•Gradually, kings of Lagos roads disappear
By Cosmas Omegoh
The sun was setting fast; dusk was gradually descending. The skyline, which, a few moments before, was looking as bright as the mid-morning sun, had begun to grow dimmer with darkness settling like a sheet of blanket over the arena.
At Bolade, Oshodi, that evening, the air was hot and humid. Bolade is an inimitable bus stop on Agege Motor Road, Lagos.
That scorching evening, scores of Lagos residents – mostly the hoi polloi – had gathered at Bolade, with apprehension boldly etched on their faces. Most of them were contemplating how they would get home as soon as they could. They were waiting for the ‘king of the Road,’ the Lagos’ yellow and black-stripped molue buses, obviously the last of the vanishing tribe of such buses, which, for decades, kept Lagos moving. But now they are almost no more.
That evening, Lagos was firmly in the grips of the biting fuel scarcity. Each time everyone experiences acute fuel scarcity, the city is held at the jugular by chaos. So, residents were worrying about how they would get home just before it became too late. The available commercial buses on the roads were fewer in number as a result of the biting fuel scarcity. So, they came in trickles. Their operators, who had fought the odds to get fuel from wherever they could were charging far higher fares in excess of 150 per cent because they wanted to make their money back.
Almost all the passengers were headed towards Iyana Ipaja and Abule Egba. Many more were bound for areas as far as old Toll Gate and Sango in Ogun State and beyond.
Many at the bus stops could not afford the new fare regime, but they all must go home anyway. Their joint prayer was that the one-time, ubiquitous Lagos’ mass transit bus should show up quickly. In those days that the molue reigned supreme, some people hailed it as “the people’s taxi” or “the big taxi.” But now it is almost extinct. They have been chased away by the government.
Perspiring prodigiously, some of the waiting passengers were seen clutching various items, mostly foodstuff meant for their respective families. Some of them might have spent hectic hours at work and market places, struggling to eke out as little as N500 which was barely adequate to hand a family member a decent meal. And for them, the very reasonable thing to do was to wait for a cheap means of going home. That was where the molue came handy. With just N100, those going as far as some parts of Ogun State were sure they could make their journey.
Then suddenly, the long-waited rescuer was sighted making its way. The momentum changed, as the once popular, 911 Mercedes Benz bus pulled up, roaring into the arena with its characteristic bravado. Just before it screeched to its final halt, a wiry, scruffy fellow came off the doorway with the trade mark, commando style many Lagos motor conductors are known for, stamping his feet forcefully and nosily with a certain long-practised rhythm, as he attempted to break his speed. Then seeing the crowd that surged forward desperately seeking to secure a space aboard the rickety contraption, he screamed at the top of his voice “Iyana Ipaja, Toll Gate! Enter with your change ooo!”
That was the typical molue at work. For some time, the reporter had been searching for the remnants of this popular Lagos mass-mover without success. But at last the search ended with a reward. The last subsisting tribe of outlawed buses was found. The remnants, which now operate, perhaps, only on Oshodi to Old Toll Gate route are few in number. The rest are off the roads, having for long either been grounded or had their carcasses turned into other uses after they were yanked off most Lagos roads in 2013 by the administration of the former governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola.
Before the final nail was driven into the molues’ coffin, they were the common man’s preferred means of moving from place to place. For one, the buses charged the least fares. With as little as possible, one could go round Lagos, thanks to the molue, which then had various variants. For instance, there was the Bedford type and the popular and bigger 911 Mercedes Benz stuff. Both were made of the vehicle’s chassis clothed with some iron sheets welded together to form a contraption which often left some rough, jagged edges that could tear anything, including human bodies and clothes, that got entangled with it.
Molue seats were no better than its body. Some were mere iron mesh welded together to some few sheets that served as the vehicles’ floor. Some had bare, fairly smoothened planks or sheets of iron as seats. Passengers sat on separate rows in twos and threes, with two to three iron rods rising from the floor to the roof as pillars. Standing passengers held firmly to a long line of iron rod to support themselves and to maintain their balance.
