Upon the entrance of the 15th passenger into his drab yellow commercial bus, he jumped onto the steering, beaming with vigour characteristic of a lad on a mission to complete a herculean task in a hurry. All is set for Dele, as he preferred to be identified, to embark on his first trip to Yaba, a teeming community in Lagos metropolis after waiting impatiently for his turn at a motor park in Ojodu-Berger.
It was already 8am on a Monday when motorists usually battle painstakingly to navigate the heavy traffic on the roads. Yet, against all odds, the middle-aged father of three had a set of targets at the park to meet while also striving to smile home at the close of work in the evening.
Pronto, he switched on the ignition; revved the engine and as he made to take off, a lanky young man dashed into the path of the bus. “Baba, efun wa lowo booking (give us the booking fee),” the man, who was later identified as an official of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, demanded coarsely. His face was etched with anger; but unwilling to endure any further delay, Dele reluctantly handed N1,300 to the official.
Several minutes after, the journey reached Onipanu axis, some metres away to the terminal point in Yaba. Louts, better known as agbero, besieged Dele and other oncoming Danfo drivers, demanding “N100 morning payment” from them. The father of three would later part with N200 at the spot which is controlled by a transport union leader along the corridor.
On his arrival at Yaba Park, he had another N1,500 to part with if he must return to Berger with a full load of passengers. Invariably, of the N9,000 fare he collected from passengers on a trip – to and fro – Dele would pay about N3,000 to the transport union officials.
“After that first trip, I will pay about N2,000 subsequently. Paying those levies is a norm if you want to work under a transport union and the levies are aside from the N15,000 you pay for registration to allow you work at the park. All the money goes to our bosses in the union,” Dele said during a conversation with our correspondent who approached him under the guise of being a potential member of the union.
Apart from “the booking fees,” which are ticketed in some parks, sources of revenue of transport unions include commissions on sales of stickers, loading fees, contributions from members and donations.
Saturday PUNCH’s investigation revealed how union executives feast freely on this revenue estimated at millions of naira garnered largely from commercial drivers (including inter-state drivers), tricycle operators and motorcyclists who struggle through thick and thin to eke out a living on a daily basis.
Motorcyclists (otherwise known as okada riders) and tricycle operators in the state run under different nomenclatures that are either affiliated to NURTW or Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria.
Expectedly, perks of office in these two substrate unions rank vertically from being executive members at the national, state, branch or unit level. However, in some occasions, funds available to unit executives surpass those of their counterparts at branch levels owing to the population of commercial drivers operating under such units.
An executive member of an NURTW branch in Bariga confided in our correspondent that a unit in Oshodi controlled by a popular chairman realised up to N300,000 on a daily basis. The official, who wants his identity protected, revealed that the chairman was at liberty to decide what he remitted to the branch out of about N2m delivered to him at the end of the week.
“Unit chairmen are also entitled to ‘weekly meal allowance’ while that of branch chairmen is on a daily basis. The meal allowance that branch chairmen get depends on the volume of revenue from their units. Some branch chairmen get as much as N5,000 per day. I know a chairman in one of the branches in Bariga here that gives his girlfriend N5,000 every day.
“In many parks across Lagos State, money realised from bookings and loading is exclusively for the unit chairmen on Sundays. With this arrangement, you can imagine how rich the chairman of the unit that generates N300,000 every day will be.”
Fash, as he preferred to be identified, believed that transport union administration had assumed a life of its own and felt it should not be a matter of concern to an outsider like this reporter. With much pestering, the NURTW official in Ikorodu resolved to bare his mind on the height of extravagance in the union after being assured that his real identity would be protected. “A lot of benefits are attached to leadership position in transport unions,” he laughed hysterically and took a pause before he let the cat from the bag.
“Representatives from units meet every week at the branch. After the meeting, they receive what we call feeding allowance. I know of a branch chairman that has a special taste for amala (yam flour) and goat meat drenched in ewedu soup and stew. He gets the delicacy hot every afternoon from the neighbouring Ogun State.
“I was an executive member in an NURTW branch in Ikorodu for many years. I received N11,000 every week. Some got N20,000 while others received 25,000. But where I am now, the chairman pockets all the money. Chairmanship is very powerful and respected in the union.
“A union chairman is a king in his own right. Visitor’s expenses are part of the perks a chairman is entitled to. The chairman collects allowances to take care of those who visit him in the office. When the visitors are leaving, they also get certain amounts as cash gifts depending on their personalities. The gift could be around N10,000 at the unit or branch level. A well known area boy (thug) visiting the state chairman can get as much as N50,000,
“There are so many privileges a chairman enjoys, especially at the state level. Within four years, the union buys two SUVs for the state chairman. One of the Jeeps can be as exotic as Prado worth tens of millions of naira,” Fash said.
