Due to a combination of neglect, corruption and lack of urban renewal planning on the part of successive governments at the state and federal levels, public transport system in Nigeria’s major cities and towns is in a moribund state
Everyday my people dey inside bus, shuffering and shmiling
49(people) sitting 99(people) standing, shuffering and shmiling
Dem go pack dem self like sardine, shuffering and shmiling
Dem dey faint dem dey wake like cock, shuffering and shmiling…
- Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, late Afrobeat maestro, on the chaotic living in Nigeria’s urban centres
It is a timeline of descent from grace to grass of a sort, one that now rewards millions of urban commuters with daily mobility frustrations. So worrisome is the chaos and the rot pervading urban living in the country that it once captured the attention of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the late Afrobeat maestro and legendary lyrical revolutionary. In one of his rich repertoires of immortal lyrics, Fela lampooned the chaotic condition of living in the cities, describing the daily experience of urban transporters in pure paradoxical terms, “shuffering (suffering) and shmiling (smiling).” Sadly, more than three decades after Fela’s musical tour de force, the urban decay he excoriated with biting sarcasm is yet to abate, as city dwellers still contend with a rickety intra-urban and inter-urban road transport system, spending agonising hours in their quest to eke out a living.
Since then, urban road transport system has continued to haemorrhage under worse times, taking a nosedive from the great era of ubiquitous cabs as a means of intra-urban mass movement to the totally riotous days of molue before plunging further into a regime where exploitative danfo drivers are kings in the booming market of public passenger transport. Now, even danfo buses too seem to be fast losing the supremacy battle to Okada and Keke Marwa, which have risen in popularity as two most patronised means of public mobility among the nation’s millions of urban dwellers. However, the story of how Nigeria, an oil-rich nation, plummeted from the little progress it started making in the public mass transport sector is not peculiar to the sector. In fact, records show that the retrogression is symptomatic of the general decline in all spheres of public life in the nation, a sad development that began in the late 1970s before it snowballed into a malignant tumour in the last three decades.
If history is a good guide, many factors can be fingered as culprits for the dilapidated commercial transport system in a country peopled by over 150 million. Besides the crippling effects of poor infrastructure occasioned by lack of sustained public investment, it is an open secret that commercial public transport is imperiled in the nation chiefly because of inadequate planning, short-sightedness, greed, sheer indifference, absence of good maintenance culture, and seeming cluelessness on the part of successive administrations, both at the state and federal levels. Consequently, the sector has been abandoned over the years, gradually slipping into the control of private individuals, mainly profiteers whose primary motive is to feast from the void created by the government’s criminal neglect of this all-important sector.
In a seminal study of the problems and prospects of urban road transport system in the country, Emman Ogunbodede, a lecturer in the geography and planning sciences department, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Ondo State, said public transportation in the country is largely characterised by inadequate and inefficient services, poor facilities, long waiting at the bus stops, traffic congestion, and shortage of vehicles, among other problems.
That the public transportation sector is in crisis is not as a result of lack or paucity of ideas to revive it. In the 1980s, virtually all the state governments with thriving urban population operated mass transit systems to ameliorate mobility stress of their workforce. For example, Lagos, Kaduna, Rivers, Kwara, Oyo and the defunct Bendel states owned urban transport corporations, although many of these companies have since parked up or at best comatose. Similarly, the federal government too has also not been indifferent to this plight. Recognising that urban mobility conundrum has assumed an unbearable level, the federal government inaugurated a special task force in 1988 to proffer solutions to mass transportation problems, bringing about the introduction of the Federal Urban Mass Transit Programme, FUMTP. Though the programme took off well, it was not sustained. The effect of this failure of government has been hellish on commuters who rely on public transport facilities for their mobility, now having to stomach the hardship, exploitation, and erratic services of private sector operators of para-transit transport system that are largely substandard, uncontrollable, and unorganised. So pathetic is the public neglect of the sector that a World Bank report in 1992 said over 98 percentage of urban transport services in Nigeria in 1987 was catered for by the private sector operators, using sometimes rickety facilities such as danfos, molues, taxis, among others.
