Lagos spent half a billion on machine sweepers but still makes poor women clean highways— 18mins read
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DESPITE a N576m contract for mechanized sweeping of highways in Lagos West Senatorial District, roads are still being swept manually, exposing sweepers and road users to avoidable dangers on the highways, Omolabake Fasogbon reports
It was about 11.00 am on a rainy Saturday, but 52-year old Risikat (not real name) was spotted deeply engrossed in her work along Iyana Ipaja expressway, Lagos. As the light drizzle turned into a steady downpour, Risikat, clad in a green coloured jumpsuit, held her sweeping tools (local broom, a long stick and a plastic packer) as she busily swept the roads and pavements clean and free of debris. She maneuvered her broom gently on the floor, starting from the adjoining roads and gradually advanced to the highway.
As early as 6.00 am daily, Risikat is already on her beat, which she is expected to round off by noon when the person on the afternoon shift takes over. She told this reporter that she was doing her third and last round for the day as she had swept the same spot twice earlier. Despite the exposure to risk and ravaging Covid-19, Risikat was not using any Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) including a facemask, glove, and boot, except for an unbranded face cap on her head.
She is one of the Lagos Waste Management Agency (LAWMA) sweepers posted to Iyana Ipaja area of Lagos to keep the highway and environs clean.
Occasionally, oncoming vehicles hoot their horns from a distance to alert her to leave the road; while some vehicles that are already close tarry for her to pack accumulated waste into a woven local thrash basket stationed by a corner on the highway. On one of the days this reporter monitored Risikat at her duty post, vehicles waited for her to clear waste (mostly disposed plastic bottles and water sachets) on the road. As traffic built up, it stirred a spontaneous reaction from hasty commercial bus conductors shouting “Mama, kuro lona’’ (Mama, leave the road). The continuous chorus from bus conductors rented the air as impatient drivers fixed their hands on the horn till the road cleared.
In another instance, Risikat, perhaps deep in thought, did not hear the blaring horn of an oncoming vehicle. Luckily, she was saved by a passerby who notified her by a tap on her back. This reporter observed Risikat till noon when she completed her shift. As she was about to join her supervisor and colleagues at their terminal (an open space somewhere by the roadside), this reporter approached her on the risks her job exposes her to, especially the accident that was averted by the good-spirited person that tapped her on the back.
Responding, Risikat, a 52-year-old that looks older than her actual age, said she is used to such highway risks as part of challenges that come with her job. She agreed that sweeping the highway was dangerous, but said that she had no option because it was her major source of livelihood – a job from where she gets money to fund her insecticide business and feed her grown-up but unemployed children.
“My daughter, we are used to such. May God continue to protect us. Except when it rains, we are constantly inhaling fumes and dust every blessed day and as you can see, cough and sneezing have become everyday sickness for me. Worse still is how we are being thrown away from the road by careless and impatient drivers. Many of our colleagues have been killed in the process while some have lost soundness and some part of their body,” Risikat, who limps, said, adding that she lost her walk balance on the job when a motorcycle hit her in the middle of the highway while sweeping.
Risikat’s sorry experiences, amongst others, were the reason the reason Lagos State government decided to discard manual road sweeping and settle for mechanised sweeping of highways and thoroughfares in Lagos West Senatorial District in the interest of humans and the environment.
Of Nigeria’s 774 local government areas, Lagos West Senatorial District is rated to be the largest and most populous; it is home to about half of Lagos residents with a population of over 12 million. It consists of ten of the state’s 20 local governments areas (LGAs): Agege, Ajeromi/Ifelodun, Alimosho, Amuwo – Odofin, Badagry, Ifako – Ijaiye, Ikeja, Mushin, Ojo and Oshodi/Isolo.
Because the district boasts of an attractive profile which makes it a significant spot in Lagos state, it is believed that employing machines to sweep highways will help minimise road-related problems, enabling the government to focus on developmental projects.
Announcing during a press conference on May 2018 that the state had appointed three contractors to manage the sweeping of highways and thoroughfares in Lagos West Senatorial District with the machine, the then Lagos State Commissioner for Environment, Babatunde Durosinmi-Etti, named the three appointed firms: Avatar Global Resources Limited; Waste Care Solutions and Resources Management; and Corporate Solutions Limited.
