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Lagos police fearful after killing army colonel: Karl Maier explains why the roadblocks dreaded by motorists in Nigeria's capital were halted this week

THIS time, the police might have gone too far. Extra-judicial killings by police officers at night- time checkpoints on Nigeria's roads are not new, but on Sunday night an army colonel was shot seven times and killed after an argument with a policeman in central Lagos. Since then, the myriad roadblocks routinely mounted by police after dark have virtually disappeared amid fears that soldiers will retaliate for the colonel's death. Anxious about trouble, senior police officers immediately ordered their men to abandon the checkpoints and return to their stations.

Night-time in Lagos brings an explosion of roadblocks, ostensibly to check for stolen cars, arms trafficking and the like. But often they serve to allow police officers to top up their meagre salaries by asking passing vehicles for a 'dash' - a tip or a bribe. The problem is, one never knows when a police checkpoint is legal and when it is fake.

For months the Inspector-General of Police, Alhaji Aliyu Attah, has been warning his men against setting up illegal checkpoints, but his threats of immediate dismissal for offenders seemed to have little effect until the colonel's death.

The police version is that the colonel emerged from his car carrying a gun, but other reports suggested he approached the police officers to inquire about the traffic jam which their checkpoint had caused.

Traffic jams, or 'go slows', are legendary in Lagos, a teeming city of 5 million people jammed with millions of vehicles running on the cheapest fuel in the world, about 2p per litre. But more often than not, the holdups are due to checkpoints, which usually feature wooden boards with huge nails sticking out of them stretched across the road. Any one of several different types of forces can man them, including soldiers, regular police, transit police (known as 'yellow fever' due to their yellowish-orange uniforms), and the mobile police (whose reputation for shooting first and asking questions later has earned them the popular nickname, 'kill and go').

It all makes driving in Lagos an addictive, total experience capable of generating in a few moments a whole range of emotions, from frustration and anger to hair-raising fear and eventually, hopefully, joy at having arrived.

As darkness falls, fear becomes the dominant emotion. That is when armed highwaymen emerge to hunt their favourite quarry, Peugeots, Nigeria's car of choice, and four-wheel-drive vehicles, especially ones with diplomatic or government plates which allow robbers to avoid police checkpoints.

One recent victim was Aram Husinec, a Yugoslav engineer who was in Lagos on a Unesco contract to help install a new computer system at the News Agency of Nigeria. He was gunned down last month near Embassy Row after two vehicles, one an ambulance, blocked the way to steal his car. There are reports of such thefts nearly every day. The Reuters news agency has lost two four-wheel-drive vehicles this year to gun-wielding thieves.

Despite the death penalty facing armed robbers, reports of holdups, car thefts, and break-ins have increased sharply in Lagos in the past several months. This probably reflects the worsening state of the economy - at least 40 per cent unemployment and 50 per cent inflation. Many observers believe at least some of the gunmen are former soldiers, left jobless in the demobilisation of 30,000 troops in the past year. But there is also a general feeling that the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida, scheduled to hand over power to civilians in January, is increasingly a lameduck administration.

All this, of course, means a booming business for companies and locksmiths specialising in vehicle security. Anyone seeking to make a car theft-proof can choose from a smorgasbord of devices, from switches to cut off fuel and electricity to special doorlocks, and charms known as 'juju'.

Doorlocks are not to be relied upon, though. One locksmith who specialises in installing locks on Peugeots was shocked recently when the Central Bank of Nigeria returned an entire fleet of vehicles after discovering that thieves could open the lock with a simple stiff blow delivered to the lower part of the door.