Sunday, July 31, 2011
Ndidi Anyiam is a young girl staying with her elder brother, Donatus, a trader at the Onitsha Bridge Head drug market. After three years of battling to secure admission into the university, she got tired of staying at home and opted to assist her brother in his shop at the Bridge Head.
One Friday morning, she set out to go to the market. On crossing the other side of the road at the Upper Iweka NITEL bus stop to board a bus plying the Uga Bridge Head route, she was approached by a nice-looking young man who asked her the direction to locate Nwaziki Street in Awada. Coincidentally, it was on the same street she resides. But the attempt to assist this ‘harmless’ young man was her greatest undoing.
All Ndidi could remember two days later was that she found herself in Asaba, the Delta State capital. She could not explain how she was hypnotized, she went to her brother’s shop and collected N80,000 being the cost of two cartons of Procold tablets her brother just sold that morning. Ndidi went ahead and borrowed N120,000 from different sources inside the market, lied to them that it was her brother that sent her and subsequently went back to Asaba to hand over the money to the fraudsters. It was when she came back to look for more money that the brother, who had gone to the Abuja park to send goods to a customer, accosted her and demanded to know where she kept the money inside the drawer. She never gave a satisfactory answer. It was after the brother slapped her that the ‘scale’ fell off her eyes and she started crying.
Sister Mmesoma is a nun in the congregation of Immaculate Heart Sisters. She was transferred from their convent in Awo-Omama, Imo State, to the Nkpor Convent to take charge of the provision store and canteen serving the mission hospital. On a particular day, she went to the Ogbaru Main Market, popularly known as the Relief Market in Onitsha, to buy goods. On approaching the foot of the flyover at Upper Iweka, there was a traffic snarl. So, she and the driver joined the queue. Because the car air conditioner was faulty, the windows were wound down. Suddenly two young men appeared by the window and shouted: “Give us that bag.” Out of fear arising from different tales she had heard about Upper Iweka, she handed over the bag containing the sum of N210,000 to the boys even before the driver could tell her not to since the boys were a regular nuisance that harass people without guns within the area.
This is Upper Iweka, the unofficial crime headquarters of Anambra State. Upper Iweka literary possesses different faces - the good, the bad, the ugly. These true life encounters are just samples from the action thriller churned out daily from the hot spot of Onitsha.
Upper Iweka is a big spectacle in contradiction and absurdities. Though it derived its name from the popular Iweka Road, named after a monarch (now late) from Obosi in Idemili North Local Government of the state. Upper Iweka is simply the upper part of the Iweka road but because of its vantage location, it is the heart of Onitsha.
It is the connection point for many travellers as it serves as a point of arrival and departure for various travellers within the city or those in transit. Because of its central location connecting the Onitsha-Enugu expressway, Asaba Bridge Head expressway as well as Onitsha-Owerri expressway, many cannot do without Upper Iweka, although it is often dreaded like a plague due to the chilly stories and happenings within the area.
When popular musician Ibealoke Chukwukeziri (aka Apama Boy) released an album in 2001 titled: Ihe na-eme na Upper Iweka (things dey happen for Upper Iweka) it was a hit. The Achi, Oji River-born artiste demonstrated in song the activities of illegal tax collectors, who extort money from individuals in the name of tax rates until they met their perfect match in the person of Chief Perricomo Okoye, whom they carried shoulder high to their office to perfect their extortionist tendencies but were surprised that they couldn’t bring him down despite all efforts. Ichie Perrycomo, using his own African magical powers, taunted them all through, commanded and collected outrageous items from them before he set them free.
Today, the tax collectors may have fizzled out of Upper Iweka but the activities in the area can make for another block buster movie. In June this year, Upper Iweka was in the news again as 20 corpses were reportedly found in a tunnel while a criminal was being pursued. Although official sources say the figures reported in the media were inflated, our reporter spent some days in the area and came up with several discoveries that would make the activities of those days under the Ojuelegba bridge in Lagos look like child’s play.
Upper Iweka is the place where two men can engage in an open fight totally naked with passers-by watching. There, Okada riders and others passing by, when pressed by nature, will simply unzip, pull down their trousers and begin to defecate in the gutter while others pass and look the other way.
In this place, it is every man for himself as no one cares what happens to the other. Everybody seems to be always in a hurry here. It is also a dumping ground for ritualistic activities, an area where one confronts in the early hours of the day gory pictures of beheaded ladies or butchered men whose vital body parts may be missing.
Fake policemen on the prowl
There used to be a police station at Upper Iweka opposite the NITEL office. The place was formerly a beehive of activities as the police then were accused of massive arrests of innocent people. It was during the MASSOB uprising some years ago that some hoodlums capitalized on the situation and burnt the station down.
Since then, the Anambra State police command has not rebuilt it, although there is another police station nearby at Okpoko layout. While policemen in uniform mount checkpoints around the flyover and the Lagos park axis, Sunday Sun revealed that fake policemen also harass and extort money from individuals. They operate around the NITEL area, Aba Park axis, Micmerah Park, Ogbaru Relief Market as well as Old Asaba/TRACAS Park. Their style of operation is usually to flash their identity cards at an already fidgeting trader and then search and collect any valuables in the person’s bag unless the person is ready to settle.
