By West Idahosa
The new Webster’s dictionary of the English language (International Edition) describes a trader as “a person engaged in some form of commerce”. Trading itself is an ancient occupation that has been practised by men, institutes and nations over the years. Trade disagreements have often led to several wars amongst the various people’s of the world. Inspite of this, trading remains one of the veritable tools in economic relations worldwide.
Even within Nigeria, trading is an accomplished phenomenon. From the days of King Jaja of Opobo, Nana of Itsekiri, Oba Ovoramwen of Benin Kingdom to the Alafin of Oyo, trading was the major economic activity of the pre-independence Nigerian societies. In today’s Nigeria, trading maintains its pre-eminent position as the nation’s leading activity since the manufacturing sector has virtually collapsed due to the inadequacy of generated power to sustain the sector.
The only strange development in all these is the presence in Nigeria of a peculiar set of traders. These special traders have no capital and need none. They require no collateral to secure any facility from financial institutions for the purpose of purchasing their wares. Nothing like that. They require no shops and are therefore spared the luxury of paying rent for their trading activities. They pay no taxes on the “goods” they trade on and require no form of advertisement. Their business is very lucrative and their profit margin is unbelievable. These super traders only require their uniforms and firearms purchased from the tax-payers’ money to carry out their activities.
Their trading points are very strategic. They operate from major roads, high ways, airports, seaports, border posts and Government offices.
Of all the uniformed traders, the one with the most notorious presence is the Police. This is so because of the nature of their statutory duties. The importance of their role in modern society is emphasized by Section 214 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This Section creates the Nigeria Police Force for the purpose of securing public safety, public order as well as the protection of public and private properties.
In these capacities, therefore, they daily arrest persons suspected to have committed offences ranging from misdemeanour to felony. Suspects are upon their arrest taken to various Police stations. At these stations, the suspects are unduly detained without any notification of their rights. At the end of the game, such suspects are made to illegally part with their hard earned money after severe negotiations for the purchase of their “freedom”. These negotiations usually take place inspite of the conspicuous inscription that has become the favourite slogan of every Police Station; “BAIL IS FREE”.
A few weeks ago, I had cause to travel to Lagos by road from Benin City. On our way to Lagos, we did not encounter any problem with any set of persons. It was simply a jolly ride except for the bad patches common with Nigerian roads these days.
It was on our return trip from Lagos that we entered the real world of uniform traders. From Shagamu to Benin City, there were several checkpoints which were indeed trading posts. At these points, there were long queues of cars, buses, trucks and other vehicular equipment. Some of them were for private use while others were on commercial journeys. The occupants of these vehicles milled around the policemen who manned these points waiting to take their turns in negotiating their exit. The commuters paid different amounts depending on the purported contravention for which they were stopped. They ranged from driving without an appropriate license, expired vehicle particulars, tinted windscreen without a permit, non-possession of fire extinguisher and reflective triangle signs, to driving vehicles without registration number plates. The policemen savoured power and importance. They looked upon their victims and fined them various sums. Non – possession of driving licence attracted between N100 and N200 depending on the negotiating skills of the victims. Driving a vehicle with tinted windscreen without police permission or driving a vehicle without registration number plates were big deals. The victims had to cough out as much as N2,000 or stand the risk of having their vehicles impounded. These transactions were carried out in broad daylight without fear or favour. It did not matter whether other road users including senior public officers.
As the police tormented passengers from one checkpoint to another, the vehicle inspection officers joined the fray. Their targets were rickety looking vehicles and trucks appearing to have exceeded their weight limits. These vehicles were pulled over for new rounds of negotiations. This time the victims would have to part with a minimum of N500 for rickety looks and N1,000 for overweight. Since the majority of victims in this category were on commercial journeys, the business was usually quick and to the point.
Thereafter, the officers of the Nigerian Customs would take the centre stage. They would point their guns menacingly at any vehicle without registration number plates or large trucks appearing to be carrying goods. The officers would demand one form of documents or the other including non-existing documents. Overwhelmed by the demands of the officers, their victims would surrender to a fresh bout of negotiations. Again, they are forced to part with some money. This is the story of the average commuter in our country.
Police checkpoints have suffered from frequent policy summersaults. No one can really tell why these checkpoints exist when they do. One or two previous Inspectors-General of Police purportedly banned them. They claimed at that time that all checkpoints had been called off and purported checkpoints were illegal and should be promptly reported to the Police. They may have been right, but we all know that the checkpoints are validly back. What the police refer to as checkpoints are actually not such. The present Inspector General should be told that Nigerians have no problem with genuine checkpoints. The real problem is with the police trading points that exist to date. What operates today does not deter crime in our society. Indeed, criminals have been known to rob passengers on the highways very close to such checkpoints with no rescue efforts made by those uniformed men who man such checkpoints.
Those who have never visited any Immigration office to secure a Nigerian passport may probably not know what goes on there. The average official cost for the issuance of a standard passport is between N18,000 and N19,000 naira. I do not know of anyone who can recall paying just that to get his or her standard passport issued. Uniformed Immigration officers loiter around their office premises soliciting for clients who are in turn charged between N25,000 and N35,000 naira to obtain a standard passport.
The innocent victims of these officers are compelled to patronize the emergency business centres opened in their office premises and owned by such officers for the purpose of completing their paperwork if their applications for standard passports are to receive any attention. As the passport trade blossoms around their office premises, expatriates and foreign nationals are seen running around the senior immigration officers to grant them an extension of their stay in Nigeria or to obtain some form of temporary work permit (T.W.P). This time, the senior officers do not reckon with our local currencies. Serious applicants must approach them with the US dollars, British pounds or the Euro currency.
Anything short of this, whatever the application is would crumble like a pack of cards. Not even the spouses of Nigerian Nationals are spared from this ordeal. At the airports of the Nation, Immigration Officers, shamelessly demand a bribe from returning Nigerian Nationals and visitors alike. Foreigners are known to sometimes keep between $20 and $50 notes inside their passports just to get into the Country having arrived without the appropriate entry visas.
This is the extent to which these officers are prepared to compromise our national security just for a few dollar notes. As the Immigration officers persist in their trade, the Customs officers at the airport pretend to be busy searching such luggage for contraband or prohibited items. To those who are strange to the deal, they may assume that they mean business and end up actually opening such boxes for examination. The truth is that those Custom officers are really not interested in searching such boxes. Their real interest is in how much box-owners are prepared to offer for their own convenience.
An offer of N1500 naira to a Customs officer at the airport would not only earn you an unjustified exemption from a search, it would attract an additional official salute for a job well done.
Unlike the real economic traders, these uniform ones have militated against our efforts at building a strong nation. They have brought distress, sorrow and tears to the Nigerian people. They have ridiculed our nation in the eyes of the international community. They are the real obstacles to the emergence of a disciplined and egalitarian nation.
If our Country wishes to realize its visions whether, in the year 2020 or in future, it must curtail the activities of these traders of doom in uniforms provided by taxpayers’money. There is no other way than to do just this. Will President Buhari look in this direction in pursuit of corrupt public officials? Only time will tell.
Dr. Ehiogie West-Idahosa is a former Member of the House of Representatives, lawyer and policy expert.