By Titilope FADARE
The federal government says it has spent about N5 billion on a covid-19 relief fund for transport sector operators, but many said they had not received the N30,000 one-off grant.
AGBO Sunday, a tricycle rider, lives in Byazhin Across in Kubwa, one of Abuja’s densely populated satellite towns. On February 27, 2020, he left home at 7 a.m. for his work station, a ‘NNPC’ bus stop in the town. He turned on his radio as he drove. That was when he heard that the dreaded COVID-19 had entered Nigeria.
Mr Sunday later asked his mates what the development meant, but they were as clueless as he was. Unknown to them, their trade would be one of the most affected by the pandemic.
A month later, President Muhammadu Buhari announced the first phase of a lockdown to curb the spread of the virus. The restriction of movement halted Mr Sunday’s transportation business.
Aside from being the main source of income for his family of seven, not working also meant Mr Sunday risked losing his tricycle for not meeting the payment schedule in the hire-purchase agreement through which he got it.
The lockdown lasted for over a month. But even after it was relaxed, patronage remained low.
“Before Covid-19, I was making between N6,000 and N7,000 daily but now I hardly get N1,500 in a day. I wait up to four hours on the queue for my turn to load passengers,” he said as he spoke with this reporter in July this year.
Mr Sunday said he had to transfer his five children to a public school in Byazhin because he could no longer afford the fees of the private school they were attending before the pandemic. His wife also took to selling sachet water to supplement the family income.
Thus, with excitement, he heard the news on the radio in March this year that the federal government was disbursing N30,000 each to transporters as palliative over the economic effects of the pandemic.
But four months later, Mr Sunday said neither he nor his mates at their station had heard anything else about it.
“They should stop saying they gave tricycle drivers money because it is making me angry,” he said.
Tracking palliative for tricycle drivers
The federal government launched the N2.3 trillion Nigeria Economic Sustainability Plan (NESP) in September 2020 to reduce the negative impact of the pandemic on small businesses.
The plan includes the Transport Track of the Transport and Artisans scheme, a subset of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) Survival Fund targeting 4,505 beneficiaries in each of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
This involved disbursing a one-off grant of N30,000 each to qualified individuals operating in the transport sector. An estimated N5 billion has been reported spent on this scheme. The target beneficiaries include rideshare drivers, such as Uber, Bolt, etc., taxi drivers, bus drivers, Keke Napep (tricycle), okada (bike) riders, cart pushers, etc.
On March 23, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo met with beneficiaries in the Transport and Education sector. At the event, the President of the Road Transport Employers Association (RTEAN), Musa Muhammed, commended the initiative as “unprecedented in the country’s history.”
The Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Tony Asogwa, also lauded Mr Osinbajo and the coordinating committee for “smooth implementation of the scheme.”
That day, the Minister of State, Ministry of Trade and Investment, Mariam Katagum, said as of January 17, 155,920 beneficiaries in the transport track had so far been approved for payment, while 9,109 pending cases were being processed for payment.
This means 146, 811 transport sector beneficiaries had been paid N30,000 one-off grant under the Transport Track, the disbursement totalling N4.4 billion.
Later at a press briefing on August 31, Mrs Katagum said 293,336 persons across the 36 states and the FCT benefitted from the artisans and transporters scheme, out of a target of 333,000 beneficiaries.
Kubwa, Bwari, Deidei tricycle and bike riders “unaware”
However, like Mr Sunday, many tricycle riders operating in Kubwa and Bwari areas of the FCT either said they heard about the stimulus package for the first time when the reporter mentioned it, or they were yet to receive anything.
Habib Abdullahi, a tricycle rider, is a member of the Amalgamated Commercial Tricycle and Motorcycle Owners, Repairers, and Riders Association of Nigeria (ACOMORAN). He said leaders of the association had not disclosed that they received such money from the federal government.
“I want the government to know that keke drivers have not received any money, not even one naira,” he said.
Usama (he only provided one name) was a tricycle driver until the owner retrieved it from him because he could not meet up with his daily payment due to low patronage. He said he now relies on handouts from his colleagues to survive.
