the boundary between Oyo and Kwara states, after Ogbomosho. The driver, who had just parted with N500 at the Oyo side, complained to the security agents at the Kwara side, less than 50 metres away, but was pointedly told that that was for Oyo and not Kwara.
According to the anti-riot policeman, who attended to us, the driver had a choice between returning to Oyo or giving them what they demanded.
“My friend, this is Kwara State. That side na Oyo, if you no wan pay here, make you return to Oyo State. You no fit pass for this place”, the police inspector said in pidgin English, with a note of finality.
The conduct of the joint security agents at the checkpoints along the nation’s highways clearly shows how Nigerian government’s battle to control and contain the COVID-19 pandemic is being sabotaged.
More drama was to play out on the return trip to Lagos. On the Saturday that Ogun State declared a total lockdown after 104 positive cases were discovered in a factory in Shagamu, a combined team of security operatives at the state’s boundary with Ondo State made brisk business collecting N1000 from every motorist trying to enter the state, with a threat to turn them back if they failed to comply.
The driver, who had parted with so much in the course of the trip from Lokoja, the Kogi State capital, and was becoming dissolutioned, refused to pay the N1000 and was parked for more than one hour, with his key seized.
Tired of waiting and eager to reunite with their families, three of the passengers in the vehicle contributed the N1000 and handed it over to the TRACE officer before we were allowed to proceed into Ogun State. The agent claimed they had no option but to fleece travellers because they were the ones managing their own logistics.
“We have been here since morning and no one is talking about our feeding or any form of welfare. We are under the rain and the sun, whichever one comes. It is a lockdown but we are out here, so you guys should try and understand”, he said.
Similarly, at Omotunde, on the outskirts of Ondo State, just before the Ogun border, this reporter noticed a lone soldier who employed two male teenagers to collect money for him, while he harassed motorists who were unwilling to part with money.
Soldier for hire!
The driver of the bus conveying this reporter from Lokoja to Lagos had told the passenger sitting at the front seat that he would have to leave and move to the rear because he (driver) would need to pick a security agent at Shagamu Interchange so he could have an easy passage into Lagos.
The negotiation between the driver and the Army Staff Sergeant that he picked was an opener to the rot in the country and how the country may have to contend with the dreaded virus for a long time to come with dangerous repercussions.
I had eavesdropped on their conversation as both haggled with the Army Staff Sergeant agreeing to a fee of N5000. With him sitting with the driver in front, we had a hassle-free passage into Lagos.
Living in denial
Exiting Oyo and progressing into Kwara State, provided exciting scenarios on how implementation of the the COVID-19 protocols has left much to be desired. It exposes a people living in denial with different standards applicable to different parts of the country.
Adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols were near zero. Between Eyenkorin, to Babaloma, Bode Sadu and Jebba, all in Kwara State, to Mokwa, Kutigi, Bida, Lapai and Suleja in Niger state to Zuba Junction, Gwagwalada and Abaji, in the Federal Capital Territory, Gegu, Kotonkarfi, Lokoja and Kabba, in Kogi State, the use of nose masks and the limitations placed on the number of passengers, intra-state or intra-city commercial vehicles could carry, were not adhered to.
In Lapai, Niger State, where this reporter and other passengers passed the night in a hotel, in a bid to escape from the bandits that have been ravaging the state, especially with the deplorable state of the roads, there was nothing like COVID-19 safety protocols in place.
On the return journey to Lagos, life in Ondo State was nothing but normal despite the increasing rate of infections in the state. In attached videos, residents of the state capital, Akure, were seen moving freely without nose masks while commercial vehicles carried passengers without restrictions.
Kogi, in the North-central geopolitical zone of the country, presents the perfect picture of a state living in pathetic self denial. One perpetrated and entrenched by the state governor, Yahaya Bello, who has been in the forefront of denying the presence of the pandemic in the state.
This reporter had a taste of what to expect in Kogi State when he boarded a vehicle in Abuja to Lokoja, in the second leg of the tedious but highly educating trip.
The driver of the Toyota Sharon mini bus insisted on carrying two passengers in front against one. Not ready to take chances, this reporter elected to pay for two so as not to endanger himself.
