By Ekemini SIMON
Although many transporters in Akwa Ibom State benefited from the Federal Government’s N30,000 survival funds, majority were excluded due to inadequate information, time constraints, and the State government’s exclusion in the entire process. Ekemini SIMON reports.
THE Federal Government, in late 2020, as part of its Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP), launched a scheme tagged “Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Survival Fund”, which was designed to assist 330,000 artisans and 4,505 transporters with a one-time payment of N30,000 each.
According to a statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Office of the Vice-President, Laolu Akande, confirmed the beneficiaries of the transport scheme in each state would be 4,505 transporters. The scheme is managed by the office of the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo.
Nigerians operating in the transport business – including Rideshare drivers (Uber, Bolt, etc.), taxi drivers, bus drivers, Keke NAPEP riders, Okada riders, cart pushers, among others, are those mentioned by the office of the Vice President as being eligible for the fund.
Few payments made in Capital City
Investigation revealed that not all the 4,505 transporters eligible beneficiaries of the scheme in Akwa Ibom State actually received the payment. This reporter visited seven urban local government areas of Akwa Ibom State; Uyo, Itu, Eket, Oron, Ikot Ekpene, Abak and Ikono (Nung Udoe Itak).
Most of the commercial transporters interviewed said they did not receive the funds. However, a few of them, whom this reporter spoke with in Uyo and Itu local government areas, acknowledged receiving the funds.
In Itu Local Government Area, this reporter could only find four commercial drivers who benefitted from the survival fund at Central Motor Park, Itam (Intra-state shuttle) out of 32 that were met in the park and subsequently interviewed. Although this park is in Itu council area, it is located within the area marked as the capital city of Uyo.
Those who acknowledged receipt of the funds are Daniel Ned, Godswill Edward, Eshiet Essien and Timothy Udoh. They noted that they received the fund in April after one or about two months of registration and biometric capturing. Although they could not be specific about the number of beneficiaries among them, they estimated the number to stand in the range of 20 within the park.
The chairman of the Central Motor Park who also serves as chairman of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Itu branch, Timothy Udoh, said they could record beneficiaries owing to the guidance they received from the national hierarchy of NURTW.
” We received instructions from the national union through the state chairman of the council that the federal government will give out such money. We registered and were invited for capturing to make sure those registered are bona fide members of the Union. After one or two months, we were paid. But we were told it would run for six months”.
Udoh said out of about 400 persons within his chapter, about 90 per cent of his members took part in the exercise, but he is, however, uncertain about the number of those eventually paid.
He assured that those who emerged as beneficiaries had no connection with the officials; rather, they saw the money paid into their bank account. The chairman explained that as instructed by the national leadership of NURTW, those who did not receive their palliative but passed through the biometric screening have had their data sent to the national headquarters for processing.
Though many drivers came for the registration, officials failed to return for biometric screening, hence, no one received the funds in the park.
Otobong Inyang, one of the officials at the park, said he registered but got nothing.
“They came and registered us, but we can’t find the money. However, there was no data capturing. We have heard that they have given the money in Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt. Whosoever that is holding that money should give it to us. I am a Nigerian, Akwa Ibomite and a transporter.”
In Uyo Local Government Area, this reporter could see only two persons who admitted to have received this fund. They are Matthew Asuquo, chairman of Minibus Operators in Akwa Ibom State, who also serves as Assistant Secretary in the NURTW and Godwin Edem, who also serves as chairman, Road Transport Employer’s Association of Nigeria (RTEAN), Akwa Ibom State.
They both said they received N30,000 in April after going through documentation and biometric capturing a month before payment.
Asuquo said that many drivers received the money, but he was not precise about the number of beneficiaries.
“I believe so many received because I had confirmation from so many of our drivers who were part of the registration and biometric capturing,” he stated.
The national vice chairman of NURTW and the chairman of the union in Uyo Senatorial District, Isaiah Udo, who did not receive the funds despite passing through the biometric screening, said over 50 persons benefited from the fund in Uyo Senatorial District.
“But many people in Akwa Ibom State have not collected the money,” he added.
Also, the chairman of RTEAN explained that out of 363 members of his union who could register for the palliative, only 83, which is 22.8 per cent of those who registered, were paid. He attributed his union’s relative success to the information and directive he received from his national body.
Other LGAs Shut-out
Although the fund was to reach transporters across the state, there are indications that commercial drivers in Eket, Oron, Ikot Ekpene, Abak, Ikono, among other councils, have not benefited from the fund.
