Race Back Home to Beat COVID-19

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David-Chyddy Eleke in this investigative report writes that as a result of the rise of COVID-19 cases in Kano and Lagos, most Anambra indigenes have sneaked back home with their families to avoid the risk of infection, thus beating the border closure

Within the neigbourhood where this reporter lives in Awka, the Anambra State capital, there have been increasing number of new faces, despite the lockdown in the state, and the ban on commuter vehicles bringing in passengers into the state from other states.

Nne, an 19 year old girl, tall, fair, beautiful and well built looks far bigger than her age. One thing struck this reporter about her. She had the local tattoos drawn on her hands, the type more commonly seen among northern ladies. In a shop where she came to buy noodles in the neighbourhood, this reporter chatted her up after observing that she was new in the area.

“Yes, we came back two weeks ago from Kano,” she said. She told this reporter that her father is an importer of tiles in Kano, and that two weeks ago, she and her family, consisting of her father, mother, only sister and only brother returned to Awka where they are a native of. “My daddy decided we should come back to Awka when several people began to die in Kano. We hope to go back when things are normal,” she said.

Though she refused to speak further when this reporter started showing more interest in her family and their return to Awka, but the shop attendant, Mrs Blessing Obasi volunteered information about her. She said Nne and her family have been patronising her since two weeks that they returned, and that sometimes she comes to her shop to sit and make phone calls to her friends, who she said were also Igbos and had left Kano because of the mysterious deaths that recently hit the town.

Nne and her family are not alone in this race for survival. Also, Mr Lawrence Nweze, a trader in Onitsha during a telephone conversation told this reporter that he has evidence that Igbos in Kano and Lagos State have been relocating their families back to the east because of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the areas.

He said, “My brother, what is happening now among our people in Lagos, and especially Kano is like the Oso Abiola period. (this is a term in Igbo used to describe the 1991 crisis, when Igbos ran back home from all over the country for fear that MKO Abiola declaring himself as president of Nigera may trigger war). Anambra State government say their borders are closed to visitors, but just go to bridge head and see what is happening there.

They just opened supermarkets for security agents who collect money and let visitors in, or let out travelers. Even as I speak to you now, I know people who came in from Lagos last night, yet the borders are closed.”

Visit to the Border

THISDAY visited Amansea, a border town between Anambra and Enugu State, which serves as an in route into the state from the northern part of the country, and found that even though they were barricades on the border, travelers devised means to beat it. They get to the border, alight from their commuter buses and walk past the barricades casually, into the Anambra end of the border and then board a taxi into the state. Same also applied for people in Anambra who were travelling out of the state, either to Enugu, Ebonyi or the northern part of the country. They simply take a taxi to the border of the state, while ensuring that they are travelling light, they cross the border on foot and join commuter vehicles who take them out to their destinations.

For those who travelled in their cars, THISDAY closely observed as they made deals with the security agents, by giving tips and they are allowed out of the state, and this reporter suspects that it may be in the same way that travelers from far away Kano get back to the state, because of its relative safety as only few cases of COVID-19 patients have been registered in the state, and also treated and discharged.

Anambra Government Expresses Worry

As at when this story was written, the arrival of the Anambra State Commissioner for Transport, Dr Christian Madubuko was a shock to the security agents as they immediately sat up, closing up the barricade and denying everyone access to the road. The commissioner noticed that some vehicles had passed through the border and queried an agent of OCHA brigade, a paramilitary agency of the state.

The agent who gave her name as Mrs Agalo Ifeyinwa stated that some of those who were allowed to drive past the barricade were on the instruction of the police, and that she is not aware of what transpired between them, but she and her team simply took the orders because they see police as a superior force to theirs.

However, the commissioner expressed unhappiness that the border had become so porous. “The security people are not doing anything here. They only sit up when I am here, but once I leave to go to other borders, they start doing what they like. You can see we just arrested a man who came in from Lagos and was trying to sneak into the state.

“We will keep him here until the commissioner for health comes and certifies his health status. If we are not satisfied, he will go into quarantine, because he is coming from a high risk state. We are appealing to the security agents to try and make this border closure to work,” he lamented.

How Transporters Ferry in Indigenes

Despite the inter-state lockdown, a transporter who spoke on condition of anonymity from a highly rated transport company said they still load to Lagos at night. “From Nnewi to Lagos is N16,000 to N18,000 depending on the kind of bus, and from Awka to Lagos is N18,000 to N20,000. We do not do it openly, and the driver has to go to the house of the traveler and pick him once its dark, and the journey commences by 9pm or 10pm sometimes.”

He denied that it was a period of boom for the company, saying that sometimes it takes two days to get to Lagos because they have to sleep in some towns and move again by night, while most of the monies collected are used to ‘settle’ security agencies on the road to allow them get past the border of some states.

