Olakunle Olafioye and Henry Okonkwo
Having resided in Lagos for over 40 years, Mr Banji Ajayi can beat his chest as belonging to the club of Lagosians that have seen it all in the Centre of Excellence. The 67-year-old claimed to have witnessed the gradual metamorphosis of Lagos State from a colonial colony to an acclaimed commercial hub in the West African region.
For Mr Ajayi, the transformations in the public transport sector are a pointer to the fact that the state is indeed on course towards becoming a mega city.
“I was there when we had the Bolekaja (average sized wood axial lorries with one wooden door at the passenger cabin). It was the main means of public road transportation. Although traveling a long distance in a Bolekaja could be very stressful as they were always jam-packed, traveling at that time, we had peace and fewer accidents on the roads. The Bolekaja drivers were saner, and they drove with a mind to stay alive for their families.
“Back then, we didn’t have too many cars on the roads, so there wasn’t much traffic on the road. Initially, the public road transportation was solely controlled and owned by private owners, but now successive governments have shown keenness in becoming a major player in that sector.
“Things have changed now, and I can observe that there have been improvements in the management of public transportation. Now, we see the government playing more roles in the sector by developing garages in the state. If you see places like Yaba, Obalande and many other areas you’ll notice that they’re really doing so much work to organize and beautify the garages. Back then, the garages were just thrown open for all transporters and drivers. It wasn’t organized at all like what we see now in Obalende, Yaba, Oyingbo, Mile 2, Oshodi, Mile 12.
“The transformation has been quite impressive, I must confess. We now hear of air-conditioned BRT buses brought in by state government. And it is through government projects in the public transportation that we really understand government’s drive and seriousness in making Lagos a mega city,” Mr Ajayi recalled with nostalgia.
Mrs Okewunmi came to Lagos in 1970, when Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson was the military governor of the state. And according to her, the serenity and calmness that existed in the public road transportation sector during the days of the Bolekajas have been eroded by increased population in the state.
“I’ve been in Lagos since 1970 when I got married and moved in with my husband. And back then we had Bolekajas that were made of plank. After that, the long ‘Lai’ buses came into the scene, these buses where much longer than the Molue, large commercial passenger buses usually painted yellow and black, and Danfo, mini-bus taxi, which like the Molue, emerged in the 1970s. Back then if you boarded a Bolekaja or theLai bus from Yaba to Lagos Island the fair was just one penny.
“But now the increased population of Lagos has changed all that now. We have so many people coming into Lagos, from the rural areas. And that was the turning point for Lagos. The escalation in the population is the genesis of all the cacophony, the nastiness and loss of value we experience now on the roads. Now, we have drivers driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. So, I think governments’ intervention is highly needed to bring sanity back to our roads.”
The accounts of the two elderly residents of the state are a reflection of the level of transformation the transportation system in Lagos has undergone over the years and, of course, the need for a more befitting system. In the last few decades, residents and visitors to the state have expressed their displeasure over the current transportation system, as movements in and around the state remain chaotic and hellish.
Yet efforts by successive administrations in the state to reform the system in order to ease the plights of motorists and commuters in the state have failed to yield positive results. Little wonder the new attempt to reform the system once again is greeted with cautious optimism among stakeholders in the state.
Few weeks back, the Lagos State government announced plans to roll out new 820 medium and high capacity buses under its public transportation Bus Reform Initiative to meet the yearnings of its citizenry.
The State Commissioner for Transportation, Mr Ladi Lawanson, who disclosed this at the Secretariat, Alausa, noted that the deployment of the new buses will address the inadequacies of the present unreliable transportation system in the Lagos metropolis.
According to him, the state government designed the Bus Reform Project to correct the many challenges inherent in the present system, through the replacement of yellow mini-buses with air-conditioned vehicles of uniform specification, predictable bus schedules, and routes supported by appropriate infrastructure.
But as laudable as the new initiative appears, stakeholders are less optimistic about the new system as they expressed fear that the new initiative might go the way of previous attempts to reform transportation system in the state.
A transporter, Pa Olanrewaju Aremu, attributed the failure of previous attempts to reform public transportation in the state to corruption, lack of accountability and nonchalant attitude of the operators.
According to him, the majority of those saddled with the responsibility of spearheading the reforms were more interested in what they could get from the system rather than how to ensure that the vision behind the initiatives see the light of the day.
“Past administrations in the states failed to turn the transportation system around because those they appointed to see to the actualization of the dreams were after their own pockets rather than how to help the government and the masses, who bear the brunt of the poor system.
“Besides, there are instances when the government handed the vehicles they procured to drive the system to transporters and unions. But the experience was not different from the past. Many of those who took the buses saw the move as an opportunity to get their own share of the national cake so to say.” Pa Aremu recalled.
Efforts by the government to transform the road transportation system in the state dates back to the 1970s when the government banned the use of Bolekajas and replaced them with the popular Molue.
Prior to the era of Bolekaja and later the Molue, the government through the Lagos Town Council had in 1958 acquired the buses of the pioneers of road-based bus transportation companies to form the Lagos Municipal Transport Services (LMTS).
Molue has, however, remained a major feature of public transportation in Lagos until recently when further attempts by the state government to transform the system restricted their operations to the fringe.
