By Ayodele AKINKUOTU
IF President Muhammadu Buhari is abreast of the recent restrictions imposed by the Lagos State government on the operations of both motorcycle and tricycle commercial transportation, he must sure see his name writ large in the debates that have come in the wake of that decision. But for his decision during his tenure as military Head of State, 1983-1985, to cancel the Lagos Metroline Project, motorbikes and tricycles could never have become a dominant feature of a megapolis, which population is put at 20 million, and still growing.
Today, Lagos is said to be the seventh fastest growing city in the world. It is Nigeria’s commercial nerve-centre. Eighty per cent of the nation’s imports and seventy per cent of exports are processed through the Lagos/Apapa seaport. Its 2018 Gross Domestic Product, GDP, is put at about $136 billion, which is said to be a third of the whole country’s GDP. And Lagos is now rated as Africa’s fifth largest economy.
This potential for growth and development was what Governor Lateef Kayode Jakande, of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, saw in 1979-83 that made him to initiate the Metroline Project, to be built by Interinfra, a French company. The first phase was to cost about $71 million, to be sourced from external loans, which the Federal Government was expected to guarantee. It was to transport 150,000 passengers daily.
No sooner did then General Buhari assume power than he set up a committee to examine the project, and the recommendation that was made was a cancellation.
This was in spite of the heavy penalty that was awaiting the country for the decision to cancel what was already written into the contract. Several years after the cancellation, the country paid the $60 million fine, which was almost equal to the contact sum.
That cancellation continues to haunt Buhari’s political life, as many have always claimed he did it to spite Lagos people. However, at the time Buhari said his decision to cancel was based on fears of ballooning the nation’s debt profile, which at 1985 was put at $18.9 billion.
The irony of that decision is that as at last December, Nigeria’s debt profile was put at $70.85 billion, yet the Buhari government is trying to borrow close to $30 billion for infrastructure development. A decision many Nigerians are kicking against.
Today, the absence of a mass transit system for the Lagos megapolis is one of the heartaches of the nation’s 21 years of democracy. And its not for want of trying. Since 1999, Lagos has tried to revive the Metroline project. Governor Bola Tinubu in 2003 initiated the Lagos Light Rail, also known as Eko Rail. It was to be built by the Civil Construction Engineering Company under the supervision of the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority, LAMATA. There were going to be seven lines, the first being the Blue Line from Marina to Okokomaiko, a distance of 27 kilometres.
That project cost was $1.2 billion and the first line was to be completed in three years. Sadly, there was a five-year delay in the take-off of the project. Thus, today, 17 years after it was conceived, even the first line has not been completed.
And like the saying, nature hates a vacuum. And that vacuum exists not because the state government has gone to sleep. There is the Bus Rapid Transit System run by LAMATA. The operators of the BRT have about 500 buses. That is aside the hundreds of thousands of mini-buses, known as Danfo, run by members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers.
All this pales into insignificance in a city where commuters are believed to be about four million daily. The despairing deficit in the Lagos public transportation system is what motorcycle and tricycle operators have tried to fill in the past two decades.
The main reason given by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu for the restrictions imposed on motorbike and tricycle operations is their seeming predilection for accidents and disorderliness on the road.
One, many of them, especially motorcyclists, have no respect for other road-users, pedestrians and motorists alike. The latter suffer double jeopardy if they are in expensive vehicles.
Any accident involving a motorcyclist attracts a menacing solidarity from his colleagues who will quickly surround the subject of their ire to intimidate him. It doesn’t matter whether their man is at fault. They hate traffic lights. Thus, they jump the light at will in the full glare of law enforcement agents. Interestingly, some of their passengers endorse this recklessness. A few years ago, it was this chaotic sight that confronted a Kenya-based Indian, who exclaimed during a visit, “my God, Lagos is like Mumbai”.