During rush hours, a typical molue had far more people standing than sitting. It was such a commanding feature at that time that the legendary afro music maestro, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, dedicated one of his hit tracks “Suffering and Smiling.” to the molue. In the song, Fela sang, “44 sitting, 99 standing,” all in apparent mockery of the transport scheme the governments of the day could provide for the people.
Indeed, the Lagos molue was never lacking in real things that fully amused and entertained. The issues ranged from the numerous fights between the conductors and their passengers, the passenger versus passenger fights, the vivacious vendors who mingled their trade with comedy, to the preachers of the gospel. All these made each molue not just a means of transport alone but a house of comedy. And many loved the molue for the free entertainment it offered in full measure.
Then the typical molue driver used to start work sometimes as early as 4 am to be able to convey early risers to their respective destinations. Their day starter, as usual was a drink of the popular local gin, ogogoro, with which they “washed their mouths and shined their eyes.” That explained why early in the morning, many of them were already reeking with alcohol.
After a few doses of alcohol, the drivers often saw every other road users as ordinary. They could torment lesser vehicles and go on to deny their drivers the right of way, damning the consequences. Everyone was afraid of them because they had nothing to lose hitting or brushing other vehicles. The molues were hardly maintained, with some of their tyres looking completely bald and worn out.
Molue drivers and their conductors were largely unkempt and were known for their abusive and foul language and sheer recklessness. They easily started fights, and they followed such fights to the bitter end. Many on the roads never wanted to engage them.
But in 2013, the Lagos State government came to the conclusion that the days of the molue should be over for good, insisting that the decision was being taken in the interest of the general public. The mind of the state government was revealed by the General Manager, Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA), Mr. Babatunde Edu, at a stakeholders’ meeting he held in September of that year with the branch chairmen of the Lagos Urban Bus Owners Association of Nigeria (LUBON), operators of the molue buses.
“The Lagos State government was supposed to commence the enforcement of the order last month, but being a responsive and responsible government which believes in enlightenment before enforcement, it, therefore, decided to shift the enforcement to this month,” he said.
While warning that any buses found contravening the law would be impounded, Edu revealed that the prohibited routes for molue buses were Iddo, Ebute Ero, Apongbon, Obalende, Idumota, and CMS roads, among others. The action was in line with the envisaged metropolitan status of the state.
But that was not the first time such a public transport bus would be suspended in Lagos. A similar one, then called the bolekaja, was at some point rested. The bolekaja was introduced in the colonial days. Bolekaja, when translated into Yoruba language, meant “come down, let’s fight,” because of its peculiar nature. It was a wood-bodied axial lorry that had just a lone entrance at the back. Passengers sat on rolls of strong planks crossed from one end of the vehicle’s body to the other. For a passenger in the middle or innermost part of the vehicle to alight, many before them who were in the way must have to disembark. This, it was said, often caused fights.
But at the turn of the 1970s, the bolekaja was phased for the molue which offered more convenience. That fell in line with the level of development at that time. The molue ruled the city streets and highways until September 2013 when its long era ended. It was replaced by the more modern buses operated by the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) supervised by the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA) and the LAGBUS scheme, which offer speed, neatness and greater convenience. Several of such buses are operating on most Lagos roads at the moment.
So, right now, only a vanishing tribe of the molue remains active. The search for this endangered specie, which stands as an eloquent testimony of the buses’ once glorious rein, can be arduous. Only on Oshodi-Sango-Toll Gate route just a few could be found. And for those who have missed the ever-dominant presence of this once popular mass transit bus, seeing them once again offers real excursion into the past.
“Molue still dey!” Akeem, a driver said in smattering English, amid laughter. “Since government say make we no enter Island again, we still dey push am.
“For more than 25 years, I dey drive molue. Na for molue I dey get my daily bread.” But he refused to disclose how much he made daily from driving the bus.