Archive for April 2008

Tales of encounter with marshals

April 28, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 27 Apr 2008

TWO major things activate the prayerful spirit in my wife. One is when she sees me in a vision with ladies. The other is whenever we are on the road, especially beside a container-bearing truck or a Molue. Most of these truck drivers don‘t latch the containers they carry. The Molue driver will first cover your vision with excessive smoke. Then, he will push you dangerously out of the road or even hit your car with impudence. At such moments, chants of “blood of Jesus” usually rend the air.

Really, driving on Nigerian roads amounts to travelling to Golgotha. There are many obstacles motorists contend with: bad roads, rickety vehicles, armed robbers etc. Just last week, a container-carrying truck crushed two vehicles on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. The accident reportedly happened because the two affected vehicles were fleeing from armed robbers operating on the road. They made a U-turn and drove against the traffic. In the process, they had a head-on collision with the truck. The container on the truck fell on the vehicles, resulting in the tragic death of 13 people.

There are people who also make U-turn when they sight law enforcement agents, particularly officers and men of the Federal Road Safety Commission. The reason is that people perceive them to be more stubborn and uncompromising. The police may collect N20 and leave you, but marshals may not. Their own collection, call it fine if you like, goes far above N20.

For instance, sometime in 2003, I ran into their net at Aba in Abia State. My major offence was that I had an expired fire extinguisher. Despite my pleas and in spite of the fact that some of them, including their commander, were my friends, they booked me. Immediately I returned from my travel, I went to their office and paid my fine. They told me that I could have gone to the bank to pay. But because I was their friend, they decided to save me the trouble by collecting the fine in their office.

Since then, I vowed never to fall into their trap again. I make sure I always have fire extinguisher, caution sign and all such things that they ask for. And so, it was with confidence that I stopped when some marshals flagged me down on Kingsway Road, by NNPC Filling Station, Ikoyi, Lagos. It was on Monday, 14 April at about 2.40pm. I had passed another group less than 100 metres on the same road. The lady marshal, who was detailed to check me, first asked for my driving licence and vehicle particulars. I gave them out with all pleasure. She held them as she asked for my fire extinguisher and caution sign. I provided all these. “Go and march your brake,” she ordered.

Meanwhile, two other clean vehicles were behind me: one, a Japanese car; the other, a Jeep driven by a woman. The woman was fuming, “I am going to the hospital. I don’t know what you people are talking about. This is my husband’s car. I don’t know where he keeps his fire extinguisher and C Caution.” Immediately, she called her husband to complain.

As she was yelling, I marched my brake as ordered. With triumphant glee, the marshal said, “Your brake lights are not working.” I expressed surprise at this discovery. To convince me, she called her colleague to come and check as well. The second person came and asked me to march again. I did. Her verdict was that the right side was working, but the left side was not. I simply told them that a car, being a mechanical device, could develop fault anytime. “Oga,” she said, “this is an offence. So what do we do?” I knew where she was going, so I threw the question back at her.

The penalty for my offence, she said, was N3, 000, which I must pay in their office on the island. But to show me some mercy (like their Aba counterparts), she said I could pay N2, 000 there without bothering to come to their office. I rejected her kind gesture. It was then she said I should talk to their oga. I waited as the oga was booking the man behind me. After this, the oga, without uttering any word, started booking me. When he was through, he gave me the ticket and walked away.

The following day, I went to their office located on Sura area of Lagos Island to pay. At the registry there, they gave me a Union Bank deposit slip with which I paid N2, 000 into the FRSC account at the Lewis Street branch of the bank. When I came back, they collected the customer’s duplicate copy of the slip from me. They not only forced me to buy their booklet, The Revised Highway Code, for N300, but also apologised for not giving me any receipt for all the transactions I made with them. They claimed they had run short of receipts.

Though I wasted my time and energy going back to the island to pay, I felt happy with myself. I was happy that I didn’t succumb to the subtle attempt to make me pay N2, 000 that may never be officially recorded. I was happy that the experience enriched my knowledge of traffic offences and the punishment accompanying them. And I was surprised to find out that the official fine for my offence, known as lights/sign violation, was N2, 000 and not N3, 000 as the lady marshal erroneously told me.

Some other offences and their fines include road obstruction violation, which is N3, 000; driving licence violation, N3, 000; dangerous overtaking violation, N3, 000; traffic light disobedience, N5, 000. Others are attempting to corrupt marshal, N10, 000; use of phone while driving, N4, 000; seat belt violation, N2, 000; hospital rejection of accident victim, N50, 000 and excessive smoke emission, N5, 000. There are many other offences.