Thus, it is not surprising that record of accidents in General Hospitals in Lagos involving motorcyclists in recent years is put at 10,000. Considering the fact that many cases would have been handled at private hospitals and clinics, the figure may be more. And in the absence of a good record, the fatalities from such accidents would be frightening.
Two years ago, some business-savvy Nigerians, seeing the chaos in commercial motorcycle operations, decided that it could be better run profitably. That vision gave birth to such companies as Gokada, ORide and OPay. The capacity of the motorcycles they bought for their businesses was the 200cc, which the Lagos State Transport Sector law passed in 2012, approved as the minimum capacity that can be allowed on major highways. And that is the category largely used by delivery companies and dispatch riders. The new ride-hailing operators employed riders, many of them graduates who had been unemployed for years.
One of them claimed that since the start of their operations, during which they have had a million rides, they had recorded no accident. Further, they comply strictly with the provisions of helmets for both riders and passengers. That was a provision that had been largely ignored by the self-employed riders for two decades. A provision the law enforcement agencies have been helpless in enforcing.
Now, with the restrictions clamped on both motorcycles and tricycles, the bike operators are in a dilemma. They have been forced to retrench a large percentage of their riders. There were clashes between police and the usual motorcycle operators in some parts of Lagos last week during protests against the restrictions.
What is surprising about the move is its cavalier nature. The statement on the restrictions was released on January 27. And the implementation took off four days later, on February 1.
Furthermore, the state government claimed it was unaware that the restrictions would lead to job losses. Since then, going by the reactions, Governor Sanwo-Olu now knows that thousands of jobs have been lost, and many dependents are now rueing the consequences.
That’s not all. Adding 65 buses to the existing BRT fleet and 14 ferries to the water transportation scheme is like a drop of water in a mighty ocean. The long wait for intermodal transportation system in Lagos that would consist of buses, trains, ferries, trams, cars, motorcycles, tricycles and even helicopter shuttles is one of the heartaches of the nation’s 21-year-old democracy. Perhaps, President Buhari may want to redeem his image as the man who ”killed” the Metroline project by assisting Lagos in making the mass transit system a reality.
Two other heartaches to which he should urgently try to find solutions are the public power supply and fuel importation. In 2015, fuel subsidy was a serious campaign issue. Buhari not only declared then that the subsidy issue was corruption personified, but promised that if elected he would put an end to it. Five years into his administration, Nigeria has budgeted N750.81 billion on fuel subsidy this year, an increase of N100 billion over that of 2019.
And isn’t it ridiculous that a key member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries depends on products’ importation to fuel its economy? In 2019, Nigeria imported 18 billion litres of fuel. And this has been the situation for decades, as the nation’s four refineries continue with their epileptic performance.
And we are still awaiting the modular refineries that were supposed to be the game-changer to end the regime of mind-boggling importation of premium motor spirit. Yet, the President supervises the petroleum industry.
On the campaign trail in 2015, Babatunde Fashola, former Lagos State governor, quipped that any government that was unable to fix the power sector in six months, was unserious. Perhaps, that accounted for why Buhari made him power, works and housing minister in 2015. Five years after that declaration, the power sector is still comatose.
Festus Mbisiogu, an advocate of steady power supply, recently declared that Nigerians spend N150 billion yearly to generate power for their homes and businesses. That is in spite of the unbundling of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, which gave birth to 10 distributing companies, five generating companies and one transmission company.
Nothing captures the sector better than Governor Nasir El-Rufai’s statement recently. According to the Kaduna State governor, “The entire sector is broken; the tariff is an issue, the way the privatisation was done is an issue. So there are many issues… You cannot privatise an industry, and over three years after privatisation, you pump N1.7 trillion of government (money) into it. That’s not privatisation”.
Buhari has just three years to fix these three aches in the heart of democracy for showers of dividends to start pouring on Nigerians. Can he do it, and will he do it?
*Ayodele Akinkuotu, former Editor-in-Chief of TELL Magazine, now writes a weekly column for the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.