“E can’t work, e no fit work,” he said repeatedly, almost reflexively. “I hear it, e can’t work,” he added, again in pidgin English.
Those were the words of Idowu Agunbiade, a local taxi driver in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT, after he was asked about the recent directive by the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) that all commercial vehicles in the city must be air-conditioned by October.
Making the announcement, Kayode Opeifa, FCTA’s Executive Secretary for Transportation, had said the vehicles “must be registered in Abuja and must carry FCT number plate”.
The ICIR took to the streets of Abuja to find out what the taxi drivers think of the plan.
‘THEY ARE ONLY INTERESTED IN MAKING MONEY FROM US’
As soon as Idowu Agunbiade, a taxi driver, was told about new policy, he cut in that “it cannot work” — because “not every taxi enters estates, banks and ministries, where passengers can afford to pay more”.
“The only way it can work is if they provide more vehicles and give them to drivers at subsidised prices and then they pay in installments,” he said. “But this one they are proposing cannot work. Many governments have done it and failed.”
Asked the last time such demands were made, he said it was during the Nasir El-Rufai administration under the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency. “That’s when they introduced all these buses they now call ‘El-Rufai buses.'”
On the compulsory registration of number plates in Abuja, Idowu again said: “e no fit work”, more emphatically this time.
“The reason is that many of vehicles used here in Abuja are bought from other states, and the dealers buy them in bulk. If the dealer buys like 12 vehicles or six, he will just register them in the state, bring to Abuja and sell to the people.
“Do you expect people who have registered in other states to register again for FCT numbers, spending all over again?”
“Look at this number,” he said, pointing at a passing vehicle. “You see it was registered in Epe. Do you expect someone who obtained this number in Lagos to remove it and get another one here in Abuja? It can’t work! They’ve done more than that. They just want to chop our money again. I’m telling you the reality … for someone like me, it is nonsense. Na lie, it can’t work.”
‘IT MAKES NO SENSE’
Just before the entrance of the expansive premises housing the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the FCDA is the FCDA Park overseeing Area 1, 10, and 11, Wuse.
“Of course, we’ve heard it,” Fisayo Arojojoye, Secretary of the park association, said. “I don’t think it can be possible because we are not equal. I even heard they said the number plate must be Abuja colour. It can’t be possible. It means all these transporters coming from other states to Abuja with their plate numbers will have to change their plate numbers.
“It can’t be possible. We’re just suffering ourselves in the country. There are some people who are organising to spoil the work of the transporters; that is it. Even the situation we are facing in the county is not okay. Most of us are graduates doing transport work. Does it make sense? It doesn’t make sense at all.”
He also said some couples had divorced because of the insufficiency of income from commercial driving.
“Many Nigerians are now into kabukabu because of the situation,” he lamented. “You cannot afford it again. How can a family man come outside without making any money? Some families have now separated. It’s not done. We cannot be suffering like this, you know, without making anything. It’s unfair.”
‘LET THE GOVERNMENT LEAD BY EXAMPLE’
Joseph Adoyi, who has worked as a driver in Abuja for more than 12 years, gave one basic advice to the government: ‘lead by example’. He said since his arrival, the government had introduced SURE-P, 306 operated by the Abuja Leasing Company and many other taxi schemes.
“Many of those taxis that the government has brought themselves, they didn’t work. They usually got damaged before six months. The car o, not to talk of the AC o!
“That’s why I said they should first lead by example. If they can operate any taxi scheme for at least two years and the AC remains intact, then we can follow suit. You shouldn’t be telling others to do what you cannot pull off. It’s not going to work. They should be realistic.”
When asked about the policy on number plates, he said that it is understandable “because a person cannot be working at Berger and be collecting salary at Dantata”. “It is a way of generating revenue,” he added. But his colleagues soon rose against his opinion.
“With a licensed vehicle plate, you can work anywhere as far as Nigeria is concerned,” an older driver who approached the gathering from behind said passionately.
“They can make their policy,” Joseph insisted. But the older driver maintained that “there are policies that cannot work”.
“No company is producing these plates. It is still the same Federal Government that is giving them out through Road Safety [FRSC],” another driver chipped in. “Okay, if I want to travel to another state, will I go and look for another number?” he asked.
“And all those Abuja AC, is it everybody that can afford to pay the money?” the same driver throws a second question. “Only common N150, people said they cannot pay. They complained and that is why we started carrying four passengers in the back seat. It used to be three. If you add AC to the cars, who can afford it? How much are they even paying the government workers who board our motors?”
“This government is fk up government o. Fk up government. F**k up government,” a driver who sat at the rear left said, the handwriting of frustration legibly gracing his face. “They themselves, can they maintain AC taxis for more than three months?”
“El-Rufai tried it between 2003 and 2006, he failed. London taxi, it didn’t work,” recounted the elderly driver. “Abuja leasing taxi, the 306, it didn’t work. Then, what do they call it, Hyundai, another government scheme, it didn’t work. Remember there was tata, it didn’t work. Then Chevrolet, it didn’t work. What is all this? The thing is that if they want to make policies regarding transport, they should go to people on the streets.”
“People dey hunger, you say AC motor. Na AC remain?” another driver interjected while others laughed ― apparently at the government not the questioner. “Excuse me, people dey hunger, dey die on the road. Even for private cars, how many of them are using AC?”
