…ACCUSES FG OF SUBSIDIZING DANFO, OKADA AGAINST STATE’S TRANSPORT SCHEMES
Mr. Fola Tinubu is the Managing Director of Primero Transport Services, operators of the popular Bus Rapid Transport, BRT, in Lagos State.
In this Interview with the Nigeria Check Newspaper in his office, at Lekki, he spoke on several issues and complaints about the operation of the BRT buses, his regrets running the BRT and how the Lagos State Government could improve the transport system.
It was observed recently that some officials of Primero are sabotaging the efforts of the company. They now collect cash instead of allowing every passenger to tap in thereby causing a lot of chaos at the terminals across a few stations in Lagos. What is your take?
First of all, there is a misnomer. LAMATA has introduced other operators into the BRT system so not all the buses are Primero buses. But because it is Primero everybody knows, so they feel all of them are Primero staff. LBSL is there though we have the majority of the buses.
I am working right now for our staff to wear a different uniform from the ones other operators wear because they have mixed everything together. While I will not say there are no shenanigans going on out there, we have our own people out there daily trying to catch anyone sabotaging the system and we fire them on the spot.
But while it is true there are bus operators there, it is also a societal issue. There is nowhere in Nigeria, where you have about 1000 employees that you will not find some of them trying to beat the system. My job is to make sure we curtail as much as possible, but because LAMATA has thrown everything together, it is now difficult for people to differentiate Primero staff.
So we need to be very careful before accusing Primero staff of any wrongdoings.
On every trip, the passengers are supposed to tap in. Is there a way to monitor the number of passengers a bus carries on a particular trip from your office?
With the cowry cards, we see exactly what is going on in every bus such as the number of passengers they carry. But if an inspector allows one or two people to come in and asks them not to pay, there is no way we can know at the backend. There are many checks and balances we have put in place.
Sometimes ago, there was a case of a BRT bus driver raping a fiemale passenger. No one knew whether the driver was a Primero driver or LBSL driver. So how do you intend to differentiate your buses from other operators so that people would know the ones that belong to Primero?
Our buses, I mean Primero buses, are the full blown blue colour. Other ones that Lagos State brought are the multi-coloured ones of blue and white. They gave some to us to manage and LBSL too and they gave other operators too. It is a Lagos State issue. The only way our own drivers can be differentiated is by the uniform the drivers wear.
Can’t Primero have a partnership with the police to have police officers monitor the officials at bus terminals?
How many policemen are you going to put at all the loading bays? Ikorodu alone has six terminals, likewise in other areas. It is not realistic because we would need about 200 policemen.
Recently, the tariff on BRT buses were increased, but your buses no longer use the air-conditioners in spite of the increment. Why?
Everybody comes to me to say we should provide a world class service, but nobody wants to pay for it. The passengers don’t want to pay, Lagos State Government and Federal Government also don’t want to pay for a world class service. You don’t pass the social responsibility of a state to a private company. What is happening now is that the government is passing the social responsibility of a state to a private company.
My job is not to make the commuters happy. My job is to make sure Primero survives, look after the employees and the shareholders. It is the politicians’ job that you voted for to make the people happy. The bank manager’s job is not to make people happy but to make sure the Institution survives. Your editor’s job is to make sure the media house survives. If you can make people happy while doing it, all well and good.
Number one job of a politician is to make people happy. When diesel went from N175 to N800 in December, did anyone come to me to ask how Primero was surviving?
When naira fell from 350 to 700 and all the parts we used tripled, did anyone come to me? It is high time we started telling ourselves the truth in this country. Everybody wants a world class service, but it comes at a cost. Somebody has to pay for it. You don’t pass that to a private company.
Right now, the system is not sustainable. Government is allowing the market to dictate our cost of operation, but they artificially keep our pricing low to make commuters happy. It is a recipe for disaster. Who is going to pay for the diesel to run air-conditioners in those buses? The government increased the cost by N100 and everyone was crying, but our cost of operation has gone very high. I am yet to pay my staff for last month, but no one is talking to me about that.