Like the woes that disrupted the slow but steady progress being recorded in other sectors of the nation’s economy, the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, by the inept military administration of Ibrahim Babangida in 1986 birthed a gradual decline that ultimately reversed the fortune of the public transport system. Immediately after the dubious SAP became operative, the economic hardship it spurred negatively affected prices of all economic goods, including motor vehicles and their spare parts whose costs rose astronomically because of the policy. Due to galloping inflationary trend SAP brought about, it soon became practically difficult for private investors to continue importing new vehicles, a scenario which spewed a drastic reduction in the purchasing power of the nation’s currency as well as acquisition of new vehicles. Although available statistics showed that registration of new vehicles started declining in 1981, the crisis soon assumed a frightening dimension under the SAP regime. For example, from a total 128,441 new vehicles registered in 1985, Nigeria recorded a total of 58,595 new vehicle registration in 1986, 40,165 in 1987 and 21,070 in 1988.
As if the above constraints are not enough to wreck the boat, plummeting annual public expenditures on the sector is what has finally brought the system down on its knees, beginning from 1971 to 1990. From an annual average federal budgetary expenditure of N3.3 billion in 1971-1980, the transport sector faired worse with an annual average expenditure of N770 million in 1981-1990, plunging further to an annual average of N220 million in 1991-1998. According to a 1996 World Bank report, the entire transport sector in Nigeria gulped a paltry 0.2 percentage of the gross domestic product, a far cry from 0.8 per cent average for the road transport sub-sector alone in other countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa within the same period. The response to this anomaly is the reign of used vehicles, popularly called tokunbo in the local parlance. Soon after, Okada and Keke Marwa have joined the list of most-used means of intra-urban mobility.
The public transport sector in the country also suffered as a result of the incursion of soldiers into the corridors of political power. Rather than follow the due process, the penchant of military rulers for using decrees to administer public affairs infected the nation’s public sector with ill-advised decisions that brought many laudable programmes to a ruinous end. A good case in point is the debilitating fate suffered in 1985 by the Lagos Metro Line, one of Governor Lateef Jakande’s pet projects, in the hands of the Muhammadu Buhari junta. Originally designed to gulp N800 million, the Lagos metro was an ambitious project that would have eased the transportation burden of residents, programmed to transport up to 10 million passengers per day. But Buhari whimsically cancelled it, forcing a bitter pill of a whopping $78 million compensation fee down the throats of taxpayers in the state. The same project handled by the same company is waxing stronger in Egypt, having now reached phase four.
But Buhari has since debunked charges that he arbitrarily scrapped the project without weighing its economic benefits and cost implications, saying the decision he took then was in the best interest of the country. Defending himself in Lagos on the eve of the last general elections, the former military ruler said he hinged his action on what he called exorbitant fund being requested by the Egyptian company handling the project. “As at the time I was in government, the company handling the project requested for $100 million and I could not pay such a huge amount as the country was broke then.
Economically, it was unwise then to embark on the project. Even before we cancelled it, we set up series of committee(s) both in Nigeria and abroad to look at it before the final decision was taken,” Buhari said. Some economics, the country ended up paying over 70 per cent of the money considered too exorbitant for the metro we did not eventually get. He also did not disclose the recommendations of the committees. The general failed to inform his audience that his government had ignored the advice of the technical committee and the judicial inquiry constituted to carry out due diligence on the scheme.
However, it is not all stories of gloom and doom alone, going by current efforts of some state governments to revive the sector in order to achieve their urban renewal programmes. One of the states in the forefront of these people-friendly schemes is Lagos State. Since it became operational on March 17, 2008, there is no gainsaying that the Bus Rapid Transit, BRT, has become a success story, which has been helping to improve quality of life, economic efficiency, and mobility of millions of Lagos residents. And to complement this feat, an ambitious light rail system is also being developed by the administration of Governor Babatunde Fashola, envisioned to consist of seven lines when it eventually takes off. This will further alleviate the daily transport burden, which millions of people currently contend with in the state. One Lagos resident echoed this feeling last week. Oladapo Loto, a businessman who has lived in Lagos for about 20 years, said his preferred choice of mobility is the BRT because it is a convenient and easy means of urban transport. Even though he has two cars, he notes that he prefers to use the BRT. “BRT makes life easy for everyone. It is better than all the other means of transport, including the Keke Marwa. I actually prefer using it to my car. Its only flaw is its lack of wider coverage,” he says.
Perhaps buoyed by the success of the Lagos mass transit experiment, other state governments, especially in Rivers and Akwa Ibom, where Rotimi Ameachi and Godswill Akpabio respectively, are embarking on similar schemes, as variants of the BRT and light rails. If successfully completed and sustained, experts say these new mass transit schemes could help arrest the sufferings of millions of urban commuters, with attendant positive impact on the nation’s economic development aspirations.
Additional report by Ayodeji Adeyemi