As preparations for the 2023 general elections gain momentum amid a worsening security situation across the country, the demands for bullet-proof Sports Utility Vehicles have increased significantly, findings by The PUNCH have shown.
Investigations by our correspondents over the weekend indicate that Very Important Personalities, top chieftains and candidates of political parties have been procuring customised vehicles that offer special protection in the run-up to the campaigns and elections.
About three weeks ago, there was an attempted assassination of the lawmaker representing the Anambra South Senatorial District, Senator Ifeanyi Ubah.
Four persons, including police aides, were killed by gunmen who opened fire on the senator’s convoy at the Enugwu-Ukwu junction, Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State while he was on his way to his country home in Nnewi.
The Young Progressives Party senator, who is seeking re-election to the Senate in the 2023 general elections, however, escaped death as he was riding in a bullet-proof SUV.
“If not for the bullet-proof SUV the senator was riding in, he would have been dead by now. We were passing the Enugwu-Ukwu junction when they hit us from all sides,” Ubah’s media assistant, Mr Kameh Ogbonna, reportedly said.
In 2017, Dino Melaye, the senator representing Kogi West, escaped death when unknown gunmen attacked him during a rally in Lokoja. His vehicle was riddled with bullets but he narrowly survived the attack.
But a former special adviser to ex-president Goodluck Jonathan on Political Matters, Ahmed Gulak, was not so lucky as he was shot dead while on his way to Owerri airport in May 2021.
Apart from ordering armoured vehicles, it was also learnt that politicians were applying for special police protection and procuring other security wares.
The use of armoured vehicles is regulated by the Office of the National Security Adviser but approval or end-user certificate is granted to private individuals who have evidence of a threat to their lives.
Checks indicate that armoured vehicles could be customised with reinforced suspension, run-flat tires, armoured battery, radiator and fuel tank protection as well as fortified doors, ballistic windows and windshield. These are meant to provide maximum protection to occupants of armoured vehicles during an attack.
Confirming the increase in orders for armoured vehicles, the President, Armor Max, Mr Mark Burton said his company had been getting orders from clients, noting that sales were very good in March.
Burton, who said his firm had been importing bullet-proof vehicles into Nigeria for the past 20 years, explained that the high demand was inspired by the political season.
Speaking in a telephone interview from the United States, he said, ‘’We are a United States-based company, we have been based in Nigeria for six years now. We have been armouring cars and sending them to Nigeria for 20 years.
“Obviously, with the political season and the unrest (insecurity), there is obviously a high demand. We have been working with government officials, diplomats, senators, and businesses. There are a lot of things that go into armouring (vehicles).
“It depends on the needs. Sometimes, it is for political purposes, other times, it is for church groups that just need transport for their pastors to and from church and their home.’’
According to the American, Armor Max has been undertaking bullet-proof windscreen replacements and other special vehicle servicing, admitting that its profits had increased due to the increased request for its services.
Asked if sales had increased in recent times, Burton said, ‘’Yes, we are making a profit, but right now, we are doing a lot of replacements. There are lots of bullet-proof vehicles in Nigeria, so we are doing lots of servicing; if someone needs a bullet-proof windshield, we do that.
“We armour vehicles and do servicing. We are making a profit in Nigeria; we get constant sales with people asking for upgrades. Right now, we are working on Jaguars; we do all the Land Cruisers and Prados. In the US, we do Rolls-Royce and Bentley but in Nigeria, we do more of Lexus LX570. In different months, there are different orders or projects.’’
When asked about the categories of his clients and his most profitable month, the businessman stated, ‘’It is hard to know who is placing the orders but our busiest month was in March. March was a crazy time because we were working with a lot of security companies.
“Since March, it’s dropped off a little bit but I see a lot of people before the end of the year wanting to get bullet-proof cars, so we are kind of ramping up (supplies) before the end of the year.’’
Approvals taking time
Burton disclosed that he obtained end-users certificates which enabled him to import the armoured vehicles into the country, adding that the official approval process takes time.
“But we still have products on the ground; it’s just on a case-by-case basis. We make sure we adhere to the local needs in Nigeria. We are trying to make sure the people who need our products get our products.’’
Asked if the insecurity in the country had indirectly benefited his firm, Burton said, ‘’Yes, but we don’t want the world to be unsafe but all we are trying to do is create solutions to different problems.’’
He added, ‘’It’s not because we want violence but because things have been happening and all we are trying to do is create solutions. We have products that can help you have peace of mind. We also get orders from the Nigerian government and private businesses in Nigeria.’’
The Sales Manager, Inkas Armoured Vehicle Manufacturing Nigeria, Mr Haresh Jethmalanito, also affirmed that the armoured vehicle market is presently booming, noting that dealers were making brisk business.
But he lamented that his company was not benefitting from the boom because of the long time it takes to procure the end-user certificate from the ONSA.
He said, “The demand is there in the market, but for us, there is no demand from politicians. They want to see the cars they want to buy. The demand is there, I can’t deny it; only we can’t materialise (fulfil) it because it takes three to four months (to import the cars). But oil and gas companies and telecommunications firms can afford to wait. Those are our main customers.’’
He noted, ‘’People are inquiring about buying but I have not seen any serious customers for now; maybe because prices are very high because of naira devaluation. So, people hear the price and keep quiet.
“The politicians who make requests and didn’t buy from us can’t wait for three or four months. They want to see the car and take it; they want instant delivery.
“The politicians don’t bother about anything, they just drop the cash, any amount. We can’t keep the vehicles on the ground because we have to apply for the end-user certificates before we import. We follow the procedures, we can’t do things like other people. We don’t want any problems in the future.
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“Politicians don’t come to us, they go to where they see the car; they inquire from their sources who have cars available on the ground and they buy the available ones. So, it is very difficult for us.
