Ndi Agbero hijack Onitsha as helpless traders, motorists groan
IKENNA OBIANERI writes on the plight of South-East residents, business owners and motorists in the hands of illegal revenue collectors
The activities of illegal revenue collectors in the South-East have worsened the economic conditions of residents, business owners, motorists and commuters in the region.
Despite efforts and interventions by security agents, the hoodlums, aka ndi agbero, are growing in notoriety, particularly in Onitsha, Anambra State.
Onitsha has been tagged the operational headquarters of the gang because the city serves as the gateway to other states in the region.
It is also home to the Onitsha Main Market which is regarded as one of the largest markets in West Africa due to its size and volume of business transactions.
The market reportedly contributes a huge percentage to the revenue of the state and the entire South-East.
Because of the market, a large number of trucks come into Onitsha daily, increasing the number of ndi agbero in the city.
Here, it is not only commercial transport operators that suffer in the hands of the hoodlums, traders and pedestrians are not spared.
The effect of their activities is also felt on the movement of goods and services as it negatively impact on businesses, particularly small-scale enterprises.
20 illegal levies
The issue of ndi agbero has continued to be a cause for concern among residents.
The state Governor, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, identified it as a top priority of his government on his resumption of office in March 2022, when he banned their activities and suspended all revenue collections in the state.
The ban was greeted with joy and excitement and gave respite to residents.
But the excitement was short-lived, as the louts returned a few months after, more hardened and monstrous.
It is believed that those behind the louts are powerful individuals and politicians.
Findings by our reporter show that the illegal revenue collectors –mostly made up of political thugs — operate alongside state-licensed revenue collection agents.
They force commercial drivers, motorists, as well as traders, to pay at least 20 different levies.
Some of the receipts issued after such payments include, “Park and Pay”, “Daily Motor Ticket”, “Daily Tolls Ticket”, “Morning Levy”, “Afternoon Levy”, “Evening Levy”, “Cargo Ticket”, among others.
Failure to settle these rates attracts assaults in different forms.
The lorry and truck drivers entering the South-East from the Upper Iweka part of Onitsha, are always the worst hit, as their windscreens and side mirrors are often smashed by the hoodlums, who swooped on them, demanding various payments.
The Publicity Secretary, Lorry Drivers Association of Nigeria, South-East chapter, Chief Chimezie Ugoh, said the operation of ndi agbero in Onitsha was as old as the city itself.
“It is a pity that it has continued to defy every solution by successive administrations. It is a challenge that is causing agony, tears, sorrow and blood to us as we convey goods to various locations.
“We move our trucks all the way from other places with less molestation from the agberos, but the moment we cross the Onitsha Bridge into Upper Iweka, it is a different ball game.
“We always spend between N5,000 and N7,000 coming from other states, but the moment we cross the bridge, what they slam us in Onitsha alone is as much as between N30,000 and N40,000.
“These miscreants always wear different uniforms, demanding various levies, which we must pay daily. All the levies have suddenly been increased. The cargo levy that we used to pay N5,000 before was suddenly increased to N25,000 towards the end of last year. They also follow us to the place where the goods will be offloaded and collect ‘offloading’ levy. What we pay at the end of the day becomes much and this definitely increases the prices of goods.
“We have carried out various protests to draw the attention of the government to our plight, but no impact has been made and we have been left in this agony. When the government banned their activities some months back, it was a relief for us. But today, they are back in full force and venom, unleashing terror on road users. This is pathetic,” he added.
‘Our city ceded to agberos’
The Upper Iweka axis of Onitsha is a very strategic point which connects the Onitsha-Owerri Road to other South-East states.
The axis is also a major concentration point of the louts because of the large volume of containerised vehicles plying the road.
The hoodlums sometimes outnumber road users, as they pursue vehicles with long sticks.
Daily, drivers battle these miscreants, who operate without any challenge from law enforcement agents.
Narrating his ordeal, a traveller, Mr Chukwudi Onu, said, “Today, at Upper Iweka, Onitsha, I witnessed the worst of civilians; our city has been ceded to ndi agberos and we have to take it back from them.”
Onu, an Onitsha indigene, said he was coming from Lagos in his Toyota Sienna which contained a computer and a small printer.
He said as soon as he got to a bad portion of the Upper Iweka axis of the Onitsha-Owerri Road, where he had to slow down, four louts jumped out and surrounded his vehicle, shouting, “Give us our money.”
The motorist said he was taken aback by the demand and was shocked when two of the hoodlums broke his two side mirrors, while two others threatened to smash his windscreen.
Onu said, “When I asked them the reason I should pay them since I was not driving a commercial vehicle, they told me I was carrying some items at the back seat and I must pay N4,000 for the load. It became a tug of war as I was forced to part with N4,000 for them not to inflict further damage on my car.