Also, earlier in 2017, the Executive Secretary of Lagos Environmental Sanitation Corps (LAGESC), Mrs. Idowu Mohammed, said the mechanised trucks would secure the lives of highway sweepers who often are victims of hit-and-run drivers. Muhammed added that the machines would sweep the highways while sweepers will be confined to sweeping of inner streets within the community.
A document from the Public Procurement Agency (PPA), published on BUDGIT website, confirmed the three contractors who received the contract as identified by Durosinmi-Etti. According to the document, the contract was awarded to the three firms at N192 million naira each, totaling N576 million in all.
Investigation showed that a letter of contract was issued to Avatar Global Resources Limited and Waste Care Solutions and Resources Management on July 5, 2018, while that of Corporate Solutions Limited was issued on May 7, 2018. That was during the administration of former Governor Akinwumi Ambode.
In addition to safety, Risikat averred that the idea was well-received by sweepers considering that they will not have to spend money on transportation to get to their place of duty since they would be made to sweep inner streets within their political wards.
“Ambode brought the idea of sweeping the highways with machines and we were all happy about it. Then, the arrangement was that machines would sweep the highways while we will be made to sweep inner streets in our respective political ward. This will also save us the cost of transport as we are not being paid transport allowance even up till now. Again, we were happy that finally, we will be free from vehicle flames, dust, and activities of reckless drivers, not knowing that our hopes were just being raised in vain. We actually learnt they arranged for the machine but I am still sweeping the highway till today,” she lamented.
Avoidable deaths, jarring revelations
With not less than N576m awarded for the sweeping contract, THISDAY findings show that the machines were only test-run in selected areas for a short period. Yet, sweepers continue to fall victims in the hands of reckless motorists. For instance, data from the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) showed that between 2007 and 2010, 57 street sweepers were killed by reckless drivers while carrying out their duties. Since 2010 till now, a number of sad tales, including deaths, have been reported about street sweepers in the course of duty.
In a casual discussion initiated by our reporter at the Lagos State Ministry of Environment (MOE), officials, who did not have an idea of her real identity, spoke freely on the project and why it should better be seen as an idea that is dead on arrival.
“You are talking about machine sweepers in Lagos State. No, no, no! It can’t work. Besides the fact that our roads are not suitable for such machines, politicians won’t let such initiative work because it’s just like depriving them of their livelihood. What will be the lot of those politicians who got the contract of the manual sweeping?” one of them asked rhetorically.
Even when this reporter tried get them to understand that the machines were not out to supplant manual sweeping as the sweepers were supposed to be redeployed to the inner streets as planned, one official insisted that it would not work.
“My sister! Forget it, this is Lagos, she stated”
When asked about the whereabouts of the machines, they hinted that they only sighted some machines in 2018 for a couple of days or weeks sweeping in some parts of Alausa and Ikeja.
“We learnt they were being test run. It wasn’t too long that we stopped seeing them and nobody can say where they are. It could be that they are rusting away somewhere or those who own them have come for them.”
Just like environment ministry officials, a top source in LAWMA who should be in the know if the project still exists feigned ignorance of the sweeper machines, maintaining that politicians may have frustrated the project because of their selfish interest. The source, who obviously had no inkling of the operation of the machine sweepers, admitted that he once heard about it, but neither he nor any of his colleagues he enquired from had an idea of the workings of the machine or could say whether they are functioning or not.
Claims and counters claims
This reporter tried to trace the three contractors who were entrusted with the project to confirm the status of their contracts. Unfortunately, efforts to trace the contractors from the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) in Lagos proved abortive, despite several visits to the office. The security man who attended to visitors at the gate directed everyone to Abuja for all manners of transactions. One of the CAC staff who spoke to THISDAY confirmed that activities in CAC had taken a new shape as a result of COVID-19. He disclosed that all activities have been centralized and should he try to assist, it might take donkey years before the search is completed and the result dispatched to Lagos from Abuja.
