Vivian Onyebukwa And Elizabeth Ogunbamowo
In a bid to curb the spread of infected cases of COVID 19, which is ravaging the world, the Lagos State, on the 25th of March 2020, ordered buses and cab drivers to maintain 60 percent loading capacity, in compliance with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) social distancing guideline.
Frederick Oladeinde, the state Commissioner for Transportation, explicitly stated that commuter buses popularly known as danfo must compulsorily reduce their loading capacity from 14 to 8 passengers to avoid the spread of the virus and warned that violators would be made to face the wrath of the law.
In a similar vein, high-capacity passenger buses were directed to carry only 21 passengers instead of the usual 70. The Managing Director of Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA), Abimbola Akinajo, cancelled the common practice of passengers standing in the buses. He also ordered the disuse of air-conditioning system.
Operators were equally mandated to ensure that passengers wear face masks at all times, are provided with alcohol-based hand sanitizer or that they wash their hands with soap under running water before and after each trip. They were to also disinfect their vehicles regularly and to equip themselves with temperature readers to test each passenger before they board the buses.
Findings of our investigations
But Saturday Sun investigation shows that, in many places in Lagos, the rules are not being obeyed either by the owners of the vehicles, their drivers and conductors or by passengers. And the much threat by the government officials concerned to bring the law to bear on violators is just that: a threat.
In fact, not just a threat, but also an empty one! Perhaps that explains why nobody seems to care. In fact, our investigation shows that the rules are being flouted with impunity by not only commercial bus operators in the state, operators of the yellow buses popularly known as ‘danfo’ but by also management and operators of BRT buses owned by the state government.
Interestingly, the bus fares, which were increased following the order on vehicle operators to reduce passenger-carrying capacity, are still in place despite the fact that the orders are not being religiously obeyed. So, at the end of the day, if there is any good that has come out of the chaotic situation it is this: operators and owners of commercial vehicles have continued, as they say, to smile to the bank, while passengers are left at the danger of contracting the virus which has infected about 40,000 people in Nigeria, at the time of this report. Through it all, government has been made to look like a toothless bulldog that can only bark but not bite. Or, worse still, it has continued to get more and more involved in picking up the medical bills of more COVID-19 patients.
BRT buses, commercial buses worse culprits
One of the affected Lagos commuters who expressed their displeasure over the issue includes Ebunola Onifade who usually boards the BRT bus from Marina to Ajah. According to her, she pays N300 ticket fare as against the original N250. But her hope of enjoying the much-touted reduced loading capacity is no more feasible as the buses are always fully loaded. “Aside the fact that they load the bus to full capacity, there is nothing like hand sanitizer, or thermometer,” she complained. “The issue of facemasks is not being given serious attention because even the officials themselves do not use any.”
Another respondent who identified herself as Catherine, described the BRT bus operators as pretenders and highly exploitative. She stated that the ticket fee for Iyana-Ipaja to Berger rose from N100 to N200 and she had expected that the operators would obey government’s directive as regards the COVID-19 safety guideline. But she is disappointed that the buses load to full capacity and even take in extra number of passengers. “To make matters worse, there is no sanitizer or thermometer and I am wondering if they don’t have money for such,” she said.
She also observes that from Dopemu roundabout to Ikeja Along, drivers of the yellow buses drivers, obviously, afraid of being caught on the wrong side of the law, comply with the 60% passenger capacity due to the presence of Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) officials at Cement Bus Stop. But the moment they drive past them they load to full capacity.
For Johnson, a commuter whose daily journey usually takes him from Oshodi to Mile 2, commercial bus drivers disobey government’s social distancing directive because according to them, Coronavirus does not exist in Nigeria. “Yet that has not stopped them from being exploitative,” he lamented. “They charge more money as fare while loading full capacity. And there is no provision for hand sanitizer or soap.
