NURTW: The Unelected Government of Lagos

Lagos drivers pay as much as N10,000 per day to the NURTW. A salary earner would have to earn at least N15 m per annum to pay such a high rate of tax.

On Twitter a few days ago, Nigerian singer Brymo said that the 2023 election was an opportunity for Lagos to take “control of the country”. As the possibility of a Bola Ahmed Tinubu presidency increases every day, thanks to an unserious opposition that has broken itself into many ineffective pieces, it is time to unpack what Lagos taking over Nigeria could mean for the country. 

There are many issues to dive into here but today, I want to focus on a major failure of Tinubu’s 23-year-old tenure as the Lord of Lagos.  This is the National Union Road Transport Workers’ hegemony, corruption, and violence in Lagos State. Despite an official ban of the Union, the Union’s leadership remains an unelected government in Lagos. It levies taxes, enforces its payment, and seemingly has a monopoly of violence in many parts of the nation’s commercial capital. 

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To be clear, the agbero culture embodied by the NURTW and its sister unions was not a creation of Tinubu. The culture, including its violence and corruption, all predated the return of democracy in 1999. One could read Wole Soyinka’s 1965 landmark play, The Road, to catch a glimpse of agbero touts doing their thing as far back as the 1960s. The culture has always been there. But where Tinubu and his clique that has ruled Lagos for more than two decades have failed is in their inability to bring an end to this culture. Instead, the road unions have been emboldened. Their leaders have been fully incorporated into the political system and their members are used as ready tools by political leaders to enable their reign. 

Despite all the modern developments that Lagos now lays claim to, its streets are still controlled by thugs who have no respect for laws or for the rights of their fellow citizens. Their control of the transport sector is total and enforced by the threat of violence and violence itself. Transport is the third highest expense Nigerians incur according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics. Only food and education cost Nigerians more. It’s a shame that in Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre, this all-important sector is controlled by unelected, violent individuals. 

Their focus is not just on commercial vehicles. Private cars on the road can be subject to their rule. Trying to give a free lift to passengers on the road, a common practice present in all countries can easily make one a victim of extortion and or assault at the hands of the agberos.  

It is difficult to find Lagosians who can defend the antics of these people. Even some members of the unions are tired of them. Earlier this month, bus drivers under the aegis of the Joint Drivers’ Welfare Association of Nigeria (JDWAN) embarked on a strike to protest the extortion and violence they suffer at the hands of the transport unions’ enforcers across the state. The strike, which brought to bear the huge costs the road unions and their government enablers impose on drivers, ground Lagos to a halt for several days. 

It is outrageous and patently unacceptable that an average commercial bus driver in Lagos is forced to pay at least N3,000 in various levies every single day. This is despite the fact the government last year consolidated the applicable levies into one levy of N800 per day. A Daily Trust report paints an even more distressing picture of what some drivers go through every day. They are forced to pay more than N10,000 every single day they work. 

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In contrast, a salary earner would have to earn to be earning over fifteen million naira per annum to be paying as much tax! Let’s also bear in mind that the legal and illegal levies extracted from the drivers are mostly cornered by union leaders and do not translate to any improvement in road infrastructure. 

There are those who will argue that the agbero culture is not restricted to Lagos. And they would be right. However, Lagos, more than any other state, has the resources and capacity to end the culture once and for all within its borders. Lagos has developed road networks, easily mapped bus stops, a smaller landmass than all other states, financial resources, and a relatively competent civil service. All these are factors that should make it easier for the state government to take back its transport sectors from rogue union leaders and protect both drivers and passengers from the agberos

That this has not been done should concern all of us as the man in charge of Lagos these past decades gets closer to taking over the presidency of Nigeria. Tinubu has clearly decided that the political value of the road unions is more important to him than the safety of citizens, economic empowerment of drivers, and improved revenue of Lagos. Nigeria can sure do without such a cynical approach to politics and governance.

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