Officials of NURTW and RTEAN claim their beneficiaries cut across the state. Yet, when they were asked to provide documents to buttress their claim, they failed to do so. No commercial driver or leaders of transport union within these areas sampled acknowledged receiving the fund.
At Eket Main Park, Aniekan Tom, Ime David, David Eshiet, and Godwin Etuk said they, among other commercial drivers in the park, do not know of the fund’s existence not to talk of benefiting from it.
This same experience was witnessed at the Eket sub park where Johnnie Mfon, a transporter and Adviser of Eket Sub Park, said he had heard nothing of the government gesture.
“We have not heard of it at all. We have not even seen the form, not to mention receiving such an amount. We need the form because we are transporters. What happens to others should happen to us too. If they enjoy there, we should enjoy too.”
However, Ubong Sunday and David Daniel who also operate in the sub park said some of them heard about the registration in the state capital but added that they were not privileged to partake since no one brought it to Eket.
In Oron, no one out of 26 commercial drivers willing to speak with this reporter acknowledged receiving the fund. Victor Etim, chairman of Oron Park, said no transporter in Oron has registered for the fund.
The chairman, Tipper Drivers Association in Oron, Monday Mathew, corroborated the claim. “We have not received it. We have not heard about it,” he said.
In Ikono, commercial drivers said they heard about the funds through the media but were ignorant about how to register. They stated that the NURTW did not give them information on what they should have done.
“I heard about it but did not know where to register. Our colleagues would have opened up if there was any kind of registration,” Ubong Umana, a tricycle operator, noted.
However, the chairman of the Minibus Drivers Association in the area, Ediyang Essien, said that although he had information about it, he did not believe the initiative is possible hence the reason he did not register.
In Abak, no one received the fund. However, a few had gone to the state capital to get themselves registered, having heard the news informally.
“When we heard about it, we registered for it. Some members registered too. However, we did not receive it,” said Bokime Udom.
The chairman of the Park in Abak, Comrade Aniedi Sambo, said he was not briefed about the programme by his state council despite making enquiries.
“I have not received it. I only heard about it as a rumour. I have been asking about it, but I was not given the true picture. I tried calling the Chairman of NURTW in the State and he did not tell me anything about it”.
Ikot Ekpene was not different. Commercial drivers interviewed said they did not receive the fund. At the Ikot Ekpene Motor Park, members of NURTW said the state council informed them of their union to register for the fund but when they did, no one among them were shortlisted for biometric screening which made it impossible for them to get the palliative.
“We have not received the fund, but we heard about it. We applied, but we were not shortlisted for screening. We went and protested at the NURTW State Secretariat, and we were told to go and wait that a reply will be given,” said Bassey Akpanudo, chairman Ikot Ekpene- Port Harcourt line.
The vice-chairman of the line, Akaninyene Ubaha, explained that when they went to the state secretariat in protest, the state chairman informed them that an error had occurred on the form they filled.
“We were assured that the form would be rechecked. The chairman said the consultant who captured people claimed that we are not drivers”.
NURTW Presents Defense
Asuquo claimed they did not shut out certain branches from partaking in the survival fund. He said the state council had called for executive meeting which all the leaders of the branches in the state were invited, where they explained what had to be done.
“We called for a meeting, they came, went back with the information to their different members. They were to register people from their branches and bring the list to the State Council to be sent to the national headquarters. All the branches submitted the list except those who were of the opinion that it will not work did not do what the State Council directed them to do.”
He, however, identified lack of bank account number as what may have contributed to the reason some of the commercial drivers did not benefit from the pack, asserting that “most persons in the driving sector do not have a bank account. Some of them believed the money would come handy”.
On why no one in Ikot Ekpene was shortlisted for biometric screening despite their registration and protest, he explained that a mistake had occurred on the part of the official who carried out the screening exercise.
“It was a mistake that affected the process. The person who registered said he received a text message that he was unable to open. That was the message that contained the names of members of Ikot Ekpene. Maybe he was occupied, or the phone had a problem. He was unable to open the message to bring out the names and then fill it.
“But if it was sent through hard copy, I believe it would have been successful. My State Chairman is from Ikot Ekpene. There is no way we would have excluded them since the Chairman is from there. It was a mistake on the part of those who anchored the programme.”