Any world class service that you see comes at a cost, somebody has to pay for it. The commuters and government are not willing to pay for it so who pays for it.
On this note, is there a possibility for Primero to classify its buses along professional lines to attract people who can afford to pay for air-conditioned buses?
If we want to charge the full price taking into consideration the cost of diesel now, we will be charging almost N2000 from Ikorodu to TBS. How many people can afford that even if we decided to classify the buses? As the naira loses value, the cost of operating keeps going high, but the government keeps the price low to make the people happy, but at whose expense.
During Covid-19, they came to me and said I must carry 20 passengers in a bus that normally has 60 to 70 passengers, which was fine because of the social distance. But did the state and federal governments give me any Kobo? Yet we were using the same diesel, paying the same salary, and buying the same spare parts.
In December 2020, there was an EndSars crisis and a number of BRT buses were touched, about 80. How were you able to recover from the loss?
Luckily for me, none of the Primero buses were touched. The buses that were touched belonged to the Lagos State Government. The government used tax payers money to buy those buses and build those terminals and they have to use taxpayers money to rebuild them. Why do we keep destroying things that are meant for us? Those 80 buses can not be replaced again because when they bought them, naira was still low. Even if the insurance gives them the full amount, they can’t buy the buses anymore.
While we destroy government property, it is the people that suffer it. The governor doesn’t take buses. The people that burnt the buses were the same people it was meant for..
Is it likely we see another increment very soon in view of the high cost of diesel?
There is nowhere in the world where public transport makes money, that is why the government steps in everywhere in the world to bridge the gap. It is only in Nigeria that we are doing the opposite.
One thing the world taxes heavily which is the petrol to make money, we are subsidizing it. The one which the world subsidizes is transportation, we are not doing it. Until we start doing things the way it is done all over the world, we will not get to where we are supposed to be.
I felt so sad when I read that they are reducing the number of trains that are running from Lagos to Ibadan because they use diesel and are running at a huge loss and that is where the government comes in. If you want them to make a profit, it will not be affordable.
That is why we need to have a national policy on the transport system. It is not a Lagos State Government issue alone. Until that is done, we are not serious about public transport in Nigeria. Until we deal with it seriously, we are just lying to ourselves because it will not work.
One of your major competitors are the yellow buses. With the kind of service you provide, will you advise the government to ban the danfo buses?
Where are the molues now? Did the government ban them? No. They were displaced by market forces. If we get our transport system right, danfo buses will disappear. The reason danfo buses still exist is because people still use them. If there is a good transport system, the yellow buses will disappear, but we have to get our transport system right. We need to get out of this military mentality.
Federal government is subsidizing Danfo because they use petrol, they don’t use diesel and petrol is heavily subsidized. We that uses diesel are not subsidized. The danfo drivers buy fuel at N170 per litre, we are buying diesel at over N700. Indirectly Federal Government is subsidizing Okada and Danfo operation because they used petrol. So they are not allowing the market forces to work, but they are forcing us to follow the market forces.
Danfo buses don’t pay tax, don’t provide insurance for their drivers and they don’t pay salaries yet the government is subsidizing petrol.
The British Government gave London transport 1.5-billion-pounds during Covid-19 to cushion the effect. The Federal Government did not give Primero one Kobo yet they forced me to carry 20 passengers, they did not want me to lay off staff, but any increment, the people will complain. Something has to give.
Do you do background checks and training of the drivers?
Every six months, they do eye tests and we organise training but all I hear is we should provide more service but no one is asking how we manage to survive in the face of the high cost of operation. I can’t afford to operate like the advanced countries because we are operating at a huge loss. If you want a world class service, it has to be paid for.
Do you have any regrets investing in the BRT buses?
Yes I do, a lot of regrets. If I knew what I know now, I would have put the money I invested in the bank and the bank would have been paying me interest and I would have been sleeping the way I like. Right now, I can’t switch off my phone. I receive calls as early as 4am for complaints from several staff.