As the Lagos State government and the National Association of Road Transport Owners try to find a common ground following disagreements over the operation of some federal mass transit buses in the state, there are insinuations that 2015 politics may be part of the problem. Anayo Okolie reports
While the Peoples Democratic Party is tightening up in states where they are in control, the opposition All Progressives Congress is also not leaving anything to chance. Leaders of both parties are coming up with policies they believe would brighten their chances.
In what appears to be part of the 2015 politics, the Lagos State government recently impounded some federal government mass transit buses allocated to the state, reportedly, insisting that the colour of the vehicles must be changed from blue to red, or they won’t be allowed to ply Lagos roads. The belief in political circles is that allowing the buses, which were registered under the Federal Mass Transit scheme and run by the National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO), to operate within Lagos State would project the PDP-led federal government in the state. This is something APC does not seem to be disposed to, analysts think.
It would be recalled that the federal government acquired 1, 600 buses as part of measure to cushion the effects of the sudden removal of fuel subsidy on January 1, 2012. The acquisition of the buses formed part of the N10 billion revolving loan set aside by the government to address the problems of the transport sector in the country.
The Minister of Trade and Investment, Dr. Olusegun Aganga, had said that diesel-powered buses would be distributed to transporters to run in the major cities at a highly subsidised rate. He noted that identified transporters with requisite capacity would be given the buses at five per cent interest rate payable in five years.
Upon the acquisition of the vehicles, several groups and organisations, including the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Road Transport Employers Association (RTEAN), and NARTO, benefited from the allocations.
The buses in question were later redistributed across the states by the different groups as directed by the federal government.
However, after over two years of being on the road, the Lagos State Transport Management Agency (LASTMA) and the Vehicle Inspection Office started impounding the buses, allegedly, on the orders of the Commissioner for Transport, Kayode Opeifa.
NARTO said six of the buses had been impounded, prompting the organisation to put the remaining 31 buses out of the road.
The executive secretary of NARTO, Mr. Emmanuel Gowon, who reacted to the seizure of the vehicles after two years of plying the Lagos roads, however, ruled out any political motive. He said since there was a policy on transportation in Lagos, his association was bound to comply. He pleaded with the government to give the association some time to put its house in order, insisting that the sudden clampdown on the vehicles had only succeeded in inflicting hardship and suffering on the families whose daily bread depend on the buses.
Gowon said, “The impoundment came to us unexpectedly, because these buses were given to NARTO and other groups by the federal government during the fuel subsidy demonstrations that followed the removal of fuel subsidy by the government in 2012. They are not private vehicles. NARTO was allocated some of the vehicles, according to the federal government, to alleviate the problem of transportation for the masses and the advice then was that those groups should distribute those vehicles evenly across the states of the country and the zones.
“Given our understanding and experience that human and vehicular traffic are more in Lagos and that there was need for such buses to be more here, we allocated more to the South-west than other zones so they can assist. They’ve been operating for over two years. Recently, some of them were arrested and we got a notice that we should not be operating in the colour it is presently. That we have to comply or go, in line with Lagos State policy that has to do with mass transit.
“You know, they have mass transit policy and process to be followed before running a mass transit, it involves obtaining a licence and changing the colours to red, which is the approved colour, but on our own ignorance, we had thought that since the federal government has given us the buses, we didn’t have to change the colours.
“As we speak, the buses are off the road but we have been talking with the government as regards the mass transit policy. They said we must comply, and we have commenced with the process. Once we get the licence, we’ll change the colour. That’s where we are now and it’s something you can’t do in a day.”
On the impact of the impoundment, Gowon said the immediate challenge was on how to repay the loan, explaining, “It’s affecting the monthly rentals that we are supposed to be making to Infrastructure Bank, the bank that is driving the project for the government. As it is, members are unable to meet up the monthly rental. The association is now supplementing from its own fund because it’s association’s vehicles, we distributed. As far as the bank is concerned, we must have to make payment. It is NARTO that they know.
“As businessmen, it is not always within our desire to be antagonistic to our host government wherever we are, that’s why we are discussing with them to find a way out of the logjam, so we can operate. Apart from the economic deprivation it has brought to our members, we have to bear in mind that each bus you remove from the road, you are taking food off the table for 30 people, if you take 36 off the road, meaning over 1000 people are suffering and you know the implication. It’s almost a month now and we are still talking, we’ve had meetings with operatives of the Lagos State government, we are trying to find a way out, we cannot fight them, we cannot use force. If it’s the licence, we are processing it for the past six months. Once we get it, we now move to the colour angle, so long as it doesn’t conflict with any other law that we must maintain a certain colour. We only want a good environment.”
On the insinuations of politics in the whole affair, Gowon said, “I don’t suspect any political undertone; we don’t read such things into our relations with the government. We are always loyal to our host government. As businessmen, we have no choice, in Lagos here, we must be loyal to the state government, that is APC, and at the federal, we must be loyal to PDP. We only try to strike a good relationship with our host government so our business can thrive.”
However, Opeifa denied impoundment of Federal Government Assisted Mass Transit buses, explaining that the state government only impounded buses that are privately owned in a bid to ensure compliance with the state’s policy on transportation.
The commissioner said, “We are not preventing any federal bus from operating in the state. Once we are sure you are part of the Federal Government Assisted Mass Transit, you will operate. But anything short of that will not be accepted here in Lagos.”
Regarding the claims by NARTO, he said, “They’ve applied for licence but we are not issuing licence now. The general agreement handed over to everybody or group given buses is for them to go and operate according to the law of the state. NLC, TUC got, the leadership of NARTO stole their own vehicle and got here; they converted the buses to personal use, when they got to Lagos. We didn’t know about it. Only NURTW, NLC and TUC are operating the normal way. We left them initially but suddenly they started collecting money from people saying they have licence to operate in Lagos, they started painting blue colour and wrote FGN, there is nothing like that. They bought vehicles and started issuing fake licence to people and we don’t want this to continue.
“All those states, we give their vehicles special treatment, the one by NARTO is a corrupt programme. Lagos people bought into it, they have come to my office to beg, promising to register if I release the vehicles. They are not ready to do that, they are using politics of destruction. They should go and register with LAGBUS. Let them know that NARTO is not involved in public transportation; it was an error to have involved them in the SURE-P.
“It’s a big fraud; the federal government only played politics with the Sure-P. if it’s true they are running mass transit, ask them who owns the vehicle. They are collecting money to register people, are they government. They are off the road now and will not operate until we say so.”
Some officials of the VIO, who spoke on condition of anonymity, however, insisted that the buses were ordered off the road for security reasons, explaining that their insistence that buses that operate in the state should operate in Lagos colour is for easy identification.
“There was nothing wrong for commuter buses operating in the state to register with the State Commuter Bus Association (LAGBUS),” a VIO official said, stressing that even franchise buses have keyed into the policy. “All of them are categorised. We have 21 zones in the state. We have commercial Kabu-kabu, mass transit, buses, taxis, car hire and tricycle and registration is free. Each driver and conductor will go to Lagos State Drivers Institute, after which the drivers and conductors are kitted with badges.”
But a chieftain of the PDP in the state, who preferred anonymity, wondered why the state government had to wait for over two years before insisting that the buses must change to the Lagos colour.
He said, “The fact that the APC-led government in Lagos state is coming with this policy few months to the election speaks volumes. Their action clearly leaves a lot to be desired and we are watching them. If they think federal buses should not operate on Lagos roads, then we know how to respond.
“Meanwhile, let them also have it in mind that there are federal roads within Lagos and if we should enforce our own policy, what will come out of it will definitely not be in the interest of the common man.”