The Enugu State government yesterday intercepted and turned back nine busloads of almajirai following a failed attempt to sneak them into the state.
Dislodged from the North, as governors in the region moved urgently to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of the pupils trying to find new havens in the South have been prevalent.
Security operatives alongside council chairmen and youths stopped about three hundred of the pupils around the Enugu-Benue boundaries, particularly at Udenu, Igbo-Eze North and Nsuka Local Government Area.
Abia State had on Tuesday said it intercepted some buses bringing in about 100 almajirai into the state. The Commissioner for Information John Okiyi said the travellers were turned back because a presidential order banning inter-state transport was still in force. He added that the state’s Ministry of Homeland Affairs had been mobilised to beef up security at the boundaries.
President Muhammadu Buhari had recently imposed a restriction on inter-state trips to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The order had also coincided with the relocation of almajirai by several Northern states.
A statement by the Enugu State government yesterday disclosed that similar operations aimed at preventing infiltration and enforcing the ban on inter-state transport were ongoing at the Enugu-Abia boundary and Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway.
Mr. Philip Nwazi, who is the new Divisional Police Officer in charge of Udenu Local Government Council, explained that some offending vehicles in the area were intercepted and impounded between 11:00 p.m. (Tuesday) and 3:00 a.m. (Wednesday).
Nwazi said some of the intercepted vehicles had emerged from forests as their drivers tried to beat the restriction order.He said they were promptly turned back to serve as a deterrent to would-be violators.
The Chairman of Udenu Council Solomon Onah said the local administration was fully mobilised and working round the clock to ensure that the restrictions by the state and Federal Government were complied with.
Also, the Cross River State government yesterday reportedly turned back five truckloads of almajirai and other passengers from the North.
State Security Adviser Alfred Mboto was quoted as saying: “We got a report from our security and task force teams at the Garkem border town yesterday night that trucks carrying a large number of children from the north, alleged to be almajirai, were intercepted after a thorough check and have been turned back.”
In a scenario underscoring the desperation to relocate the almajirai from the North, the Benue State’s COVID-19 Action Committee Wednesday night intercepted 14 almajirai who were allegedly being smuggled into the state.
Reacting to the movement of almajirai to the South, the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, urged governors of the region to boost security at their boundaries to prevent entry by unauthorised persons.
Deputy National Publicity Secretary Mazi Chucks Ibegbu described the situation as an “attempt to flood some Igbo states with almajirai.” He insisted: “The Satanic act must not be allowed.”
In a statement, Emma Powerful, spokesman for Igbo group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) said: “It is no longer hidden that COVID-19 is currently ravaging Kano and other parts of the North. Instead of locking down to stem the spread as was done by all states in the East, Northern leaders opened their borders and allowed the free movement of their people, many of who have become infected with the virus. Now, they intend to infect the rest of us under the guise of relocating almajirai. We won’t allow this evil plot as no almajiri is from the East.”
Another Igbo organisation, South East Revival Group (SERG), said: “A total lockdown of eastern borders is necessary to avoid needless deaths in the region because we are at war with a global pandemic that has continued to claim lives in thousands in countries with sophisticated health systems and facilities.”
Addressing a press conference yesterday, SERG President Chief Willy Ezugwu said: “There have been several reports of inter-state travelling from the North. A trailer-load of almajirai was intercepted in Abia State last week while another trailer and some buses loaded with the same almajirai were also intercepted by vigilance community leaders at Opi in Nsukka two days ago.
“They pass through Kogi and Benue States undetected by security agents. Some security agencies in the region, like in many highways in Nigeria, take bribes to allow these buses and trailers to pass, contrary to a Federal Government directive.”
He added: “It is yet to be determined why these almajirai are trooping into the South East. But we suspect that it is either they are fleeing the North because of the increasing cases (of COVID-19) or they are being deliberately sent to the South East to infect the people of the region.”
But responding to questions about police operations as busloads of almajirai pass, Force Public Relations Officer DCP Frank Mba said:
“We have situations where a few recalcitrant persons have tried to break the law. But the good thing is that we have always caught up with them at the end of the day. Most of the persons who set out to break the rule don’t drive through the major ways. They go through uncharted routes. They go through bush paths. But whenever they finally turn to the major highways, we always arrest them.”
He added: “We have done excellently well in our efforts to enforce the ban on inter-state movement. However, at a few monitored inter-state highways, you will certainly see some vehicles moving. The bulk of the vehicles you see plying the inter-state highways are those that fall within the categories of vehicles permitted on those roads.”
Mba’s assurances came as the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 yesterday complained about lapses in enforcing restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic.
“We urge the various commands of the security agencies to enhance their monitoring machinery to ensure that we do not only achieve the objective of stopping the spread of the virus but also prevent the good name of the services from being tarnished,” said PTF chairman and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha.
“Reports across the country show that they (vehicles) continue to hide passengers with the intention of ferrying them across state boundaries and continual transportation of almajirai across state borders is still evident,” he added.