Insight

COVID-19: How transporters, POS money traders rip off interstate, local passengers

Operators of different sectors of the Nigerian economy take advantage of the outbreak of coronavirus to exploit Nigerian masses, especially in the transport sector. JULIANA FRANCIS examines these practices and the weak regulatory system that enables such fraud

 

A photojournalist, Mohammed Abdullahi, residing at Ajah and working at Ikeja, said before COVID- 19, he spent N800 to and from his office. But now, he spends N2,300 daily. He usually goes to the office seven days a week, which means N16,100.

 

In a month, he would spend N64,400, while his monthly take home pay is less than N90,000. Abdullahi also has to eat in the office, feed his family and pay his bills from the balance of his salary after transportation. He said: “I met with my company’s management and told them my predicament.

 

I proposed alternating days I go to the office, they accepted. “The most disheartening of this fare hike is the exploitation of commuters. The bus drivers leave their parks with half loaded buses, but along the way, pick passengers to make full load and still collect the increased fares.

 

 

They endanger the lives of other passengers. We have no choice than to enter. Nobody regulates these drivers and they do whatever they like, at the detriment of commuters.” Abdullahi explained that the high cost of transportation fare has affected his movements and those of his wife.

 

 

Like him, his wife now works from home and only goes to the office three times a week. This was after the company slashed her salary because of the impact of COVID- 19. “These days, we have to look at the cost of foodstuffs, which have become very expensive.

 

I came up with the plan that those of us who are adults at home, will have to eat twice, while only the children are allowed to eat thrice. I’ve never missed going to Kwara State with my family for Sallah, but this year, I couldn’t. Ilorin, which used to be N2,000, is now N10,000 per head. It is beyond us,” Abdullahi said. Our reporter spoke with travellers returning from the East at Maza-Maza. A passenger, Prince Charles Onyemache, said he paid N5,500 on February 12, when he travelled to Anambra State, but as he was returning, he had to pay N15,000 for a bus. Onyemache blamed the government for not providing alternative means of transportation to alleviate the suffering of the masses.

He said: “We heard in the media that the COVID-19 is a global pandemic. I don’t think other people in their countries are suffering the way Nigerians are. In some countries, the government provides means of transportation, because they know the people will face hardship at a time like this.” Mr. Onga Gabriel, 51, a resident of Ikorodu, said that before the BRT bus fare increased, he used to spend N1,200, every day to his office on Lagos Island, but now, he spends N2,600. Latuna Isiaka, 30, a company worker, said that the increment shouldn’t have been now, “when most Nigerians are finding it difficult to feed”.

Commuters are also groaning in Otukpo, Benue State, over the fare hike. A 14-seater bus now conveys nine passengers. Passengers are made to bear the brunt in the form of increased fares. Investigations also show that drivers and transport companies take more loads to cover the spaces in the vehicles. They also intensify their waybill businesses.

 

In Aba, the commercial nerve Centre of Abia State, transporters blame government’s COVID-19 protocols for the increase. A passenger travelling from Aba to Lagos, Mr. Clems Orjiakor, said the hike is disturbing. He is most affected because he frequently travels from Aba to Lagos three times in a month. According to him, he now spends a lot of money. “The transport companies are not willing to reduce their prices and we’re not willing to sit at home and not work.

 

 

To be honest, I think they increased their fares because of the number of passengers they are to carry now. But all the same, they should consider traders; we’re the ones bearing the burden of this fare increase,” he said. A bus driver, Maxwell Asogwa, plying Aba to Enugu, said the hike has nothing to do with transport companies’ decision to exploit passengers. He explained that the prices are fixed to reduce the losses the transport companies incur as a result of the reduction in the number of passengers as stipulated by COVID-19 protocols.

 

 

“Government said that 18-seater buses, which used to carry four passengers in a row, now have to carry two passengers. What this means is that every 18-seater bus now carries 10 passengers, while the 14-seater buses now carries eight passengers. If you are a transporter like me, what will you do? Will you collect N1,200 for Enugu with lesser passengers and same distance? What kind of business will you be doing that will have no profit except losses? If passengers want the fare to come down, they should tell the government to end the suffering. Let them reverse to the old method.

