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Night bus operators buckle under insecurity, 50% slide in patronage

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For decades, they ran a thriving nocturnal road transport system that ferried large volumes of persons and goods nationwide and beyond at a relatively low cost.

For their affordability and good travel time that competed with daytime operators and even airlines, the section of road transport was the first preference of many business persons and the adventurous.

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But that was the lush green era of cross-country travels that is fast becoming history. Besides decaying road infrastructure nationwide, fleet operators have rued general insecurity and its growing threats to night operations.

The reign of terror in the mode of armed robbery, kidnapping, and banditry that waylay road users have cut erstwhile booming patronage by over 50 per cent.

A night charter operator at Jibowu told The Guardian that they had an average of eight requests daily in the heydays of night travel. “Now, maybe three or four on a good day. Sometimes, nothing at all.”

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“I think the business is dying because of insecurity. We as operators know how to manage the situation and cope with the discomfort, but not our customers,” the operator said.

He added that they could manoeuvre the “bad boys” and arrive safely. “We (drivers) communicate and share intelligence. So, we already know where there is a problem and how to avoid it. It means we would have to wait in a forest for one or two hours, more sometimes, before continuing on the journey. That means a Lagos-Abuja trip of eight hours might become 12 or even 15 hours.

“But how many passengers would like that? That is why the trend these days is more of haulage services than persons. And transporting goods too is more expensive because the vehicle is most likely to return to base empty,” the operator said.

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Besides, drivers who ply the highways said there is hardly a 20-kilometre stretch that does not have a deplorable portion. For north-bound travellers, the Okene and Obajana in Kogi State and Osun axis are the worst.

A staff of Delta Express, Moses Ephraim, also reckoned the current insecurity is worrisome because it has affected night travel businesses.

“A lot of people are scared to travel at night due to unpredictable security. Initially, we do load like four to five luxury buses; at times two buses leave at night but because of insecurity and bad roads, loading one is now a headache.

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“This has affected the cost of travelling because more efforts are channeled at ensuring safety. Sometimes, buses spend two to three days on the roads. How do you cater for the cost? You have to increase the rate of transport fare to be able to keep the system running. You can’t pay a little fee and you are being offered services over two to three days. We would be operating at a loss.”

Ephraim said formerly, from Lagos to Kano, which is the company’s last destination in the north, operators charged N12, 500, but because of insecurity challenges and bad roads, it now costs N14, 500.

Speaking on measures in place for security, he said before passengers board, bio-data details are collected with special scrutiny on baggage. “We are looking at employing security personnel to accompany all our buses,” he said.

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A representative of an operator, Yahya Bukar, described the night travel business as profitable but for insecurity. “We travel to Zamfara, Sokoto and Kaduna, which are some of the places with high insecurity.”

Bukar said most of their passengers usually ask how safe the roads are, especially National Youth Corp members before embarking on a journey.

“We usually take the bio-data of passengers and next of kin. We make sure our buses are safe and sound. Usually as a registered company, we have connections with security agencies to ensure the safety of our passengers,” he said.

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Besides, Bukar wants the government to provide good roads and also increase security personnel on roads to boost passengers’ confidence.

Accordingly, some of the drivers and passengers expressed worry about night travel, stating that the government must build good roads and encourage night travel to promote tourism.

A passenger, travelling to Abuja, Kazeem Abdul Razak, who could not afford to pay for a flight ticket, expressed fear, saying: “In 2014 when I embarked on a night journey, it was successful but now that there is banditry and kidnapping in the country, I am afraid.

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“Before I left home, my wife and children all prayed for journey mercies against attacks or accidents. Even on the phone through WhatsApp messages, people have been praying for me to return safely. Honestly, I am afraid; the only thing we have to do is to be prayerful.”

Another passenger, Nurudeen Njidda, who had not travelled at night for a while, expressed fears, stating that it was expedient for him to embark on night travels because there was a need for it.

He said the journey two days ago from Abuja was fine, as there were no issues of insecurity. In the past, the driver had to park and notify passengers that there was an armed robbery at some spots or part of the road.

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“When we were coming there was nothing like that but that does not take away the fact that we are still scared about it. I wouldn’t say insecurity has affected the cost of travel, we know about the economic situation of the country, which is what is increasing the fare, insecurity is part of it, I believe it is part of it too.”

Another passenger, Amos Salasi, said travelling at night is comfortable but it is not advisable.

Salasi said: “We have been travelling under the mercies of God and one can’t really tell unlike before when you were travelling you know you were sure of your safety. It is no longer the same issue because for now we just travel and pray while embarking on our journey.

“I will suggest people travel in day time, so when unforeseen circumstances happen you can find your way but if it is at night, you become stranded because at that time it is more dreadful.”

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A driver, Abubakar Aliyu, who has 25 years of driving experience said the security in the country remains the same, but only God saves.

“We are not happy with insecurity on the roads. We have complained severally to our leaders but we don’t know if they are responding to the issue or not. If for instance, we see security agents at different spots on the road at night it would boost our morale while driving but we believe in God’s protection.”

For Alfred Nwatuabu, a driver who has driven to the Eastern and Northern parts of the country and currently drives for Bonnyway Motors, driving in Nigeria is tedious because there is total fear because of robbery.

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Nwatuabu said robbery has been reduced because of the cashless policy introduced by the Central Bank of Nigeria. Before now passengers and businessmen and women usually stack money in sacks and travel with it.

Speaking on the effect of insecurity, he said: “In 2018, a driver was kidnapped at Obajana in Kogi State on his way to Lagos from Kaduna and the director of the company had to pay two million naira cash to rescue the driver before he was released. If the money was not paid, the driver would have been butchered.

“The challenges we face are bad roads; in the time past, we had the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (FERMA), which makes sure the roads are rebuilt or patched. Especially, when the ember months draw nearer, those potholes won’t be there before people return home. Some drivers are seasonal drivers, who aren’t used to the roads, hence FERMA patches the roads to forestall accidents.

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“But since the current administration took over, the role of FERMA has been silent. Before to travel to Abuja from Lagos, was nine hours, but now you spend over 12 hours,” he said.

The Corps Marshal of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Boboye Oyeyemi, had earlier advised fleet operators, commercial drivers and private vehicle owners against taking night journeys.

Oyeyemi, through a statement by the agency’s spokesperson, Bisi Kazeem, lamented rising cases of road traffic crashes and fatalities being recorded at night.

He said night trips are made dangerous by poor visibility, fatigue, sleeping on the wheel and excessive speeding.

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