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On the road to University of Nigeria

June 28, 2010

Driving the Onitsha-Nsukka road with our armed guardian

From Fraser Ottanelli:

On the 150+ mile heavily trafficked and pothole riddled road from Onitsha to Nsukka we went through thirty armed checkpoints before we stopped counting. Some were made up of a few logs and some old tires; others were semi-permanent structures made of either sand or cement bags with back-up firing positions off to the side of the road. This is where the differences ended. All checkpoints were set up in exactly the same way–parallel rows of obstacles aligned across the road to force vehicles to zigzag at a snail’s pace—they were manned (we never saw a uniformed woman) either by members of local law enforcement units , distinguishable by their different color hats, by officers of the Nigerian National Police with their distinctive green berets,  or by soldiers of the Nigerian Army in jungle fatigues. Finally everyone, regardless of unit, was armed with an AK 47. No photos allowed!

We were never ordered to pull over only because we traveled with a uniformed officer in the front passenger seat. Without our “guardian”, however, it would have been a very different experience!  At every check point we saw the multi-colored minivans commonly used for public transportation being ordered to stop and passengers forced to disembark. The rationale provided for this display of force is to control mounting crime in the country. According to a travel advisory issued by the United States Mission in Nigeria on June 18th, there has been an increase in attacks committed by “individuals and gangs, as well as by persons wearing police and military uniforms,” directed at foreigners as well as at Nigerians throughout the country. The U.S. advisory, however, also adds that travelers have experienced “harassment and shakedowns at checkpoints” by Nigerian law enforcement officials. We were also told that checkpoints were sometimes set up to provide protection for the property of large landowners.

Malaria is a major health problem here, as in most of Africa

On the bright side, checkpoints also provide an opportunity for small commercial activities—waiting vehicles are surrounded by scores of friendly young people selling everything from bags of fried plantains and cashew nuts to commercially produced cookies, and food bars along with bottled water and soft drinks.  And as we pass through towns, we notice numerous billboards with commercial and public service messages.

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