By Emmanuel Edukugho
As joblessness worsened by the profligacy of our political leaders and government functionaries who relish in squandering of public funds, and accumulation of ill-gotten wealth, extortion has become a thriving industry for many able-bodied men in most urban centres, towns and cities across the country.
Extortion has become most profound in the road transport sector with Lagos at the forefront where virtually all the urban bus stops have been turned into revenue generating centres. These are manned by ruthless, abrasive and violent young men forcing commercial bus operators to pay various amounts of money on every trip.
The withdrawal of police from the nation’s highways and abolition of road blocks and checkpoints by the new Inspector General on assumption of office, Mr. Mohammed Dahiru Abubakar, paved the way for men of national Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) to take absolute control of the illegal (or legal) toll collections in bus stops across the sprawling metropolitan Lagos.
Hitherto, the police operatives were making huge financial returns running into millions of naira from various check points raised by them until the coming of Abubakar who ordered their removal and confined police men and women to the stations.
Extortion by Police and Agberos
Popularly known as “agbero”, a Yoruba slang for those who load and canvass for passengers for commercial buses at designated motor parks, they are now operating outside, positioning themselves in all the bus stops, imposing all manners of levies, dues on commercial transporters probably with the connivance and acquiescence of the Lagos State Government.
The NURTW leadership, recognised as labour union, recruits men who collect money from hapless commercial transport operators, most times using violent means in naked display of barbarism. The impunity, heartlessness and reckless manner these people go about collecting money from bus conductors and drivers depicts Lagos as lawless and brutish, outside civilised norms. Yet, this is happening openly day and night, in a state that prides itself as “Centre of Excellence.”
Commuters and commercial transport operators went through harrowing experience the hands of these heartless NURTW functionaries or agbero. Every bus stop has its own unit of agbero operatives, well trained in gestapo method to extort, armed with wooden clubs, sticks, whips, iron rods, to attack buses who do not stop to pay financial tributes that ranged from N50, N100, N200, and even N500.
Woe to bus conductors who hesitate to pay quickly. Wind screens are smashed, side mirrors broken or forcibly pulled out, wipers, fuel tanks removed. Some dare-devils among them make bold to enter the buses and take away seats. If this is done, the bus conductor will have to pay more to reclaim the seat.
Sometimes, delay or refusal to pay the toll amounts could lead to severe beating of the conductor and driver by group of agbero, lurking around bus stops to monitor the collection of money.
The fear of agbero on Lagos roads is the beginning of wisdom for commercial bus operators. Many of them, in order to avoid NURTW miscreants are compelled to seek the escort of security personnel – soldiers, naval, air-force, mopol, to board commercial buses in order to shield them from rampaging touts in bus stops.
This may just alleviate or reduce the level of assault but not completely prevent extortion which has assumed some kind of legitimacy. A bus driver, Bayo Alabi, who plies the Okokomaiko-Oyingbo routes, told Saturday Vanguard, that the menace of agbero is becoming unbearable.
“It seems we are working for them. More than 50% of what we make daily goes to these agbero people. We find it difficult to break even and balance the owners of our buses at the end of the day. We’ve protested against these illegal payments, but government has turned deaf ears and would not look into our plight.”
Alabi said government is aware of this exploitation they benefit from it as well. Another driver on Ebute-Ero to Mile 12 route already frustrated with the system.
“We don’t know who will rescue us from agbero. Government is not willing to bail us out. They are just allowing them to exploit us. These agbero boys don’t pay tax, don’t contribute anything for road maintenance, but only to collect money day and night, remit to those who sent them to meet fixed target and get their own share,” said Mr. Michael Adio.
As buses arrived at bus stops, they will come around wielding sticks, sternly asking conductors in Yoruba: “Owo da, owo da,” meaning “where is the money.” You dare not waste a second before complying, otherwise the conductor will be attacked and pulled down from the bus, slapped and beaten until he pays the appropriate amount. Commuters cannot intervene, but to just watch quietly. Even policemen and soldiers can’t do anything. Most of the agbero wear different types of uniforms.
Motorcycle operators (Okada) are also harassed and brazenly exploited by another kind of agbero, working for the various local government councils in whose jurisdictions they are operating. Okada operators have their own parks where they pay money to officials and are given receipts. Some of the receipts are not genuine, but compelled to give out stipulated amounts daily, although not as frequent as commercial bus operators.
An okada rider, Ibrahim Ali, told Saturday Vanguard: “We can’t operate our machine without obtaining tickets at least twice a day. Council officials will seize the motorcycle if we don’t pay on demand or show your receipt for payment.”
People buying goods in markets and carrying them away are not spared from overzealous revenue collectors ostensibly working for local governments. So too are hawkers around markets, parks, streets and commercial areas. They are assessed on the spot, and made to pay, otherwise their goods will be seized. Such actions seemed to complement efforts of KAI to rid streets of traders and hawkers who contribute to the frequent traffic gridlock and environmental hazards.
An official of NURTW, who refused to disclose his name, said, the union is duly registered and actions of its members collecting dues at bus stops from commercial transport operators picking passengers and for loading are legitimate. “We do not tolerate their unruly behaviour and excesses. Any of them who misbehaved and reported to the unit chairman is dealt with and properly disciplined. NURTW is well organized and responsible,” he said.
He denied that union operatives extort money from bus operators, saying that loading dues and other payments at bus stops are usual across the country. Attempts to get government’s reaction were futile as no official in the Ministry of Public Transportation was willing to speak on the matter.