Abuja Urban Mass Transit Scheme … A decaying legacy
• Lack Of Terminals, Harassment Of Drivers Our Major Challenges- Management
When the country’s federal capital was moved from Lagos to Abuja, on December 12, 1991, by former Military President, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, the new Federal Capital Territory (FCT) was still a work in progress.
As is the case with such cities, it was deficient in many areas, including the provision of social services. Apart from struggling to cope with the challenge of consolidating on its fledgling infrastructure occasioned by rapid urbanisation, it was also haunted by an increase in motorisation and low-quality public transport.
The Abuja Urban Mass Transport Company Limited (AUMTCO), established by the then Ministry of Federal Capital Territory, now the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) in 1984 as Abuja Bus Service (ABS), and later registered as Abuja Urban Mass Transport Company Limited, under the Companies and Allied Matters Act 1990, was meant to serve as a vehicle to address the transportation needs of a city that was blossoming at high speed.
The outfit, among other things, was designed to provide “the best value for money and safest, most reliable scheduled and bus hire service in Nigeria. It was also to plan, develop and implement an organised environmentally friendly and sustainable Urban public transport system in the FCT for effective, comfortable, safe, regular, efficient and affordable transport service delivery.
In addition to implementing the Abuja master plan with regards to urban transportation, it was also to develop a sustainable means of funding urban public transportation services in the FCT, evolve appropriate policy framework to subsidise urban public transportation and provide adequate transport infrastructure in the territory, with particular reference to urban public transportation.
It also aspired to become the pace-setter for the provision of world-class, organised and efficient urban public transportation services in the country. The company was also charged with the responsibility of implementing the government’s vision of affordable urban public transportation and managing transport service delivery across the Federal Capital Territory.
As the largest bus transportation company in Nigeria, with a staff strength of 518 staff members, AUMTCO took off with funds totaling over N1.3b, which were to be used for the procurement of over 500 high- capacity buses for designated routes in the FCT, including Abuja-Mararaba, Abuja-Bwari, Abuja-Kuje, Abuja-Gwagwalada, and Abuja-Suleja respectively.
Before long, the arrival of the high-capacity buses led to the ban of the popular mini buses that plied the capital city in 2013, all in a bid to make for smooth operations of AUMTCO.
But to the shock of many, it only took a few years of operations before the lofty initiative began showing signs of distress, and a good number of the mass transit buses began to disappear from the roads, one after the other.
Very poor maintenance culture, poor management, and frequent policy changes, The Guardian investigation revealed, have contributed immensely to the poor outputs of the mass transit outfit.
According to Mr. Gbolahan Bolaji, a staff of the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development: “The idea of putting in place, the Abuja Urban Mass Transit Company Limited was initiated by the FCT administration when Olusegun Obasanjo was President, and Malam Nasir El-Rufai, the FCT Minister. The over 400 vehicles that were bought, were distributed to ply various routes in the six area councils of the territory. Most of us civil servants enjoyed these buses, but their operations were not effective for a long time, as the buses started disappearing from the roads sooner than later.
“The next thing that we heard was that government had given the management permission to begin bus leasing services to religious groups, for marriage, burial ceremonies and all sorts of events. This was when the fortunes of the mass transit agency started dwindling. It is quite clear that it was at this point that the vehicles were beginning to witness frequent damages as a result of the distant trips that they were making. The poor maintenance culture showed glaringly here as many of the buses were subsequently declared unserviceable,” he said.
While workers and residents of the FCT find it very difficult to move around the territory with ease, and at reasonably low cost, taxi and bus operators appear to be having a ball.
Not long ago, the immediate past acting Managing Director of AUMTCO, Eddie Ajon, while briefing newsmen, said that of the 367 buses left in the company’s fleet, only 150 of them were still on the roads, while others have been parked for one mechanic problem or the other. He added that ‘’about 120 of them have been parked permanently and rendered unserviceable.”
Ajon also revealed that the company would soon commence the sale of the 120 unserviceable buses following the approval given by the FCT Minister, Malam Muhammad Musa Bello for them to be sold, while the administration’s procurement department was already working on the legal procedures to perfect the sales.
The former helmsman had alleged that the buses started developing faults right from the first day that they were handed over to the company, and it was later discovered that they were refurbished vehicles. Consequently, the management decided to stack them away the moment they broke down.
“Some of these buses were bought by the last PDP administration, and from the onset, the buses were not good, because they were refurbished buses. So, on the very first day we put them on the roads, less than 60 percent of them came back with problems, as I speak, the FCT Minister, Malam Muhammad Musa Bello, has already given approval for them to be auctioned and the procurement department is working on the legal procedures for the auctioning.”
