By Andrea ONUOHA
Its intention may have been noble, but the disbursement of the federal government’s COVID-19 transport intervention fund in Enugu State has generated mixed reactions, pleasant and not-so-pleasant, from transport operators, even though many acknowledged receiving the N30, 000 one-off grants. ANDREA ONUOHA reports
Reason behind the grant
APART from its heavy toll on public health and staggering casualty figures worldwide, the outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic also crippled countries’ economies, which left countless households impoverished due to massive job losses. Nigeria was no exception, given the unprecedented fall in oil price, the country’s major export commodity. To curb the spread of the pandemic, the Nigerian government imposed a lockdown in some states, with most state governments announcing inter-state movement restrictions. But although those measures were expedient, they adversely affected businesses and families’ income, with many unable to meet basic needs.
Movement restrictions did not only reduce the consumption of household goods; it affected the income-generating capacity of a majority of the country’s population. This left most families whose livelihood depends on daily sales or income impoverished, mainly due to the high cost of living.
The Covid-19 crisis led to the creation of various intervention funds by the federal government to cushion its many adverse economic effects. One of such funds was Transport Track and Artisan Support scheme grant under the Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSME) managed by the office of the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo. The Transport Support Scheme grant was for people whose transport businesses were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Transport Track targeted 4,505 beneficiaries in every state, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). It was expected to provide a one-off grant of N30, 000 to each eligible individuals operating in the transport sector. The cost of the project was estimated at N5 billion.
In December 2020, Gbemi Saraki, Minister of State for Transport announced that the amount had been approved, noting that it would help transporters, including rideshare drivers (Uber, Bolt, etc.), taxi drivers, bus drivers, tricycle riders, Okada riders and cart pushers weather the storms of Covid-19. These transporters were expected to access this N30, 000 funds through their unions and associations.
A survey of the list of transport unions/associations shows the following as accredited: National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW); Nigerian Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO); Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria (RTEAN); The Association of Commercial Motorcycle Riders Association of Nigeria (ACOMORAN); Professional E-Hailing Drivers and Private Owners Association (PEPDA); Ladies on Wheel Association of Nigeria (LOWAN); and Tricycle Owners and Riders Association of Nigeria (TORAN).
However, eight months since the launch of the scheme, it appears that the scheme’s implementation has been beset with the typical bureaucracy and misapplication that often blight even the most well-intentioned programmes in the country. An investigation into the implementation of the initiative in Enugu State took our reporter to several towns and cities
A visit to the Enugu State Ministry of Transport drew an unexpected response as it claimed it was not involved in the entire programme.
“This ministry did not receive any money from the Federal Government. If it did, I would let you know,” said Permanent Secretary Dr Ogbonnaya Idike, who stood in for the late Commissioner of Transport, Matthias Ekweremadu.
Determined to get a clearer picture, the reporter decided to conduct a more comprehensive opinion sampling among operators in the transport sector. One such visit to a tricycle park around the Main Market and Enugu State Transport Company (ENTRACO), Old Park, Enugu, and Agbani, revealed that some operators of KeKe Napep (commercial tricycle) and commercial buses did receive the grant, while others did not. However, this latter category explained that they merely heard on the radio that such funds were being disbursed.
Donatus Omeje, a registered tricycle rider, recounts his disappointment.
“Yes, I did hear on the radio that the federal government would give a N30, 000 grants to transporters. I was happy and waited patiently for the call from the leaders of tricycle association to tell us more about it. But I heard nothing till this day. I further asked my fellow riders who said they did not receive anything. I assumed that some corrupt people have embezzled the money as usual.”
Why Some Riders/Transporters Have Yet to Receive the Grant
The chairman of the Tricycle Riders Association, Ika Benjamin, confirmed that he had receive the grant, but added that the 500 slots given to the association could barely cover the numerous tricycle riders in the state.
“We began the process after we got the information about the Survival Fund around January this year,” he said. So we were invited to a meeting by Hon. Arinze Offia, head of the Enugu State SME Centre, told that the federal government wanted to assist transporters with N30,000 survival funds. We were informed that the slot for tricycle operators was five hundred. Honestly, I thought it was a joke, but the SME head assured me that it was real. So I had to call a meeting of the two tiers of Tricycle Riders Association, because we have state executive and branches/units that usually pass on information to the riders about whatever the government wants to do,” he added.