Indeed, no sane society condones reckless violation of traffic rules. In the United Kingdom, Immigration Minister and MP, Liam Byrne, was fined £100 last year for using his mobile phone while driving. A Sutton Coldfield Magistrate’s Court also ordered him to pay £35 costs and gave him three penalty points on his licence. This was in spite of the fact that the minister was taking an important call on a deportation matter. Ironically, Byrne, according to media reports, is a strong campaigner for road safety. In 2005, he reportedly tabled a petition from constituents, which called for tougher penalties against dangerous drivers. He was also said to be on the committee that inculcated in UK’s 2006 Road Safety Act, an increase in fines for using a mobile phone while driving.

Similarly, the Wrexham magistrates fined the former Chairman of roads policing at the association of Chief Police Officers in Wales, £350 and banned him from driving for 42 days last year. Chief Constable Meredydd Hughes was caught on camera driving on a speed of 90mph in a 60mph zone.

My sincere wish is to see a Nigeria where marshals can book a minister or his convoy for over-speeding; where safety considerations override collection of fines or bribes; where more attention is focused on the express roads, where scores of Nigerians perish everyday rather than on less risky roads as in Ikoyi; and where every road user behaves so rationally that there may not be any need to shout “blood of Jesus” whenever we are on the road.

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Abuja land probe: Matters arising

April 21, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe

 

Published: Sunday, 20 Apr 2008

My encounter with the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja in July 2005 was by accident. The KLM flight I took from Amsterdam was billed to land at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. But a big cargo plane had crash-landed and blocked the only functional runway in Lagos then. After hovering in the air for over 30 minutes, we found ourselves at the Kotoka International Airport, Accra, Ghana. And since the airport authorities in Lagos could not remove the cargo plane that day, we were forced to land in Abuja from Accra. Moving through the streets of Abuja was a delight to me. The city was glittering like the European city I was just returning from. It was a total opposite of the bedlam called Lagos.

I later got to understand that the magic hand that transformed Abuja was Mallam Nasir el-Rufai. When he assumed office as the FCT Minister, he vowed to restore the Abuja master-plan. To achieve his aim, he had to revoke the allocation of some plots of land. He also demolished structures, most of which were allegedly built on sewers and water lines.

This, no doubt, was and remains an unpopular decision. For one, the demolition affected many prominent Nigerians. Some of them are former Heads of State, Yakubu Gowon and Abdulsalami Abubakar; former President Shehu Shagari; former Vice- President, Alex Ekwueme, and former Anambra State Governor, Chukwuemeka Ezeife. Some not-so-prominent Nigerians were also affected.

Some of these individuals had lamented the treatment meted out to them. Some, according to the FCT Minister, Aliu Modibbo Umar, had been putting pressure on him to return their revoked plots. Some took legal action and, as at the last count, over 800 cases are said to be in court over land allocations.

Apparently to douse tension and right some perceived wrongs, the Senate Committee on the FCT decided to undertake a public hearing on the sale of federal houses, allocation and revocation of plots of land in Abuja. The committee said the probe was not targeted at any individual. But, from what transpired at the hearing last week, el-Rufai seemed to be the main target.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo‘s government reportedly allocated 37,938 plots in Abuja to individuals and organisations between 1999 and 2007. Some of the allocations were contentious. Some were revoked. Aggrieved parties were aghast. They poured out their venom. Some called for the head of el-Rufai. Even some columnists and public commentators joined the fray. They labelled Obasanjo a monster, a demented despot and so on. El-Rufai got the worst tongue-lashing. The whole thing, to say the least, became a sentimental exercise in ad hominem and name-calling.

This is understandable. While not holding brief for anybody, it is pertinent to note that land anywhere is a contentious resource. A man could kill his brother because of it. Instances abound where aggrieved sons have either beaten up or killed their fathers for not giving them the lion‘s share of their landed property. Indeed, any investment in land is an investment well made. And if that investment is in a place like Abuja, the investor may never experience poverty again.

Besides, some may have spent their lifetime savings to acquire the property in Abuja. Visionary civil servants in particular usually go into real estate when they make some money. That serves as a buffer against penury. And during retirement, they will continue to live comfortably from the proceeds of their investment, pension or no pension.

