COVID-19: When commuters’ pains become transporters’ joy
The outbreak of coronavirus in Nigeria has brought about many sharp practices, especially in the transport sector. JULIANA FRANCIS examines these practices and the weak regulatory system that enables such fraud
Miss Anurika Onyemelam was determined her elder sister and sister-in-law would join the first bus heading to Uyo, Akwa Ibom State. It was the reason they had left home at 5am on Monday July 27. The God is Good Motor (GIG) terminal at Iyana-Ipaja, Lagos State, was teaming with travellers. Just like Onyemelam, these travellers also wanted to join the first and second buses.
Joining those buses means a high probability of getting to their destinations on time. It is no longer news that most travellers spend nights on the road for various reasons, but mostly because some buses leave terminals late. Onyemelam made a beeline for the cashiers at the counter and whipped out her Automated Teller Machine (ATM) card to make a transfer via a Point of Sale (POS) for the bus fares.
She knew the drill. She had used the transport company several times before the outbreak of COVID-19. But the cashier told her that the ATM via POS or mobile money transfers was unavailable due to lack of network. Onyemelam was urged to rather step outside, where she would see a POS operator to collect cash to buy tickets. She never minded.
In fact, she had to be in Umuahia that day. She said: “Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, we’ve not seen our mother. We used to call, but suddenly we couldn’t reach her or her maid. We had to call someone in the village, who told us she was sick and had been to two different hospitals on admission. She was not getting better. Our plan was to take the first bus, but we didn’t go with cash. “A worker with GIG said we should go out and look for a POS operator in front of the office, but he hadn’t come by then.
The nearest bank was Access Bank, but it was not dispensing. I trekked down the stretch of the road, saw two banks, but both had no money.” Onyemelam hurried back to the transport company’s office. “Most of the workers had the phone number of the POS operator.
In fact, when I went to Access Bank, the security guard also told me to go and meet the POS guy. Within minutes after he was called, he arrived. By then many people were waiting for him. I asked how much he collects for N30,000, he said N1,500. I couldn’t believe my ears. I asked him why the outrageous charges, he didn’t respond. While I was still complaining, other passengers besieged him, shoving and pushing to collect cash,” she added. Onyemelam said she had to pay the N1,500 for N30,000, but she believed she was swindled.
“Every one of us at that point had no choice than to collect the cash and pay the charges. Nobody wanted to forfeit travelling that day,” she said. Her complaint was not only about the prices of the tickets, but also about the POS charges. However, she’s not the only Nigerian complaining about the astronomical hike in transportation fares.
The complaints resonate among passengers travelling to different parts of the country and those making use of intrastate transportation. The outbreak of the COVID-19 led to lockdown and interstate travel ban as the government battled with ways to stem its spread. The period not only witnessed the death of many, old and young, but saw aged parents taking ill.
The dead were kept in mortuaries awaiting burial rites. When the government lifted interstate travel ban on July 1, dates for burials were quickly fixed and travellers besieged travel companies. Before the lockdown was lifted, the government came out with guidelines; commercial buses will take fewer passengers to observe the social distancing protocol. Some transporters seized the opportunity of the COVID-19 guidelines to make arbitrary charges. This was despite the fact that there was no fuel increase during the period in view. The POS operator in front of GIG was one of those who seized the opportunity of increased traffic to fleece travellers.
To ensure that Onyemelam’s allegation was not just a one off occurrence, our reporter, on August 8, went to the GIG, Iyana-Ipaja, to make enquiries about travelling to Akwa Ibom State. Again, the transport company said there was no network on their POS for ATM cards and also they do not accept mobile money transfers. Our reporter was urged to meet the POS operator in front of the office. That day, he charged N1,300 for N30,000, without giving a print out. His machines showed no logo or name of banks like other POS branded machines.
On August 10, another supposed ‘traveller’ went to the same GIG and recorded similar treatment. The ‘traveller’ said: “I had to ask the GIG Company why their network was always having issues; they said it was from the bank. When I asked them about charges for POS, they said I had to discuss with the POS guy, that it has nothing to do with them.
I went to the POS man, he said the charges for N12,000 was N1,000. I asked him why such high charges, he ignored me. By them people had surrounded him, asking for cash. The guy must be in serious money by now!” On August 17, another ‘traveller’ went to GIG, Iyana-Ipaja terminal and discovered that the POS guy had changed his time of resuming and closing. The decoy traveller got there at 6am and waited till 7am before he came. The agent was restive and kept looking furtively as if expecting someone to jump him.
Our ‘traveller,’ who wanted to collect N20,000 cash, was told the charge was N1,000. When asked why he charges so high, he replied: “That’s how I charge. As you can see, I have no kiosk and no banner. I’m paying for this space that I’m standing. I don’t have money for a kiosk.
