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The Commute - A Case of Social Injustice

“Don’t you know, talking about a revolution sounds like a whisper. Poor people gonna rise and take their share. Poor people gonna rise up and take what’s theirs………..” – Tracy Chapman

Photocredit: PUBSTV

I started listening to Tracy Chapman during my college years as an undergraduate and this particular song has stuck with me through the decades since I first heard it. It became a vivid illustration and enactment when Arab Spring occurred a few years ago. The people had "had enough". It was heart-rending for me to read about the Tunisian vegetable/fruit seller who self-immolated after his cart was seized. The cart represented his livelihood and his livelihood had been taken from him. That act of self-immolation symbolized a level of desperation that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. I have also wondered time and time again as I have observed various forms of social injustice in Nigeria whether the 'poor people' (who form the majority of the population) are going to get to a point where they would say "we've had enough".

Over the past 5 years, MitiMeth has had several opportunities to facilitate artisan craft workshops in remote communities and I have had to travel to most of these communities via public transportation.  Most recently, I had the opportunity to experience life as a commuter in public transportation in Lagos. It was a two hour commute each way i.e. four hours round trip. Thankfully my daily commute was against traffic each way. Nigeria isn’t best known for record keeping but suffice to say majority of Nigerians travel via public transportation daily for various reasons and the commuters are continuously assaulted with the rot and filth in the system. The assault on the nerves and spirit cannot be adequately articulated and the biggest tragedy is that the rot and filth seems so normal to many.

Are our leaders in authority aware of the logistics challenges faced by commuters on a daily basis? It would seem to me that the leaders (past and present) are disengaged from the reality on ground. The day a public office holder decides to travel like a regular citizen in public transportation would mark the beginning of an era of change. Experience is the best teacher and hopefully he or she would become just as angry at what they see and experience and effect the much needed change. Beneath the façade of the “happy go lucky” Nigerian, is an individual angry at social injustice which seems to reign supreme. Oppression whichever side you turn. Nigeria is walking on a time-bomb and we just don’t know it.

Each time I share my travel experiences with family and friends they shake their heads in utter disbelief. First, that I would brave travelling Nigerian roads in public transportation and second, the stories seem rather incredulous. The stories are definitely incredulous but they are true first hand narratives of what I have seen and what I have experienced. On my very first day of commuting from Epe to Lagos Island in a public taxi, I sat next to a passenger in handcuffs. I was already seated when the handcuffed man and another man boarded. At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I looked around at the other passengers and it didn’t seem as if anyone else was disturbed. Being in Nigeria where any and everyone takes the law into their own hands, I wasn’t sure if the handcuffed man was with another civilian or if the person he was with was someone authorized to handcuff him. Not sure whether to speak up or disembark, I chose to pray silently. Which is what I believe most people do under such circumstances. My prayer points: #1 that the handcuffed man would not turn violent and take “me out”. #2 that his being in handcuffs had a just reason and that he wasn’t some random victim of an overzealous society. #3, that justice would be served. #4, that the person who accompanied him had the legal backing to put the man in handcuffs. We set out on our journey and I prayed fervently throughout. The handcuffed man was quiet and not belligerent. Thank GOD. But as I studied him, I couldn't help but notice that he looked HARD and ANGRY. At which point, I started praying for the salvation of his soul. I was relieved when both the handcuffed man and his chaperone disembarked along the way in front of a Police station. Not that I have any faith in the Nigerian Police Force but it was a relief nonetheless that the chaperone was a Police Officer and not some ordinary "Okechukwu Ahmed Olawale" civilian trying to wield his influence and strength.

In my decades of travel in various parts of the developing world, this was the first time, I would ride with a person in handcuffs and a chaperone in plain clothes. The question, running through my mind over and over again was, "is this the norm in public transportation in Nigeria"? Interestingly, unlike most people in the “Force” who board public transportation, this plain clothed policeman paid the full fare for himself and the handcuffed man. In Nigeria, that is not the norm. Most Officers in the force exploit the system by not paying the required transportation fare. Most transporters wouldn’t even bother asking and for the occasional bus conductor who would dare to ask, the Officer would conveniently ignore him. But the smart bus conductors also use their freeloading passengers to their advantage. When they are harassed for money by the “Union” people, their response is “mo gbe staff”, which translates to "I am carrying someone in the Force". And unless the Union person wants a severe beating by the freeloading passenger, they back off immediately. I watched this play out daily. One instance was with two soldiers. The bus conductor didn’t ask for their fare and they didn’t volunteer to pay. And when one of the Union boys jumped on the bus and demanded for money from the bus conductor, he pointed to the soldiers in army fatigue and the Union guy promptly jumped off the bus. We arrived at the Lekki toll point and it was nothing but absolute chaos because several lanes were closed. After sweating for a while like Christmas turkeys in the bus, one of the soldiers got out and proceeded to straighten out the mess by directing traffic. We were relieved. And then Nigerian passengers and their never ending commentary proceeded to talk about what had transpired. By comparing the attitude of soldiers with the attitude of policemen. Most commended the one soldier for taking charge of the situation and alleviating the problem. They concluded that if it were policemen in the bus, nothing would have happened and we would have all stewed in the hot bus! They weren't too far from the truth in their assessment. Afterall, on the Ibeju-Lekki-Epe expressway, there is a Police toll point stationed very close to a palm wine seller’s hut. It was at this particular police toll point that I witnessed the most bizarre sight. While the policemen were busy collecting tolls from transporters, a female petty trader was directing truck traffic entering a nearby construction site a few metres away. I shook my head in complete disbelief. Is there any hope in the effectiveness of the Police force in this country?

