By Mohammed Dahiru LAWAL
“We are in bondage! We pay tax to government officials and yet during the hardship caused by Covid-19 we didn’t get a penny or help from government. They come here, snap our faces, show us on TV and nothing comes out of it,” 32-yr-old Bala Hamza, a commercial bus driver fumed as he paced back and forth near his rickety bus parked along the Na’ibawa Underpass, a popular bus terminal for commuters plying the Kano-Zaria-Kaduna expressway.
BEING one of those who was hard hit last year due to the restriction on public transportation occasioned by the lockdown imposed by government due to COVID-19 global pandemic, Hamza was supposed to be a beneficiary of the Federal Government COVID-19 Survival Fund meant for all kinds of transport operators in the country. Months after, Hamza says he didn’t know that such scheme existed despite belonging to one of the numerous transport unions in the state.
“During the lockdown, I practically became an Almajiri. I could not fend for myself and family without looking up to friends and some good Samaritans,” he recounted.
Hamza’s frustration is not misplaced. In August last year, the federal government, through the Minister of State for Transportation, Gbemisola Saraki, disclosed that the it had approved a ₦10 billion survival fund for transport workers and operators. The minister said that the funds, which would help cushion the sufferings encountered by road transport workers and operators as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, is domiciled in the Federal Ministry of Trade, Industry and Investment, which was working with the transportation ministry on the modalities for the disbursement.
Four months later, the federal government inaugurated an intervention grant for micro transport operators under its Survival Fund for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) to overcome challenges of COVID-19 pandemic. The intervention grant which is also dubbed “Transport Track” was supposed to give a one-off grant of N30, 000 each to qualified individuals operating in the transport sector including rideshare drivers such as Uber, and Bolt, taxi drivers, bus drivers, tricycle and motorcycle operators, cart pushers amongst others. Days later, payments of supposed beneficiaries commenced.
However, seven months after project implementation commenced, the disbursement of the grant has been marred by sleaze, racketeering and shady deals in Kano, findings by PRNigeria have shown.
It was discovered that against the laid down procedure for accessing the grant, some beneficiaries, mostly members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) in the state, were levied NGN10, 000 before being considered eligible. Despite this, the success rate of eventual beneficiaries is inexcusable. In Kano, 8 out of every 10 persons (80 per cent) who disclosed to PRNigeria that they paid to access the grant never benefitted.
Scheme bedeviled by irregularities
Investigations by this newspaper revealed that some of the operators who could not afford to pay the levy at the time, borrowed money from associates with a promise that they will repay their debt once they get the grant.
“I borrowed people money to register for the grant, and I was lucky to be selected. I know colleagues who did same but they haven’t gotten theirs till now and this is not hearsay. As financial secretary of this unit, I was the one who personally collected the levy and took it to the NURTW with everyone’s detail and they gave me a receipt as payment confirmation,” says Najib, an official of Kano Line, a state-owned transport company at its Nasarawa park, Kofar Nasarawa area of the state.
Mohammad Rabiu Garba, a commercial transporter who plies Biu, Mubi and Taraba from Mariri park is also one of the unlucky ones. He confirmed that he could not access the grant despite paying the N10,000 levy.
The Vice President, Public Transport Owners of Nigeria Association (PITONA) for the Northern region at the popular Karota park in Hotoro, Tarauni Local Government Area (LGA) of Kano State, Mr. Kabiru Abba Sumaila, berated the shady deals that have tainted the disbursement of the fund despite the transport sector loosing quite a lot during the pandemic.
He alleged that despite PITONA fulfilling conditions for accessing the grants, the organisation did not receive any support from the federal government.
“We followed all the necessary protocols by both the ministry of transport and that of trade, industry and investment, yet nothing came our way. We later heard that they gave tricycle operators N12, 000 as benefit instead of N30,000. We encountered huge loss during the pandemic especially during the lockdown and the enforcement of social distancing amongst passengers in the vehicle. Government needs to come to our aide, even if it is not cash, any other initiative is welcome,” Sumaila lamented.
For many, the poor disbursement did not come as a surprise. Emmanuel Chukwuma, a supervisor at GUO Motors, is one of those who doubted the scheme right from the onset. He wondered how a government could not provide non-pharmaceutical safety measures such as face masks for transporters in the heat of the COVID-19 waves would be willing to give N30,000 to them now.
“During COVID-19, ordinary face masks government can’t even provide, is it money they will now give us? It’s a no brainer,” he said.
Members unaware of the grant
The low awareness of the grant amongst tricycle operators is quite appalling. Abdullahi Alhassan, a tricycle operator at the Na’ibawa flyover who is also the secretary, Tricycle Owners Association of Nigeria, (TOAN) said he did not know such a scheme existed not to talk of benefitting from it.
“I have over 350 tricycles operating from this unit on a daily basis and no single person got anything. Do you know that some of our members lost their livelihoods during this COVID-19 pandemic?” he said.
A tricycle operator, Abdulwahab Baba, said he did not hear of the scheme despite being a staunch member of TOAN.
“I said I did not benefit from it,” he quipped when asked if he benefitted from the grant.
“We need this, life is getting unbearable. I have not been able to pay my children’s school fee as we speak,” he lamented.
