AT a media briefing held in Abuja in December 2020, Mariam Katagum, Minister of State for Industry, Trade and Investment, announced the launch of a nationwide social welfare project called ‘Transport Track’.
The project was one of five others approved by the Federal Government Survival Fund for Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) to assist micro transport operators across the country, escape the harsh economic impact of the global covid-19 pandemic.
At the event, Katagum, in excitement, assured transporters that the Federal Government would distribute the sum of N30,000 each to 4,505 beneficiaries in each of the 36 states of the country.
“Let me emphasise that the government approved all the schemes as grants, and as such, all applicants should not pay money to influence anything because no one can control anything.
“Under the Transport Track, being launched today, applicants are encouraged to apply through their registered associations to be enumerated. It is free, do not pay anyone to benefit, your money is N30,000, and it will go directly into your bank accounts,” she said at the event.
But In Benue, hundreds of drivers and transport operators who applied for the grant are yet to receive the stipend six months after their application.
In contrast, The ICIR discovered that some of the selected beneficiaries were not drivers or transport operators.
In addition, though the government promised to pay a total of 4,505 transporters in each state, the Survival Fund office captured only 950 beneficiaries in Benue state, that is 21 per cent of the target beneficiaries.
The plight of drivers in Benue State who applied for the “Transport Track” project paints a grim picture of the scheme’s success across the country.
Shortlisted but sidelined
Samuel Enger earns a living as a tricycle driver since he moved to Makurdi from Alaide, a small commercial town in Benue State.
He had hoped to get a better job offer after spending nearly eight years of informal employment as a part-time farmer and commercial motorcyclist in Alaide.
Two years ago, Enger hired a tricycle, popularly called “Keke Napep”, remitting N15,000 weekly to the owner since he didn’t own the tricycle.
After six months, he took out a loan from a co-operative group and bought his personal “Keke Napep”, using the tricycle as collateral for the loan.
The 35-year-old had planned to pay off the loan with his new tricycle, hoping to expand his business by buying another tricycle and get someone else to drive it.
“I had high hopes for the future, and that includes having a fleet of “Keke Napep,” he said. However, that dream was short-lived. After the coronavirus broke out last year, he shelved his plans.
The tricycle no longer became an asset as businesses grounded to a halt because the lockdown meant he couldn’t fulfil his loan obligation and pay his weekly interest remittance. Immediately after the covid-19 lockdown, the cooperative society seized his tricycle.
He also fell behind on his rent by three months. Enger applied for the FG Survival Fund for MSMEs under the “Transport Tracker” programme in January to help him offset his rent and wade off his landlord.
“I was expecting the money when others were receiving it directly into their accounts, but I never got the alert. I did the biometrics and every procedure they asked for, but I have taken my mind off that money since it wasn’t forthcoming. I had to beg my relatives who contributed money so that I could pay my rent for the year,” he said.
It’s six months since Enger applied for the “Transport Tracker” programme, according to records obtained by The ICIR from the Benue Tricyclists Association, BENTA. Still, the N30,000 stipend is yet to hit his bank account.
Hingir’s experience is not an isolated incident. Over 100 drivers and transporters in Gboko and Makurdi, Benue’s commercial cities, in phone interviews with The ICIR, confirmed they did not receive the one-off grant despite their names being on the transport union’s list sent to the Survival Fund office.
Last year, the Survival Fund office had asked BENTA to provide 250 members who will benefit from the scheme. However, The ICIR discovered that 40 per cent of the shortlisted tricyclists, which accounts for 107 members, did not receive the N30,000 payment.
Financial Secretary of BENTA, Tyohember Terser, says he quit active transport business immediately after the lockdown because the tricycle owner he hired took it away from him after defaulting on the weekly payment he made to the owner.
“I could not continue to pay the N10,000 per week, which I had initially agreed with the owner of the “Keke”, and he took his “Keke”. I am yet to start driving because I can’t afford to buy one because the price is very high,” he said.
