9th August, 2012
BY ERNIE OKEKE
Lagos State department of Trade and Industry last month celebrated a week of Artisans and Tradesmen. What better opportune event to x-ray some hindrances plaguing these enterprising individuals in their efforts to eke out a living. On the heels of this effort state authorities have followed up with an announcement targeted at getting rid of ‘Agbero’ or road touts scattered around the central areas of the state. It is already evident to residents who benefit from the services rendered by this sector that tradesmen and artisans are cash cow to some organised gang of Mafioso of sorts with collectors in almost every nook and cranny of the state. They prowl about sometimes openly, other times they spring as if from nowhere to pounce on unsuspecting street traders demanding for money. Some collectors brazenly go from shop to shop for daily ransoms. One cannot help but to ponder on whose authority these individuals operate as some even resort to violent behaviour and intimidation in a bid to extort these daily funds.
Those the collect the funds from include bus drivers popularly called ‘Danfo’s, Okada riders, tricycle or Marwa drivers, street hawkers of all trades, roadside petty traders, shop owners on street corners, refuse collectors, shoe repairers, cart wheelers or ‘Omolankes’. This is by no means an exhaustive list but it is sufficient indication of the range of vulnerable targets for these roguish characters who engage in these extortions in a manner comparable to the well-oiled chain of command akin to an Italian Mafioso gang.
Worst areas are mainland Lagos. Lekki and Aja have a semblance of structured and identifiable collectors from established unions. Nevertheless, the Island markets of Idumota, Ereko, Apongbon, Dosumu and environ and their parking slots fester with these individuals who in this case harass shoppers with visibly bulky purchases and are quick to brandish phony looking receipts to support or prove the legitimacy of their demand!
On a trip from Oshodi to Apapa, Wharf, a bus driver had to payout a total of N280 along the bus stops on the route. Their resentment evident, some operators who spoke lamented about their plight and admitted to paying as much as N3500 daily and that depending on the route it could be much higher. Operators concede to being helpless when confronted by this apparent thuggery and as such only succumb when crowded and harassed by these collectors comprising both uniformed officials and street urchins. Here, even the police openly engage in the extortion activity at Oshodi ‘Oke’! Notwithstanding the recent directive by the Inspector General of Police of removing all checkpoints across the nation, apparently this has not deterred some police stations in the state as they are alleged to be either aiding or abetting some collectors whilst in many instances failing to keep the peace when violent disagreements occur as a result.
The general understanding among the drivers is to pay only when they pick up passengers at these bus stops. This is however not the case at most times and as a result aggression results in exchange of blows between drivers and collectors with commuters baffled, confused and often captive witnesses.
As the state enforces its pronouncements, it should take into cognizance the ability of these individuals to be ingenious in their method to circumvent the law. Take for instance the unsolicited and without -contract road works engaged by these hoodlums. On many occasions, you find emergency road works where these individuals purchase a heap of gravel or sand to fill potholes along our roads but cunningly busying themselves collecting toll from motorists before allowing them to pass.
Speculations abound among victims, their customers and commuters that these extortionists work for the state government. Others insist they are members of some unions or depending on the area, represent some local chieftains called Baales who in turn are to remit certain amount of funds to the state coffers.
Consumers, who usually bear brunt of this incessant collection of money, trace it to higher prices of goods and services especially transport fares. Moreover, the state in its bid to raise funds for its numerous projects has marshalled its tax collection organs pushing for taxes from the very same residents of the state. And, it is generally believed that the authorities in the state are well aware of these operations but chose to remain mute thus giving the illegal toll collectors some measure of legitimacy hence this widely held perception that Alausa is on the take from these stooges menacing the public.
Nevertheless, if these operations are daily activities of some organised unions recognised by government, then consumers need to know why there are so many of them given that this country has no price control laws as it is supposed to operate as a free market economy where the forces of supply and demand determine price. On the contrary, what we have are unions of all shades both legal and illegal such as in transport, commercial trading, even our ‘Vulcanizers ‘ and local booksellers are all ganging up to influence prices against consumers.
This scenario places further burden on already pressured Nigerians resident in Lagos, an aftermath of fuel subsidy removal and increasingly saps the motivation of the average grumbling consumer from adhering to his or her civic responsible of paying tax.
Digging further into this issue, research revealed that there is an urgent need for the Lagos State Ministry of Transportation and that of Trade and Industry to render public their recognised list of unions authorized to collect funds from members of the public. It should be standard that they have uniformed operatives with visible identifications at all times. They should also be tax compliant as required of any such organizations. When in other states, transport unions make their collections inside motor parks, why then is Lagos State different from other states of the federation with this glaring prevalence of lawlessness and wild-wild west state of affairs? This portrays the state in a bad light.
Above all, given the importance of the services and goods these lowly artisans and tradesmen sell to the consumers, concerns persist as to the apparent benefits of these unions to their members; what control has the government over them to prevent incessant hoarding and artificial influence on prices of these goods and services? Most importantly, what benefit is there for the consumer in terms of quality service through internal enforcement of government regulations within these unions? Again, this country does not have a national accident insurance scheme for its citizenry yet; do the transport unions compensate members involved in accidents or provide any support for commuters to ensure they get compensation from their members in many incidents of breakdowns due to mechanically faulty vehicles?
Nonetheless, the efforts of the Lagos Government to sanitise the transport unions is commendable and we encourage the authorities to continue with the efforts but ensure that laws and bylaws are not so harsh but geared toward cushioning the effect of extortions on residents and respite for consumers in the face of the harsh realities of living in Eko.
•Okeke, Creator/Producer, Buyer-Beware Media Project . Email: [email protected] Mobile: 08056291107