Nigeria's bus drivers battle thugs, a union and police in Lagos

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  • Nigerian bus and tricycle drivers have to pay fees to touts known as agberos.
  • The drivers complain of extortion.
  • Bribery and corruption from police officers is also a problem.


It is 19:00 on a Wednesday in late September. Afeez* has just left a bus park at Iyana Isolo, a small busy road near the popular Ojuwoye street market in the district of Mushin.

In a leased danfo - the privately run yellow and white minibuses that serve as unofficial public transport in Nigerian cities - the 32-year-old plies through the busy streets, breaking off before traffic signals, in a rush to get his passengers to the nearby suburb of Oyingbo.

"I am in a hurry to return to the park and do more trips," the driver explained. His conversations with passengers are terse; he has no time to listen to their complaints. "I have to deliver [the rental fee] to the owner of the bus tonight."

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The only thing momentarily slowing him down along his route are the agberos - the motor park touts he hands 100 naira ($0.27) bills to every time he passes their junctions. Some run after the bus, demanding their due.

In Yoruba, agbero means "to carry passengers", but this does not connote what the agberos do.

'Countless fights'

These men, mostly clad in white and green uniforms but sometimes in plain clothes and carrying sticks or canes, collect dues from motorcycle, tricycle, and danfo bus drivers on behalf of the drivers' union - a toll that allows them to pick up passengers.

The cost of dues can vary. But drivers say they generally pay three types: "booking" is paid so they can start work at the motor parks every morning; before each trip, they pay a "loading" fee, which is usually a sum equal to the fare of two passengers; and "tickets" are undefined charges which are paid once or twice a day depending on the parks they use.

Some drivers told Al Jazeera they hand over about half their daily earnings to the agberos, and altercations sometimes occur if dues are not paid.

"I have had countless fights with them, we fight often," Afeez said. "It is trouble if you don't give them money."

Early in August, he was involved in a brawl with some agberos at Fadeyi, a bus stop along the route he was taking to Oyingbo.

"It was close to noon that day and the particular agbero was asking for afternoon due," he recalled. "My conductor said it was not afternoon yet… and that we needed to work more before paying.

"I was at the steering wheel and I heard their argument. I told him when we go on one more trip, we would pay. The argument continued and all of a sudden he stabbed my conductor in the face with a key. He wounded him and I could not take it; I came down from the driver's seat and we fought each other."

The agbero was joined by his friends and a big fight broke out until they were all separated by other drivers, Afeez explained.

"In the end, nothing happened because the chairman … did not get involved, it was just me and their boys," he added, expressing relief that he did not encounter a union boss at the bus park.

The National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) is an independent union that oversees all danfo bus drivers, commercial motorcycle drivers, and tricycle drivers.

In its own words, it "serves the interests of transport workers in the road transport sector". But according to many drivers, the union only serves itself.

Total control

Unlike regular unions, NURTW is amorphous and without a defined and transparent structure. Its membership mainly comprises people who are not drivers, but rather motor park attendants. They started off as touts, canvassing passengers onto buses and maintaining order at motor parks. But over the years they have assumed total control of Nigeria’s informal transport sector.

The union has now become exclusively for “outsiders who have no business in driving”, drivers told Al Jazeera, at least in part because of what some say is a troubling alliance between union leaders and state officials. One driver who identified himself as only Tunde said the top echelons of the union are people who are rewarded by politicians for their service.

The problems with the union have long been a point of national discussion.

In Oyo, another state in southwest Nigeria, Governor Seyi Makinde banned NURTW "to maintain peace and tranquillity in the state in order to engender commercial and human development" following "alleged security breaches and factional clashes of the union member in some areas of Ibadan, the state capital".

Since then, the state government has taken control of the bus parks in Oyo.

Some analysts say the challenges in the transport industry are rooted in the evolution of Nigeria's socioeconomic landscape, and that the steady rise in unemployment after the country's gradual economic downturn in the 1980s led to the birth of the agbero phenomenon.

Nigeria as a whole has no policy that guides the transport sector and in high population density cities like Lagos, with a rising scourge of unemployment and consistent migration from other states, the transport system has become a mine of quick, daily cash for young people without work.

According to Professor Odewumi Gbadebo, the dean of the school of transport at Lagos State University, the public transport system in Lagos has been infiltrated by unskilled, illiterate youths ready to do the bidding of well-known thugs at the helm of the union because the state government has refused to implement standard policy guides that have been drafted by various commissions.

Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, is the most populated state and also its smallest. Public transport accounts for 98% of the traffic in the state according to Gbadebo, but the system is "chaotic and terribly organised", he explained.

Nigeria's public road transport system is predominantly informal and that part of the sector is largely regulated by the NURTW. According to the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (Lamata), there are 75 000 minibuses in the state and 50 000 tricycles according to a 2020 report by Techcabal.

Bribes

In 2008, the government tried to improve Lagos' formal transport sector with the introduction of the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system. However, there are just 474 BRT buses available and they only work on main highways.

The BRT system does little to meet the demands of the eight million commuters who use the road network in the metropolis daily.

BRT buses, with off-board ticket purchase, only have a capacity of 40 to 85 passengers and are usually more expensive than the minibuses. They use dedicated lanes on main highways so do not have the flexibility in routes of the minibuses.

That is why many passengers choose commercial shared transport like danfo or smaller tricycles that carry a driver and just two passengers.

Drivers complained about problems with law enforcement agencies like the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (Lastma), Vehicle Inspection Service (VIS), the police and the government's Task Force.

The Lagos State Environmental Sanitation and Special Offenses (Task Force) was created in 1991 by military edict when Brigadier General Raji Rasaki was the military governor of Lagos state.

Over time, the edict has been redesigned for various purposes which now includes arresting and prosecuting "violators of the provision of the Road Traffic Law 2012".

Among the drivers, the task force has become widely notorious for arbitrary arrests and huge bribes the officers demand.

* Names have been changed to protect the drivers’ identities.

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