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TRAVELLERS’ NIGHTMARE

•Terror returns to Benin-Ore expressway, as robbers, kidnappers take over ‘Evil Forest’

By Cosmas Omegoh

Many who have been travelling on the busy Benin-Ore Expressway without any incident have reasons to celebrate. Not all who used the road in recent times were as lucky. Many of such people are dead.

But the Edo State Police Command has assured that it was doing its level best to ward off the activities of criminals, who have been making life on the road unbearable. 

Lately, many have been victims of kidnapping, armed robbery and other forms of bestiality, which suddenly assumed common feature on the facility. Ask every regular or even the natives whose land the Benin-Ore Expressway traverses and they’ll tell you that terror is back on that axis on a large scale. The road is no longer safe, as no single day passes without an incident, each one ending in sorrow and sadness. Various armed gangs are ruling the area with gusto, robbing, killing, kidnapping and harassing road users even in broad daylight. No one is safe anymore – not even the presence of policemen attached to the Edo and Ondo states units of the Safe Highways scares or stops them.

On Thursday June 1, 2017, thousands of motorists and commuters, travelling on the Benin-Ore highway saw hell from a touching distance, no thanks to the activities of robbers. The victims felt hell’s fires and drank its waters to the dreg.

Years ago, many experienced similar anguish when the Benin-Ore Expressway was having a rough patch. Then, with a single drop of rain, every portion of the road became eroded. Scores of failed portions were continuously emerging; they stood out at every turn. With several hundreds of heavy-duty trucks and other vehicles competing for space to escape pain, chaos mouthed at every stretch. The result was that many spent long, harrowing hours at the same spot.

In some cases, travellers spent days going to or returning from Lagos. After escaping one terrible spot, another lay ahead, beckoning. Such bad spots were choice targets for robbers, who kept multiplying in their numbers, making road travels a nightmare. They robbed the stranded travellers, stripped them of everything they had. They raped, kidnapped and even clobbered the unyielding ones to death. Now, that frightening scenario is gradually coming back.         

Days ago, many had a taste of that inglorious past. It was nearing noon and the sun was already up in the sky, savagely beating down with great intensity, a huge surprise in this rainy season. Many vehicles which either left Lagos or towns and villages in the East and other parts of the country, heading for Lagos were already on the Benin-Ore stretch of the road. This correspondent was headed for Onitsha. The vehicle bearing us was a few kilometre from Okada junction in Edo State. Suddenly everyone ran into a gridlock. Instantly, many drivers began to switch lanes as they are wont to do, diverting into the opposite lane, audaciously going against the approaching traffic on the alternate stretch of the dual carriageway. Everyone was wondering what was amiss. Perhaps, a crash had occurred. Perhaps, a road construction company was at work. Perhaps, there was a failed portion ahead and everyone was managing to squeeze through it. Many thoughts and conjectures.

In one fell swoop, the unfolding scenario brought out the worst in the road users. They seized the whole lanes on both sides of the road; everyone wanted to leave the scene as soon as they could. Instantly, three lanes formed on both sides of the road. In a matter of moments, every single space around was taken up leading to the road being locked down. And when the traffic ever moved, it was at a snail speed.

One whole hour passed, nothing changed. Nobody advanced beyond 100 metres, even with the combined efforts of the police, road safety corps and soldiers. It was then that everyone realised that they were in a tough moment. Soon, another hour passed, then another. 

As the confusion persisted, the searing heat grew in intensity, becoming both miserable and unbearable. The air conditioners in most stationary vehicles then meant nothing. People poured out of their vehicles. Some sat on the road median; some kept peering into the distance. It was heartrending seeing unending stretches of stranded vehicles looking like thinly lines in the distance. Even the prospect of the situation changing appeared hopeless. Cries of agonising babes, grilling in the heat of the sun could be heard. Many who had become hungry and thirsty were desperately searching for anything to eat.

Soon, the commuters formed a ready army; they surged forward to see what could be done to ease the situation. But the troubled spot seemed so far away.   