This is why it is painful that some of them had to lose their property in controversial circumstances. Obviously, mistakes might have been made in the allocation, revocation and reallocation of the choice property in Abuja. Some allegations have it that some civil servants working under el-Rufai sold some of these plots illegally to unwary buyers. Some alleged that the former FCT Minister revoked the lands and reallocated them to his cronies and family members.

Even the Chairman of the panel probing the allocations, Senator Abubakar Sodangi, is alleged to have participated in the allocation process. Last Thursday, the Acting Director, Abuja Geographic Information Services, Mallam Yahaya Yusuf, accused him of acquiring 20 plots of land in Abuja. Yusuf was reportedly interrupted when he started reading the particulars of the plots. Sodangi denied acquiring 20 plots, but admitted having three.

In any case, all law-abiding Nigerians, including el-Rufai’s wives, are entitled to legal acquisition of lands anywhere in Nigeria. It is only when that acquisition goes against due process that it becomes an issue. He who seeks or dispenses justices must be above board. It will be disheartening if it is later discovered that the probe is nothing but a witch-hunt and that those crying foul are part of the mess in the first place.

This is why the panel must be very careful in the discharge of its duties. Rather than the emotional outbursts that have trailed the probe, the committee should look at issues dispassionately. If any civil servant had engaged in allocating lands illegally without the knowledge and consent of the Minister, that civil servant should be identified and punished. If el-Rufai is the one that is deliberately at fault, then the law should take its course.

My concern in all this is that things have gone wrong and continue to go wrong in Nigeria because we like to circumvent the rules. If the law prohibits building on a sewer and you deliberately violate that law, I have no sympathies if the property is demolished. That Singapore is prospering today is partly because their law is no respecter of persons. Recall that a Nigerian who was caught with hard drugs in that country was executed despite pleas for clemency by the Nigerian government. It pained us as a people, but that is their law.

This is not to say that those who have genuine complaints as regards the revocation of their lands should not be compensated. They should. But with due respect to such people, I believe that el-Rufai did his best to make Abuja what it is today. If not for his efforts, by now, the FCT would have become another bedlam. The Senate President, David Mark, hit the nail on the head when he noted (in his opening speech at the start of the public hearing), that he admired the zeal with which the last administration handled issues of the master-plan of Abuja. He hoped that this administration would keep to the master-plan and improve on the job done by the immediate past regime.

This seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

The trouble with Anambra

April 14, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 13 Apr 2008

THERE is a Christian song that the Catholic Prayer Ministry, Elele, in Rivers State, popularised in the 90s. When translated from Igbo, it means: “Today is a joyful day, everyday is not for weeping. Today is a joyful day, everyday is not for supplications.” Thousands of miracle-seeking faithful usually sang this song with faith and happiness.

This song came into my mind immediately I set out to write this piece. But realising that there is little to cheer about in our country today, I decided to reverse the lyrics. And so, for me, “Today is a sad day; everyday is not for laughter. Today is a day for sober reflection, a day to cry for Anambra State, nay, Nigeria.”

On Easter Sunday, Anambra State Governor, Peter Obi, was at St. Patrick‘s Catholic Church, Isuofia, in the Aguata Local Government Area of the state. In his speech at the service, he urged the congregation to pray for him. What is the reason? There are many wolves in and out of government, who are guided only by their selfish interests. These characters will not allow him to do the work the people of the state elected him to do.

I did not grasp the full import of this statement until the latest crisis over the state’s 2008 budget surfaced. Penultimate week, the House of Assembly Committee on Finance and Appropriation slashed the state’s budget from N84.2bn to N57.6bn. This generated some furore, which led to exchange of blows and throwing of chairs and tables at the assembly chambers. Media reports indicate that the committee reduced recurrent expenditure from N24.2bn to N21.9bn and capital expenditure from N60bn to 35.7bn. It also reduced the allocations to some other sectors, but reportedly increased the allocation to the House to N1.235bn from N284m.

To the House Leader, Mrs. Njideka Ezeigwe, the face-off between the lawmakers and Obi was because some of them purportedly refused to collect a plot of land and N50m each to facilitate the passage of the budget. According to her, “The governor has been rushing us to pass the 2008 budget without scrutinising it, but we have refused to be intimidated or blackmailed.” These lawmakers must be saints!

The executive/legislative altercation in Anambra did not start today. Recall that some legislators once organised themselves and claimed to have impeached Obi. He challenged it in the courts and won. Towards the end of 2007, the legislators also flexed muscles with him over the implementation of the 2007 Appropriation Act of the state. At a stage, the lawmakers alleged that the agents of the executive were threatening their lives. The governor denied this charge.

