Three heavily loaded motorcycles had left a trail of dust on their way as they sped along the vast expanse of land that adjoins the Nigeria/Niger boundary in Illela town of Sokoto, North-West, Nigeria.
“These are people who use illegal routes in and out of Sokoto. It is one of the about 300 porous routes in the Sokoto border town of Illela. People from Illela and environs, as well as those from Konni in Niger Republic, ply this route on a daily basis,’’ Daily Trust Saturday was told.
Apart from Illela, several boundary communities across other local government areas in the state also have porous paths, which many have been using to come into Sokoto, despite the fact that the state has since placed a ban on interstate movement in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a measure to curb the spread of coronavirus, the Sokoto State Government, which had no confirmed case of COVID-19 until Monday, April 20, restricted interstate movement for an initial period of two weeks – March 27 to April 10, 2020. It later extended the restriction by another two weeks.
Subsequently, the state government established 10 screening points at Kuchi, Alasan, Sanyinna, Malisa, Bimasa, Jabo, Gada, Sabo Birni, Illela and Raba.
Under the arrangement, only essential travellers were allowed into the state.
But despite the restricted movement of vehicles into Sokoto through these points, concerns are high that there has been an influx of people into the state through illegal routes.
The concerns heightened after the confirmation of Sokoto‘s index case on Monday, April 20. The man said he was not aware of how he contacted the virus as he did not travel out of the state.
The index case, as well as the influx of returnees from Lagos and other endemic states, has raised the fear of community transmission in Sokoto.
Speaking on the restriction of movement from Sokoto to other states and vice versa, a villager, Mallam Ali noted with concern, “There are more than seven routes in this axis used by commercial vehicles to avoid checkpoints. They terminate at Aggur village on Sokoto-Tambuwal road. Some of the village heads and residents assist travellers to beat security checks through these routes.”
He noted that if the affected communities had blocked these routes, violators of border closure would not have their way.
Mallam Ali disclosed that at Tureta, along the Sokoto-Zamfara road, people on motorbikes ply bush paths at Hanyar Matseri, Bimasa Tureta and Hanyar Dorawa to beat security checks. The operators charge between N600 to N800 to transport any passenger, he added.
Ali, however, said residents assist security men with information to apprehend those using bush paths.
Mallam Jafaru Iliyasu Lmabar Tureta also revealed that after the restriction order came into force, some commercial motorcycle riders use bush paths to convey passengers to and from Sokoto/Zamfara border.
But Tureta said that with more security enforcement, which led to daily arrests, motorcyclists abandoned the business. “It got very tough for the motorcyclists in these areas as security men started chasing and dealing with them and their passengers,” he said.
It is a similar concern at Gagi in Sokoto South Local Government Area, where the district head, Alhaji Sani Umar-Jabbi, said community volunteers and vigilante groups had intercepted more than 50 vehicles.
“They come to Sokoto town through illegal routes. Some people coming from other states, such as Lagos and Abuja, use some routes at Gagi to come into Sokoto. From Bakura Local Government Area of Zamfara State, there is a road linking Gandi in Raba Local Government Area of Sokoto. From Gandi, there is a junction linking Rabah to Kware Local Government, that is Maikujera, as well as Maikujera to Durbawa in Kware, and Durbawa to Gagi.
“From Gandi, there is another road linking Gajara to Zamau and Saki, as well as Gagi to Sokoto town. From Gajara, there is another road from Zamau to Kwanar Kimba in Dange Shuni Local Government Area,” he noted, lamenting that there are many porous roads within border towns in the state.
He also recalled, “Last Friday, we apprehended a convoy of four vehicles carriying textile materials and passengers from Kano to Sokoto in Gagi community. We handed them over to law enforcement agents.’’
He further said, “The Sultan and government had mobilised traditional leaders towards the fight against COVID-19. Maybe village or hamlet heads were not well
informed that their subjects are involved in such activities. The community leaders would be helpful provided they are sufficiently informed, effectively mobilised and positively challenged. To be able to step down COVID-19, there is the need for proper communication and multi-level engagement of traditional rulers.”
He also said there’s the need to expand the membership of the task force on COVID-19 in the state. “There is the need to have members of the team at the local government and ward levels. This will facilitate rapid response.
The traditional leader also urged a reinforcement of security personnel at strategic areas to reduce the use of illegal routes.
Daily Trust Saturday learnt that COVID-19 screening is going on at Araba, Ruwan Wuri, Bayan Abattoir, Kalmalo, Gani Kasheni and Case Guda.
Also, Malam Garba Illela identified intermarriages and community relationships as some of the challenges of enforcing border movements.
One of the officials of the health teams on COVID-19 told our correspondent that since the restriction, people are turned back to Niger Republic on a daily basis.
“This morning, we turned back more than 30 Nigeriens who were sick. They told us they wanted to go to the hospital here, but we sent them back to their country,” the official said.
“People call us when they observe such returnees and sick persons. Whenever that happened, the team would immediately go and conduct body temperature tests on such people,” the official said.
But some of the officials lamented lack of logistics to adequately carry out their tasks. “We use a single motorbike and thermometer. There is the need for at least three Hilux vans and 10 high-powered motorbikes to adequately patrol the areas. We also need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE),” they said.
The chairman of the Task Force against the Spread of COVID-19 in Sokoto, Dr Mohammed Inname, who is also the commissioner for health in the state, also said, “We are always on the move to monitor the enforcement along those borders.
“Security operatives attached to the Special Task Force against the Spread of COVID-19 in the state intercepted a truckload of over 40 returnees from Lagos to Sokoto State.
“This vehicle was intercepted along Tambuwal-Sokoto road, and about three from Niger Republic. They wanted to cross to Konni in Niger Republic, using the Illela border. The remaining ones were from various local government areas in Sokoto State.