- A tale of people who board transport on highways and how many end up in kidnappers’ den or robbed
By YINKA OLUDAYISI FABOWALE
A few years ago, Mr. Taiwo Olatubosun Sotade stepped out of his Adedoyin Street in Kosofe/Mile 12 area of Lagos State to keep a noon appointment in Lagos Island. It was not a morning rush hour as the time was creeping to 11am, but in his haste to meet the appointment, he did not bother to walk the little distance to the bus stop, but simply hopped on a mini bus, almost filled with passengers which stopped for him, in response to the conductor’s shouts of “Eko, Idumota! Eko Idumota!!” Between the point he was picked and Ketu, the bus picked two more passengers to fill up its14-seater capacity. And then, the conductor slammed the door shut.
An ominous silence prevailed in the vehicle, as the driver ascended the Ketu/Ojota bridge and diverted towards the Third Mainland Bridge. A highly suspicious and intuitive fellow, Sotade, who had found a seat in the middle of the last row, felt uneasy, as he noticed that about five of the men in the bus were strategically positioned in the vehicle. While one sat at the extreme edge of the seat directly behind the driver, another two hemmed in an old man and a lady in the next row, with the same arrangement repeated in the last row. The conductor firmly planted himself by the door.
Like ‘Soole’, like ‘one chance’
It was the era of ‘One chance robbers!’ Instinctively, Sotade felt like disembarking immediately, more so, as he noticed that the trousers pocket of one of the men under his suspicion, sitting beside him bulged with what he suspected and later confirmed was a gun! A bit nervous, the young integrated farmer muttered under his breath: “Aah, wahala dey o!”
To this, the man, with a grim grin and without looking at him, reached out and tapped Sotade’s lap in what, the latter said, he found confusing to decipher -either as a subtle warning not to dare shout, or a reassurance that he was safe.
The gesture, however, only heightened the young man’s anxiety. “I started shaking…” And again, still looking straight ahead of him, the man squeezed the skin on the lap of the agitated passenger for some seconds and then whispered: “Why are you behaving like a woman?”
Not long after, Sotade’s worst fears were confirmed as the robber in the first row brought out a gun and announced to other passengers that the bus was under their control, with an advice to everybody to “cooperate in order not to come to any harm.”
By the time the bus reached the Third Mainland Bridge, the hapless victims including four women had all been dispossesed of their money and valuables by the bandits, who obviously were working hands in glove with the driver and conductor.
At a point on the long bridge, the robbers discharged their victims and ordered them to line up against the railings, facing the lagoon, with a threat to feed them to the fish, if they dared to raise alarm, or seek rescue by passing motorists. They then zoomed off.
While this was an all too familiar story during the ‘One chance’ era, which had since died down in Lagos State, it typifies the experience travellers on inter-state routes and commuters in many urban centers, who stay by roadsides for lift or cheaper transportation go through in the hands of criminals and miscreants.
The dangers, the traps
In fact, rife incidents of missing persons, ritual killings, kidnapping, robbery and similar crimes while commuters are in transit, have often been traced to the risk travellers take by ignoring motor parks to hitch-hike or board private and supposedly commercial vehicles at cheaper fares by the roadside.
The practice, which Yoruba people call ‘Soole’, is however, prevalent in all parts of the country and fraught with a lot of danger.
The flip side of this syndrome is that some public transport operators, in a bid to beat the long queues of vehicles on turn at their motor parks and private motorists either trying to make a few quid, have company, or in a Good Samaritan spirit, merely to assist apparently stranded commuters, also end up sometimes falling victims of some of the beneficiaries of their kindness.
The fact is that blood-thirsty ritualists, robbers, rapists, and other shades of hoodlums are on the prowl on the highways and intra-city roads, disguised as innocent Nigerians and taking advantage of the goodwill of others to rob, rape and kill their victims.
Despite the obvious dangers and risks to their lives, however, many commuters still persist in catching rides by the roadside for various reasons. These range from mere habit, to desire to save cost or simply beat time.
The situation is, however, of major concern to transporters, the police and security agencies, who are saddled with myriads of unresolved and mysterious cases of missing persons and ritual killings.
In their case, Femi Dada and Blessing, both students of Microbiology and Business Administration respectively at the Joseph Ayo Babalola University (JOABU), Ikeji Arakeji, Osun State, picking a bus ride along the Ile Ife-Akure Expressway, is not only a convenient option to going to motor parks in Ilesa and waiting almost endlessly for the vehicles to fill up, but also a cost cutting measure when going to the campus. “Going to the motor park is time consuming. You can sit in the vehicle for two hours, yet it would not be filled with passengers. That’s why people prefer coming down here (Expressway) because it is faster. You can be sure of getting vehicles, even some commercial ones would rather pick passengers on the way than wait on turn,” says Blessing, who Saturday Sun accosted at Ilesa junction of the highway.
Dada concurs, but adds that it also saves him some extra Naira, which, come handy while on campus. His words: “It’s costlier to patronize the transporters in the motor park. They do not discriminate between passengers going far or near. They charge the same fares from you dropping half- way, or even the next drop, as those going the whole way. I don’t think it’s reasonable or fair to expect me going to Arakeji to pay as much as the man going to Akure.
“My course is a part-time programme, which means I go regularly. So, it doesn’t favour me going to the park, when I can easily save some cost.”
An Ibadan-bound traveller, Mr. Segun Ige while waiting for “soole” on top of Ojodu Berger bridge, Lagos, says he normally took a bus there, because instead of between N600 and N800 fare in the park, he spends N300 for the less-than-two-hour journey. “The major issue is shortage of money. If I have N500 on me I can use N300 for the trip and the remaining N200 to get to my house when I get to Ibadan.” He noted however, that it sometimes takes longer to get a ride for that amount, as some of the “soole” drivers insist on taking N400 or N500.