When contacted for documents about the actual number of beneficiaries of the fund under the NURTW, among other sundry issues that concern this investigation, the chairman of the union, Uwem Inyang, did not respond to calls or text messages.
Our reporter went further to meet the secretary of the state council, Uyobong Udoh. He neither obliged comments nor document requested.
“Yes, I collected the money. But I cannot tell you the number of persons who registered or were paid. We have received a directive from our national leadership that no one should speak about it. Sorry, I can’t help out”, he told this reporter.
Officials of NURTW who cannot be named in this report for security concerns noted that there was no memo from the national headquarters to that effect. Moreover, this reporter had interviewed other members of the executive council of the State without them expressing fear or restrain occasioned by any directive.
Rideshare, Keke, Okada Operators Relegated
Although they were included among those eligible to benefit from the survival fund for transporters, no transporter operating rideshare (Bolt is the only functional one in the state), tricycle (Keke), motorcycle (Okada) said they had received the fund.
Commercial transporters in this category who were contacted within the seven local government areas across the state said they have not benefited from the fund.
However, those in the leadership of these set of transporters who got hint of the programme said they made frantic effort for their members to be included among the beneficiaries but to no avail. According to the president, Keke Owners and Riders Association of Akwa Ibom State (KORA), Comrade Jeremiah Jackson, when he heard about the fund in the media, he went to the state office of Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency (SMEDAN) to enquire how his members whom he claimed are over 10,000 could benefit but he did not get much help.
“When it came, we went to SMEDAN and asked how to be registered. They said people were not registering at that point. We kept pushing, and we did not see where to register. We became fed up,” Jackson SAID.
He noted that SMEDAN later referred them to someone at the Akwa Ibom State Civil Service Secretariat, which they called severally without the individual responding.
Jackson stated further: “The entire members were interested in registering. They promised to contact us when the registration commenced. We believe it has not yet commenced. If they start, they will contact us,” he said optimistically.
He noted that he still made effort to contact the SMEDAN officials in May and he was still promised that they would be reached out to the transporters.
Furthermore, the state secretary of Tricycle Owners Association of Nigeria (TOAN), Akwa Ibom State, Kingsley Akpan, said his union was not contacted about the programme. Akpan said he heard about the programme late through unofficial means hence members of his union, whom he estimated are over 15,000, could not benefit.
Also, the state chairman, All Nigerians’ Auto-Bike Commercial Owners and Workers Association (ANACOWA), Comrade Paul Idiong, said that he only heard about the transport fund through the media and that none of his members registered or got the fund.
“When we heard about it, we contacted our national body to feed us with information on how payment will be made, but it was not forthcoming. No one came to register us”.
Also, Ekom Imah, a bolt operator in Uyo, said no one had contacted Bolt drivers about the programme.
“I haven’t heard about such fund until today. We do meet at weekends. None of us has mentioned that. I’m very convinced no one has registered for it, not to mention getting from the fund,” he stated.
Shortcomings not to be ignored
Findings revealed that officials of the Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) failed to partner with the state government for the success of the programme. This action, it was gathered, was the root cause of the hijack of the programme by few union leaders in the capital city.
The Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Transport and Solid Minerals, Uno Uno, said the state government was not contacted or involved in the programme.
“I am not aware of the programme. I have not received any mail from the Federal Ministry of Transport. I only saw the programme on Facebook. But as a ministry, we don’t rely on information from Facebook.”
He said the best practice that would have enhanced the programme’s success would have been for information to be sent to the state government or the Transport Ministry for proper coordination.
This position is also canvassed by Jackson, who reasoned that if it passed through the state, “we would have been called, adding, “We got this information only from the social media”.
Besides, findings show that the time given for those who were able to be registered was limited. Edem raised concern over this problem.
“The time frame they came was short. They were here with us for 2 days. The third day was a half-day, and they couldn’t meet up with the number of members to be captured. We have more than 10,000 members ranging from motorcycle, tricycle, minibus, those loading vehicles at the park, truck drivers, and tipper drivers”.
This is corroborated by officials of NURTW, who said they had only a week for their members to be registered and screened for the fund.
Meanwhile, members of the unions who registered for the fund were unable to pinpoint the identity of the officials that carried out the exercise.
When this reporter reached out to the Head of Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency (SMEDAN), in Akwa Ibom State, Lucy Ekpenyong, she said her agency is not responsible for the fund hence she lacks insight about those who implemented and how they implemented it.
* This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting