There is commotion around Benue State at the moment over the recent activities of criminal gangs who have taken over various highways in the state, extorting traders, truck drivers, including businessmen and women who patronize the huge farm produce markets spread across the state.
The gangs, who usually pose as genuine tax collectors working for the Benue State Internal Revenue Service, BIRS, forcefully block the numerous highways crisscrossing the food-producing state and impose various sums of money as conditions for traders, food buyers, truck drivers, and other businessmen, who evacuate various food products from the state to other parts of the country for sales and consumption.
The illegality being perpetrated by the hoodlums appears to be succeeding and gaining notoriety and momentum due to the subtle support it enjoys from soldiers and policemen who man the many checkpoints on the routes leading to farmlands and food markets in Benue State, famously known as the “food basket of Nigeria” due to the large quantity and variety of food it produces.
As a result of its status as a major food-producing state in Nigeria, Benue attracts traders and food suppliers from across the country and the West African sub-region that move into the state in trucks to buy for sale and consumption within and for exports. But that enviable status of the food basket state is being degraded by illegal tax collectors aided and abetted by security agents who are supposed to man the routes and provide adequate security for Nigerians.
As a result of the incessant harassment and extortion by the illegal tax collectors and security agents, it is reported that the huge cash that should accrue to the state has been diverted by the hoodlums and being shared with unidentified security agents who provide cover for the fraudulent elements posing as tax agents for BIRS.
The development has in turn, forced aggrieved traders, truck drivers and businessmen who used to buy food from markets in the state to seek alternative markets for their supply, shunning markets and routes in Benue State. With the protests by buyers and traders, Benue farmers, especially those who produce perishable food, have been recording losses as majority of the visiting traders have been compelled to look elsewhere.
The farmers no longer have enough ready off-takers for their goods which consequently affects the revenue accruing BIRS. The Chairman of the BIRS, Mrs. Mimi Adzape-Orubibi, is angry by the activities of the illegal revenue collectors and those who aid and abet them to commit the crime in broad daylight on Benue roads.
Mrs. Adzape-Orubibi said as a civil service state, Benue does not make much revenue from factories but relies on tax collection on cash crop produce being exported from the state to other parts of the world, but regretted that the revenue has been hijacked by fraudulent entities and individuals posing threat to BIRS staff on the roads.
“But we have a situation in the state where somebody who has no authority from Benue State Government or BIRS will just wake up and when he feels hungry he goes and blocks the road to extort road users, traders and business people,” Adzape-Orubibi lamented. This set of people when caught should not be charged for mounting illegal checkpoints, they should be charged for armed robbery. The painful part of it is that the police and military personnel are aiding and abetting these hoodlums and I have had cause to speak with them on that matter.
“If you are going to Kwande Local Government Area, by the Ushongo axis, you will see the police and also see the illegal tax collectors. Whenever you see these illegal checkpoints, police personnel are not far from them. Sometimes they stand with them (the illegal tax collectors) collecting the money. So it is something that the Inspector General of Police has to look into because they are culpable.
“The army on their part will stop at our checkpoints, chase away our tax officers and escort hundreds of trucks through the tax points and collect monies from them. Just last month they killed my staff in North Bank Area of Makurdi town. I also discovered that from Katsina-Ala to Jootar there are 49 checkpoints of the police and army. And when I took a tour on that road I saw oranges that were littered everywhere and I had cause to stop and enquired why the oranges where all over the place.
“I was told that people from Kano, FCT and Lagos refused to come to Benue to purchase because of the multiple taxes. They complained that they pay N2,000 at each of the check points. This is the checkpoints mounted by the Police and the army.
The development is sending our people out of the market, because if you are an orange seller, when you move from Zaki Biam and pay N2,000 at each checkpoint point what profit will you be able to make as an orange seller or a yam seller. “I must say that this thing is getting out of hand. It is the police that should help us and they should declare state of emergency on our roads since the people who sell perishable goods are forced to give in to the request of these boys because sometimes they keep all those logs of wood and nails on the road and if you are carrying mangoes, tomatoes and other perishable goods you are compelled pay or your goods will get rotten.”
The BIRS Chairman also urged traditional rulers and local government council chairmen in the state to wade into the matter with the aim of checking it since they are closer to the people at the grassroots. Arewa Voice gathered that as part of measures to check the activities of the criminals in their domain, the traditional rulers of communities in Ushongo LGA recently storm the busy Gboko-Lessel-Ihugh-Tse-Mker highway to chase away the fraudsters operating close to 40 illegal revenue collection points in that axis.
The state governor, Samuel Ortom, also recently expressed concern over the activities of the band of criminals warning that the government would not fold its arms and watch them continue with their criminality, thereby killing the economy of the state.
The governor’s warning came a day after he accosted security men at many checkpoints with stranded trucks loaded with perishable foodstuffs, being forced to pay illegal levies before they could be allowed to continue to their various destinations.