He observed that majority of the bus drivers flout the law especially at nights when law enforcement agents had retired from work. Recounting his own experience, he said that he once challenged the driver on one fateful day, but he insulted him in return. But rather than raise their voices in his support, other commuters simply kept quiet. “I think the state government needs to work with transport union executives, to be able to make the rule effective,” he suggested.
Another respondent, Bello Bayo who lives in Ikorodu but works at Apapa said that the BRT blue buses load to full capacity. He believes that this lawless act has encouraged the red buses to also load to full capacity.
“All commercial buses have let down their guard and run their businesses as though nothing is at stake,” he informed. “If at all they ask you to use facemask it is because of their fear of police harassment and not because they believe in the safety precautions it provides against the pandemic. How would you know is that there is no use of hand sanitizers in both the blue and red buses and also in the yellow buses.”
He averred that people’s wrong perception about COVID-19 is responsible for its continuous and increasing spread. “While some do not believe it exists, some believe it will never infect them, while others believe that God will not allow it to come to them,” he said. He suggested that government should enforce the orders, punish violators while encouraging citizens to take responsibility for their own safety.
Spike in transport fare, spite for directives
A commuter called Ayo narrated his experience in a bus, from Alapere to Onipanu, Yaba. His account: “I boarded a bus heading to Onipanu-Yaba from Alapere. The transport fare has spiked from N250 to N400 since the lockdown was relaxed. But that day, the bus conductor charged N500 and we joined the bus regardless, hoping that physical distancing would be observed. But to my greatest surprise, the driver drove to the terminal at Ojota, with three persons on a seat and added three more passengers and thereby conveying passengers at full capacity while LASTMA officers on duty looked away. No social distancing whatsoever. Yet the driver and his conductor collected N500 from each passenger.” According to him, he challenged the driver but was surprised to be the lonely voice in the bus as every other passenger kept mute over the issue.
For drivers plying Coker to Aguda, though the social distancing directive is being obeyed, passengers complain about the increase in cost of transportation. Amara Obi who spoke to Saturday Sun said that the bus fare from Coker to Aguda used to be N50, with buses accommodating three passengers on a seat row but now the fare has more than doubled as capacity changed to two passengers “The fare used to be N100 on a good day but it has increased to N200. They don’t load full capacity but they are charging more than they should. It’s unfair and the distance is so short.”
In order to cut cost, she said sometimes she takes to trekking. “My fear is post COVID-19. Will the high transport fare stop?” she queried. “I completed my national youth service year earlier this month and had to travel from Asaba to Lagos. The cost of transportation was N5,500 but I paid N14,000.”
Olugbenga Oguntulu accused the LAGBUS and BRT of cheating passengers by increasing the fare and, at the same time, loading to full capacity. “Nobody is saying anything,” he said with an air of frustration. Kenneth Opara, another Lagosian, averred that the bus drivers have doubled their prices from Mile 12 to Ketu though they adhere strictly to the 60% loading directive from the park. He, however, stated that once they get to Ojota, they usually admit more passengers making the bus to be filled to capacity.
“And passengers don’t complain, even the LASTMA officials on the spot just watch and do nothing,” he said. I was angry and almost fought the conductor one day because I did not allow him to put someone close to me. I was the only odd one in the bus.” He added that the height of the act of disobedience is at Oshodi where no one checks whatever they do. “Buses load full capacity even from the parks in Oshodi. Also, some of these 25 seater-buses at Orile going to CMS don’t observe social distancing and their prices are as high as N400.”
According to him, the only routes he is conversant with in which bus drivers have 100% compliance are buses going from CMS to Victoria Island. He stated that there is no excuse for drivers to charge extra fare from passengers. “The law enforcement agents turn blind eye to all these. BRT buses longer practise social distancing. Their buses are always loaded fully. No hand sanitizer, no water to wash hand at the BRT parks, nothing. I think the government should start from what is considered their own transport scheme. “
Oyindamola Opeyemi who recently boarded a BRT bus from Marina to Anthony said she was shocked when the fare that used to be N200 was increased to N300. But she was further shocked to notice the bus loaded to full capacity. She stated that the yellow buses usually charge N50 from Anthony to New Garage but now they have increased the fare to 150, while some drivers even charge N200 even with full capacity. According to her, in the BRT buses she has been boarding, officials have no provision for hand sanitizers, temperature check. To worsen the situation, 90 percent of the passengers hardly wear facemasks. “None of the BRT officials wear any either, not even the driver, or the BRT official who check tickets at Fadeyi.”