Incidentally, that state is home to many prominent Igbo citizens. The late Nnamdi Azikiwe hailed from the state. Dim Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu is also from there. Other prominent citizens of the state are former Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme; former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku; foremost author, Prof. Chinua Achebe; the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo; and the Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Prof. Dora Akunyili.

The questions are: why is Anambra always in turmoil in spite of this array of personalities? And for how long will the state make headlines for the wrong reasons? In the days of Chinwoke Mbadinuju as governor, development flew away from the state. Civil servants could not take home their salaries. A terror gang masquerading as a vigilance group held sway. The people cried out but nobody heard them. Emeka Ngige replaced Mbadinuju as governor. He tried to work for the development of the state. But the powers that be did not give him any breathing space. At a point, they tried to abduct him just to intimidate him into submission.

Yet, this is a state that needs harmony and all the resources at its disposal to fight underdevelopment. Some of the roads in the state are still not what they should be. Though the Nnobi-Awka Etiti Road has been repaired, for instance, the Igbo Ukwu- Isuofia-Ekwulobia axis of the road is still in a terrible state. Public water supply is virtually non-existent in most towns. What most families resort to are wells and overhead tanks where they store rainwater for eventual use during the dry season.

There is also the challenge of erosion. Some parts of the state such as Nanka, Oko and Ekwulobia are the worst hit. The menace has swallowed up some houses there. One may not appreciate the enormity of this problem until one visits any of these erosion sites. The devastation is horrendous.

Besides, a litre of petrol in that state is between N90 and N100, instead of the N70 official price. A litre of kerosene is about N90. I understand the Pipelines and Products Marketing Company Limited no longer pumps products to the depots in Aba, Enugu and Makurdi. These are the issues a people-oriented assembly should be debating.

The trouble with Anambra is greed. Most people always look at things with business eyes. Hence, they see government as a business enterprise that must dole out dividends to stakeholders. Those dividends do not come in form of general development that will benefit everybody. They are expected to come in form of personal patronage to line the pockets of a few individuals.

Though the governor is a member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance, the 30 members of the assembly belong to the Peoples Democratic Party. And there are powerful interests in the state, who wish that the PDP also controlled the executive arm. It is time these divergent interests sank their differences in the general interest of the state.

Happily, some elders of the state have decided to wade in the crisis. People like the former governor of the state, Chukwuemeka Ezeife; former Health Minister, Tim Menakaya; former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Agunwa Anekwe; and the Catholic Bishop of Awka, Simon Okafor, among others, met with the lawmakers last week. Their mission was to find amicable ways of settling the budget impasse. The problem is that in a state where some people have little or no respect for elders, nothing much may come out of the intervention if it does not serve the selfish interest of some individuals.

The citizens of the state must be alert at all times. They must take a cue from Onitsha traders, who closed their markets last Monday to protest the budget delay. They accused the legislators of colluding with an erstwhile governor of the state to starve the incumbent governor of funds and hence prepare the grounds for his impeachment. The traders vowed not to fold their hands and watch a group of supposedly elected persons turn themselves into tin gods and hold the entire state to ransom. They urged the assembly to pass the budget as presented.

In all, the governor and the assemblymen should begin to see themselves as partners in progress. They should carry one another along in their programmes and activities. Collectively, they should inspire hope in the citizenry most of whom have placed all their hopes in miracle centres. Anambra people must begin to see everyday as a day of joy.

Swindlers, Church of Painted Breast and other stories

April 7, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 6 Apr 2008

LAST December, the BBC’s news website published a report about how a certain Mike beat a Nigerian scammer at his own game. Mike and his group of volunteers at 419eater.com used their computer skills to fool the con man, Prince Joe Eboh.

According to the story, Eboh claimed to be the “Chairman of the Contract Award Committee of the Niger Delta Development Commission, a subsidiary of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.” He wanted to strike some deals with Mike. But Mike told him he worked for a church and could not do any business with people who were not of his faith. He signed the mail as Father Hector Barnett of the Church of the Painted Breast.

Eboh wrote back and promised to join the church. On receiving this message, Mike, alias Father Hector, replied, saying their ministry was founded in 1774 by a lady called Betsy Carrington. This woman, he reportedly told Eboh, spent her first preaching years in the Masai warrior tribe of Kenya. To identify with the people and make them accept and trust her, she had to remove the top part of her clothes and painted the top half of her body and breast with the red Masai war paint. Using image software, Mike made up an initiation picture of young inductees with painted breasts and sent to Eboh. As a precondition to enter the Holy Church of the Order of the Red Breast, Eboh must do likewise.