Data obtained from NaijaAuto, a vehicle listing website, shows that a brand new tricycle price ranges from N500,000 to N850,000, depending on the brand, but the price of a fairly used tricycle varies from N200,000 to N350,000.
Terser applied for the “Transport Tracker” scheme, and he thought being an official of BENTA would give him a chance to be considered for the grant, but after months of waiting to be paid as other applicants received payment, he lost faith.
“Being an official of BENTA did not do me any favours because I didn’t receive the money, and I don’t know the criteria they used to disburse it to beneficiaries,” he said.
National Union of Road Transport Workers, NURTW, Benue State chapter boasts of over 17,000 members, according to the Secretary of the transport association, Dele Akintola. Speaking to The ICIR, Akintola said the state chapter compiled members’ names and sent them to the national office in Abuja.
“The national office told us to send the names of 700 members, which we did, so we had nothing to do with the process because our members were supposed to receive the grant in their bank accounts directly, but I don’t know why over 200 transporters have not been paid,” he said.
Commercial motorcycling, popularly known as “Okada”, is an essential means of transport in Benue state, but the Survival fund office exempted the motorcyclists association in the state from the scheme.
Vice-Chairman of the Benue State Motorcycle Riders Association (BENMOA), Gboko branch, Dajoh Imuote, lamented that “Okada” riders in Gboko ran into hard times because there was no form of support because the motorcycle transport union was excluded.
“I wonder why ‘Okada’ riders were not considered for the Survival fund project because our challenges were more real. Most of our members who hired motorcycles to ride could not meet their weekly targets, and their motorcycles were taken. We are suffering,” he said.
Gloria Amouka, who lives in Yonov, Gwer East Local Government Area of Benue State, bought a fairly used Toyota Sienna saloon car in 2019, which she hired a driver to drive, making a weekly return of N20,000. But that was until the coronavirus pandemic disrupted economic activities in the state. After the lockdown last year, Amouka tried to get back on her feet as she looked for any means of financial sustenance, which made her apply for the grant.
“It was difficult for me because my car had broken down and I needed money for repairs, so when the opportunity presented itself, my name was included on the list, but till today, the money never arrived,” she said.
Amouka feels disappointed after the Survival Fund office skipped her as she joins thousands of transporters in need of financial assistance. Still, for people like Amouka, the scheme is a lottery and a game of luck.
Where is N109.1 million balance?
In April, the Media Assistant to the Vice President, Laolu Akande, disclosed that the Federal Government had disbursed monies to 319,755 beneficiaries of the Payroll Support track and 265,425 Artisan and Transport Support track beneficiaries, respectively.
He gave a total breakdown of the 265,425 beneficiaries under the Artisan and Transport Support scheme, stating that 118,581 artisans profited from the Artisan support track. At the same time, 146,844 transport operators also received payments under the Transport track.
The data shows that the Survival Fund office had paid 88.1 per cent of transporters selected for the scheme, leaving behind 19,841 transporters which accounts for 11.9 per cent of the transporters who are yet to collect their money.
By implication, the Survival Fund office had paid beneficiaries 90 per cent of the total fund slated for the ‘Transport Track’ project. The project’s scope was to reach 166,685 transporters in 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja.
However, the Survival Fund office did not select 4,505 transporters in each state as the Minister had promised, which meant they would spend N135.2 million in each state.
Checks by The ICIR into the list of shortlisted beneficiaries in Benue reveal that members from three of the state’s major transport unions were selected. They include 700 members from NURTW, 500 members from the National Association of Road Transport Owners, NARTO and 250 members from BENTA.
From the shortlisted members of the selected transport unions, verified by the Project Delivery Office, PDO of the Survival fund office, 213 NURTW transporters have not been paid, while 107 members of BENTA and 261 NARTO members are yet to receive the stipulated stipend.
A total of 581 transporters did not receive N17.4 million, which was arrived at by multiplying N30,000 by 581. The Survival fund office was expected to pay the selected 1,450 transporters in Benue State, the sum of N43.5 million but ended up paying N26.07 million to 869 transport operators.