Different folks, different strokes
But another commuter, Bayo Bodunrin who spoke to Saturday Sun said that from the look of things it is not all the operators of BRT buses that are into the lawless practice. He spoke of the one he boards from Mile 12 until he alights at Maryland, although it goes all the way to Fadeyi, and maybe beyond. He said it conveys only passengers who are seated. Not only that, they ensure that every passenger has on them the facemask before boarding the bus. “At least, that’s what I see every morning on my way to work because I go in BRT bus to work, from Mile 12 to Fadeyi and steps down at Maryland.” However, there is no provision for hand sanitizer and thermometer to check the temperature of the passengers.
But Samuel Oladejo who uses BRT buses as a means of transportation to his office said that the buses are always loaded to full capacity from Ketu to CMS through Oyingbo. He lamented that the fare, which used to be N200 before the pandemic has been increased to N300, even without their operators observing social distancing. Of course, there is no provision of hand sanitiser, and no temperature checks. “I doubt if that is practicable, though but they enforce the use of face masks for passengers,’’ he said.
Kelvin Ogunbiyi who stays in Ikorodu and who uses BRT buses regularly confirmed other respondents’ observations about the management’s lawlessness. “The other day, I was to go do few things at work. My office is at Yaba but I paid N500 instead of N250,” he said. “The bus carried full capacity. Another day when I had cause to take it to Oshodi, I paid N300 instead of N200. It was also fully loaded.”
Onyinyechi Obi who stays in Surulere said drivers who transport people from Kilo Bus Stop to Ojuelegba used to charge N100. But with the pandemic and social distancing rule, they reduced the number of passengers but increased the fare to N150. “That was okay by us, but now, we pay N150 and they still load fully,” she said. “The most annoying thing is if you complain agberos would insult you and ask you to get your own car or get Uber. The thing is, they charge extra and yet make it difficult to achieve social distancing in transit. It has become normal now; other passengers don’t even complain about the issue any longer. People don’t care to use facemask anymore and it’s not safe.”
She suggested that there should be checks on the operations of the drivers and agberos as drivers are acting due to the fees they compulsorily pay to agberos. She also indicted LASTMA officials whom she said usually look away when they see the drivers flouting the order.
Vehicle operators speak on why they flout order
An operator of the yellow bus who agreed to speak with Saturday Sun on the condition that his name should not be mentioned in print agrees with Obi. He blamed his own transport fare increase on the extra fee he has to pay during the course of his job and his quest to recoup the losses that he incurred during the lockdown. He added that during that time he exhausted his savings on feeding his family and payment of his house rent which was due. For him, loading his bus to full capacity is no crime, as he believes that no one would contract COVID-19 in his bus.
Another driver who identified himself as Rasheed said that the ticket fees he and other operators have to pay at the park daily and the money they pay for each loading of the bus makes it very hard for operators to comply with the directive. According to him, he pays N1000 as ticket fee for a day and has to part with N500 whenever he loads his bus at the park. Not to talk of the money he spends on fuel and other things.
“We pay for union, we pay national, street boys will also collect money from us,” he said. “The police also charge us. What is then left of the money? If you know you’re not comfortable staying in the bus, get down!” he screamed at passengers who wanted to know why he was charging more than they recommended fare. Saturday Sun gathered that majority of the drivers who flout this directive do so on the highways where there is hardly the presence of officials to enforce the rule on them.