Because several buses have broken down, a good number of the routes covered by the mass transit scheme have been abandoned. They include Life Camp axis, Karshi-Jikwoyi areas as well as Gwagwalada-Lugbe axis.
A transporter, Alhaji Abu Asimu, told The Guardian that the failure of the Urban Mass Transit Company Limited to live up to expectations was responsible for the high volume of passengers hanging around major bus stops in the FCT, including Berger Junction, Area 1 Junction, the Federal Secretariat, FCT Roundabout, among others at close of business each day.
“As businessmen, we take advantage of this failure on the part of the government to increase our fares from the usual N200. 00 to N300. 00, and at times even to N400. 00 for a trip from Abuja City Centre to Suleja, Dutse, Mararaba, Gwagwalada and to other areas.
“Unfortunately, the failure of the mass transit buses to cover the entire FCT effectively has led to a situation, where all manner of persons resort to the transportation business. In some cases, plain criminals masquerade as transporters, ferry commuters from the city centre only to pull up somewhere in the outskirts and strip them of their valuables,” Asimu said.
A visit to the various AUMTCO offices revealed that a number of these vehicles have been packed for months and even years having broken down as a result of poor maintenance. Some that had only minor mechanical faults were left to rot alongside those with major faults.
A resident of Madalla in Niger State, Aaron Jiya, said patronising “the FCT urban mass transport buses presently is like putting yourself in bondage. Sometimes after passengers have paid their complete fares to the city centre, the constant breakdown that the buses suffer ensures that commuters are not taken to their destination. And once this happens, the conductors and their drivers never make refunds to their estranged passengers.”
Similarly, a resident of Mararaba, Nassarawa State, Emeka Igwe, said that only a few high capacity buses presently plying his route, for now, adding that even the ones on the roads have become smoky thereby discouraging passengers.
Igwe said as a result of this ugly situation, many commuters prefer to patronise unlicensed transporters, better known in local parlance as kabu-kabu, adding that patronising private taxi operators are costlier, even with its attendant security risk.
When contacted, Managing Director of AUMTCO, Abdulrasaq Oniyangi represented by the Head of Marketing and Communications, AUMTCO, Mr. Tunde Akintola, admitted that the organisation was struggling to meet its obligations to FCT residents.
He said besides struggling with a highly depleted fleet, “we do not have dedicated bus terminals; we have challenges with unpainted taxi drivers that are all over the place, and there is no sufficient space for us to pack conveniently and carry passengers. If you can go to Area 1 Bus Stop, Berger Junction, and Federal Secretariat, you will discover that these places where you have a lot of passengers are usually jam-packed at the close of work. We cannot function well under these circumstances, as taxi operators often harass and beat our drivers at will because of the competition.”
Oniyangi informed that even though the issue of molestation of the 118 drivers in AUMTCO’s fleet by commercial drivers has been taken up by security agencies, the problem was yet to abate.
“Today, Abuja Urban Mass Transit Company still boasts over 290 high-capacity buses in its fleet. We still provide the cheapest transport services to residents, but we need special road marshalls in uniform like the BRT Marshalls in Lagos, to help issue tickets, and check-in passengers to ensure maximum security. It is unfortunate too that we are also faced with the high cost of operations as a result of the high cost of diesel,” he stated.
On the way forward for the outfit, he said it is for the government to “give us dedicated terminals or bus stops, subsidise our costs and you’ll see us bounce back for the benefit of residents.”
Despite the high rate of mortality of the buses, Oniyangi maintained that there were after-sale agreements in place for buses bought by the outfit. “In fact, the last Yutong buses we bought from China in 2014, the manufacturer sent a technician to our office to train and service the buses for about two years.
In addition, some of our mechanics and technicians were sent to Yutong’s factory in China for practical hands-on certificate training. We have also been maintaining our buses in our well-equipped workshop situated at our head office in Jahi, along Abuja-Kubwa Expressway, using our team of experienced engineers, mechanics, and technicians,” said the managing director.
He explained that fares that the firm charges on its routes were so low and incapable of sustaining its operations, as they were regulated by the FCTA Transport Secretariat.
Insisting that corruption has no place in the company’s operating system, Oniyangi said; “our management follows due process and takes into consideration, all laid down procedures in our day-to-day operations. We are consistently innovating to block possible areas of revenue leakages caused by cash exchanges, by our vendors/passengers on board. Right now, we are migrating from paper ticketing to POS ticketing. We are also planning to upgrade to the e-ticketing process to pre-paid cards. This seamless model will enable our commuters to fund their cards in advance and use them at any time in the future, without any exchange of cash.”