By Fidelis Allen
‘Travellers Bill of Rights for the unfriendly sky’ was the title of a recent report in a daily newspaper in Nigeria, in which the civil aviation authority notes that Nigerian air travellers will soon heave a sigh of relief.  Now that frequent fliers will soon have a bill of rights that will protect them from the abuse of unnecessary delays, unfriendly flying and so on in Nigeria, can we also expect a bill or rights for road travellers who are mostly poor Nigerians without the cash to fly? The roads are bad, full of pot holes, infested with kidnappers, armed robbers, gas or fumes from cars that are not roadworthy, money-extorting police officers and so on.
The lots of the road traveller are indeed diverse and troubling, within cities, inter-city, inter-state and even in the countryside. Unmistakably, aviation matters fall within the exclusive list of the federal legislative divisions in Nigeria. Road and marine transportation however are generally areas in which all three tiers of local, state and federal government are currently free to engage with service delivery. Unfortunately, it seems that policies, rules, regulations and laws in this sector sometimes portray a dangerous class orientation in Nigeria. The coming Bill is not a bad one. But those who fly are those basically living above the line separating rich from poor. At least, this is an assumption that seems real. After all, how many poor people on the national minimum wage of N18,000 can afford a domestic flight from say, Port Harcourt to Lagos or Abuja. For N18,000 is also the average amount needed for a single adult flying on these domestic routes. Road transportation remains the only alternative for the poor.
In January this year, a mass transit bus that left Port Harcourt for Abuja met its waterloo around the Lokoja axis. Passengers were not only robbed of their monies and personal belongings; all the girls in the bus were raped by the thieves, an experience that is now becoming common on the roads. I cannot forget my own experience in January 2007 on my way from Lagos. I needed to be in Port Harcourt the following morning, do some transactions and return to Lagos, but it was late and I could not catch a flight from Lagos that evening. The alternative was a night bus, which I gladly but fearfully boarded. Just somewhere after Ore, for those familiar with that road, at a very bad spot, where the driver had to slow down, suddenly young men with guns started jumping into the bus from the front. The bus had just one door adjacent to the driver’s seat. The disappearance of the driver and conductor was also swift, shocking and magical, leaving us alone with the thieves who numbered about 16. It was the first time I had ever had such an experience on a night journey. The thieves ordered every one out after emptying our pockets of money. I remember a particular woman whom they insisted must give them N300,000 which they claimed she had. This went on for close to one hour. Eventually we were all asked to lie on one another in the middle of the road, on which trucks and other vehicles were supposed to be plying, with our eyes closed or level to the ground.
The Nigerian police came ten minutes after the thieves successfully robbed us. Fortunately, none of the women in the bus were raped. But the memory is unpalatable. And I vowed to myself never to travel by road nor undertake night journeys again in my life. It took an extra 24 hours to arrive in Port Harcourt; a journey that should have ended seven hours after the incident. This was because we eventually had to spend the whole night at that spot, as we did not know the whereabouts of our driver and conductor. The trauma, devastation and frustration were enough to decide, as I did, never to travel in the night again. Yet there are many others who cannot take such a decision. They are probably getting robbed at other times too. Insecurity on the roads will be the next monster that will mar the Nigerian nation if nothing is done now.
We cannot quantify the value of effective security and smoothness of the roads for road travellers. The local economy and prosperity at the level of individual economic trading concerns – even for farmers who need to transport their farm produce to neighbouring villages, towns or markets – currently depends mainly on unsafe roads and crude marine transportation. Another dimension to this is the rate of automobile accidents on Nigerian roads. Most of the time, it is because road users are either trying to avoid bad spots, are driving at top speed for fear of robbery attack, or driving cars that do not receive regular maintenance. Alcohol plays a negative role as well. The public transport operators are not excluded from the problems. Marginal public regulation and control to ensure standards does not only add a dangerous dimension, it has become rationalised with inefficiency and poor service delivery by government workers in relevant ministries at the state and federal government levels. The local government councils constitute a different problem area. They set up task forces that become a problem for the free-flow of traffic for road users on inter-state or inter-local government journeys.
The rail system has long broken down. But how did we get here? This is something working in many parts of the world. For Nigeria, the rail system was basically a colonial creation to facilitate transportation of agricultural produce from the hinterland to the ports for easy export. It was not intended to serve the local domestic transportation needs, which is why one must keep wondering why the post-colonial state in Nigeria has deteriorated so badly in service delivery. Governments are fast withdrawing from public service delivery on the excuse of privatisation. Yet, there are many areas where this is not working. The responsibility of fixing the roads is not any private investors. Maybe eventually, the roads will be privatised, at which point one can be sure that some poor people will never think of travelling again. Resources for effective and efficient air, marine, road and rail transportation in Nigeria are available. This has been the truth, especially since the Nigerian state began to flaunt itself as oil resource rich. It is clear that the oil resource has only encouraged corruption and class-oriented programmes. It is no surprise then that only the rich can fly in Nigeria.
Recently I was in the city of Geneva where the tram, which is free for commuters, is powered with energy generated from a lake in the city. It was amazing, but it called my attention to the wroth in Nigerian cities’ transportation deficiencies, where the numbers of cars alone emit dangerous substances that can kill residents faster than any other disease. The poor are left to solve their own problems while the rich: oil block owners, oil workers, politicians in Abuja, States and local governments, local petty bourgeois, foreign capitalists, top civil servants, some neoliberal local and foreign professional NGO practitioners and so on, are now seemingly being able to extract a bill of rights for travellers from the political class. But who will do the same for road travellers? Who takes responsibility for the wroth in the country’s road, marine and rail transport systems? The problem is even worse for riverine states and communities like Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Lagos, Cross Rivers and so on, where villages separated by water do not even have well organised transport systems facilitated by government to reduce the pain of the poor. In some of these villages, for instance in Rivers State, oil companies make huge money from oil wells, but leave their host communities stranded with nothing, not even the assistance needed in the area of inter-village transportation of goods and persons. A bill of rights that protects Nigerians from insecurity on the roads, compels government to fix the roads, resuscitate or build a modern rail system, ensures a developed marine transport system and so on, is also needed alongside the coming bill of rights for air travellers in Nigeria.
Fidelis Allen,PhD, is based at the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College Campus.