The swindler removed his dress as instructed, painted his breast and mailed the picture to Mike. Seeing his ugly face with protruding belly on the BBC website made me pity him. He thanked God for the opportunity to be a member of the church and looked forward to establishing a branch in his place. However, he was more interested in finalising his business proposal. The processing fee for transferring the proposed millions to Father Hector‘s account is $18,000. Father Hector told him his church had plenty of money, but that he needed $80 withdrawal fee. The con man quickly sent the money inside a birthday card by courier. Apparently not realising that he had been conned, the swindler continues to send his con mails and saying the daily prayer of the fake church: ”When all above seems a great test, get on down with the Holy Red Breast.”

These fraudsters will never repent. On Thursday that preceded the last Easter, I received an unusual call. The caller hid his identity, but his voice was friendly: “Happy Easter my brother! How are you and how is the family? How is Nigeria?” I told him that nothing much had changed in Nigeria, that we were still searching for a plane (the Beechcraft aircraft that got missing since March 15) days after it disappeared from the sky. “O my God!” he retorted, “when will that country ever grow?”

He later asked if I knew who was speaking. I didn‘t. “Can‘t you decode that from my voice?” he asked. Not being suspicious of anything, I mentioned the name of a friend whose voice sounds similar. He said he was the one and that he was now in London. He wanted me to contact a friend called Engineer John on 08032570806 as soon as possible. John was to deliver a very important message to me on his behalf. I should feel free to contact him anytime on 009447045791619.

I almost called “Engineer John” immediately. But on a second thought, I decided to call the Nigerian number of the friend I thought I had spoken with. The phone rang and my friend picked it. I needed no soothsayer to tell me that 419ers were at work.

Now, I receive their mails on a daily basis. The latest one is from Peter Hammond, the Recruitment Officer/CEO of Hammond Fabrics & Textiles Inc., 5 Russell Square, London. The company, Hammond noted, “Is one of the biggest and most successful textile, fabrics and antique wears company (sic) in the United Kingdom.” And it needs a payment representative in the United States and Canada, who will receive payments on its behalf from clients. The money comes in form of certified cashier cheques or money orders, which I will first cash in my bank, deduct 10 per cent commission and then forward the balance to any of their offices via electronic transfer. There is no need boring you with other details.

Surrounding us are all sorts of criminals, who do even worse than the 419ers. Armed robbers have held and continued to hold the nation hostage. Some civil servants are sharing the common wealth in the name of Christmas bonus. Some politicians use human beings for rituals in order to get power and loot the treasury. Many contractors collect billions of naira to fix our poor infrastructure, but pocket the money and do nothing. The petrol attendant manipulates the pumping machine to short-change the unwary customer.

The entire system is rotten. We have been oscillating between one scandal and the other: Ettehgate; Siemens scandal; Wilbros scam; national ID card swindle; power sector scam; Christmas bonus loot and so on. There seems to be no end in sight. No leader seems to believe in Nigeria. The mantra appears to be, grab as much loot as possible as there may not be any Nigeria tomorrow.

We are undoing ourselves and nobody else. This is why almost every young Nigerian wants to run away from the country. I met a young man recently at Imo Concord Hotel, Owerri. He desperately wanted to leave Nigeria. He asked me how much it would cost him to travel to London to either work or do business. My advice that he should continue with his work at the hotel fell on deaf ears. He enthused that he had just got his passport (as if passport is all that is needed to travel abroad) and his parents really wanted him to leave Nigeria. In 2007 alone, the United States Department of Homeland Security reportedly deported about 50,000 Nigerians from that country.

Nigerians face humiliating treatment from other Western nations. Some are serving various jail sentences abroad. And Foreign Affairs Minister, Ojo Maduekwe, thinks he is doing them a favour by asking them to serve their jail terms at home. The minister complained last week that Nigerian prisoners abroad had rejected his come-and-complete-your-sentences-at-home application. According to him, Nigeria will demand respect, fair and lawful treatment for her citizens even when they allegedly commit crimes.

Maduekwe gladdened my heart when he was quoted to have said, ”To create the kind of loyalty that Nigeria deserves, we must go back and ensure effective and responsible governance that touches on the lives of the people.” Until leaders at all levels imbibe this exhortation, Nigerians will continue to troop out and commit crimes. And foreigners will always treat us as a people who can do such foolish things as painting their breasts to swindle a church.