Narrating his frequent encounter with this group of ‘policemen’ to Sunday Sun, Justus Ijeoma, who is head of the publicity desk of a human rights group in Anambra, said: “There was a day one of them flashed his identity card and wanted to search my bag. I resisted and he called another man on the other side of the road, who he addressed as Inspector. The so-called Inspector flashed his own identity and I quickly grabbed it, only to discover that the man was a police constable. I called the Area Commander on the phone and he told me to hold the man and await the arrival of his men. Unfortunately for them, the press crew of a private television station was passing by and one of the reporters recognized me. They filmed the encounter and took all of us to the station where it was discovered that the constable was working hand-in-hand with the fake police officer. The man was sanctioned appropriately.”
Our reporter also observed that many traders in Onitsha become victims of these fake policemen and other real policemen in plain clothes, who harass people within the area with phrases like “wetin you carry?”; “from where to where?”; “where is your helmet?”; “when you reach station, you will explain further”; “where is the receipt for this goat?” among other such gimmicks.
Speaking on the development, the new Onitsha Area Commander, AC Larry Osita, said the command was poised to discipline any errant officer as he had zero tolerance for corruption.
Emergency toll collectors
In 2009, The Federal Government awarded the contract for rehabilitation of the Onitsha-Enugu dual carriageway. Although the pace of work has been at a snail speed, with concerned residents lamenting the situation, there are however other individuals “praying” daily that the work should be abandoned completely. They are the emergency toll collectors reaping bountifully at Upper Iweka. Since the construction company excavated large sand, which blocked the gutters in between, it has become practically impossible for pedestrians, motorcyclists and vehicle owners to cross over to the other side of the lane without assistance.
This became an employment opportunity to many jobless youths who capitalized on the situation to erect wooden crossover ‘bridges.’ The toll fee is N10 per crossing for pedestrians and ‘Okada’ riders while vehicle owners pay N50. Between the Ogbaru market, down flyover, TRACAS to MCC bus stop, this reporter counted 15 of such illegal tolls/crossings and all the operators are busy from morning till night. Some of the points are manned by red-eyed Indian hemp addicts, who are ready to “die” with any uncooperative user. One of the operators who identified himself as Tobias said he makes an average of N3000 daily from his toll point.
In the evening, the business becomes more spectacular as wheelbarrow pushers convert them into emergency flyovers. They put their barrows between the gutter for people to step on to the other side, also for a fee.
Centre of mysterious accidents
Upper Iweka is also the place where the highest number of road crashes is recorded yearly in Onitsha. It is estimated that accidents occur on the average of two per day in the area. Some attributed it to the presence of “blood-sucking demons” in the area while others say it is the result of the chaotic nature of the area and the concentration of human and vehicular traffic. Most of the vehicles often involved in crashes are heavy-duty trucks and people wonder how such vehicles crash at the point of destination at Onitsha after covering long distances from Maiduguri and other parts of the North.
When contacted on the telephone, the Onitsha Unit Commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission, Mr Ben Akunne, declined comment on the development but demanded an official letter before he could respond.
Headquarters of hooliganism/brigandage
Apart from regular touting by motor park and garage workers, Upper Iweka is also the headquarters of hooliganism and brigandage. Pick pockets, handset and handbag snatching are rampant. Armed robbery incidents occur mainly in the early hours of the day and in the evening. A car dealer, Onuorah Oodo, narrated how he lost his valuables to armed robbers at Upper Iweka while returning from Lome, Togo, where he sources cars for his clients. This practice takes place in various forms by various faceless groups, who have the raw nerve to demand and grab money and other valuables from their hapless victims. However, there are two identifiable groups whose activities leave much to be desired. They are the Anambra State Traffic Agents (ASTA) operatives and the Task Force known as Ndi Mpiawa azu (the lacerators, back breakers or the cane masters).
The ASTA operatives appear in green trousers and yellow shirts while the Mpiawa azu group is known by its traditional ox blood fez cap on which is inscribed Anambra State Task Force. They usually wield long canes.
Although the ASTA operatives have their head office at the Bridge Head section while the Mpiawa azu is located at the Onitsha-Owerri road bypass, both groups have unofficially relocated their head office to Upper Iweka because of the lucrative nature of their business in the area. The two outfits were created by a former Commissioner for Transport and Special duties in the state to ease traffic, check the excesses of commercial bus drivers on major roads in Onitsha as well as to clear the streets of the excesses of street traders.
Sunday Sun findings however revealed that the major preoccupation of the two groups is extortion and brutality. The ASTA operatives impound and forcibly remove vehicle number plates, tow such vehicles to their offices and extort the driver. They apprehend those driving against the traffic yet they flout the same rules themselves while on duty. The cane beaters (mpiawa azu) collect money openly from drivers while any hesitation results in continuous flogging and breaking of vehicle mirrors.
Their boss is popularly known as IKO and is alleged to operate a very lucrative transport business with a fleet of vehicles while they don’t remit the accurate revenue accruing to the government. When Sunday Sun contacted him on phone for comments on the allegations, his response was: “What is your business in this matter? Did government tell you that their money is missing? If I like, I can procure 100 buses monthly for my business. If you had come physically to ask me this stupid question, I wouldn’t have talked to you. Rather I would have told my boys to beat you up.”
This reporter witnessed recently how a pregnant woman fell off a commercial motorcycle that was knocked down by a commercial bus being pursued by the group at Upper Iweka. She died soon after.
Rent a bench to pass the night
At the Lagos Park section of Upper Iweka is another big story. Many street urchins and barrow pushers that are homeless find refuge in the area. While some of them sleep on top of their barrows at night, others that cannot afford the luxury rent wooden benches for N40 and sleep in the open space. Bench renting is another lucrative business in the area.