THE Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) was set up to enforce all environmental laws in the Federal Capital Territory, including the ban on street hawking, but investigations by The ICIR have shown that some of AEPB’s enforcement officers are abusing the agency’s mandate by collecting illegal monthly ‘protection’ levies from petty traders.
Payment of the monthly levies, ranging from N1500, N2000 and above, protects the petty traders from harassment, including seizure of their wares, during raids by AEPB agents.
Categories of petty traders that are being forced to make the illegal payments in parts of the FCT include owners of small businesses that operate by the roadside such as food and suya sellers, drinking bars, kiosks that deal on general goods and provisions, salons, mobile point of sale (POS) operators and others.
The investigation, which involved interviews with some traders as well as encounters with AEPB officials, revealed a pattern of abuse of office, exploitation and extortion on the part of the enforcement officers.
As Nigeria’s unemployment rate continues to rise, forcing many people to struggle for survival, raids by AEPB enforcement officers have become a routine occurrence in the FCT as the authorities clamp down on street hawking, which has been embraced by many as the only available source of livelihood.
In the raids, busloads of AEPB enforcement officers, usually in blue shirts, go after street hawkers and other petty traders who are operating in unauthorised locations in different parts of Abuja. For Abuja residents, AEPB agents chasing after hawkers is a common sight. The hawkers, and petty traders, who were caught are arrested while their wares are seized. In most cases, the traders flee, leaving their goods behind. The AEPB officers cart the items away.
The seized items are taken to the premises of the AEPB mobile court at Area 3.
Normally, arrested hawkers are prosecuted at the mobile court, after which they are made to pay a fine for engaging in street hawking. The mobile court, in most cases, orders the confiscation of the seized goods.
- Enforcement raids turned into money-making racket
However, The ICIR’s investigations revealed that some corrupt AEPB officers have turned the raids into a lucrative money-making venture whereby the seized goods are returned to the hawkers upon the payment of fines, without any prosecution.
Also, The ICIR discovered that the ‘illegal’ fines are being imposed arbitrarily – in some cases, enforcement officers bargain with the traders whose wares were seized.
During a visit to the AEPB Area 3 office, The ICIR‘s correspondent met a number of hawkers and petty traders who came around to retrieve their goods which were seized during a raid.
It was observed that some staff of the AEPB were hanging around in front of the office, and once they sight a visitor, they immediately offer to help the trader to ‘talk’ to the storekeepers for the release of the seized items. The storekeepers are AEPB officers that are in charge of the storeroom, where seized items are kept.
After our correspondent explained that he was at the office in respect of the seizure of his brother’s goods during a raid at the Wuse Berger area of Abuja, one of the AEPB staff explained that he would facilitate the release of the seized items without the hawker having to undergo prosecution. But he added that payment has to be made for that to happen.
“Usually, the fine imposed after the trial is N2000 but the process takes time. To release the goods immediately, your brother (the hawker) should pay N5000,” he said, after asking of the nature of the supposedly seized items, and when the raid took place. The AEPB man, who did not give out his name when our correspondent sought his identity, advised our correspondent to ask the supposed hawker to come to the office so as to make the payment and personally identify the seized items.
The man also suggested that our correspondent should tell the hawker to discuss with AEPB officers stationed at Wuse Berger to work out an arrangement that would ensure that his goods are not seized during future raids in that area.
* Petty traders give accounts of extortion, exploitation by AEPB enforcement officers
Many of the petty traders and hawkers who were at the AEPB office on account of their seized goods, told our correspondent, in separate encounters, that they don’t have the amounts of money they were asked to bring for the release of their wares.
Our correspondent observed as many of them, who stood outside the fence, looked into the compound of the AEPB office where their goods littered the grounds, alongside other seized items. Valuables such as pots, plates, tables, chairs, cupboards and sunscreen umbrellas, which were seized from petty traders during raids, could be seen piled up inside the compound. Some of the items, which seemed to have stayed there for a long time, appeared damaged.
During the visit to the visit to the AEPB Area 3 office, our correspondent met a lady who identified herself as Iniobong. Iniobong, who told our correspondent that she sells fish and drinks in the Kado Estate area of Abuja, said she was told to come to the AEPB office to make arrangements that would ensure that her goods are no longer seized during raids.
Iniobong told our correspondent that when her goods were seized during a previous raid, she was advised to pay monthly levies to AEPB agents so that she would be allowed to operate without hindrance. She could not make the payment at the time, and her goods were seized during a subsequent raid.