How about passenger overloading in public transportation? Why do the drivers and conductors squeeze four people on a seat that is supposed to accommodate only three persons? Is it greed? Is it sheer wickedness? Is it a disdain for the comfort of others? I have concluded it isn’t greed on the part of transporters and it isn't deliberate wickedness. Passenger overloading is the outcome of a terribly corrupt system. The transporters have to ‘settle’ the Police and settle the Union boys. So they offset the 'settlements' by overloading their vehicles with the fare of one too many passengers. If they don’t settle the Police, they’ll be pulled over and detained for no good reason. Nigeria is the only country I have researched in “Lonely Planet” (a travel guide) where a N20 bribe for the Police is listed as one of things travelers need to know about when travelling to and within Nigeria. The going rate today is N100 and above - the shame of a nation! 

How about the NURTW (the union for road transportation workers)? Their tactics for extortion are as rough as anyone can imagine. And where is most of the money going? To the Chairman of the Union which explains why the tussle for leadership of the NURTW almost always turns violent. According to the commentary from some lawyers (fellow passengers on this daily commute), there is no purpose for the NURTW apart from serving as Political thugs for those running for office in Nigeria. The NURTW is just an umbrella shading the nefarious activities of those that must get into public office at any cost.  On one particular trip, the Union guy started harassing the bus conductor and he disembarked to negotiate. The bus driver got impatient and drove off, without his conductor. He slowed down a few metres away when the passengers urged him to wait because the conductor was coming. Before we could blink, the soldiers at the roundabout ‘detained’ the bus conductor. He was an easy target holding all the money he had collected from passengers in his hand. At this point and with the new development, the bus driver took off with passengers yelling “conductor never give me my change o”. A bus load of irate passengers was more than enough drama for me. I grabbed my stuff, jumped out of the bus and called an UBER. Thankfully, I wasn’t too far from my destination. To think that this is what commuters go through 'day in' and 'day out' in varying degrees of incredulity.

How about our motor parks? I have visited many - either to board or to send MitiMeth products to customers. Prayer, prayer and more prayer is what gets us and our goods to our destinations safely. The narcotics and booze trade thrive unchecked at most if not all of the motors parks. After being harassed by the Police, the NURTW, the angry passengers, it is no surprise that the drivers turn to the drugs and alcohol that are peddled openly and widely at the parks. It is their attempt to drown their sorrows temporarily in a very rough environment. How the regulating agencies in Nigeria could seat comfortably and permit Distillers to start packaging liquor in small sachets is mind boggling. Worse still, how enforcement agencies, can sit pretty while illicit drugs and alcohol are peddled without restriction at the motor parks would make a good script for the Nigerian version of “The Godfather”.

On the last day of my two week commute, I saw a gory sight which continues to replay in my mind. As we were driving along, we came across a bloodied corpse. Stark naked. On the Ibeju-Lekki expressway. I cringed and was disturbed by the sight. No matter how many times one has seen such sights on our roads, it is not something that easily fades away from memory. Unless your conscience has been completely seared. The fact that the corpse was naked probably means, the person must have been the victim of jungle justice which is quite popular in Nigeria. The system has failed the people, so the people decide to take the law into their own hands. What did the person do to deserve such a violent death? Did he murder? Did he steal? Was the person suspected of practicing witchcraft? Does the person’s family know what happened? I could only attain a level of reduced agitation after praying for Nigeria's deliverance. Deliverance from the evil that has plagued and kept this nation bound for several decades.

There were some interesting learning moments during my commute. I did learn and observe supply chain principles being put into practice by the transporters. I saw them employ the principles of cross-docking to maximize their returns. If they didn’t have enough passengers to take to the final bus stop, they simply stopped at the next bus stop and distributed the few passengers among the other commercial buses so those ones could end up transporting full loads. It was inconvenient for the passengers at times but it made good economic sense. Why go the park and pay the NURTW (yes, the Union again!) for less than a full bus load.

Suffice to say, at the end of the crafts training workshop in Epe, I was thoroughly exhausted by my commuting experience. But I learned a couple of things. The Nigerian’s determination to survive against ALL odds. I had survived too. Marked by the experience in many ways. A few days later, I was on a plane heading to Washington DC to attend the Annual Forum of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. Welcome to my world - one filled with stark contrasts. One minute I am down in the trenches teaching local communities, jumping into overloaded buses and in the next minute I am overseas attending meetings with high ranking officials. And ever so thankful that I can flow between my two worlds without having a complete meltdown with each transition. I arrived in the DC area and took a Shuttle bus from the Airport to my hotel. No “Jakande – Lekki – Sanfield - Bonny-Camp” cries renting in the air. I could put my seat belt on for safety and there was comfortable space in between myself and my fellow passenger on the same row who also had his seat belt on. It is only Providence that could orchestrate this – my fellow passenger on the same row on the Shuttle bus was a Nigerian! What a coincidence. No visible harassment by the Unions and no Police toll points. The bus ride was sane. The environment was orderly. I could now take time to 'stop and smell the roses’. I thoroughly enjoyed the pleasant fragrance, even if it was just for 3 days...............

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