Molue existed along side Danfo. The Danfo, till date, remains a major means of commercial transportation in Lagos with it being ubiquitous in all routes in the state.
In the1980s, the government decreed that all Danfo and taxi drivers must be members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and must display their NURTW identity cards following the spate of kidnappings in some states.
The development would later confer some sort of influence on the leadership of the union, who resorted to extorting commercial bus operators using motor park touts popularly known as Agbero in local parlance.
The state government’s desire to reposition transportation system in the state also led to the floating of the Lagos State Transport Corporation (LSTC), a state-owned transportation company, with bus terminuses and depots at Keffi Street Ikoyi, Simpson Street Lagos Island, Race Course/Tafawa Balewa Square among other areas. However, the corporation was bogged down by corruption and mismanagement, such that, by the late 1990s the corporation had practically collapsed.
In 1999, former Lagos governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, upon assumption of office ordered an audit of the corporation. The outcome of the audit was mind-boggling. Top management staff of the corporation were reportedly indicted as they were accused to have illegally sold the corporation’s buses on the excuse that the buses were beyond repairs, whereas, in reality, the buses were said to be in good working conditions.
Then in 2003 came another attempt to phase out both the Molue and Danfo buses from Lagos roads. The ban, which was designed to be in phases, was to begin with the restriction of these buses from operating in Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Lekki and later to be extended to other parts of the state. To ensure compliance, policemen and officials of Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA) were deployed in Lekki, Ikoyi and Victoria Island to prevent Danfo and Molue buses from accessing those districts. In their place, the government licensed City Bus, a transport company owned by Cross Country Limited, to commute passengers in and around Ikoyi, Lekki and Victoria Island.
But the move also hit a brick wall as the fares charged by the company were said to be too high. A pandemonium which ensued when Agberos, who had been deprived of the money they usually extorted from drivers and the protest by students of the Nigerian Institute of Oceanography and Marine Research, who were stranded as a result of the restriction placed on the operation of commercial buses, forced the government to back down.
As a way of addressing the crisis, the government decided to incorporate the NURTW in the new arrangement. Thus the union floated the CMS Taxi and Motors Nigeria Limited (T&M), using buses painted green and white in the axis. The development compelled City Bus to quit its operations in the area as it found itself competing against operators who charged far below what it charged as fares.
Yet the state government was unrelenting in its desire to give the state a more befitting scheme devoid of the myriad of challenges inherent in the present system. Then came the Lagos Bus Rapid Transit System, BRT, owned by the Lagos Metropolitan Transport Authority (LAMATA) in 2008.
The BRT system operates three lanes: The segregated lanes which comprise lanes with concrete dividers reserved exclusively for BRT buses only to ensure that the buses are not caught up in traffic jams. The other lanes are the priority lanes, which at peak periods, are reserved for BRT buses. The regular bus service lanes were reserved for other vehicles.
Under this arrangement the state government maintains the BRT lanes, while concessionaires, which include LAGBUS Asset Management Company owned by the Lagos State Government, National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) Cooperative, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC), procure and maintain the buses.
Now, the new transport scheme, Bus Reform Project is set to supplant the Bus Rapid Transit. Speaking on the new initiative, Mr Ladi Lawanson, the State Commissioner for Transport, said the Bus Reform Project which will be technology-driven will ensure seamless integration of transport modes and passenger movement through 23 routes for efficiency and effectiveness that will restore the confidence of Lagosians in the use of public transport facilities.
Findings by Sunday Sun, however, revealed that commercial bus operators in the state are not taking the news in good stride as many of them expressed fear of being driven out of their means of livelihood.
A commercial bus driver, Mr Lanre Yusuf, captured the mood among commercial bus operators in the state thus: “Most of us are really disturbed by the new scheme the state government is coming up with. Although, we know that there is no number of vehicles they (government) will bring into the state that will be sufficient to cater for the people in the state. The uncertainties that come with new policies are there. But for now, we are trying to encourage ourselves with the mindset that commercial bus operators will always exist side by side with that of the government. Even at the end of the day, the commercial bus operators may even survive this new initiative just as we have seen in the past,” he said.
Another commercial driver, Sodiq Amusa said he was counting on the assurance by the government that the new scheme will take care of existing operators in the state.
According to him, “the government has assured us that their new programme will not drive us out of business. Although we don’t have the clear picture of how they intend to integrate us and how many of us will be absorbed by the new initiative, we are just waiting to see how the plan will unfold.”
While speaking on the scheme, Lawanson allayed the fears that the existing transport union members would be sent into labour market. The commissioner stated that 800 of the buses would be released to private operators through the operating lease model, which he noted has incorporated the current road transport operators – National Union of Road Transport Workers, (NURTW) and the Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) – as part of the Bus Operating Companies.
As it stands, the government will need to plug all the loopholes which militated against the success of previous attempts to reposition the transportation system in the state as feelers from residents who earnestly crave for better, faster and cheaper transportation system are anything, but optimistic about the success of the new scheme.
“Over the years, attempts by government to dabble in public transportation have ended up in abysmal failure. Personally, I am not expecting anything different from what we have seen so far about government’s involvement in transportation. But by and large, I will like to say Lagosians deserve a better transportation programme,” Paullina Madumere, a resident of the state said.