Shedding further light on the situation, Iniobong, who spoke in a mournful tone, said, “They (AEPB enforcement officers) charge people monthly and when they meet you for the first time they will say you should bring N30,000 but if you have information about what others are paying you will tell them that you heard others are paying N2000 and they will collect that amount from you. Once you start paying they will not arrest you any other time they come on raid but you will give them something, like N500.”
Iniobong further revealed that payment of the illegal levies to the AEPB agents was a closely guarded secret among petty traders.
She added, “The sad thing is none of your fellow traders will disclose this information to you until your goods have been seized, that is when you will find out what is happening. It was one woman that sell handbags by the roadside that gave me the information. I asked her why they (AEPB agents) don’t disturb her anytime they raid the place and she told me to meet them so I can start paying monthly. She told me others are also paying monthly so as to be allowed to operate without any disturbance.
“I am here to make arrangements so I can start paying monthly. The person that told me to come here will take me to the oga. I sell fish and alcoholic drinks and the problem now is the man I met said I will not be allowed to sell drinks again but I told him that I can’t sell only fish, it goes with drinks. He said if I want to sell fish and drinks I will have to pay N30,000 monthly. How can I pay N30,000 monthly? How, much do I make? I told him that other traders told me they are paying N2000 monthly. Even the POS operators are paying N2000 monthly.
“After that he told me to wait, that he will discuss with his Oga. He later called to tell me that the other girls that were paying N2000 are doing ‘something’ with the Oga, that is why they are paying that amount. He said if I can do something I will also pay N2000.”
When our correspondent observed that the ‘something’ could be of a ‘sexual’ nature, Iniobong said she refused to ‘sleep’ with the AEPB official.
“I am not ready to sleep with anybody. For what? When I will still pay N2000 every month. I am not ready for that. I don’t want any other thing apart from paying N2000 each month. That is what I told him and later he said ok if I have the N2000 I should bring it. Unfortunately, at that time I couldn’t afford the N2000 so they later seized my goods again.”
Iniobong told our correspondent that she was now ready to pay the monthly N2000 illegal levy.
Another petty trader, Favour, who was at the AEPB office to retrieve her seized goods, said she was the only one targeted by the enforcement officers during the raid on her location.
“The night they seized my things, they left other traders who were selling around me. It was only me that they came after. I later realised that the other traders have settled them,” Favour told our correspondent.
- AEPB describes bribe-taking enforcement officers as ‘bad eggs’, says many of them have been dismissed
The ICIR confronted the management of the AEPB with the discoveries from the investigation. Janet Audu Peni, the spokesperson of the AEPB, told The ICIR that the organisation had dismissed several enforcement officers who were found to be involved in shady activities.
But, apparently trying to absolve the organisation of wrongdoing, she noted that most of the enforcement officers were ‘casual workers’ and as a result, not full staff of the AEPB.
“The thing is usually most of the enforcement officers are casual workers. The management has terminated so many appointments. The management is not happy about it because when people talk they will say that the AEPB is exhorting money from the general public,” Peni said.
She added, “What I can tell you is that hawking is prohibited in the FCT. We don’t allow people to hawk. I can’t deny or say that our people are not collecting or they are collecting money. Just what you should know is that in every group you will have bad eggs, even among the press there are bad eggs. In this case, now, the giver and the taker are committing the same offence because this trading is illegal. If not why will they have to pay?”
- Monthly payment to AEPB enforcement officers by petty traders illegal, not authorised
Peni further noted that the money being paid by petty traders to the enforcement officers was illegal and not authorised by the management of the AEPB.
“It is illegal. It is an act of corruption. Once you are not in the shop, or you are not in the market or in an area that is allowed for trading you are doing illegal trading. We have informal markets that petty traders can go to and sell their items but they must not come on the road. AEPB did not authorise such monthly payments. We did not authorise anybody to collect such monies from traders,” she stressed in response The ICIR‘s enquiries.
She also explained that the AEPB was not a revenue-generating, or revenue collecting agency.
“We provide social services and the money we charge is just for the services we render. We are not a revenue-generating agency,” she said when our correspondent asked whether the money being paid to the enforcement officers by petty traders are being remitted to government as revenue.
Teni urged members of the public to report AEPB enforcement officers that are engaged in the act.
She added, “The only thing I can tell you is, honestly, we are looking for such officers. If there is any way they can get us names, honestly with the director I have, he is going to discipline them. If the traders can help us to know the names of the staff they are dealing with it will be very helpful. We don’t want to only punish the traders, we also want to punish the staff that are collecting money from them.”
The AEPB spokesperson suggested that the concerned enforcement officers can be identified by the numbers on their shirts.
“If they (petty traders) get the number or even take their pictures, we will use that number in tracing those officers,” she observed.