However, there are some drivers who bear the brunt of the 60% capacity-loading directive. One of them, Tijani, a mini-bus driver whose route is limited to Idimu, Lagos to Oju Ore, Ogun State said: “Before now, we used to load seven passengers: one in the front and six at the back and we charge N400 as fare. But now we load five passengers who pay N500. We don’t stop on the road. We load direct from here so there is no way we can admit more passengers. Moreover, there are police officers on the road who are ready to arrest and take our buses from us.”
Tunde Akanbi, a driver who plies Iyana Ipaja to Ogba said that the drivers on the highways are the ones flouting the order because there is no one to control them. “Drivers in the park can’t even try it because once we load here, it is until we get to Ogba that anyone alights,” he said. “It’s only on rare occasions you might find someone alighting before getting to the terminal bus stop. Someone like me won’t even want to disobey because of the Police; it’s usually the young ones that are doing that. They know how to quickly turn the steering and speed off when police is chasing them.“ He added that the drivers who disobey, do this mostly at nights when there is no one to enforce the law.
Alphonsus Ibeh, a driver who plies Iyana Ipaja to Igando said that as a driver he loads his passengers in the park and has no right to pick any other passenger at other bus stops except a passenger alights from his bus. “But young drivers who hardly stay in the park to load are more likely to flout the order considering the amount charged by agberos and the fact that they can easily escape punishment from law enforcement agents on the highway,” he said.
LASTMA officer responds to allegation
When Saturday Sun spoke with a LASTMA official at Iyana Ipaja, who declined to identify himself, he said although he is responsible for arresting drivers who flout the order he has been finding it difficult to do so because he is not armed enough to handle such a situation.
Showing Saturday Sun a mark on his hand, he said: “Just yesterday as we tried to stop a bus here for loading to full capacity, the agberos attacked us with knives, cutlass and all. They don’t care if we are in uniform or not and I can never forget this mark on my hand. I got it in the course of this job and it was a rift between LASTMA and agberos. I was trying to arrest a driver but the agberos were dictating what I should do. As I didn’t obey, they hurt me.”
He stated that if the government truly wants to enforce the directive, police officers should be mobilized to work with LASTMA because they are armed. “It is not only the agberos that attack us, even the passengers we are trying to protect keep begging us to allow the drivers to go.”
He added that the drivers were simply pretenders who load 60% capacity in the presence of LASTMA officials but simply go to other bus stops to load more passengers. When Saturday Sun tried to speak with police officers under the Iyana Ipaja flyover, they declined and asked our correspondent to see the Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), at Ikeja, for any enquiry she may have.
Lagos transport officials react
But in his reaction to the development, Head, Public Affairs Unit of Taskforce, Lagos, Adebayo Taofiq Aribidesi, told Saturday Sun that they have been carrying out enforcement and have made series of arrest of traffic offenders on this area. “We arrest an average of 20 to 25 offenders every day, and we charge them to court,” he said. “There is a mobile court that tries and charge offenders accordingly. We charge them to court and we will continue until they comply with the rules. “
He disclosed that in an effort to ensure full compliance by commercial vehicle operators, they carried out an orientation programme recently in conjunction with the Nigeria Union of Road Transport Workers, (NURTW), to tell them why they should not carry more than the approved capacity.
He, however, complained of some constraints in carrying out their activities. «These vehicle operators are very stubborn, and in the cause of trying to arrest them, they injure our men,” he said. “But that can›t stop us from enforcing the law. It is not that the government is wicked. COVID 19 is real. Something that is killing the rich, I wonder what will happen if it is able to get to the poor.»
Assistant Director, Public Affairs, Ministry of Transportation, Lagos, Bolanle Ogunlola, stated that the safety guidelines are still on. “We have rolled out safety guidelines, and I am sure the agencies in charge of enforcement have made some arrests.”
Many of those interviewed are of the opinion that it is either the enforcement agents are yet to get to drivers and vehicle operators flouting the law with impunity, or that they seemed to have lost the steam midway.