Upon insistence, he decided to assist with a preliminary search to confirm if the contractors were registered with the CAC. From the CAC record, only two companies (Avatar Global Resources Limited, and Waste Care Solutions and Resources Management) are registered with the commission; while the third contractor (Corporate Solutions Limited) could not be traced at all. Not willing to give up, this reporter then resorted to google search for the contractors’ details. And just like the CAC search reported, there was no record for Corporate Solutions Limited online. This discovery further fueled suspicions, especially how names of contractors were arranged on PPA’s list as well as the inconsistency on the date the award letter was issued by MOE.
For instance, Avatar Global Resources Limited and Waste Care Solutions and Resources Management (contractors registered with CAC) occupied numbers 14 and15 on the contract list and were issued a letter of award on the same day: 05/07/2018. Corporate Solutions Limited, on the other hand, occupied number two on PPA’s list and was issued letter of award on 07/05/2018. This, coupled with ‘similarity’ in the dates the award letters were issued, further raised suspicions as to why the three companies were not issued letter of award on the same day since they were meant to carry out a similar task.
However, this reporter was only able to trace the phone number of the Managing Director of Waste Care Solutions and Resources Management, Mr. Lateef Oluwole Shitta-Bey. On reaching out to him to know what happened to the machine sweeper project awarded to his company by the Lagos State Government in 2018, said that the sweeper machines belong to his company, adding that the tools are still very much in use on Lagos roads.
“The machines are the property of Waste Care and they are still very much working on Lagos highways, he stated.” When asked which part of Lagos the machines are presently operating, he flared up. By the time conversation began, the reporter had not disclosed her identity and he too never bothered to ask.
But when discussions veered into more serious issues, Shitta-Bey angrily requested the identity of the caller. Without waiting for this reporter to introduce herself, the contractor hung up the call and never picked subsequent calls from the line. This was at 3:47 pm on Saturday, October 17.
On Friday, November 6, this reporter called with another line and formally introduced herself as a journalist demanding to know why the machines are not working on the highways. His response, “The machines don’t belong to the government. We were asked to stop working last year on June 1, but our machines have started working back on the highway since August 1, 2020.”
Again, when asked about the locations where the machines are currently operating so that the reporter can confirm the claim, he asked the reporter to do an official email to get further information about the project.
This reporter obliged and did an email on a date he approved that the email should be sent which was November 8. This reporter put forward her enquiries but he still refused to provide relevant details. In replying to the email 14 minutes after, he wrote: “Please direct your enquiry to Lagos State Ministry of Environment or Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA). Thank you.”
It was another brick wall at the environment ministry. When this reporter reached out to the Assistant Director, Public Affairs & Research in the ministry, Adekunle Adesina, and requested to get through to the Commissioner for the Environment and Water Resources, Tunji Bello, he asked that all enquiries be directed through him. He added that the Commissioner was away at the time.
This reporter forwarded the enquiries on November 4 and thereafter put several calls and WhatSapp messages to him, at least to acknowledge the questions sent to him, but he did not pick or reply to the messages. When this reporter called with another line three days after, he picked and said the Commissioner was still not back. But this reporter told him that the Commissioner needed not to be physically available to attend to the questions since questions have been sent electronically, he kept mute for a while and asked the reporter to meet LAWMA.
This reporter then reminded him that the contract was awarded by his ministry and that LAWMA is just a subordinate agency. He thereafter promised to call the reporter back. On November 10, the reporter sent a reminder before he forwarded what he called the Commissioner’s reactions on the issues.
“I have spoken to my boss again on the questions you sent. He said he is not aware of the whole transaction and has no further comments on it.”
Already, this reporter had reached out to previous commissioners who were supposed to be privy to the contract, requesting to know why the machines are not on the highways as designed since the contract was awarded when they were in office under Ambode.
But they seemed to be on the same page with the incumbent Commissioner, claiming to be ignorant of the transactions. For instance, when contacted by phone on November 6, the immediate past Commissioner of Environment, Babatunde Durosinmi-Etti, who announced the award of the road sweeping contracts in 2018, refused to provide any useful insight. Instead, he gave excuses.
“I am not on the cabinet again and I don’t think it is proper for me to talk about it. You know once you are in public service, you are bound by the official secret act. Besides, professionally and ethically, it’s not proper for me to tell you what happened during my tenure. It will be a betrayal of trust.”
Asked why the machines were not found on the highways as proposed, he said he did not know.