It’s neither my fault nor that of any transport company,” he said. Asogwa’s argument was supported by other drivers and transport workers at different parks in Aba. The intra-city transportation within Aba is also seriously affected. There is currently no longer N50 fare to any destination in Aba, as transporters now insist that every destination, no matter the distance, must be within the range of N100, while farther distance goes for N150, N200 and more. Mr. Abel Onyeije, a Town Service bus driver, who plies Ariaria International Market to Ahia-Ohuru (New Market) route said: “I’m supposed to carry 14 passengers, but I’m carrying eight passengers from Ariaria Junction to Ahia-Ohuru towards Ngwa Road by East Street and you’re asking me why I should be collecting N200? When we were carrying normal load, it was N100 and I’m sure you know that the government didn’t give us any palliative.

“We’re still paying our normal daily tickets, buying fuel as everyone does, and most painfully, still settling the police on the road for absolutely no reason, and you expect me to collect just N100. If care is not taken, if they even stop Covid-19 protocols, this price will stay because police at Okigwe Road Junction are extorting money from us.” Just like in Lagos, some buses in Aba carry full loads and still charge high fares.

A driver, who carried four passengers per row from Osisioma-Abayi route to Aba Main Motor Park, when challenged, laughed. “Everybody is benefitting from this fake COVID-19. Politicians are lying to get money and the police are busy collecting money from people at boundaries. Even now that the boundaries are open, the police are still extorting money from people.

“But just because of this small gain we make, people are complaining. Do you expect us to end up poor and hungry forever? Since COVID-19 is now a business venture, we are joining the chorus. If the police see the number of passengers I have, they’ll collect N200 from me and that’s the fare for one person.

The rest of the money belongs to me,” he said. The Managing Director of Primero Limited, operators of the Blue BRT, Mr. Fola Tinubu, said the firm is struggling to cope with the increasingly difficult situation. According to him, despite the rising inflation rate, the number of passengers on a trip is still pegged at 42 instead of 70. He said: “The proper passengers are 70 but we still carry 42 passengers, due to the Covid-19 prevention guidelines.

What do people mean by saying we carry a full load? If we are to carry a full load, we will be talking about 70 passengers. The increasing prices of spare parts, diesel and cost of operation have made the business more difficult to survive. “For instance, how much was Naira to dollar in January?

How much do you buy dollars now? I’m asking? This is common knowledge. But we have to cope. The number of passengers per trip has been reduced yet the price of spare parts is not coming down, the cost of operation is going up. It is true that we have increased the fare.”

Asked if his firm also got palliatives from the government to enable it to cope during the pandemic, he said: “We got nothing, absolute nothing! Anyone, who said that, is just talking rubbish! We got nothing.” Tinubu added that the firm was still in talks with the government about all its numerous challenges. However, according to him, all the issues are yet to be resolved.

The Chief Executive Officer of LBSL, operators of Marcopolo highcapacity buses, Mr. Idowu Oguntona, said the increase in the number of passengers and fare become necessary in order to enable the company to sustain its operations following the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on public bus transportation.

He said: “The governor also approved LBSL’s request to increase the number of passengers per bus from 20 to 42 in strict observance of updated COVID-19 safety protocol as directed by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in the operation of public transport, while ensuring all other measures are in place.” The LBSL boss disclosed that the COVID-19 guidelines, which restrict the firm to convey not more than 20 passengers per bus, affect the running of the buses.

He said this development has led to 72 per cent drop in revenue of the company while running costs remain fairly stable. Oguntona claimed that the fare increase will improve LBSL’s operational efficiency and place the company on the path of sustainability in the long term.

Mr. Simon Adebola, one of the executives of private bus owners’ association at Iyana-Ipaja, plying South- West routes, said the fare hike is also affecting transporters. Adebola said since the COVID-19 outbreak, followed by government’s directives on buses carrying fewer passengers, drivers now operate at a loss. He said: “We used to carry 14 passengers before, but now we carry just nine. Before, Ibadan was N1,300, but now we charge between N2,000 and N2,500, depending on traffic.

“The National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), which used to charge drivers N4,000 per trip, now charges N4,500. We use between N500 and N1,000 to settle law enforcement officers on the road. “We have POS operators in our park, but they are allowed to charge whatever they like. We as bus owners don’t accept mobile money transfers because of fraudsters. We prefer cash. Customers who come without cash are directed to the POS operators. To start a POS business in any park, you have to know someone in the transport company.” The question, however, remains, who regulates transporters, to check indiscriminate charges and protect the commuters and travellers from exploitation? Mr. Temidayo Jacob, who lives in Ikorodu, but works in Ikeja, said at different parks in Ikorodu, members of NURTW determine bus fares, including fares for tricycles.