Also speaking, a bus driver who simply identified himself as Badamasi and plies local routes within Kano State said he is not a beneficiary of the scheme and has not seen any member of his union that has benefitted.
Unguwa Uku Bus Park in Tarauni is a renowned terminal for vehicles plying major routes in the North-central and Northeast. Several interviews with members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) at the park showed that majority of them were not aware of the initiative. Abubakar Muhammed, a member of the NURTW in the park who plies Yola and Gombe axis, said he has not heard of the scheme.
Transport operators at Kofar Ruwa Park, Dala LGA, known for operating across North western states of Katsina, Sokoto Zamfara and as far as Niger Republic, disclosed that they have met with government, filled relevant documents but they keep getting referrals back to their union which is yet to pay them a dime.
Officials of Kano Line who spoke to this newspaper said they were unaware of the scheme. Lawan Sani, who survives on menial jobs including cart pushing in Hotoro, Tarauni LGA, said he is yet to benefit from the grant.
“I am just learning of the scheme from you but maybe my union will know better,” he said.
However, officials at its headquarters and the popular Nasarawa flyover park at Nasarawa LGA, acknowledged the existence of the scheme admitting that only few of those who paid the N10,000 levy got the grant.
It was somewhat different at the National Association of Road Transport Operators (NARTO), says Abbah Kabir Yusuf, an official of the union in the state. He denied that his union levied its members adding that only a few of its members benefitted from the grant.
“Other unions may be levying their operators, but I can assure you that NARTO didn’t do it,” he said.
Speaking on the disbursement of the fund, Alhaji Mansur Tanimu, chairman of the Amalgamated Commercial Tricycle and Motorcycle Owners, Repairs and Riders Association of Nigeria (ACOMORAN), stated that despite having a registered member database of about 18,070 members, none of them benefitted from the fund.
“We did all the required documentations, gave the list of our members but we are yet to see anything,” he said.
Tanimu disclosed that there are about 70,000 registered tricycle operators in Kano and not a significant proportion has benefited from the scheme.
He, however, admitted that a sister body, National Commercial Tricycle and Motorcycle Riders Association of Nigeria (NACTOMORAS) under the chairmanship of Alhaji Muhammad Sani Hassan, who were able to secure some of the fund supported his association with a token which he disbursed to a few registered members.
Spate of underpayments, favouritsm and corruption
Allegations of favoritism and corruption in the disbursement of the grant is also rife. Also reacting Bakolo Mai Unguwa Uku, Gombe Line chairman, said he is aware that people lobbied and got paid N20,000 grant. Mamman Takai, Chairman, Union of Tippers and Quarry Employers Association of Nigeria, Kano Branch, said that only about 250 persons out of 10,000 registered members of his association got the grant of NGN30,000
“We also have a union called the Kano Transport Forum (KTF) in which I am secretary and the Chairman of NARTO is the head. The KTF is the umbrella of all transport unions in the state, I can tell you authoritatively that the distribution of the fund is highly disproportionate,” Takai said via a phone interview.
Reacting to allegations of levying members before giving them assess to the fund, the chairman NURTW Kano Branch, denied itm adding that he is not aware of such act.
When asked about the extent of disbursement, he said the state chapter got its grant from its headquarters in Abuja, implemented it and reported back to national officials.
He admitted that only about 25% of their members benefited from the fund.
“I believe the rest are held back in the bank, you can confer with our headquarters,” he stated.
Reactions from government and experts
When contacted, the Public Relations Officer, Kano State Ministry of Housing and Transport, Yusuf Abubakar Ibrahim, said the scheme is under the supervision of the ministry’s Director of Special duties, who is currently on admission in a hospital. He promised to visit him and get information that will enable him to get back to this newspaper. He did not get back to our reporter before he filed this report.
However, Kabiru Saidu Dakata, the Executive Director, Centre for Awareness on Justice and Accountability (CAJA), said it is obvious that the fund have been diverted because majority of the intended beneficiaries were not aware of it.
He stressed that it has now become incumbent on the government to hold those responsible for disbursement of the funds accountable.
“It is also the responsibility of the public to demand to know where is the fund, who is pocketing it since target beneficiaries have not had access to it. Those who claim to have disbursed the funds should come out publicly with the list of those who benefitted including their contacts and addresses, paste it in a school or police station in all the wards,” Dakata demanded.
He insists that meeting his demands is not impossible as long as it is possible for election materials to reach the over 80million electorates in the country. “We don’t expect someone to come and tell us no the number is large, the list is lengthy, we don’t care. In all the wards and local government where these beneficiaries are, let us see it. At the moment we are doubting it and we are suspecting that some people have diverted the funds. The intervention has failed and government must take it up unless it is also complicit,” Dakata said.
On his part, Musa Abdullahi Sufi, a development commentator opines that the approach in terms of not involving stakeholders such as Civil Society Organizations and other professional association in the implementation of the scheme is largely responsible for poor execution of the fund in the state.
He said that the disbursement would have been more effective if carried out in the premises of a traditional ruler, or through an online process with other strategies for verification to ensure the right persons are reached.
Calls placed and messages sent to the Chief Press Secretary (CPS) to the Kano Sate Governor, Abba Anwar, for reactions, were not responded to as at the time of filing this report.
* This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.