A female student of Obafemi Awolowo University met at the Ile Ife/Ilesa/Ibadan major interchange in Ile Ife, who, however, declined disclosing her name, cited economic reason for shunning regular motor parks for the highway. Said she: “I’m going to Lagos. Fare for a cab trip there (park) is about N5,000, while buses charge about N2,500. But here you will get to the same destination, even more comfortably with just N800.”
An Ore, Ondo State-bound passenger waiting for ‘soole’ at Berger area, Mr. Según Owoniran,echoes the same financial predicament for his preference for roadside transport. The Okitipupa-based mechanic says he has been coming to Lagos on business, sometimes to buy auto parts in the last 10 years. “Because there is often too little left after buying the goods, I have to manage and look for cheap transport. Here N500 can take me to Ore, unlike where I have to spend N2,000 if I go to the motor park.”
Although he acknowledges the risk involved, Emmanuel Chika, an Awka, Anambra State-bound traveller, met some distance after the defunct Tollgate on Lagos/ Ibadan Expressway, a favourite spot where long distant travellers heading for Abuja , and northern and south eastern states hunt for “soole” vehicles, says the trend cannot be helped due to the differential in fares charged at the parks and by the ‘soole’ drivers. According to him, what is charged by the latter, who include newspapers distribution van drivers, Tokunbo (imported fairly used automobiles) drivers taking such vehicles for delivery upland, other company vehicle drivers and even private vehicle owners, “are peanuts, because they just want to make a little extra money.”
God to the rescue
Virtually all patrons of ‘soole’ claim God’s protection as what emboldens them to continue in the practice. Says Opeyemi Adigun, an Ibadan-based sound engineer/music producer: “I don’t believe that kind of a thing (kidnapping/ritual killing/robbery) can happen to me, because I believe in God and I normally pray to Him. Even if such a thing is likely to happen, I usually get warned. If my mind tells me not to enter a vehicle, I won’t, even if the person at the wheels is ready to collect whatever I offer to pay, no matter how ridiculous.”
For people like Blessing, however, precaution is the word. She says: “Apart from the fact that I pray for protection before leaving the house, I normally check inside the car. If it contains only men, I won’t bother to enter.”
For Mr. Felix Ademola, a photojournalist with ThisDay Newspaper, he would never again contemplate picking a ride by the roadside, for a very different reason. He told Saturday Sun that for 10 years that he worked with Daily Times, he shuttled between Lagos and Ibadan, to visit his family based in the Oyo State capital on weekends taking ‘soole’. However, an incident occurred which made him put a stop to the habit. He recalls: “I normally took a bus or car at the Berger area. On this fateful day, I missed a chance to go by a company vehicle, which stopped to pick passengers. I felt really bad, because I was in a hurry and didn’t know when another would come along. But after I joined another bus and we were going, we sighted a group of people wailing and shouting around a steepish area close to the poultry farm before you get to Ogere and lo and behold, the vehicle I missed had, had a fatal accident. Come and see blood, everywhere, see the dead and injured victims being stretched on the ground. And I realized I could have been among the dead victims. Since that day, I stopped taking ‘soole’ totally.”
A Lagosian, Madam Theresa Ekundayo also recalls seeing some hoodlums with guns viciously brutalizing the passéngers of an unpainted commercial mini bus in traffic around Ikosi Ketu, Lagos recently. According to her, the hoodlums were busy hitting and beating their struggling victims in a bid to force their bloodied heads below the vehicle’s window, and so keep them from being seen from outside.
Police, transport union warn
The danger of such tragic experiences has made both security agencies, particularly the police and the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), to constantly warn against commuters taking the risk of seeking transportation outside designated motor parks and bus stops.
The Zonal Organising Secretary of the NURTW, Ibadan North West (interstate unit) of Oyo State, Mr. Bolaji Agiri, in an interview with Saturday Sun, describes joining vehicles outside the park as too risky, noting that those in the habit evidently do not value their lives. “It is a risk that is not worth taking. We always hear in the news how people were taken away and killed for rituals when they joined vehicles outside the parks for their inter-state and intra-state journeys,” the transporter says. He dismisses the excuse of taking the option because of delay at the park, as well as difference in fares, as not strong enough to make people joke with their lives. “Yes, it is true that there is a slight difference in the fares and sometimes it could take about 20 minutes extra when you come to the park, such prices are not too much for one to ensure adequate safety of one’s life. Some people are so impatient and that is why they get themselves into trouble too often.”
Chairman of the Lagos State Chapter of the NURTW, Tajudeen Agbede, speaks in similar vein. His words: “We are very security conscious. When you travel in vehicles from our parks, as a security measure, you are made to give your personal details on the manifest, so we have information on every passenger, in case of any unfortunate incident. Besides that, we know every vehicle that departs the park, and know who to hold responsible, or to assist investigation in case of any incident. We have also warned our members who engage in ‘Soole’ to desist from the unwholesome practice to safeguard the integrity of the union and safety of Nigerians.”
Also, Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Dolapo Badmos, says since there is no law against taking public transportation by the roadside and highways, it is difficult to coerce people from taking the option, which, she describes as “a risky venture that has been on from time immemorial.”
The police spokesperson, however, says although she could not immediately give crime statistics related to the trend, widespread reports of missing persons, kidnapping, robbery and other crimes associated with it should warn people against taking further risk. She urges people: “We implore people to be cautious and take public transportation from designated places-parks and bus stops, because a lot of people have gone this way and gone for ever! It is a lot better to be alive than to waste your life or be incapacitated.”