“I don’t know. I was in office for just one year and I left office over a year ago. The machines were intact when I left office over a year ago. I don’t really know about the project because the contract was awarded when my predecessor, Dr. Babatunde Adejare was in office. Mind you, the machines do not belong to (the state) government; the service was actually contracted out.”
However, contrary to Babatunde-Etti’s claim that machines were sweeping the highway under his leadership as the Commissioner, findings across 10 highways in Lagos West showed that during the period in question, highways were swept manually as they are till date. Although Bbatunde – Etti claimed that he inherited the project from his predecessor, a document from PPA showed that the contract letter was issued to the contractors in May and July 2018, when he was just four and seven months old in the office as commissioner. Adejare left the office in January of that year. As suggested by Babatunde-Etti, this reporter tried to reach out to Babatunde Adejare, who was the Commissioner for Environment till January 2018. He refused to respond to the WhatsApp and SMS messages sent to him about the project on November 23. He also refused to pick subsequent calls put to him that same day.
To get LAWMA’s reaction, the reporter sent a WhatsApp message to the agency’s Assistant Director, Public Affairs, Akinleye Akeem Kayode on November 24 but he did not respond to the message. The reporter later called him thrice but he did not pick or call her back. After a reminder was sent the next day, Kayode responded, “Your message is clearly understood. Please give me some time to respond”. But he never responded until this report was filed.
Sweepers share ordeals, refuting claims of machines sweeping the highways
Contrary to claims that machine sweepers have returned to the highways after months of hiatus, all the ten major highways in Lagos West Senatorial District visited by our reporters are swept manually. Just like Risikat, who resumes every morning at Iyana Ipaja highway, Kemi (not real name) works on a permanent afternoon shift at Agege Motor Road in Oshodi. Kemi was sighted alongside her male and female colleagues struggling to collect waste in the middle of the highway with their stick-aided broom. But Kemi’s countenance of all drew attention. The single mother of one has personal challenges she was nurturing; obviously, she was not comfortable with her job as a highway sweeper for many reasons. She feels she deserves better as a National Diploma (ND) holder. She confessed to our reporter that sweeping the highway is stressful and dangerous.
This reporter asked to know why machines have not been sweeping the highway since the contracts were given out, looking rather surprised said, with a note of sarcasm, “Machine! I heard about it too in 2018. Till today, I’ve not seen it except if they will bring it tomorrow. I’ve been here since 2019 and I’ve never come across such. As a matter of fact, when they mentioned it, many of us were happy and felt relief had come, not knowing it was a mere propaganda.”
Besides protecting her against risks, Kemi feels leaving the highway to sweep inner streets would be a better idea.
“Ordinarily, I feel ashamed that I’m working as a sweeper, and then sweeping highway. I get to see a lot of my colleagues and each time I see them drive past and say hi, I’m always embittered.”
At Majidun-Asolo in Ikorodu, 35-year-old Kudi (not real name) said that she is always putting on her prayer armour each time she is on duty so as not to be a victim of reckless drivers. According to her, despite the C-caution sign mounted on the road to alert drivers that sweepers are at work, there has been a recurrence of accidents involving her colleagues. “Just yesterday, two vehicles ran over the C-caution sign on the road that their tyres even burst. I was right in front of the signpost. In fact, I had a close shave with death; it was only God that saved me.” Like others, Kudi, who has been sweeping for over four years, said she cannot recall anytime a machine was deployed to sweep the area in the past four years.
She confided in this reporter that it would be her greatest joy if machines are made to sweep the highways while they can sweep other roads. “My sister, the workload here is too much for the peanut we are being paid. You can imagine when tractors come to clear the weed, they still dump it on the road for us to sweep. On several occasions, we’ve had to sweep a heap of sand on the road that we do not know who and how they got there,” she added.
At Agbara-Badagry expressway, there was no sweeper in sight for almost 30 minutes that this reporter waited at a spot. It was later that a sweeper turned up, with this reporter hoping that her colleagues would join or maybe a machine sweeper would surface considering how bad the road is. Indeed, no other sweeper joined her and there was no machine in sight.
When this reporter tried to speak with the sweeper, the obviously overworked woman showed no interest in any discussion. As much as this reporter tried to initiate one, she failed to talk but merely waved her hand to show that she was not in the mood.
