By Jude Atupulazi
For those regularly plying major roads in Awka Capital, the sight of tipper drivers blocking the road with their vehicles may have become normal. Those tipper drivers are not blocking the roads for fun but to protest alleged extortion, intimidation and arrest of their members by the Anambra State Government and the police, reports Jude Atupulazi.
The drivers, who stormed Fides Media recently in their numbers, said that following their discomfort in continuing to pay the Anambra State Government for sand, which they said was in the exclusive legislative list; and which payment amounted to double taxation, they had approached the Federal High Court in Awka on June 14 last year, seeking the following reliefs:
That the court declare that the Anambra State Government and the officials of the State Environment Ministry and their agents, privies and others, have no right to make laws, formulate policies, impose taxes or levies, charge and collect dues or revenue on sand, stones, laterite, gravel and the like.
A declaration by the court that the forcible collection of tolls, levies and taxes on sand, stones, laterite, gravel and the like by government agents from tipper drivers with the use of the police and members of Civil Defence was unconstitutional, illegal, improper and not supported by law.
An order of perpetual injunction restraining officials and agents of Anambra State Government from collecting from the plaintiffs and members of their group, any tax, money, levy, toll, revenue, dues, or fees on sand, stones, laterite, gravel and the like; and from using the police and other security agencies for the stated purposes.
And such other further orders as the court might deem fit to make in favour of the plaintiffs (drivers).
On March 18 this year, the court granted the drivers their prayers, affirming that sand, just like granite, laterite and rocks, are minerals which fall on the exclusive legislative list and so, only the national assembly can legislate on them.
The court also agreed with the plaintiffs that taxes and levies on minerals do not fall under items which the Anambra State Government can impose and collect taxes and levies.
But the tipper drivers are miffed that despite the court judgement, their members are still being chased around by government through its agents and the security agencies because of their insistence to abide by the court judgement.
Speaking to Fides, the Vice President of the tipper drivers, Mr Boniface Udenwa Ezekwesili, said that nine of their members, as at that day, had been arrested, including their president. He said their president was arrested at a function in Nnewi by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) who took him straight to their station in Awkuzu, charged him to court the next day and took him to prison same day.
He said that when the matter came up again in the Magistrate Court, the president and others were released on bail only for the police to once more herd them into prison.
Ezekwesili who said their members had started going into hiding for fear of further arrests, said they were not averse to paying something to government but that they were insisting on collecting such payments from their members by themselves and remitting to government just like other unions like keke and shuttle buses were doing.
He accused government officials of wanting to take over the collection because they wanted to divert monies from it to their pockets, rather than to government’s coffers.
He regretted that despite holding meetings with government four times, the stalemate remained unbroken as government had continued to harass them, even threatening to jail them if they refused to pay, despite the court judgement, and accusing the drivers of printing fake tickets and selling.
Ezekwesili therefore appealed to the public to come to their aid as they had run out of options.
Corroborating him, the National Secretary of the tipper drivers, Mr Jerry Uwadikeche Ifejika, said they would not mind paying as long as they would be the ones collecting such monies and remitting same direct to the government.
He however said that the drivers were running out of patience against the backdrop of government intimidation and warned that if such continued, the drivers would have no option than to risk death and make the state too hot for the government.
A human rights activist and social crusader, Comrade Osita Obi, who accompanied the drivers, regretted what he called government’s disobedience to the rule of law. He berated the government for resorting to harassing the drivers rather than trying to vacate the court judgement.
Obi, who expressed doubts that Gov Willie Obiano was aware of the situation, warned of the consequences of the continued impasse on society as the victims might resort to crime to earn a living. Noting that the impasse had shot up the price of sand, he insisted that government should obey the rule of law.
But reacting to the allegations of the tipper drivers, the Anambra State Commissioner for Tertiary Education, Science and Technology, Mrs Theresa Obiekezie, insisted that what the government was collecting from the drivers was just toll for trucks.
Said she, ‘This is a road use toll. They do not pay for mining because they are not miners. What is in the exclusive list is mining.’
She said that nobody was asking the tipper drivers to pay mining fees and disclosed that the state government did not collect mining fees but the federal government under the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development.
‘The tipper drivers are like every other vehicle picking goods and passengers in the state.
They pay tolls or levies at the point of loading. As many times as they load goods or passengers, they pay,’ she clarified, noting that it was not cheating as it was the way the state generated revenue which it used in maintaining roads used by same tipper drivers.
The chairman of Internally Generated Revenue in the state, David Nzekwu, aligned with the submission of Mrs Obiekezie by also insisting that the drivers of tippers are charged what he called State Road Use Toll, which he said, was the revenue government collected from truck drivers who carried loads in the state.
He explained that the levy was for users of sand; that is the owners of the sand being carried by the tipper drivers.
Giving a breakdown of the charges, he said that small trucks paid N700; coupled trucks, N1, 000 and construction trucks, N1, 500 each time they loaded. He also said the amount was agreed on with concerned parties as far back as 2015.
He however said the current problem was caused by those he called rent seekers whom he accused of collecting monies and pocketing same; noting that when the government wanted to stop that by collecting by themselves, they refused; a situation, he said, led to the arrests of those people.
Nzekwu also said the tipper groups were as many as 18 and that they had failed to come under one umbrella to make it easier for coordination and ending the confusion it caused.
He however vowed that government would stop the confusion and warned those involved to steer clear or be treated as revenue saboteurs; even as he assured that government was open to negotiation and appealed to the drivers to desist from blocking roads.
Speaking on the court judgement, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mrs Uju Nwogu, said the government only collected toll on tippers and that as such, the judgement did not concern the government.
On the allegation of the tipper leader being released and rearrested, Nwogu said the tipper drivers were ignorant of court procedure. She said their leader was given bail conditions which he failed to meet and was therefore remanded in custody.
She said the chairman of the tippers was arrested for refusing to stop collecting toll on behalf of government who discovered that he was not remitting all to government and on top of that, inciting others against the government.
The commissioner said that government was aware that all minerals were on the exclusive legislative list, meaning they were for the federal government. She insisted that the state government only collected toll for trucks; even as she said that only the government could determine how it wanted to collect that toll and not the tipper drivers.
But for the Transport Commissioner, Mr Christian Madubuko, the tipper operators had a right to express their grievances. He recalled that he met the problem when he took over from his predecessor and had talked to the drivers when they had blocked some roads.
He said he was arranging a meeting with the spokesperson of the tipper drivers with a view to finding an amicable solution.
‘I must have to listen to them to find out the history of the agitation,’ he said, pointing out that it was only when it was known that it could be solved.
He said that violence did not solve problems and that arresting the drivers would not solve it too and promised to advise the governor on the right path to follow.
For now, the impasse remains, with both parties in a staring match and it is fast becoming a matter of who blinks first.