I’m doing this job to survive.” Again, he didn’t give print out, but rather told the ‘traveller’ that his POS machine was from Union Bank. The print out would have narrowed down the primary bank that gave him the POS machine. But three debit and credit alerts showed Tran-E-settlement Limited/LA/NG and E-Settlement Limited.
The reporter contacted Union Bank, presenting them with his company name, Tran-E-settlement Limited/LA/ NG, but the bank’s External Relations Specialist, Yemisi Owonubi, denied the man was an agent of the bank. She said: “The guy couldn’t be one of our agents and I will give you reasons. Our agents’ POS machines are branded and they are not allowed to roam about.
That is one of our requirements; you must have a physical shop, so that we can be able to trace you. He could be from any bank and from the statistics I have; there are 30,000 of them from different banks. There is nothing from your debit alert attachment, which we can use to identify him.” Our reporter recalled that Onyemelam, while narrating her encounter with the POS agent, mentioned that the POS machine displayed Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB) logo on its screen. GTB was contacted.
The spokesman, Olaolu Adegbite, said it was possible. He said: “The victim (passenger) may need to provide the debit details. The bank will then check with the payment processors (IT companies) whose platforms are used to process electronic transactions to confirm the receiving bank. Some banks are payment processors too. It is not good to use ‘private POS’ at ATM.
The debit only indicated that the transaction went through a payment processor for settlement. I cannot give any professional opinion without thorough investigation. “Stories from ‘victims’ are not always completely accurate. No bank will advise customers to go under trees to collect money from private people when an ATM is available. Under the law, bank information can only be given to law enforcement agents with valid court order. The victim may need to report a formal case.
In other countries, such minor issues are covered by bank insurance, so that when you call the customer care number, your money is returned by your bank immediately. I believe that POS and ATM holders are not ‘agents’ of banks but customers.
The items are only media of electronic transactions and the customers are strictly liable for whatever they do with their ATM/ POS.” Our target agent, because he does not have a shop, moves from one spot to another. And, due to his jumpiness, he overpaid the decoy traveller by N17,000 on that fateful August 17. Instead of punching in N20,000 to give cash of N19,000, he punched in N2000. The error was discovered after our ‘traveller’ received a debit alert 24 hours after the transaction.
Our reporter browsed through the internet and discovered that the E-Settlement Company Limited is located at Hughes Avenue, by Alagomeji Bus Stop, Yaba, area of the metropolis. Our crew was at the office on August 31. There was a crowd there, desperate young people, asking for POS machines, to become agents. E-Settlement provides the POS machines for these agents, and is not liable for their business practices. Our hired man posed as someone who also wanted a POS machine. You must, however, collect a form before anyone will attend to you. After collecting the form, a staff explained: “You have to pay N14, 000 before you’re given a POS machine, but you must come with a utility bill document, National Identity card or International Passport. You must also submit your BVN. You’re to source money to run your operation yourself, using your own account. You must have a shop, but running the POS business and charging whatever as an agent is up to you.”
He stressed that ESettlement Recall also that the agent alleged that he charged a high rate because he was paying for standing and operating in front of the GIG. Our reporter on August 26, hired someone, who went to GIG, to find out procedures in becoming a POS operator in front of the company. The manager, however, said that it costs absolutely nothing. He said: “Everyone you see selling and operating in front of the company is just ‘hustling.’ You can look for a space there and start your own POS business, but don’t cause problems with other people.
But you need to understand that GIG can come here and send everyone packing at any time!” Further discussion with him revealed that there are other POS agents operating in front of the company. Our target POS agent works at morning hours, others at noon.
The manager also stressed that nobody collects commission or settlement from any trader or POS agent there. Our reporter decided to check if similar practices are taking place at other GIG and transport companies’ terminals. Some of the transport companies visited had in-house operating POS and also collect cash and accept mobile money transfers. Visits were also made to GIG Ikotun and Cele Expressway terminals, but the network was available and travellers paid via POS, money transfer and cash.
“Sometimes, transport companies ask POS operators to add N200 to whatever charges they are collecting. So, no matter what the POS operators charge passengers, they have to give us N200 and this is because some of them were brought there by someone working in the transport company,” an official of one of the transport companies at the Iyana-Ipaja said. Our reporter tried to reach out to the management of GIG, to find if they are aware that their terminal is being used as a point to overcharge and exploit their passengers and to pose Onyemelam’s allegation to them, which is that GIG Iyana-Ipaja was in connivance with the POS operator.