Then the miraculous happened; it was a magic moment when what seemed an instant relief came from nowhere, and vehicles began to move gradually.

On approach, nothing that caused the trouble was seen. But tales had been flying around. The believable one was that early in the morning of that day, a driver and conductor, who operated a passenger luxury bus, belonging to one popular transport companies were shot dead by robbers, who held the area by the jugular, visiting motorists and passengers on overnight travels with mayhem.

“This is not the fourth, neither is it the fifth time in the past weeks that armed robbers have killed people in this area,” an angry traveller said. “No one is secure on this road anymore. It is sad. You might not understand how it feels if you are not involved.”

It was gathered that in order to show their anger and apparently draw the attention of the government, the deceased’s distraught colleagues chose to close the road to traffic. But at the end of the high drama, everyone was a loser; everyone paid a heavy price.

A passenger contended that there was no sense in the action. He said: “Blocking this road for hours does not make sense. Will this action bring back the deceased to life?  Now look at the pain everyone is experiencing now. Is it not unimaginable?”

Two days after the trauma, this correspondent was on his return journey to Lagos. The Toyota Siena car, taking us was doing well, as we pressed for Ore in Ondo State. We had hit the same stretch where we felt pains days ago. That was shortly before Okada junction in Edo State. Then the untoward happened. All without notice, the back tyre of the vehicle we were travelling in exploded with a loud report. The vehicle struggled and pulled over. The tyre was in shreds; the radiator pipe had burst.

It was a forested area. But as we looked up, we beheld two policemen attached to the Edo State unit of Safe Highways, sitting calmly on an elevated, improvised wooden bench, peering at us. Their two colleagues, we later learnt, had driven away to an unknown destination in their patrol van, leaving them to watch over the area. They clearly saw what happened. So, there was no need for them to perceive us as security risk. 

Seeing that the challenge we had in hand might take time to fix, the oldest man, travelling with us went over to sit among the policemen. In a moment, they began chatting.

“You were lucky your burst tyre incident happened here,” one of the policemen told him. “This is a danger zone. It is called ‘Evil Forest.’ A lot of things happen here. No week passes without armed robbers, killing people in this area. In the past one week, for instance, four people have been shot dead around here,” he revealed.   

Transport Manager of one popular passenger transport company told the correspondent that in the past four weeks, the area between Efosu and Benin Bye Pass had been terrible.

“In the past three weeks, terrible things have happened in the axis. A driver and conductor, working for a popular transport company were killed there. A pregnant woman, who was a passenger was also killed, same for another passenger. No two days passed without a major robbery.

“We gathered that during investigation, a bullet, belonging to the police was picked up. It was apparently used by the robbers. So, we learnt that the police authorities have now given their men orders to secure the place and ensure that such bad incidents do not happen there again. Our drivers have reported that a large contingent of the police is always seen around now.”

Edo State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr. Moses Nkombo, admitted that the area in question was a serious flashpoint. He said only the driver of a transport company was killed, adding that the Edo State government and the state police command were collaborating to secure lives and property on the road.

“It was unfortunate the incident that led to the closure of the road happened,” he said. “But only the driver of the bus was killed. It’s true that bus drivers barricaded the road in protest. That was their own way of drawing the attention of the state government and the security agencies to the problem.

“But shortly after that incident, the governor, the secretary to the Edo State government, the state commissioner of police and the director of State Security Service visited the scene to assess the situation.

“Few days ago, they held a meeting at Government House, Benin City, to seek ways of ensuring that what happened does not happen again.

“Now, part of the decision taken at that meeting was that forest around that road stretch would be cleared. Already, labourers have been hired to do the job. When the bush around the area is cleared, motorists, plying the road and security agencies will begin to have a clearer view of the area. The hoodlums will have no place to hide anymore.

“The Edo State Police Commissioner, Mr Abubakar Gwandu, has directed that more policemen should be drafted to the area. Government intends to support the action by bringing in a caravan that will house the policemen, guarding the area when it rains,” he stated.

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