“In fact, since the COVID-19, NURTW has increased the everyday levies it collects from drivers. The drivers are complaining loudly for everyone to hear. Whenever we complain about the high bus fares, drivers tell us to blame the NURTW.

They’re not even saying blame COVID-19,” Jacob added The Business Editor of a national newspaper, who has covered the labour beat for many years, Mr. Sunday Ojeme, explained that the NURTW is recognised by law as an affiliate of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).

“The problem of indiscriminate increase in fare has to do with poor or complete lack of regulation by the leadership of the union. But you can’t blame them because the government often fails to invite them for deliberation, before taking certain decisions that border on welfare of their members, who are majorly the drivers.

“Government should be held responsible for this indiscriminate fare hike. If the government can confide in the leadership of the union, then the leadership can prevail on the members, especially the drivers, considering the control the leadership has over them. Nigeria is a country where everyone is his own government, so the drivers shouldn’t be left out in taking decisions that favour them,” Ojeme said. For two weeks, our reporter tried to reach the Lagos and national leadership of NURTW, but the efforts were abortive.

At the NURTW Abuja office, where the National President, Alhaji Tajudeen Baruwa, holds sway, our reporter was asked to return again. The man in charge of the Lagos chapter is Musiliu Ayinde Akinsanya aka MC Oluomo. He spoke with our reporter, promising that the secretary of the association would speak with her on the issue, but as at press time, the secretary was yet to do so. The Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civil Education (CHRICED) condemned the high fares in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CHRICED Executive Director, Dr. Ibrahim Zikirullahi, said it only compounds the hardship on the citizens. He added: “With the understanding of the unprecedented impact of the pandemic, Nigerians expect their government at national and sub-national levels to come to their rescue, the way many governments in other parts of the world are doing. These charges and fees are being imposed in the face of multiple taxes and informal levies, which have become a basis for Nigerians, including market women and artisans struggling to make ends meet, to be swindled on a regular basis.”

Zikirullahi called on the government to give stimulus packages to help citizens cope with the harsh economic condition rather than to further compound their problem. A Sociologist, Hassan Yunusa, said: “The question we should be asking ourselves is whether there was a hike in fuel during the period under review and the answer is no. The hike in fares was brought about by the need to adhere to the social distancing guidelines.

A bus, which used to carry 14 passengers, was reduced to fewer passengers and the driver still had to meet up with his target. Therefore, while taking into consideration that businesses were shutdown, workers sacked and salaries slashed, we as an underdeveloped country, with a weak economy, should bear in mind that society is a dynamic, likewise economy.

We just have to adjust to the economy of our society as the pandemic continues to affect us in one way or another. “However, the government should look into ways to assist its citizenry in this pandemic, so that the nation can move forward effectively.” A Psychologist, Dr. Ajibola Asekun, University of Lagos, said: “We’re only adding more to the mental burden of Nigerians. Already, we’ve been overstretched, now comes the additional burden of paying more for transport fares, when salaries are not increasing. In many cases, workers’ salaries are decreasing, yet the means of getting to that place of work is getting more difficult.

“It’s a terrible situation and we have a serious mental issue on our hands if the situation is not properly addressed. People are moving to the edge and if care is not taken, we may have a mental health pandemic on our hands after the COVID-19 crisis.” According to him, it is unfortunate the situation passengers have found themselves. “But you also have to look at the issue from the point of view of the transporters. At this point, they are being forced to carry fewer passengers. That will reduce the amount of money they make on each trip.

The government that gave the COVID-19 protocol, on how transporters are supposed to comply, did they give any support to the people in the transport sector? The answer is no! So, who bears the burden?

 

It will be asking for too much if we ask the transporters to bear the entire burden. I’m also aware that some of them are greedy and can go to excesses to take advantage of the situation,” he said. Asekun added that if Nigerians are objective, they’ll understand that the situation is not the entire fault of the transporters.

 

According to him, some of the transporters have to charge high in order to make profit.

He said: “The NURTW, as a union, makes a lot of money from these transporters via levies. What do they do with the money? They don’t support the masses or the government in infrastructure maintenance and development.

 

They make the money off the masses and nobody asks them questions. “Government should mandate the union to make available some financial palliatives to the transporters. This is the time to benefit from their daily contributions. Government should insist the NURTW should make money available to the transporters to cushion the effects of COVID-19.”

 

•Concluded

 

•This report was supported by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check project.

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