“Our prices are the highest in Nigeria because we pay 100 per cent duty. We do everything legal; we don’t do it like other people. Maybe they (politicians) hear from us and buy from other people.’’
Highlighting the vehicle models preferred by his Nigerian customers, the manager said, ‘’Normally, I always sell Landcruiser and Lexus model of vehicles; the cheapest is the Landcruiser. The Lexus is very costly now. We don’t keep them, it is based on orders. We apply for an end-user certificate; the process is very tough.’’
Jethmalanito, however, said multinational firms, embassies and telecom companies placed orders regularly because ‘’they don’t trust the (open) market.’’
The chief executive of a prominent supplier of armoured vehicles, who spoke to one of our correspondents on the condition of anonymity, said demand was rising, especially from politicians but the security agencies were closely monitoring the supply of bullet-proof vehicles and other security wares.
He said, “We are being careful because of the times we are in. Yes, politicians need armoured vehicles to protect themselves. Definitely! It can provide all the safety, just as Ifeanyi Ubah could have been dead by now if not for the vehicle.”
A car dealer, simply identified as Mr Frank, who also markets special protection vehicles, said the business had become profitable lately.
“Politicians are getting bullet-proof cars, they are buying gradually. But when they come for transactions, we don’t ask if they are politicians. We give them what they want. I don’t import bullet-proof vehicles, I market for others,’’ he clarified.
The Proprietor of Megalio Motors, Mike Omere, said he recently sold an armoured SUV to a politician who wanted to travel to the South-South.
“A politician just bought (a vehicle) so he can travel to the South-South. The cheapest you can buy is an old Landcruiser for N18m. The 2022 model bullet-proof Landcruiser goes for N198m while the G-Wagon of the same year costs over N380m,’’ he stated.
The Managing Director, Globaton Services Limited, Mr Tonye Edwin, who leases out armoured vehicles, expressed the confidence that those who need his products would soon place orders.
“I believe that in the coming days, people will lease our vehicles for campaigns. Politicians lease our vehicles. Most of the calls we get are inquiries but we are prepared to provide services to clients,’’ he assured.
Speaking on the development, Eddy Olafeso and Rufus Aiyenigba, chieftains of the Peoples Democratic Party, and Social Democratic Party, respectively, called for caution.
In separate interviews with The PUNCH, the duo said the ordinary man on the street needed protection as much as the politicians ahead of the 2023 polls.
According to Olafeso, a former South-West Deputy National Chairman of the PDP, “If politicians get bullet-proof vehicles while the common man is left unprotected, what have we achieved? It is escapist and selfish to procure bullet-proof vehicles because not every Nigerian can afford one.
“The security agencies should do their job. Yes, prayer is good but it shouldn’t take the place of the role placed on our security personnel,” he said.
On his part, the National Publicity Secretary of the SDP, Aiyenigba, said, “Who is demanding these vehicles? It can’t be the common man struggling to eat decent meals. The bullet-proof vehicles we need are food, security and welfare for every Nigerian.”
Security experts kick
Retired military personnel, Col Hassan Stan-Labo (retd.), said politicians were rushing to purchase bullet-proof vehicles because they are very vulnerable, having failed to use public resources judiciously.
He said “It is obvious that they need to rush to buy bullet-proof vehicles because they need to protect themselves. And of course, they need to protect themselves because they have not done what they were expected to have done with all the resources placed at their disposal. So, they have not only ended up making the citizens vulnerable but they themselves have become vulnerable.
A retired Assistant Inspector-General of Police, Ali Amodu, sees nothing wrong in politicians acquiring armoured vehicles for their personal safety if they can afford it.
He stated, “Yes, if they have the money they have to do so. This is because there is insecurity in the land. If it’s affordable, then it’s fine. Your life is important first and foremost; before you protect another person you have to first protect yourself. You are not questioning their source of income; they have to live. I want to conclude this conversation with let us pray generally for the nation, let us have a better Nigeria.”
A security expert, Mr Chidi Omeje, noted that the procurement of armoured vehicles by politicians for personal protection showed the level of insecurity in the country, and the political elite’s selfishness.
He noted, “Technically, people have the right to protect their lives. However, would the elite be able to procure armoured vehicles for their entourage and aides, or would they just be left to die when they get attacked?
Pro-democracy groups worry
Two civil rights organisations under the aegis of Yiaga Africa and Transition Monitoring Groups said it was a dangerous signal and reflection of what to expect in the campaigns.
The Executive Director of Yiaga Africa, Samson Itodo and Chairman of TMG, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, said these in separate interviews with The PUNCH.
Itodo said, “It’s not unsurprising, given the nation’s multidimensional security crisis. However, it provides insight into the nature, temperature and dynamics we should expect this campaign season. It’s important to consider this an early warning sign and begin the process of neutralising these threats of violence.”
Speaking in the same vein, Rafsanjani said, “It is unfortunate that some politicians have created conditions for political violence in Nigeria taking advantage of the hopeless situation of young people who are forced out of university due to the government’s refusal to support proper functioning of our university system.’’
According to him, the purchase of armoured vehicles by politicians ahead of the campaigns is a clear indication that they want to promote violence to win elections.
Reacting to the development, the Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, Idayat Hassan, expressed worries that the campaigns might not be violence-free.
She noted, “We have to acknowledge that the country is insecure and the ability to campaign in every part of the country without being attacked by either political thugs or criminal elements like bandits is becoming a challenge and that is why people are moving up to self-protection.’’
Meanwhile, the Senate on Tuesday directed the Nigeria Police Force and Department of State Services to carry out a thorough investigation towards fishing out those behind the dastardly attack on the convoy of Senator Ubah some weeks ago.