TRANSPORTERS, particularly commercial taxis and cabs, are flouting regulations put in place by the government to curb the spread of the COVID-19 disease in the country, The ICIR investigation has revealed.
Guidelines issued by the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 and the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control to ensure spacing and social distancing among passengers include a directive that all commercial transport vehicles, such as buses and taxis, should operate at 60 percent capacity, rather than 100 percent.
Specifically, in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, cabs operating inter-city and intra-city routes, including those popularly referred to as ‘along’, were directed to carry only one passenger on the front seat, beside the driver, and two or three at the back.
Drivers and passengers alike were also required to wear face masks.
Although the Federal Government had eased some of the guidelines introduced at the initial phase of the lockdown, directives on social distancing and use of face masks are still in place and are daily emphasised in radio and television announcements.
However, checks at various motor parks and bus stops in and around the FCT revealed that the guidelines are being flouted even in the presence of law enforcement agents, such as men of the Nigeria Police Force and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps. Officers of the Federal Road Safety Corps are also not doing anything to check the situation.
At the various motor parks and bus stops visited by The ICIR, including those along the expressway that passed through AYA, Gwarimpa, Dawaki and Kubwa, all in the FCT, and others at Nyanya and Mararaba in Nasarawa State, buses and cabs were observed carrying two persons in the front passenger seat, which is meant to take only one passenger in normal situations, not to talk of the current COVID-19 era when social distancing regulations are in place.
Ordinarily, carrying two passengers in the front seat amounts to over-loading, a traffic offence that attracts a fine of N10,000 by the FRSC.
However, it was observed that operators of the cabs and buses over-load their vehicles even in the presence of law enforcement agents and FRSC personnel stationed around the motor parks and bus stops.
Besides carrying two persons in front, cabs also carry four people on the back seat, a situation which forces passengers to squeeze against each other in a tight knot with no possibility of social distancing.
And to compound the problem, most of the passengers and the drivers are not putting on face masks.
Efforts to the talk to a policeman at a bus stop along the Kubwa expressway was rebuffed, as the law enforcement agent refused to comment on the matter.
Interestingly, it was also observed that increments in transports fare introduced by the transporters after the introduction of the COVID-19 guidelines, which were meant to offset revenue loss stemming from operating at less than maximum capacity in compliance with social distancing measures, are still in place, even though the regulations are not being complied with.
Passengers coming into Abuja metropolis with cabs from Kubwa, a satellite town, were being charged N150 before the lockdown. Following the directive that cabs and other mass transit vehicles should not operate at maximum capacity in order to ensure social distancing, transport fare on the route rose to between N200 and N350, depending on the final destination.
But, after jettisoning any pretence to compliance with the social distancing guidelines, the commercial cab drivers have retained the post-lockdown transport fares! Even when passengers are literally packed like Sardines in the small vehicles, with two passengers squeezed onto the front seat, the transporters are still collecting the increased transport fares.
The development is a major cause for concern among passengers, who feel the transporters had taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to exploit them.
Some passengers, who spoke with our correspondent at a bus stop on the Gwarimpa axis of the Kubwa Expressway, expressed anger at the transporters’ non-compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols and the hike in transport fares.
“Can you imagine what is happening? They are carrying two passengers in the front seat and four at the back despite the risk of contracting coronavirus and on top of that they have increased the transport fare. It is unfair, it is cheating.
“If they are not going to comply with social distancing guidelines then they should not increase fares. Was that not why they increased the fares initially? Now see what is happening. Two passengers in front, four at the back and they are charging more,” a passenger, who identified himself as James, said.
Another passenger, who gave his name as Princewill Ikenna, noted that it was shocking that law enforcement agents, including men of the police and FRSC, are just looking on without doing anything as the transporters flout the guidelines with impunity.
“How come the law enforcement agencies are not doing anything to call this people (transporters) to order? Even without COVID-19 over-loading is an offence, so how come they can now carry two passengers in the front and get away with it? Is it now normal to carry two passengers in front?,” Ikenna wondered.
To buttress his views, Ikenna pointed at FRSC and police personnel positioned around the bus stop. The officers made no attempts to check the social distancing violations that were openly going on around them.
A cab driver, whose vehicle was boarded by our correspondent as part of the investigation, had one passenger on the front seat and four at the back. But he stopped at the next bus stop to pick another passenger, who joined the person on the front seat, making it two in front. There were some policemen at the bus stop when the driver picked up the passenger.
In response to complaints by our correspondent and some other passengers in the vehicle, the driver laughed derisively, and expressed the view that ‘coronavirus is not real’.
“Don’t worry, you are not going to contract any coronavirus. It (coronavirus) is just a scam”, he said, adding “Look at me, I have not been wearing face mask, I don’t even use hand sanitisers but nothing has happened to me”.
But, when further challenged over the increased transport fares, the driver, who did not identify himself, argued that the price of various goods and services has gone up since the lockdown.
He also pointed to the recent hike in the fuel pump price to justify the hike in transport fares.
“We are even supposed to charge higher than what we are charging now. A litre of fuel is N162 and you expect us to carry less number of passengers, how will it work? My brother the truth is country hard, that’s the way it is. We can’t kill ourselves. We also have to survive,” the man said.
The driver’s belief that the coronavirus disease is not real seems to be the prevailing view among most of his colleagues, despite the fact that, so far, 1088 Nigerians have died from COVID-19, out of 56,478 cases recorded in the country.
However, reacting to observations from the investigation, particularly over-loading of passengers by transporters and other forms of non-compliance with COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, the FRSC said it was doing something about the situation.
FRSC spokesman, Mr. Bisi Kazeem, noted that the agency had arrested many cab and bus drivers who were caught violating the guidelines. “We have arrested many people, it is not true that nothing is being done about it,” he insisted.
Kazeem added that he will make available a compilation of the arrests made by the FRSC over the issue. He has not sent the document across as at the time of filing this report.
The FCT Police Command, on its part, noted that although it was carrying out its enforcement duties, the management of the transportation sector was actually the responsibility of the FRSC.
Spokesman of the Command, Mr. Anjuguri Manzah, said the police was alive to its responsibilities.