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Changing roles of actors in informal transport


The informal transport sector in Nigeria is central to the socioeconomic well being of Nigerians. It is a Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) that adapts services instantly for the right price. The resilience and functionality of the informal transport sector of Nigeria are basic truths that cannot be doubted, which explains why over 75 percent of population in cities of Nigeria depends on informal transportation, for both work and non-work related activities. For a number of reasons, the roles played by actors in this service sector of the Nigerian economy have been changing by the decades.

Cursory overview, history and anecdotal information suggest that highly fluid adaptation capabilities of actors in the sector to a large extent define realities of the sector. In addition, it is known that the socioeconomic, political and regulatory space within which an activity sector operates influence appreciably how that activity sector would fare. These grounds may brush on some attributes of the sector, with considerable implications on performance, reputation and functional outlook. So! It becomes pertinent to trace the underscoring explanations. This need is not only underlined by necessity of comprehending how the sector functions, or how government oversight of the sector could be improved, but also to decipher how the sector can better add value to the socioeconomic fabric of cities it has been serving purposefully for decades.


To achieve these ends, it is imperative to describe realities that underline changing roles of actors in the sector, by highlighting turning points. Deeper understanding of drivers of changing roles would enable proper advisory foundation for policy and regulations, targeting the sector and identification of pockets of persistence.

A number of actors, comprising stakeholders with varied concerns, collaborate to keep the sector vibrant; these include the vehicle owners, drivers, conductors, terminal officials, association officials, and others who derive benefit from the sector. Each group of actors provides separate but concurrent service that keeps the sector alive. In some cases, an individual actor may have more than one type of role, for instance, “owner – drivers”, whom may be involved in different activities, at different times. Most vehicle owners are entrepreneurs who could be active or passive participants in the sector. Notwithstanding, they bear most of the risks associated with the operation. Ownership of vehicle is mainly private.

Private owners raise capital from family members and personal savings to purchase vehicles and maintain them. Owner – drivers, make up about 15 percent of the lot. Next the Drivers, whom have been noted to be mainly young – middle aged persons. Drivers tend to be younger than owners in most cases. Then we have Conductors, comprising of mainly young school dropouts, part-time apprentices, full-time teenagers or men in their 20s and 30s, and occasionally older. Generally conductors tend to be younger than drivers, but usually aspire to one day become drivers themselves.

Their main duties include recruiting, organizing and ushering passengers into the vehicles, receiving payment and any other role as may be assigned by the driver. It is believed that nearly 50 percent of actors in this sector derive income primarily from the informal transport sector, and approximately 40 percent participate to supplement their earnings from other endeavours. Other actors in the sector include Terminal officials who are mainly local government representatives. This cohort serves mainly to collect tax, levy and also monitor daily transport activities at designated and undesignated motor – parks. Association or union officials became part of the actors in the sector occasioned by the formation of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) in 1978. Like any other union their basic role is to protect the interests of their members and organize informal public transport operations at the motor – parks and other fringe areas where they operate. Others like the agberos, a cohort of urban youth, identified by Agbiboa, D.E. in an article titled “No Condition is Permanent: Informal transport workers and labour precarity in Africa’s largest cities”, survive through parasitic dependence on the largely informal spatial regulation of public transport in Nigeria, and also exert influence in the informal transport scene.

Intermediaries like luggage handlers or cart pushers are as well found in and around the motor – parks. Public transportation in Nigeria had all along been in the hands and control of private entrepreneurs, who dictate largely the modus operandi of the nation’s public transport sector.

In the 1960s, macro-economic indicators of Nigeria’s economy were consistently positive, as presented by Mustapha, A. A. in a paper describing Nigeria’s Economic Growth: Past, Present and Determinants, published in 2017. This was because the nation depended much on agricultural products for foreign exchange earnings and only a small proportion of the population were engaged in white-collar jobs. During this period, a number of private individuals owned vehicles that were used for intra and inter – urban travel.


This arrangement sufficed then, since cities and towns were smaller in size and most people found gainful employment without needing to travel very far into other regions. Owner – drivers were the majority. Even though transport business was lucrative at the time, it was not easy to come by capital required to purchase a vehicle, so vehicle-owners and owner – drivers usually dealt with car dealers who gave hire purchase options. As the end of 1970s approached, the Second Republic was ushered in, the political landscape changed, and the socioeconomic situation of the country became dire, the hire purchase option became difficult to follow through. This coupled with the increasing unemployment, rationalization and retrenchment of workers that became rampant, caused the economy to crumble. The period between 1985 and 1998 was particularly difficult for Nigerians. New vehicle registration fell drastically from 700,000 in 1984 to under 500,000 in 1987 (see Bolade, T. A. (1989) The National Urban Mass Transit Programme: Review and Reflections), meanwhile the old stock of vehicles were leaving the road for want of spare parts and declining purchasing power. Between 1983 and 1992, owing to poor public transport services, and as a consequence of the nature of the overall socioeconomic and political environments at the time, passenger transport operators struggle to cover operating cost, while the passengers faced escalating fares for increasingly scarce services.

In Lagos alone, the population of public buses dropped by 50 percent. These all worked together to reduce the level to which owners and owner – drivers could perform their primary roles of supplying the informal transport sector with roadworthy, well maintained and safe vehicles. The precarious economic situation then meant that the sector depended on refurbishing and remodeling used vehicles originally scrapped or left unused by owners. So, a steady stream of used imported and old vehicles entered service as unconventional and unregistered urban carriers, operated by anyone who could afford them or anyone with links to someone who’s ready to hire out such vehicles. The main implications of this include drastic fall in safety and comfort of passengers.

The structural changes that arose from adjustments in public policies after the civil war of (1967 – 1971) coupled with the timely rise in oil revenue led to exponential economic recovery and growth between 1970 and 1974. These kept most people busy with other endeavours, so informal transport business then was mainly for those who had primary interest in it, and not for want of what to do. This meant that mostly career transport operators or at least those whose primary source of income derive from the informal transport sector thrived within it. As things changed, many institutions of government got affected negatively too, for instance, the declining role of NIPOST in parcel handling and distribution at that time, and onset of e – commerce in the late 1990s expanded participation of informal transport operators in parcel delivery. A market analysis carried out to appraise the movement of NIPOST from monopoly to competition by Nwanoluem and Iwuoha reported in 2012, found that companies without delivery logistic infrastructure basically rely on the informal transport sector.

Even as NIPOST underwent some restructuring that saw some improvement in services in the later part of President Obasanjo’s era. The affinity for the express, easy to access and demand responsive services provided by informal transport based parcel delivery meant that Nigerians kept using them to date. As demand for these types of services grew, the number of “parcel and freight caretakers” commensurately increased in the motor – parks, effectively adding warehousing to their roles. The role of drivers expanded from taking passengers safely from point “A” to point “B” to include delivering parcels and mails hand – to – hand. Vehicle – owners and owner – drivers all partook in these roles too. Additionally, near collapse of railway services during SAP era, made it necessary for informal transport operator roles to expand to moving heavier loads.
To be continued tomorrow
Shittu AbdulMajeed Olaremi, Ph.D
Department of Urban and Regional Planning
Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria & African Urban Mobility Network.


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