“I have never heard anywhere that people pay for items on the backseat of their vehicle. If Soludo can just rid this city of louts, he will get a lot of accolades because their activities are destroying the means of livelihood of other people.”
Another victim, Cosmos Okafor, said he was travelling with members of his family from Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, in his shuttle bus when he was attacked.
“On getting to Onitsha, these guys hijacked the vehicle in a commando style because of what they called the absence of ‘emblem’. They took us inside their office at Tarzan, near Upper Iweka Road. There, we saw men in their late 60s and 70s as their ogas, who told us that we would pay them N35,000 for not having ‘emblem’.
“I told them it was a private vehicle, but all our pleas fell on deaf ears and begging them was like trying to squeeze water out of a stone. In fact, my matter was made worse when I tried to remind them about the ban on their activities by the governor.
“We spent over two hours negotiating. It took phone calls to people that mattered for them to come down to N20,000. I also paid N1,000 for a gate fee,” he added.
Okafor lamented that the situation in Onitsha had reached a level where the miscreants had become first-class citizens, while other residents were tagged, second-class citizens.
A member of the National Youth Service Corps, Janet Ufodi, while narrating her ordeal in the hands of the hoodlums, said she was waiting for a commercial bus to carry her at Upper Iweka when she was accosted by two louts.
“They demanded I pay them for the luggage I carried, threatening to seize it.
“I was surprised that nobody came to my rescue as everybody was just watching as they were almost violently attacking me. At the end of the day, I parted with N2,000,” she added.
Commuters suffer amid protests
While several arrests have been made in recent times, the hoodlums usually end up returning to their various ‘duty posts’ after a few days in detention.
This has led to protests and clashes between the hoodlums and commercial vehicle operators, joined by aggrieved traders.
In the past, transport workers withdrew their service to draw the attention of the government to their plight.
However, commuters are most times at the receiving end of such actions, as they are forced to trek to their various destinations.
Despite these, the agberos continue in their reign of terror.
The Chairman, Anambra State Drivers Welfare Association, Mr Adindu Opara, said, “When you travel to other cities, you will discover that the activities of the agberos are restricted to parks, but immediately you enter Onitsha, you will be molested, harassed and beaten up by ndi agbero if you refuse to do their bidding, even non-commercial motorists are not left out. We are almost becoming second-class citizens in our state because of their activities.
“A lot of levies are being forced on us and if we refuse to pay or ask questions, the revenue agents will brutalise us and no one is coming to our rescue.
“The agberos have totally hijacked the revenue collection processes and it is so disorganised that it is difficult to distinguish between the government revenue agents and the agberos. We have not seen any law enforcement agent carrying out the order by the governor banning them; there is a need for the government to do the needful. This problem has defied every solution from past administrations and it must not be so in this new government.”
The Coordinator of the Keke/Motorcycle Drivers Stakeholders Welfare, Anambra State chapter, Chief Augustine Uka, lamented that tricycle drivers were forced to pay between N15,000 and N25,000 to the agberos every month.
He said each time the group decided to protest the highhandedness of the hoodlums, the gang beat would them up.
Uka noted that while many members of his group were living in abject poverty, the agberos fed fat on their sweat.
He advised the governor to set up a committee for the eradication of illegal revenue collection in the state.
“Past administrations only scratched the surface, but the present government must do the needful and muster up the courage and the willpower to deal with this menace, which has become a thorn in the flesh of the people.
“Although there are powerful sponsors and politicians behind them, any government that is ready to deal with them will succeed because nobody is bigger than the government,” Uka added.
Removal gradual, says govt
Due to the impunity with which the hoodlums carried out their activities, there have been allegations that the state government sold the “revenue windows” to the hoodlums for a huge amount.
But the Press Secretary to the state governor, Mr Christian Aburime, said it was not true that the state government had such a deal with the agberos.
Aburime said, “The state government is working hard to ensure that agberos are cleared off the streets and reduce their nefarious activities to the barest minimum so that there can be sanity in the system. But we should also bear in mind that these people have been there over the years and it is going to take a gradual process to remove them from roads and look for alternative means of livelihood for those who want to turn a new leaf.
“Some of them have been arrested and taken to court and the court has given judgment as to what should be done to them. Those that are willing to turn a new leaf, the government is rehabilitating them after which an alternative means of livelihood will be provided for them so they can become productive and good citizens not just of Anambra, but Nigeria as a whole.
“Again, it is not true that the government has sold the revenue window to the agberos. Nobody bought revenue windows from the government. When you bid and you win, it is not buying and you must abide by the terms and conditions. Even if you are working as a revenue collector for the government, there are rules of engagement you must abide by. You must not go beyond what government says you should do.”