“Covid-19 collected my keke,” he said. “This place was filled with tricycles. But over 100 people no longer have keke because they cannot ‘balance’ the owners. Most of us just hang around now.”
Edeh ThankGod also said he had never heard about the palliative from the federal government.
“I used to ride a motorcycle, but the task force collected it. Then I started driving a tricycle that I got through hire purchase, but my owners’ target is too high. Even if I meet my target, I am left with little which I use only for feeding.”
He appealed to the government to investigate how the funds were disbursed so that transporters can collect their share.
John, a motorcycle rider in Deidei, described the information as either a rumour or a lie because he had never heard of a stimulus package for transporters.
Our reporter also spoke with taxi drivers in Wuse and Berger areas of the Abuja municipality who are members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW).
David (many of the respondents wished to be addressed with his first names) operates in Wuse Zone 5. He too had not heard of a stimulus package for transporters. He said if his mates working in other parts of Abuja had gotten it, they would have informed him.
The Secretary of the Taxi Drivers Association in Berger, who identified himself as ‘Berger Alhaji’, said no disbursement had been made to group members.
“How many transporters got the N30,000? Who did they support with N30,000? What are the procedures? Moreover, is N30,000 enough?”
For him, if the government was sincere about helping transporters, it would have approached their associations to help with the disbursement process.
Female drivers yet to benefit from Government’s intervention – President
Mrs Katagum had said in March that “only 22 per cent of female beneficiaries in the track were reached because of the peculiar nature of the transportation business.”
The President of Female Drivers Association of Nigeria (FEDAN), Eunice Odeghe, said the body in March contacted the Federal Ministry of Transportation to partake in the scheme. She said it was asked to submit the database of its members and it complied.
“But up till this moment, we have not gotten anything from the government. We have been following up. We got information that the money is no longer with them and it is now with the Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment,” Mrs Odeghe told PREMIUM TIMES.
She said the Federal Ministry of Transport also said it had forwarded the database of members of the association to the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment.
Few rideshare drivers received stimulus package
However, findings show that some drivers in private ride-hailing companies got the money. For instance, Berekete Taxi, a ride-hailing company in Abuja, said some of its drivers that met the requirements were selected.
A driver with the company, who asked not to be identified for fear of being removed from the platform, said the major condition was for the drivers not to be owing the company, because they get the vehicles on hire-purchase.
This condition excluded many drivers who were no longer meeting their payment schedules due to low patronage. The driver said competition for passengers has increased from private car owners (kabukabu) driven into the trade by economic hardship.
“Also selected were those that pay dues and attend meetings. You just write your name, phone number and vehicle number,” another Berekete Taxi driver who also did not benefit, added.
Even at that, not all drivers who met the requirements received the money.
Other ride-hailing drivers left out
An official of Bolt Nigeria, another private ride-hailing company, told PREMIUM TIMES that the company contacted the federal government to support their drivers through the scheme, but their efforts were futile.
Femi Akin-Laguda, the Country Manager of Bolt Nigeria, said that unlike at the state level, the federal government is not involved or aware of the nature of the operations of ride-hailing services.
“For the sector that they were able to prove the value, they were able to provide some support. But for ride-hailing, which the federal government does not have enough coverage over, that didn’t happen,” he said.
The reporter, however, gathered that Bolt could not benefit from the scheme because the government deals with only associations and the private transport company do not belong to any. Also, Bolt does not regard its drivers as employees but as ‘partner drivers’, a Bolt driver who requested anonymity told PREMIUM TIMES.
But while Bolt said its drivers did not benefit through the company, some of them did through City Online Drivers Association (CODA), an association of e-hailing drivers like Uber and Bolt.
However, while CODA has over 1,000 members, only 50 persons reportedly benefitted. The government gave the association limited slots, the chairman of the Board of Trustees and Chief Provost of CODA, Anthony Ojo, said.
Mr Ojo said only its members who “were lucky and available” for biometrics got the money.
