The recent violent clash among warring factions of a road transport union in central Lagos strikes a worrisome chord. Gangsterism, racketeering, thuggery and brigandage have for long plagued the public transportation sector in Lagos State, fuelled by the impunity of transport unions and official negligence.
It is time to stop the lawlessness. Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and the new Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Abiodun Alabi, owe Lagosians and the country a duty to uproot these deviants from the roads.
The incident had a familiar ring. Armed with guns, machetes and cudgels, rival factions of the National Union of Road Transport Workers in the Idumota engaged in a street battle in broad daylight in the busy business district and market area. At least two persons died in the fracas.
Typically, the war reportedly erupted over disagreements on the collection and sharing of levies extorted from commercial bus drivers.
One person was reportedly shot dead, another bled to death from machete cuts.
Traders in neighbouring markets had to hurriedly close their shops and scamper to safety. So did bank branches and other businesses. This is unacceptable in a civilised society.
For many years, members of the unions, popularly called agberos, have become a malignant menace. Formerly operating at main garages and bus termini, they are now present at almost every bus stop in the state, forcibly collecting tolls from bus drivers.
They engage in incessant bloody clashes among themselves and/or with bus drivers and vandalise commercial buses whose drivers refuse to part with the illegal levies. They exhibit brazen disregard for public peace by causing commotion and gridlock on the roads.
They wield excessive and illegal powers at the parks and bus stops. They use illicit drugs, especially marijuana, openly, fouling the air with its smoke. To the dismay of residents and business operators, they mostly go unchallenged by law enforcement agents. Their tolls have made transport fares in Lagos unbearably high.
Notably, many stakeholders allege active collusion by security agencies, the political elite and some state government functionaries. Politicians are also known to hire them as enforcers.
Sanwo-Olu and Alabi need to demonstrate that the government and the police have no hand in the impunity of the unions.
There are enough laws in the statute books that outlaw the activities of these touts. There are laws against touting, extortion, affray, possession of weapons and drug use. They should enforce them.
Lagos is Nigeria’s commercial, industrial and financial powerhouse. It hosts 65 per cent of its industries, its busiest ports, and contributes 26.7 per cent of national GDP, including over 50 percent of non-oil GDP and accounts for 80 percent of the country’s foreign trade flows.
Home to 23 million inhabitants, it aspires to be a megacity, with 14 of its 20 local government areas being part of a sprawling metropolis. It does not deserve thugs hiding under the cover of transport unions terrorising residents.
Until the agberos were indulged by civilian governments, the departing military administrator, Mohammed Marwa, then a colonel, had chased them off Lagos roads, bringing welcome orderliness and a significant drop in fares.
Such a courageous and effective solution must be re-enacted speedily by Sanwo-Olu. He must show greater courage than his predecessors by outlawing the agberos from the bus stops.
Suspending the operations of the union in the Idumota area as announced by the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotoso, in response to the latest clash, is not enough.
The unions should be banned outright and permanently from violently collecting tolls at motor parks and bus stops. This is extortion; akin to the “protection racket” that is a hallmark of organised crime.
A new initiative by the state government is an opportunity to knock orderliness into the public transportation system and stamp out criminality.
The newly introduced Consolidated Informal Transport Sector Levy on bus drivers, where each bus driver is expected to pay N800 daily effective February 1, should not only harmonise the taxes paid by the drivers to the state but it should also be designed to include the union’s levies on its members. Henceforth, state- or LG-designated agencies should be the only authority empowered to collect levies at the motor parks; they will then remit the pre-agreed percentage due to registered transport unions to which the drivers belong.
The barbaric practise of forcibly collecting levies at bus stops by wild-eyed union enforcers should stop. The high transport fares would also be addressed if the state acts in public interest.
A report by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting revealed that the road transport unions in Lagos generate a whopping N123 billion annually from commercial buses, tricycles, and motorcycles. That is far above what most states generate in a year. From the report, each bus pays about N3,000 daily, amounting to about N82 billion annually, which implies that the union generates more revenue from the drivers than the state. This stupendous wealth only reflects in the increasingly ostentatious lifestyle of the union leaders.
The NURTW chairman in the state, Musiliu Akinsanya, declared, “I want to make it clear that the N800 daily levy only covers all the money collected by the MDAs; it does not affect NURTW ticket.” This is not only audacious but also makes a mockery of the gains of the consolidated levy earlier cited by the Commissioner for Finance, Rabiu Olowo. He said the levy was to cater to the bus drivers’ personal income taxes, dues on environment, LG levy, as well as reduce the multiplicity of taxes, dues, and levies collection. The state must assert its authority, including union dues, and retain its monopoly on levying taxes.
Going forward, Lagos must move with speed to modernise its transportation system along the inter-modal format. Wider roads, effective rail and water transport systems and partnership with the private sector to introduce modern buses are essential. The ubiquitous, ill-maintained minibuses, danfo, and commercial motorcycles (okada) should eventually be phased out. They are unsuitable for a megacity.
In better organised climes, the public transport system is well organised; miscreants are not lords on public roads. It is a critical sector that government oversees directly because of its pivotal role in the economy and in ensuring public order and safety. The Lagos State Government should use this levy as a take-off point to reform that sector. A government should never submit its authority over public transportation to non-state actors. Sanwo-Olu must act swiftly.