In the course of the trip, during a general chat among passengers, this reporter asked the driver why he chose to carry two passengers in front and four at the middle row, when everyone is trying to stay safe from COVID-19.
The driver, who gave his name as Abdul, dismissed the idea of COVID-19, saying there was nothing of such.
“COVID-19? There is nothing like that all they are saying is lies. I have been working since the first lockdown, moving passengers between Abuja, Lokoja and Okene and I have not seen one incidence. People are just telling lies to make money”, Abdul said.
Asked if overloading his vehicle would not incur the wrath of law enforcement agents on the road, especially the Federal Road Safety Corps, Abdul said that as the chairman of his motor park, he is known at every checkpoint along the Abuja-Lokoja-Okene route.
The passengers confirmed the overriding feeling and belief in Kogi that COVID-19 was a ruse and not real!
The mostly women passengers argued passionately against the reality of the pandemic, praising Governor Yahaya Bello of standing against the supposed antics of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
A lady, in her late 30s insisted that the Kogi State Governor was a model of public administrator who chose the wellbeing of his people above an opportunity to make money by falsely declaring that there were COVID-19 positive cases in the state.
“Bello no be like other governors weh dey use Coronavirus chop money. If him wan chop, hint go don agree say the disease dey but no be that kind man him be”, the Ebira lady, who hails from Okene, Bello’s hometown, said in pidgin English.
In Lokoja, the Kogi State capital, life continues normally without any inhibition. Entertainment centres, hotels, churches and mosques continue to operate without any restrictions. For residents of the state, COVID-19 is a mirage they cannot be bothered about.
Few dissenting voices
Despite the overriding disbelief and denial in Kogi, there are a few dissenting voices that belief the state government is only playing to the gallery and living in self denial. These voices comprise of health workers and some security agents who belief there is a major problem silently ravaging the state despite government disposition towards the disease.
A doctor with the Federal Medical Centre, Lokoja, a federal health facility that has already been blacklisted by the state government because of their insistence that the virus is present and alive in the state, confided in this reporter that they have had several cases that had to be referred to Abuja for testing and confirmation.
“Don’t believe what the state government is saying, COVID-19 is present in Kogi and we have had many people we felt had the virus but because of the posture of the government, we have been referring them to Abuja. We are actually in a very precarious situation because of the official denial”, he said.
Asked what he thinks is the reason for the insistence of the state government that COVID-19 is not in the state, the medical officer said he and his colleagues at the hospital have tried to come up with a reasonable explanation without success.
He said: “This has been the question; we really cannot come up with any reason informing government’s denial of COVID-19 in the state. Maybe they just want to maintain that phantom COVID-19 free status as if it’s a trophy to be displayed on the shelves, even when it really does not add up to anything. We are only concerned that if this continues, there maybe a major health crisis in the state.”
Niger roads to hell
Transiting from the boundary of Kwara State through Niger to the Federal Capital Territory can only be described as travelling on the road to hell!
The Jebba- Kaduna highway, a terrible road to travel in the past, has received the needed attention as the Federal Government is currently reconstructing it, making the experience of motorists on the road less harrowing. However, the same cannot be said when you veer off the Jebba-Kaduna highway in the onward journey to the FCT through Kutigi, Bida, Lapai and Suleja in Niger State.
Between Mokwa/Bida Junction to Bida town, the journey was somewhat smooth because the road had been worked on through Sukkuk loan by the Federal. However, the journey from Bida to Suleja, was the worst this reporter has ever embarked on recently.
According to Kelekun, the outward trip driver, the trip from Bida to Lapai would ideally be an hour but it ended up taking three hours, thirty minutes because of the total collapse of the road.
The night in Lapai offered no real succour except the comforting feeling that I was nearing the end of my field trip to Abuja.
The road from Lapai to Suleja was another experience better forgotten. Though we had set out around 6am, it took almost four hours before we arrived the Federal Capital Territory(FCT).
A journey of about eight hours had dragged into over twenty-four as Kelekun and other daring drivers, eager to eke a living, now have to live dangerously for survival.
And, for the security agents, the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by government have only become another opportunity to make money and exploit a global crisis to their advantage.
For them, it didn’t matter if the vehicle and its occupants were coming from Lagos, the epicenter of the pandemic in Nigeria, with a high possibility of spreading the virus to residents of their destined cities and states.
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