He added, “The usual thing is for buses to be in a queue at a park to take their turns. But as a unit chairman, your bus loads passengers the moment it returns from every trip. Even if the chairman has as many buses as five, the privilege covers all the buses in that park although drivers of those buses pay the union levies too.”
Buttressing Fash’s revelations, a former chapel chairman of RTEAN in the Apapa area,who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the union revenue was spent on some frivolities alien to the constitution of the union. Chief among them, according to the ex-official, is buying of cars for chairmen from the coffers of the union.
The ex-chairman said, “Buying of cars for chairmen usually happens at the state and national level. It is common in Lagos State. As an ex-official, I am not supposed to be saying this but that is the fact. The union raises funds through dues, donations as well as selling of tickets and stickers. There are many ways through which money goes to the state and it is in millions. I know chapels pay dues to zonal and state branches; whether the money is being spent judiciously is another issue entirely.”
Indeed, the kingly life union chairmen live is staggering. The majority of them have a high taste for posh lifestyle with unrivalled splendour. They own massive houses across the state, including in the highbrow areas. They ride exotic cars, wear expensive designers and are “soft targets” to beautiful, classy, women despite the little formal education many of them (the chairmen) have. In social functions, they are cynosure of all eyes.
The extravagant show of the union leaders is also evident in the number of vehicles that form their convoy whenever they attend public functions, like parties and jamborees, where they display their spending spree to the fullest.
It is not out of place to see transport union leaders moving around with bundles of cash when attending parties particularly during the weekend. A union chairman could stand before a Fuji musician for several minutes spraying N1,000 notes to the consternation of spectators and the more an artiste showers encomiums on them, the heavier they rain cash on the singer. According to Kola Adeyemo, a Danfo driver in Ikeja, Lagos State capital, these are among the opulence that defines the world of transport union leaders.
“They do these things from the coffers of the union. Some of them buy cars for girlfriends. Their children live and study abroad; and they build houses senior government officials cannot afford to build,” Adeyemo lamented in an encounter with Saturday PUNCH early in the week.
Interestingly, the social media was recently awash with the pictures of two children of a famous union chairman in Lagos who graduated from a choice university in the United States at the same time – a feat that involves paying millions of naira in fees to achieve.
Union leadership a thug of war
Over the years, desperation to have access to the clandestine fortune that flows in the leadership of transport unions had led to bloody violence each time there was the need to unseat a chairman. Lives and properties were lost in the process and commercial activities within the crisis zone paralysed.
On May 29, 2017, the Zone C Chairman, Motorcycle Operators Association of Lagos State, Rasaq Bello, aka Hamburger, was shot dead at his base in Shogunle, Oshodi, by thugs reportedly loyal to one of his rivals in the neighbourhood. The incident made the state government to temporarily ban transport union activities in the area.
On January 23, 2018, one Ganiyu Ayinla, aka Pinero, was killed in an assassination targeted at his boss, Azeez Adekunle (alias Kunle Poly), the National Union of Road Transport Workers chairman in Idumota.
In an interview with journalists, 39-year-old Adeola Williams, popularly known as Ade Lawyer, who was arrested in March 2018 for the killing, revealed how he had become a messenger of death in the heat of supremacy battle among union leaders.
During his years in NURTW, he said he worked for the likes of Musiliu Akinsanya, aka MC Oluomo, Akanni Olorunwa, who was once a chairman of the union in the state, and one Mustapha Sagoe.
He said he decided to kill Kunle Poly for refusing to make peace between him and the state chairman of the union, Tajudeen Agbede, whom he claimed he worked hard for to emerge as the chairman but dumped him after the election.
He said, “Assassination has been the source of my livelihood for more than a decade now and I know I have taken many lives that I can’t even count….
“I thought about my predicament because my wife was heavily pregnant and the money I was getting from Oluomo wasn’t enough and I wasn’t ready to use my gun for armed robbery, so I decided to end the life of the man who refused to help me mend my relationship with Agbede.
“I decided to implicate Olorunwa because he was the one who ruined my life. It was my support for him during his fight with MC Oluomo that made me to lose my position at the union. After he was removed from office, he had so much money but he was wasting it on women and movie actors and he refused to help me.
“If he had given me good money after he left office, I wouldn’t have been roaming about looking for who to kill. I was just so bitter; so I framed him. I made up the story that he paid me N500,000 to kill Kunle Poly and I also lied that I seized his vehicle because he was owing me a balance of N1m.”
Political forces during elections
Beyond their lordship in the parks, union executives are forces to reckon with in the political realm. They are resourceful tools for politicians who patronise them to curry support at election seasons because of the large fan base they have in their various domains. As a matter of fact, they have a stake to make or mar an election exercise.
In the course of monitoring the council election conducted in Lagos in July 2017, a senior police officer led a team – including journalists – to some polling units in the Mushin and Oshodi areas marked as flashpoints. Hoodlums had laid siege to a polling unit at a primary school in Oshodi when the officer and his team arrived at the location.
