With three-hour delays and transport authorities susceptible to bribes, Lagos traffic is almost uncontrollable. Yet have efforts to cut down on corruption actually made Lagos’s roads even more dangerous?
Amid the heat and noise of a highway overpass in Oshodi, a bustling market town in central Lagos, 28-year-old bus driver Dare explains how the transport “union” works. “They can beat you, beat the conductor, just for 50 naira (18p). They are not a union, they are a group. You can say they are a kind of gang, really.”
Blue and pink LED lights crisscross the ceiling of Dare’s bus. On the dashboard, a smiling, lime green toy snake rests its head a bible.
“The main thing is they demand their money – and you pay,” says Dare.
The activity at Oshodi motor park (bus station) is almost dizzying. The yellow Danfo buses have no queues – just crowds. One daring commuter, running for a departing bus, dives in head first through the back hatch. Bus drivers are often accompanied by a conductor who leans out of the door, calling destinations and collecting fares, and there are buses to any destination in Lagos – although, in the thick congestion of people, demand far outweighs supply.
But it’s not just bus drivers and passengers here. Lagos motor parks are also the staging grounds for a carefully calibrated hierarchy of officials – some more official than others.
At the top are the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA), the city’s road conductors. Wearing their uniforms of bright cream shirts and red trousers, they brandish long sticks, beating the sides of the buses to encourage them to move out, or just to announce who’s boss.
Simultaneously, however, the National Union of Rail Transport Workers (NURTW) parades the area, its men charging drivers a levy for passengers. Though the NURTW men are meant to wear green and white uniforms, few do. Many are “area boys” – Lagos slang for hoodlums.
If drivers don’t pay up, the aggression of the NURTW men can be almost amusing. They feign threats to pull off the wipers, or rip out the rubber window seals. At Oshodi bus station, it’s a fine line between banter and abuse.
Dare explains that the number of passengers affects the fee. “Today I took 16 passengers to Obalende, I paid them 300 naira (£1). If I stop again, I pay 300 naira. That’s how it is.” The fee is arbitrary. “If they put the price up, which they do at times, what can you say?”
The management of traffic is an almost overwhelming challenge in Lagos. Poor road quality, overpopulation and a lack of alternatives have made the city’s car traffic legendary for being among the world’s worst – though possibly the most entertaining. As well as the Danfo buses, the roads are jammed with Maruwas (three-wheelers) and Okadas (motorbike taxis), all of them typically plastered with slogans like “Be easy, life no go get part 2”, and decorated with anything from religious symbols and church posters to action figures and Christmas garlands.
Freelance vendors often hop aboard buses or hawk their wares to car passengers stuck in traffic: ointments designed to cure a suspiciously high number of illnesses, books on common grammatical mistakes, and board games.
The first of seven lines on a new light-rail network is supposedly due to be ready by the end of 2016, but the project has already suffered huge delays. Commercial boats make the journey from the mainland to Lagos Island, but they’re expensive and poorly connected, and more than 10 people died in various accidents last year alone.
Bus rapid transit (BRT) has been operational since 2008. The coaches are cheaper than their smaller counterparts and drive in a separate designated lane – but other motorists frequently intrude if there’s gridlock. Enforcing traffic rules is a key challenge.
LASTMA was created in 2000 to meet that challenge. Its officers act as human traffic lights, or traffic enforcement cameras, directing road users and chasing motorists who break rules – which happens often. Space is at a premium on Lagos roads, and so is patience. The congestion gets so bad that cars and bikes often sneak into the opposite lane.
The traffic authority takes seriously its mission to keep motorists honest and pedestrians safe. Last year, its officers arrested a military convoy driving in the BRT lane; the images are still plastered on their website. But bribery is common. LASTMA officials can impound cars, so busted motorists often haggle with them over a fee. This time-consuming process adds to the congestion. Naturally, they rub some drivers up the wrong way.
“They are terrible. All they want to do is take your money,” says cabbie Babatunde Are, 62, as he moves blindly into the next lane, eliciting furious honks from the driver he cut off.
In October last year, Lagos’s new governor, Akinwumni Ambode, cracked down on LASTMA officials, ordering them to be more respectful and less strict. He demanded that they no longer impound cars, but simply issue a ticket.
The move was designed to make LASTMA less abrasive and cut down on interactions with drivers. It was partly populist – motorists welcomed it – and partly structural, reducing bureaucracy and, above all, corruption.
Instead, it had the bizarre effect of making traffic worse. “Motorists got the impression that we were just here for nothing and that we couldn’t touch them as before,” said one LASTMA official who didn’t wish to be named. “Then obviously the driving became worse and the traffic became worse.”
Another official at Oshodi was equally dismissive. “If you spend 30 minutes here where I am, you will know that leniency will get you nowhere in this place.”
The gridlock in the aftermath of the corruption crackdown was insufferable, even by Lagos standards. There was a backlash; some LASTMA officials decided to effectively strike while at their posts, leaving the traffic to its own devices. Others simply chose to ignore the new rules.
And so the status quo resumed. “Eventually it went back to normal,” the LASTMA official explains, grinning.
In the long term, however, LASTMA is likely to fall in line. E-ticketing (automatic tickets dispensed using CCTV that matches offences to each driver’s identity) are being mooted, and the chairman of LASTMA is planning for staff to be retrained, and more than 1,200 new employees recruited.
The area boys of the NURTW, however, remain entirely unregulated. The union enjoys a murky relationship with the state government. Though the levies they charge are theoretically meant to maintain motor parks, the majority of those motor parks remain squalid.
When I finally reached an NURTW press officer on the telephone and put it to him that the purpose and methods of the organisation lacked clarity, he hung up. No other NURTW official would offer comment. A spokesperson for the commissioner for transportation also refused to comment on the union.
The NURTW’s shady autonomy is protected by politics – some groups of the organisation are loyal to the current All Progressives Congress government, others to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) or other parties. Fights between rival factions are common. Last year, several men were shot dead.
“During election periods the NURTW acts as a kind of support base for political parties,” says Temi Templar, a journalist from the Guardian Nigeria. “They’re influential and the youths that work for them are like an important human capital for them. So even when the government wants to regulate them further, during election periods, it gets relaxed again.”
In other words, they help bring in votes. They embezzle the money from levies to pay young men to be particularly zealous at election time: canvasing for votes, attending rallies, tampering with election procedures and outright intimidation.
“The local government don’t really care what [the NURTW] do,” says Abayomi Odeniran, a broadcaster from Metro FM radio in Lagos. “Whether they collect money or not, or use it on the motor parks or not. To them it’s not their concern. It shouldn’t be this way.”
By Emmanuel Akinwotu.
This article was originally published in the Guardian website