Sunday, 26th June 2022
Breaking News:

Agbero and battle for soul of Lagos economy

By Editorial Board
24 March 2022   |   2:43 am
Implosion in the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and attendant suspension of its Lagos branch reaffirm inherent excesses that neither modern unionism nor sane society should tolerate.

Implosion in the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and attendant suspension of its Lagos branch reaffirm inherent excesses that neither modern unionism nor sane society should tolerate.

It is disappointing that the Lagos State government is shirking its duty to act firmly against brigandage; and appears instead to aim to repackage old wine in a new bottle, in this Lagos NURTW episode. Lagos State deserves better organisation in motor parks and streets, and Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu should insist on that standard.

The commercial nerve centre of the nation has put up with the menace of its street-urchins for too long. The parks, even various spots on major roads, are characterised by the unruly behaviour, extortionate and largely chaotic activities of the countless motor park touts, otherwise called agbero, working ostensibly as members of the State NURTW. Commercial vehicle operators are reportedly compelled to pay a range of extortionate charges of various names – ‘owo load’ (loading charge), ‘owo chairman’ (chairman’s due), ‘owo booking’ (slot fee), even ‘owo boys’ (something for the boys).  Needless to say, these changes translate to higher transport fares that commuters must bear. The average bus stop in Lagos presents such outrageously lawless sight that it may be hard to believe there exist a government of the people in authority for the people. This is not right. It is not acceptable.
The Lagos NURTW is a strong revenue-yielding, politically well-connected and influential body. Besides its internal wrangle, the branch, or more specifically its leader, also has a dispute with the national body of the NURTW. The consequence is the suspension indefinitely, by the apex body quoting the applicable sections of its constitution, of the Lagos branch chairman, Musiliu Akinsanya (alias MC Oluomo), on the grounds of alleged misconduct, insubordination, and inciting the branch against the national union. Akinsanya responded, citing Section 40 of the extant Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to ‘immediately withdraw (his branch) membership and operation from the national body of the NURTW. The two incidents have lately generated tensions that, given both the union’s characteristics and service in the transportation sector, threaten the peace and stability of the state.  

Most perplexing in the episode is the role played by the Lagos State government to appease the proscribed branch with a state-own agenda to collect levies from motorparks. In a detailed policy statement in January this year, the Commissioner for Finance, Dr. Rabiu Olowo announced that the government would, with effect from February 1, collect a so-called ‘consolidated informal transport sector levy’. “The N800 (levy) is a single-structured collection of the monies payable to all government agencies and parties who are directly or indirectly associated with the transport sector. He added that ‘what the government has done is to organise the collection and reduce the multiplicity of levies and all sorts of taxes, dues, and monies due to government from the transport unions. Embattled chairman of the Lagos NURTW was the first to push back on the state’s policy, describing the consolidated fee as entirely different from NURTW’s daily dues. The state government initially backtracked on the N800 levies. Now, it has been made in-road through the backdoor of NURTW’s crisis!
But the NURTW, an affiliate of the Nigeria Labour Congress, is only a trade union established to cater for the interests of its voluntary members. The union, founded in 1978 is to protect the rights of (transport) workers that have entered into the union voluntarily and pay dues to run the union and support members. The media is inundated with reports of tonnes of revenue accruable to the union daily, with a conservative estimate of about N123.07 billion yearly – more than the annual IGR of many states. Agbero is the ‘goons’ who enforce the payment, often on the pain of physical assault, of the numerous charges on behalf of their principal. No wonder the desperation with which the leadership of this body is contested. Indeed, some are of the opinion that the Lagos State-NURTW imbroglio is actually a struggle for the soul of the Lagos economy. How this has come to be is strange. The Fourth Schedule (1) (e) of the Constitution states that the ‘main functions’ of a Local Government Council as ‘establishment, maintenance, and regulation of slaughterhouses, slaughter slabs, markets, motor parks, and public conveniences.’ How the state government and the NURTW have taken over the role of the local council in apparent violation of the Constitution needs to be interrogated against the backdrop of the unequivocal provision of Chapter 1 Section 1(3).
Billions of naira as revenue in the hands of a non-state entity or on behalf of the state raises questions of transparency and accountability and deserves an explanation by the constituted authority. How judiciously does the NURTW in Lagos apply its earnings in serving its contributing members, how much does it expend to improve the physical condition of motor parks and other spots from where it generates revenue? In sum, how much does the branch really generate per month, per year, and to what use does it put its income? If indeed the state authorities are interested in the peaceful conduct of the affairs of the local NURTW, as it should, this must inevitably include the generation and application of funds.
Tensions within the Lagos NURTW, as the state government has affirmed, will affect the peace of the state and the well-being of the citizens. Indeed, recognition of this led the State Police authorities to immediately order tough security measures at motor parks. Besides, in fulfilment of its constitutional obligation, as provided for in Section 14 (2) (b), the government was right to move against the NURTW. The state government promised to set up a Park Management Committee to manage the affairs of the motor parks and garages. Where is the Committee?  A proactive government would have put together the team before making the announcement. It is tardiness to put the cart before the horse.  As the government dilly-dallies and making feeble refutations, the ‘agbero’ have continued with their ‘business’ on the grounds that their leader, Akinsanya, has been appointed to head the motor parks and garages.
The NURTW has occasionally been involved in conduct that threaten the peace of Lagos State and the safety of its citizens. The Guardian had cause to comment on this and related matters. As a trade union subject to the provisions of the relevant act, NURTW must learn to manage its internal affairs more responsibly.  But above all, the NURTW should not be perceived as stronger than the duly constituted authority of the government that is constitutionally invested with all the necessary powers to secure the safety and welfare of Lagosians. Notwithstanding the politics of it all, the state government must, as a duty, act more decisively, and transparently in this battle for the soul of Lagos economy.