All the attempts were futile. The GIG spokesperson, Mrs. Vuakpor Muogoreh, declined to comment on the issue. A POS operator, Mr. Denise Oluwumi, owner of Denise Ventures, said the POS is regulated by CBN through individual’s banks. “They’re given certificates and corporate titles.
In some cases, the machines are branded to reflect the logo and colour of the authorising banks. Banks are expected to carry out regular inspections of such POS centres, especially those that are registered. The charges vary, depending on whether it is within a bank or intra-bank. If an individual, with a First Bank card, goes to cash money from a POS operator using GTB, the charges will vary. It also varies according to amounts being withdrawn. If someone withdraws N10,000, depending on the bank, it could charge N200. It means N100 goes to the bank, while the remaining N100 goes to the agent,” he added.
The Money Market Editor of a national daily, Mr. Tony Chukwuyem, said the CBN has regulated charges, but a lot of agents generally tend to charge higher due to what they describe as their own peculiar running costs. “If we know the bank that gave its POS to the operator at GIG, we can call to report the agent. However, the CBN stipulated charge for transferring funds is a minimum of N50 subject to 1.5 per cent of the transaction value or N500, whichever is lower. This means that they shouldn’t have charged beyond N500 at the maximum. But the agents generally don’t abide by the CBN stipulated charges or even what their banks directed them to charge,” he said. Findings revealed that Chukwuyem is right. POS agents charge whatever tickles their fancies, without being checked, leaving customers at their mercies.
Mrs. Joy Uwem, residing at Egbeda, said that she used to collect N10,000 for N500, but soon discovered another POS agent, charging N400 for N20,000. She decided to be using him. Similarly, another Lagos resident, Miss Tosin Omoniyi, said that at Fagba area of Lagos, the POS agent she uses charges her N2,000 for N20,000. Miss Precious, living in the Okota area of the metropolis, said in her area, N100 is for N10,000. The CBN spokesperson, Okorafor Isaac, said there is a guide to bank charges on the apex bank’s website.
He said: “We review all those charges, including whatever charges by any bank. The only thing not there is the interest rate, which can be agreed between the customer and the bank. But charge rates pertaining to POS are all on our website. If a customer of any bank, who is charged, any departure from the rate stated, there’s always a maximum in most cases, let the person write to that bank, if they refused to refund it, they should write to CBN. If we find out that it’s true, we will ask them to refund it and then impose a penalty on the bank. “If anyone has details of such operators, they should report. Banks gave them those POS machines, with conditions. CBN cannot be in every street, to know what everyone is doing. Customers should insist on the fee, if he tries and nobody comes to patronise him, he will not continue. Customers should begin to insist on their rights.”
Commuters groan over fare hike in Nigeria
Just as inter-state travellers are complaining about the fare, so also are intra-state commuters. The hike was significantly felt by Nigerians due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused sacks of many workers, shutting down of businesses, slashing of salaries and led to escalating high cost of living, especially in foodstuffs. Investigation shows that while a few transport companies are operating at a loss, others are laughing all the way to the bank. Investigation shows that transporters in Lagos State, who are already charging high fare because of the fewer passengers they carry, continue to jack up fares if there are more passengers at the bus stops. Aside from that, a good number of them carry full loads, and still collect high fares.
Ironically, buses, which carry full passengers, flouting COVID-19 protocols, are occasionally aided by law enforcement officers, who are also their passengers. A driver at Oshodi, picking passengers, heading to Egbeda, said: “Yes, we now carry three passengers per row as against four. We take passengers from Oshodi to Egbeda for N500 as against N250, but on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, there are usually more passengers, so we charge more.”
The days mentioned by the drivers are days that traders, who are into non-foodstuffs trading, go about their businesses. An official of The Young Shall Grow Motors at Maza-Maza terminal said the company’s profit since COVID- 19 comes more from charges on passengers’ loads and loads that are way-billed. The company, he said, no longer expects profit from passengers’ fare. To beat the fare hike in Lagos, Lagosians, more than usual, have started to use the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and the Lagos Bus Services Limited (LBSL) buses, which had been perceived as the state government’s intervention in ameliorating the hardship of commuters. The charges of these buses were usually lower, but commuters were shocked when their fares were also increased. People took to social media to complain about the hike.
The fare was increased by 75 per cent. The journey from Berger Bus Stop on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway to Tafawa Balewa Square, which cost N200 before, is now N350. The Blue BRT is owned by Primero Limited, a private firm. Recently, there was a disagreement on the fare between the firm and the state government.
While the firm said it could not continue with the reduction of passengers as it was amounting to a loss, the government said the passengers’ reduction was necessary for the prevention of the COVID-19 pandemic. Primero won the battle, leading to the present fare increase.
•This report was supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check project.
•To be continued