This raises questions on where the Survival fund office had put the balance of N109 million intended to assist 4,505 transporters in Benue state, to help them cope with the pandemic’s challenges.
One of the criteria for selecting beneficiaries of the Transport track is that the applicant must be a commercial vehicle driver or belong to a publicly recognised transport union to qualify for the grant.
In Benue state, the reverse has been the case. The ICIR discovered that most of the beneficiaries on the scheme’s payroll were neither drivers nor transporters after speaking to some of the beneficiaries via phone interviews.
Mercy Tiza, 32, is a small-scale farmer and trader; Ukende Josephine, 22, studies Microbiology at the Federal University, Lafia and Happiness Sewuese, 20, a 200 level psychology student at the University of Calabar.
Apart from being women, the tie that binds them together is that their names appeared on the NURTW beneficiaries list on the Transport track of the Survival fund office. They all were not involved in the transport business.
Tiza told The ICIR that although she had never owned a car or drove one, her husband, a commercial driver in Yonov, fixed her name on the list meant exclusively for transporters.
“I am not a driver or belong to any transport association, but my husband is a driver, and he put my name so I could also receive the money from the Survival fund. When I received the money, my husband was bedridden because he had an accident, but he also got the N30,000 which helped us during that period,” she said.
Her husband’s name Tiza Aondoser who plies the Konshisha-Vandeikya axis, was also on the list of beneficiaries when The ICIR checked. Josephine’s case had a touch of nepotistic corruption because her father, Ukende Thomas, was not only able to put her name on the list but her brother’s also Ukende Bem.
Speaking to The ICIR, Josephine explained that she left school in Lafia, which was about 85 kilometres away, to get to Makurdi for the biometrics registration involved for the verification of beneficiaries.
“My father called me from school that he had fixed my name on the beneficiaries of the Transport track and wanted me to come to Makurdi for the biometrics, which I did. I received the money in April, and it helped me to cope in school,” she said.
The selection of beneficiaries relies on a community-based targeting approach. The state transport union’s leadership documents the names of its qualified members, which is sent directly to the Survival Fund office, which in turn carries out biometric verification of the members before disbursing the funds.
For Sewuese, she was not so lucky despite scaling the biometric process after her father enlisted her name as a transport union member, though she had never driven a car or owned one. She did not receive the N30,000.
Yet, it appears the Survival fund office did not carry out due diligence in its verification exercise as non-transport workers made away with the Federal Government’s support meant for transport operators in the country.
Where the buck stops
Last year, the Federal Government had set up a 10-man steering committee to drive the various welfare support schemes for business owners, especially MSMEs, transporters, and artisans.
Katagum, the Bauchi- born Trade Minister (State), was appointed chairman of the steering committee, while former Chairman, First Bank of Nigeria Plc, Ibukun Awosika, is Vice Chairman.
Tola Johnson, Special Assistant to the President on MSME’s, serves as secretary of the committee and coordinates the affairs of the PDO saddled with distributing the N30,000 stipend to beneficiaries of the ‘Transport Track’ nationwide.
Since the ‘Transport Track’ was launched last year, the disbursement process has been fraught with numerous challenges, especially in Benue State.
Special Adviser to the Benue State Governor on MSME’s, Emmanuel Doughdough, who is also the focal person for the Survival Fund office, acknowledged that officials of the PDO in Abuja were fully involved in enumerating and paying beneficiaries of the scheme without interference from the states.
“Officials from the Project Delivery Office in Abuja conducted the verification of shortlisted beneficiaries in Benue State, and they were involved in paying the monies directly to them. I would say we played a bit-part role in the process because I submitted the list from the transport unions to them while another copy was sent to their national office,” he said.
The ICIR had sent Freedom of Information, FOI requests to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment and Ministry of Transport to get details of the disbursements made in Benue State.
The Ministry of Transport responded after two weeks, stating the information was not domiciled in its custody, while the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment were yet to respond.
Also, efforts to get reactions from the office of the Vice-President was unsuccessful as calls, text and WhatsApp messages to Laolu Akande, media aide to the Vice-President were not replied to.
Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.