This reporter engaged one of the shop owners in the area, asking to know whether human or machine sweepers have been regular in the area. The man, who did not give his name, said he has never seen any machine sweeper at work in the area.
“I have never come across machine sweepers all my life, not anywhere and not even on this road. Since the road construction started, the sweepers have not been regular because they don’t have much to do.”
He, however, lamented that drainages in the area have since been converted to waste bins ever since the road construction started. He called on the government to come to their rescue.
Getting to the Sawmill area of Badagry expressway, this reporter sighted some sweepers on duty and approached the only one among them who was stretching to the middle of the highway. Asked how she has been coping with sweeping the highway, she said, ‘We have been warned to restrict sweeping to the side of the road. But once in a while, when we see the need to sweep the middle of the road, we do with extreme caution but not without the C-caution sign. Asked if there was any time a machine was deployed to sweep the highway, her response like her colleagues in other locations was: No.”
At Toyota bus-stop, extending further to Five Star bus-stop along Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, this reporter neither found LAWMA sweepers nor machines on the route on four different occasions she visited the area. This reporter asked some Guardian Newspapers employees who ply the route almost on a daily basis if they had come in contact with LAWMA sweepers or machine sweeping the area, especially the expressway. None of them answered in the affirmative
At Mile 2 bus-stop, also along Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, Sidikat (not real name) was found seated at the road median snacking on a roasted plantain with a sachet of water. It looked like she was done with a round of sweeping and waiting for a particular time to commence another round. This reporter asked why she chose to rest in the open space despite the heat.
“We don’t have an office; the highway is our office. So we can hang around at any spot to rest.”
Sidikat, who is in her late fifties said further, “My children have asked me to leave the job for long; I ignored them because I still get to feed them from the meagre amount I earn here. My two children are factory workers and they are paid peanuts on a daily basis. The money they earn daily at times is spent on feeding and transport. But I think now it is high time I left. I was almost killed last week by a mad driver. I have lost colleagues on this road, and we are more careful than ever. In fact, I can’t straighten my back again; the job has given me a new posture entirely. Now, I suffer persistent backache. By God’s grace, I’m resigning once I collect my December salary. I will use the money to set up a small business.”
Asked if there were any time machines had swept the express, she said, “Yes, I heard about it during Ambode’s time, but we have not seen it o. Tell them to bring machine o. I can’t come and die over a token. If they redeploy me to sweep the side street, I may not resign so soon.”
At Ojota bus-stop, along Ikorodu expressway, Segun (not real name) was about closing for the day when this reporter approached him. Asked what challenges he faces as a highway sweeper, Segun said, “Haa! Go and ask the women. As a man, I still get to gather myself to prevent emergencies but honestly, I pity the women among us. Often times, they are victims of hit-and-run drivers. As I speak, two of them didn’t report to work today because they are sick. One of them was thrown on the floor by a wheelbarrow pusher last week.”
Asked if he would prefer a machine to sweep the highway, he said, “that will be good o!”
“In fact, they have mentioned it before! If they are not bringing the machine, I would suggest that they should let men sweep the highway and transfer women to the streets. It’s not easy for everyone but men can still cope better with the wahala (stress) here.”
It was lamentations galore at Iyana Oworo, along Berger-Ojodu expressway, as one of the sweepers identified as Bukky complained bitterly about poor remuneration and hazards of the job. “Let them increase our salary and improve our work conditions. What stops us from earning minimum wage? This is the main thing we are talking about. No hazard allowance, no insurance. In fact, my sister, I’m looking for a befitting job in case you can help me get one.”
On her part, Funmi (not real name) in Motorways Ikeja said, “My body is used to the pain, stress and fear of being hit down by a vehicle. I pray that our daily fear won’t come to pass.” She added, there was a particular time they said they brought the machine here but I don’t think it lasted a month according to what I heard. I just resumed here in January so I don’t really know much about it. But since I’ve resumed, we have been sweeping with our broom, not a machine.”
Narrating her ordeal, Seyi (not real name) in Cele bus-stop, along Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, was quick to show this reporter a deep mark on her left thigh, which she said was as a result of a hit by a reckless commercial bus driver while at work. Telling her story, she said, “it all happened within a twinkle of an eye. I was just packing the dirt I gathered and before I could look up, I saw the bus hit me by the thigh but he had escaped even before I shouted. I thought it was something mild, but it was not. I nursed it for close to one month.”