He told this reporter that the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs did the drivers’ biometrics for them at Calypso Garden, Wuse 2, and requested confirmation of the driver’s rideshare platform, their names, bank account details and Bank Verification Number (BVN).
“Within a month or two, the money was paid. It was between the end of last year and beginning of this year.”
Only 20 per cent of our members benefitted- NURTW
The FCT chapter of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) also said only a few members got the money.
“The efforts of the government are a welcome development but the people that are supposed to send the message down have failed, because out of 100, only 20 per cent got it,” the vice-chairman of the union, Isiaka Abdullahi, said.
Mr Abdullahi said NURTW has over 50,000 members.
Although the official commended the government’s initiative to provide packages for transporters, he faulted the use of the Survival Fund Office to implement the process.
He said officials from the office came to the union’s office to capture the biometrics of 750 members in March, requesting their names, account numbers, branches, and units of the drivers but only a few were credited in May.
“If any money is meant for an organisation, let the money be sent to the organisation’s purse. The organisation knows the members better and they will do it. We can even do a patrol and deliver the same to the doorsteps of the members. But the current system has failed,” he added.
No relief from government – President ACOMORAN
On his part, the National President of Amalgamated Commercial Motorcycle Owners and Riders Association (ACOMORAN), Shamsudeen Apelogun, in a telephone interview with this reporter, said the union did not benefit from the scheme.
He lamented that the union used money from its purse to purchase face masks and hand sanitisers for its members to comply with the Covid-19 safety protocols with the hope that they would also benefit from the relief.
“They set up a committee at the Ministry of Transportation. We appeared before them and they asked us what we would use the money for. I said we would use it to eradicate the poverty within us. At the end of the day, they directed us to the Ministry of Trade and Investment and they said we should go and apply online. We are yet to see any relief from any government contact,” Mr Apelogun said.
RTEAN keeps mum to inquiries
PREMIUM TIMES visited the office of the Road Transport Employers’ Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) on July 16, but the officials deferred interview requests till after the Sallah break. Efforts at reaching them for an appointment after the said break were ignored.
FG reacts to concerns about the scheme
At her press briefing of August 31, Mrs Katagum said not everyone can benefit from the scheme.
“It is not everyone that will receive it. We work on a first come first served basis on our database. I am just informing you we had a large list waiting for us to make sure that we have reached some kind of equity”, she said.
She said the Ministry of Transportation submitted a list of key transport associations for her ministry to work with. She said the ministry also kept slots for those who “feel that the chairman of your association does not like your face so you can apply.”
She dismissed complaints of lack of awareness of the initiative. The minister said the steering committee in charge of implementing the schemes aired radio jingles, held town hall meetings, made fliers in different languages, and shared them in parks.
“Saying they do not know, for me, sometimes it is a Nigerian factor and sometimes, it is a factor of those who know not transmitting it to others. Because we worked with those large transport associations. We went on the radio, we even went to Berekete (a popular programme of Human Rights Radio, Abuja). The DG of SMEDAN has done town hall meetings in every state of the Federation to talk about this,” the minister said.
Mrs Katagum said the steering committee experienced some setbacks while implementing the scheme. These include failed payments, interconnectivity problems between banks, wrong bank details on the part of the applicants, and banks debiting beneficiaries for loans they earlier took.
She also disclosed that beneficiaries were not given cash but monies were disbursed to their account.
“Nobody collected money on behalf of another person. Some people don’t want to tell their neighbours that they actually got this money. Some confessed. Some will say, ‘actually, it is my friend that told me’. ‘I got but my friend did not get’, so they don’t tell”, she added.
PREMIUM TIMES through a letter requested details of beneficiaries. But the minister said the list of beneficiaries cannot be provided, to protect the data of beneficiaries. However, she said it will be shared with the federal government who will remove the sensitive information before making it public.
Despite the complaints from the intended beneficiaries like Mr Sunday, Mrs Katagum insisted that the MSME Survival Fund is “one of the recent programmes of government that has been executed with utmost transparency and accountability.”
*This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.