With personal data of 500 commercial tricycle riders collated, the details were then sent to the Enugu SME center, which, according to Benjamin, forwarded the names to Abuja after further verification. They were soon called for additional verification, with members’ identities and the names submitted.
“We informed the selected keke riders to converge at New Berries Park to verify their names. They did and their bank account numbers were taken afresh and sent to Abuja,” he said, adding that it was worth the trouble as most members of his association received alerts from their various banks confirming payment of the said sum.
“Surprisingly, one day in March, some of my members called me saying that they have received alerts for N30, 000. I thank the federal government and our governor who made it possible for this kind gesture to trickle down to us,” Benjamin recalled, his face breaking into a broad smile.
Matthias Ugwoke, a commercial tricycle operator, corroborated the story. “I received it and I am very happy that the president of this country recognised the plight of the poor,” he said, and equally commended the Enugu State governor who, according to him, made sure the funds got to the intended recipients.
At the Enugu SME Center, the Special Adviser to the Enugu State Governor on SME Development and head of the Enugu Small and Medium Enterprises Center, Arinze Chilo-Offia, confirmed that the state government received the grant from the federal government. His explanations shed further light on the process of disbursement.
“The registered transporters had to fall on two lists: Federal and State lists. The federal list consisted of four major groups, which were NURTW, NARTO, RTEAN and ACOMORAN. Within these four groups, two thousand of them were catered for. NURTW got 700 slots while the rest had 500 each. Then the balance 2,200 slots were allocated to states. What we did was to make sure that all transport associations within the state benefitted.”
Head Enugu State SME Center, Arinze Chilo-offia.
Chilo-Offia said he had meetings with the leaders of various transport associations, collated their data and submitted the same to Abuja for the payment of the survival fund.
“So we included the Tricycle Riders Association Enugu State, Wheelbarrow Association Enugu State, Mass Transit Association, PITONA-Luxury buses and Taxi Association Enugu State chapter. We had meetings with the leaders of these associations, allocated equal slots to them, collated their data across the 17 local government areas of the state, vetted the information and submitted them to Abuja. Then we worked in coordination to ensure the forms were disbursed to them in tranches. Within four tranches, all of them received payments, and that was fantastic”.
However, many transporters did not think much about the Survival Scheme. Reports from locations outside the state capital like Nsukka and Ngwo in Enugu State showed that not all the selected transporters received the fund. Many transporters in this category complained bitterly about their experience. But they would instead not voice their discontent on the record for fear of being victimised.
When he heard the news of the planned transport support from the federal government, Agu Solomon, a taxi driver, was ecstatic. He felt fortunate after his data was captured and looked forward to receiving the money. But his hope was ultimately dashed.
“I was informed among others to come to the New Berries Park to be captured. After the capturing, we were asked to go home. Later, I heard some people received, but I did not receive, and I did not know why. We all suffered during the pandemic, then some received and others were left out. This seemed like marginalisation,” he lamented.
Solomon was not only the taxi driver who had a bitter tale to tell. Okibe Sunday had a similarly disappointing experience.
“Taxi drivers in my state had been losing in business even before the Covid-19 crisis in my state due to emergence of keke rides and later minibuses. So I was glad the government remembered us. I was captured like others. Later, our members received theirs, and I was left out. I am unhappy and feel like I’m not a citizen of this state.”
For the chairman of Taxi Drivers Association Enugu State, Samuel Ajogu, the process could have been a lot tidier, even though he admitted receiving his grant share. He alleged that some names were swapped and urged the federal government to extend the exercise to accommodate those who did not benefit.
“I thank God I received mine, but unfortunately, not all the taxi drivers selected received. The list we got was not up to the names we submitted. We call on the federal government to intervene and ensure that those that did not get would get in the next batch.”
Pushing for Review
Although Tony chime was among bus drivers that received the survival fund, he is still peeved that some of his colleagues were overlooked.
“Receiving such a grant was a very great relief to me, my family and business. Nothing is too big or small but for the government to develop an initiative that remembers the people, especially the artisans, means that they are doing well. But I want to point out that some of my colleagues did not receive, and this has created the impression that the disbursement was discriminatory and made for special people.”