Community Youths Find Brisk Business

THISDAY gathered from the transporter that in most towns where the security men are strict with allowing travelers, they sometimes use local youths who know the terrain well enough to drive through the communities into the next state. “It is more prevalent in Benue State. Once you get to the borders, you will see a lot of youths who will be asking drivers if they want help. Sometimes you have to pay as much as N5,000 for them to take you through the inner villages and now show you how to get out of the state, before you start heading to Kogi State,” he said.

In Anambra too, it was gathered that to get into the state from Enugu, vehicles loaded from the north use community youths to by-pass the Amansea border, by going through communities in Enugu State, and now enter Anambra to several other communities in the northern parts of the state before bursting into Awka.

Measures to Check Influx of Travelers

Because of the porosity of the borders, Anambra State Governor, Chief Willie Obiano, ordered all government appointees in the state to resume work at their respective borders to ensure compliance to its closure. A circular signed by the Secretary to the State Government, Prof Solo Chukwulobelu, ordered all government appointees to immediately comply to ensure that all the borders are closed.

“Following ongoing efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic and observed continued influx of persons into the state especially through informal border routes thereby exposing the state to the risk of imported community spread of the virus, government has resolved to strengthen enforcement of the border closure by involving community efforts.

“In this wise, the following political appointees, majorly Special Assistants to the Governor are hereby posted to designated border locations to support enforcement actions by the police and other security agencies. Likewise, porous and informal border points identified in various local communities with little presence of formal security will henceforth be manned by the following youths who will help prevent any form of movement into the state from those locations.”

COVID-19 Giveaway

Also, as if to check the recent trend of families sneaking into the state from high risk states, the Anambra State Digital Entrepreneurship Office (DEO)has launched what it called COVID-19 Giveaway.

Mr Ifeanyi Aniagoh, the Director General of the office said the scheme was meant for residents to identify people who returned to the state after the borders have been shut, for them to win cash prizes. This he said will help identify those coming in from high risk states, with a view to check the spread of the virus in the state.

He said, “To support government’s effort to curb possible spread of COVID-19 pandemic and any form of influx of persons into Anambra especially through informal boundary routes thereby exposing the state to the risk of imported community spread of the virus, we are starting a special giveaway tagged “Report and Win”.

“ It’s a simple game that will contribute a lot to stopping the infiltration of our dear state by friends and family whose entry into the State at this time could lead to the deaths of thousands if they end up spreading the deadly pandemic.

“To win is simple; just follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @DEOAnambra and report anyone who enters into Anambra starting from May 1, 2020. It’s through inbox and highly confidential. For every complete details of a returnee, you get N5,000; and if the person is tracked down by the security agencies, you get N10,000.

“Anyone can win as much as possible. Note that entering into Anambra State at this time is an offence and every returnee has family and friends. So, anyone who enters with the virus undetected can easily trigger a community spread especially now that lockdown has been eased.”

Speaking with Aniagoh, he said, “Yes, people have been responding. Up to five people have reached out to us, and we have also passed the information concerning the people to security agencies, and we hope that they will be picked up.”

Fate of the Dead

Mr Emeka Umeagbalasi, Chairman board of trustees, International Society for Civil Liberty and the Rule of Law (Intersociety), a rights group based in Onitsha corroborated THISDAY investigation, revealing that Igbos in Kano particularly, were not only sneaking home every day to avoid contracting the pandemic, but also bringing back the corpses of their loved ones who died in the town.

He said, “From several independent sources, it is reliably confirmed that corpses of Igbo citizens, resident in the North particularly in Kano State are being smuggled into old Eastern Nigeria in body bags. The body bag haulage of the corpses is so syndicated that in most cases, the travelers, except the relatives of the corpses are not aware that the long passenger vehicles with which they are traveling, are carrying body bagged corpses.

“Properly sealed with anti stench chemicals sprayed, their haulage arrangements are struck and sealed at loading points between the drivers of the long passenger vehicles (undertakers) and the dead victims’ relatives. To avoid open suspicion, not more than two-three corpses mixed with ware-billed goods are carried and conveyed per long passenger vehicle,” Umeagbalasi said.

Igbos have a long standing culture of not burying their demised loved ones outside their ancestral root. He said his investigation has revealed that some relatives pay as much as N100,000 for the bodies to be transported back to their villages, and that the bodies are loaded early enough before passengers begin to arrive for the journey to the east.

He called on the security agencies at the border to sit up to avoid mass death as a result of what he called mass importation of the pandemic into the state, and also called on the governors of the South-east to intensify efforts to get the federal government to establish more testing centres in the state, as most persons may be living with the virus without knowing so.