After the operatives in the convoy succeeded in dispersing the thugs from the two polling booths on the premises, the officer placed a call across to a prominent transport union chairman in the expansive neighbourhood, urging him to caution his boys.
“Talk to your boys. If there is any violence here, I will hold you responsible,” the officer said in hushed tone.
A similar scenario played out at Ojuwoye, Mushin, where some hoodlums welcomed the monitoring team with gunshots from their hideouts. While the shootings continued, the police boss phoned another man whose identity later turned out to be a transport union “superintendent” in the labyrinth. Surprisingly, the gunfire ceased shortly after the call.
When this reporter, who was part of the team, probed the officer on the tactic he adopted, he said, “You don’t apply force all the time or else things will go out of hands. Being the man in charge, I will shoulder the blame if there are casualties. They (the hoodlums) hold those transport union leaders in high esteem. So, what I did is pure diplomacy and you can see it worked out.”
Union leaders on the defence
The Secretary RTEAN, Lagos State chapter, Mr. Rahman Amusan, denied incidences of extravagance and non-accountability in the union, noting that leadership tussle had become a thing of the past since the union adopted a term of office of five years for executives, who could seek a re-election for another term.
He stated that the executives received “commission” monthly based on the varying degrees of the union’s revenue, adding that the commission was not definite.
On the projects executed with the revenue, Amusan, said, “We are owners’ association and we have a cooperative in the union that caters for members. As owners, there is a possibility of any of our vehicles breaking down or there may be a need to replace them. Members apply for loans and it is working. Apart from this, if there is any member with a medical challenge, we rise up to the occasion. Under the government of Alhaji Muhammed Musa, the state chairman, the organisation has been repositioned and refined.”
When contacted on the telephone for a reaction to the story, the state Chairman, NURTW, Mr. Tajudeen Agbede asked to see our correspondent at the union’s state secretariat in Oko-Oba, a suburb of Lagos.
Painted white and green, the two-storeyed building secretariat is an edifice to behold and it speaks volume of how the union members hold their executives in high esteem. It is an “Aso Rock” in its own class!
Knitted with fleet of cars, the premises host a table tennis and a viewing centre (side-by-side), a mosque and several offices donned with ACs.
After confirming this reporter’s appointment with the chairman on the telephone, a security guard led him to a register placed on a table at the security post where he entered his details.
About 15 minutes after at his visitors’ waiting room, the chairman asked one of his personal assistants to usher in our correspondent into his gigantic office.
Sitting confidently on his cushioned chair with the Nigeria and the union flags hoisting at his back, Agbede welcomed our correspondent amid pleasantries as he intermittently gazed at the monitor of the Closed Circuit Television on his expansive table.
On millions of naira said to being remitted to the state chapter of the union without proper accountability, Agbede said he would not react to the claim until the union members who spoke to Saturday PUNCH were presented to him.
“Unless that is done, you cannot write anything about the union,” the union boss insisted despite our correspondent’s position that it is unethical to disclose his sources.
The chairman added that the union had outlived issues of leadership tussle and thuggery several years back.
Redefining transport unions
A social commentator and lawyer, Mr. Liborous Oshoma, said “the free funds” at the disposal of union executives had implications for insecurity if the sector was not regulated by the government.
He said the use of the unions by politicians for elections and electioneering made it difficult for the government to question their activities.
Oshoma said, “The responsibility of managing (motor) parks, gardens, markets and cemeteries rests squarely on the local government. But most of these responsibilities, since the military era, have been abdicated and left in the hands of some people who create parks even where there should be none. With the advent of democracy, what the local government simply did was to have an arrangement with some of these parks where a token is collected while the park managers keep the rest. When there are lots of funds in the hands of private individuals who do not understand what it takes to be accountable, they can misuse the funds.”
Oshoma estimated money collected across parks in Lagos State and the country in general in billions of naira and called on the government to plug the wastage which he said was responsible for the bloody leadership tussle in the unions. He added that the unions provided a get-rich-quick avenue for a large number of indolent persons, thereby discouraging hard work and diligence.
“You see boys on the road collecting levies from commercial motorists. The question is where do these levies go to? Are they used to maintain parks? No. Yet, government builds parks and some people come around to collect levies. Actions, such as this, breed laziness. For instance, I am travelling to Benin (Edo State) and on getting to a park, I see a young man spending money as if money is going out of fashion. He is proud of being a thug at the park and making money daily.
“This can demoralise someone who struggles to make ends meet after spending many years in school because what the lout is saying is that there is no dignity in labour. A taxi or bus driver who runs routes from morning till evening is working hard to eke out a living only for somebody to sit in the park because he is a union executive member and makes money from every trip. This is part of the wastage some of us are asking the government to plug. This is a sector that nobody looks at; yet it is churning out billions of naira. Government needs to look into it. There are enough funds there to even manage local governments.”