When asked if the state catered for her medical bills when the accident happened, she said it did not. Seyi added that she would appreciate being redeployed to inner roads or streets.
“We don’t have special entitlement as highway sweepers; we earn the same salary as our colleagues that are not sweeping the highways. Yet, we face more risk and work more than them.”
Both MOE and LAWMA failed to answer questions on what protection arrangement they have for their highway sweepers given the vulnerability of their job.
Sweepers’ work conditions against medical prescriptions
A study published on the Malaysian Journal of Medical Science revealed that the most common risks for street sweepers are respiratory symptoms and airway obstruction, which increases as a result of dust inhalation. To reduce sweepers’ exposure to respiratory disease, the study recommends brooms with large handles, modern cleansing equipment, sprinkling water on the street before sweeping, limiting the duration of work to three or four days a week, and using appropriate respiratory protection.
“Furthermore, a periodic assessment of lung function needs to be conducted via spirometry in order to diagnose pulmonary dysfunction early in this financially deprived population. Eventually, if possible, individuals with respiratory problems or significant pulmonary function parameter reductions should be transferred to other municipal departments,” the study recommended.
But these recommendations do not apply to Lagos sweepers. Our reporter gathered that instead of the three to four days recommended by experts, the sweepers work six hours daily for six days of the week.
Although Lagos State Government said in July that it has commenced an insurance policy for all street sweepers towards enhancing better welfare package and improved waste management in the state, that has not happened.
According to LAWMA Managing Director, Ibrahim Odumboni, the insurance policy covers, among others, death while in active service, permanent disability, and medical expenses. However, sweepers who spoke with THISDAY said they had never even gone on government-funded routine medical checkups since they signed work contracts with LAWMA and that they are yet to receive any notification on the insurance policy.
‘Industrial sweeping is cheaper, healthier, safer and faster’
According to experts, the effectiveness of machine sweeping over manual sweeping of roads has been proven globally. It is preferred above manual means to safely remove dirt, debris and litter, nails, amongst others, and provides a healthy, safe, and attractive environment. Beside the carnage arising from highway sweeping, the initiative is considered more environmental friendly given its reliability in ensuring cleaner and safer roads.
In the third quarter of 2019 alone, the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) said it recorded about 419 road traffic crashes in Lagos State with not less than 84 deaths during the said period. According to experts, part of what accounts for accidents on the road are accumulated sand and dirt on the highway, which also reduces the traction of auto tires.
A China-based firm once recommended machine sweeping over manual sweeping, saying sweeping with machine is more economical, efficient and can do the work of six workers. The firm speaks further of the benefits of machine sweeping thus:
“It offers low cost in the sense that it can replace 12-15 manual cleaning, saves a lot of labour wages, welfare benefits and pay rise to deal with the problem. It offers high-security performance and yields high economic returns whereby one can spend only more than 10 yuan per day (charging, consumables, wear). But if it is more than 10 people, wages and benefits, such as at least a thousand yuan, but also to invest in basic cleaning tools and operating costs.”
Corroborating the strengths of mechanized sweeping over manual cleaning, Chief Executive Officer of Shodex Beautification Landmark Ltd, Olusola Adekoya, said the effects of industrial sweepers over manual sweepers cannot be overemphasized, especially in a city like Lagos.
“But for those who are still using traditional cleaning tools, such as a bucket and a mop, the cost of the equipment may feel like a huge barrier to entry. But what they are missing out on is that this industrial cleaning equipment is actually more effective than what they are currently using, and they are indirectly wasting money by sticking to outmoded cleaning tools.
“It is cheaper, healthier, safer and faster. We have lost many sweepers to hit-and-run motorists in the past and it is still happening, but this could have been averted with a mechanical sweeper. The industrial sweeper reduces traffic because it is snap, it reduces the particulate matters in the air by collecting the silt, and yet, the cost of operations is minimal. The adoption of manual sweeping in the present time not only adds to the environmental nuisance but also a waste of manpower and taxpayers’ money.”
* This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.