“Even if it’s working, how many of them put them on? Those government staff bus, in how many of them are the ACs working?” someone added. “If you want to pursue us, then we’ll go. We’ll go back to our villages. They even want me to come back, so I don get opportunity. I’ll find my level.”
“My brother, tell them to order food,” one driver said, with strong emphasis on the last word. “We need food. Food! Let them bring food; you see the way Nigerian people have got very lean and haggard. Is it AC cars that’ll solve Nigeria’s problems? Go and build factories. Use the money to open companies and employ people.”
“Last week, I carried one woman,” one of them narrated. “She said she is a nurse. It’s been more than 15 years now that she’s been looking for job. You say nah AC car nah hin remain. Fifteen years! She’s been carrying files, walking up and down. Tell them, the money they’ll use to order all those yeye motor, let them go and open factories with it.”
‘TAXI DRIVERS ARE TREATED LIKE SMUGGLERS; WE ARE NOT SAFE’
At Wuse Park, the reporter met Ifeanyi Eze who has been in the Abuja transport business since 1998. Ifeanyi also thinks the plan is not possible. “Nobody likes to suffer,” he admitted. “But all hands are not equal.” He also recounted a recent incident of police brutality involving his brother, a fellow taxi driver.
“For taxi drivers, they do not even allow us to have designated parks. Whenever you stop to carry passengers, the same people formed the Joint Task Force to arrest drivers. Is it not inevitable for drivers to stop to get a passenger? And when he wants to alight, you will also have to stop. But they do not give us this freedom.
“Sometimes they ambush drivers at one-ways. Sometimes they remove their uniforms and disguise as passengers, just to bill drivers. They will ask you to pay N5,000. For the VIO, it is more than N8,000. So all these do not allow us to concentrate as drivers. If not that I have nothing else to do, I would have left this business of taxi driving.
“Sometimes, before you know it, the police will hit their guns on your car and damage it. All these dents you are seeing are as a result of gun damage. Other times, they will scatter the glass. The last incident around here, the person whose head they damaged with a gun was my brother, Odoh Dennis. They used 2×2 to scatter his head and all the glasses on his car. He later managed to survive. Everybody knows about this case. They even detained his car, and he still had to look for money to bail it.
“As we are now, we are not safe. We have to be very cautious, as if we are smuggling contraband goods. We have not even satisfied our stomachs. Don’t you know it is someone who has money that can say he wants to open bank account and be saving money? The money to get that thing is not small, and things are very hard now. Some of these cars do not even have AC at all. How are people expected to raise money to buy another car?”
‘THERE IS A LOT OF INJUSTICE IN ABUJA’
Benjamin Adewale, who hails from Osun State, explained that the car he was driving is not even his; he only borrows to use it in the day while the owner uses it at night. The car’s AC was removed, he said, because it was too expensive to maintain.
“We are all looking for what to eat; some of us even borrow our cars,” he lamented in Yoruba. “Now you are saying we should go and look for air-conditioned cars; where do you want us to find those? Maybe you should just send us back to our hometowns; there is nothing we can do again.”
“Just this morning, as I left my home with no money in my pockets, a policeman broke my glass after a lot of pleading, for a car that is not mine,” he narrated. “It was because I did not give him N100 for stopping to get a passenger. Even me had not seen N1 to eat. He even hit my left arm with his baton; I just thought to myself that God will be his judge. I still do not know how to explain to the owner or get the glass fixed. The money I’m supposed to be gathering gradually for my two children to eat will now go into getting a new glass.”
True to his words, glass smithereens could be seen beneath and in between the front seats. He said the incident happened around Npape. Asked what street the policeman was, he pleaded not to divulge.
“Brother, it was on the street. Please, don’t make me put myself into trouble. This is my only source of income; there is nothing I can do about it again…. There is a lot injustice in this Abuja; they treat us unfairly too much.”
How much do the number plates cost? “They are very expensive,” replied Adewale. “Sometimes, at least N30,000 … God have mercy.”
‘GOOD DEVELOPMENT BUT THE POOR MASSES WILL CRY’
Ibrahim Gajide, Deputy Sate Chairman of the National Union of road Transport Workers (NURTW), revealed that that the policy on number plates is already in force in Lagos.
“We cannot drag with the government,” he submitted. “The only thing is maybe we’ll now look for an adjustment of the time so that we can purchase the vehicles. If the government can assist us, then most of our members will dispose their cars without AC and get new ones at the government price, so they’ll be working and paying. That is what we finalised with the members and we’ll be proposing this to the Transport Secretary.”
Asked if transport fares will remain the same with the proposed arrangement, he replied in the negative.
“No, you know, the charges for a vehicle with AC will not be the same as a vehicle that does not have,” he said. “Charges will be different because the consumption of fuel for a vehicle using AC will not be the same as the one that does not have the AC on. So, automatically, the system will be good, but the poor masses will cry.”
SILENCE FROM THE TRANSPORT SECRETARIAT
When Ifeanyi Ughamadu, PRO of the Transport Secretariat at FCDA secretariat was called, the phone was not answered. A text message requesting a physical appointment was also ignored. When the ICIR visited his office, a request to see the Transport Secretary, Kayode Opeifa, was declined on the grounds of “due process”.