The perils of nocturnal trips

In the face of myriad dangers associated with night travelling, Nigerians seem to have no choice. Faulty rail services, traffic snarl in day time and skyrocketing air fares keep the trend booming, even as people continue to lose their lives in droves, reports GBOYEGA ADEOYE

The daily hustle and bustle of Lagos goes on as usual. Traffic was still, sundown on a Monday, as exhausted workers returned home. Due to the logjam, a family of four spent three hours for a distance of five kilometers from their office to the airport. They were victims of the tailback, having missed their flights by a ‘crab’s blink.’ In the circumstance, night travel was the only possible way of reaching Kaduna cockcrow the second day. The family was at the bus station 6pm pronto, after meandering through the excruciating jam. The family’s experience paints a gory picture of what millions of Nigerians who travel in the night pass through daily.

The Federal Road Safety officials put the number of night death in seven digits. “Night travelers in Nigeria are exposed to the most excruciating pain. It is more like a death sentence. Yet, millions of people have now resolved to travel in the night simply because the options are limited. Fatal accidents, gang rape and armed attack are daily happenings on our roads,’ Bisi Olayori, a FRSC official told National Mirror.

He summarised the problems: ‘the roads are in extremely bad shape, there is no security, no highway medicare, armed robbers with sophisticated guns patrol the highways nonstop, no road signs, drivers are ill trained and are not subjected to medical fitness test, leading to the death of thousands of people yearly.’

The problems appear more than what Olayori portrayed. Victoria Kolade, whose family was traveling to Kaduna that Monday, recalled that a blonde lady sat at the cash counter at the bus station, her eyes red and fatigued, probably from the day’s hard exertion. Her eyes were piercing and rude, she remembered. Meager pay, employer’s exploitation and despair were etched on her face. This reporter was also at the bus station when the Kolade family arrived.

‘Yes?’ the lady quipped with a frown, the kind usually shot at an unwanted guest in one’s private bedroom. She counted the fare and threw the cash in the vault, almost with a furious bang. After scripting on the receipt, she asked for the passengers’ ‘next of kin’s cell numbers’ saying, with an air of apathy: ‘we take the phone in case you die.’ She was not looking at the payees. Few minutes later, she flung the receipts on the counter for the family to pick them. ‘Next’, she beckoned on the travelers on the queue, where this reporter stood.

Endless wait. The bus administrators announced departure for 7pm, only to be changed to 7.30, then 8pm, then 8.30pm, and then finally 9pm. Enquiries about the reason for the endless transition was seen as rebellion against constituted authority. ‘You don’t ask questions, your own is to get to Kaduna’, a burly barked at the travelers, trampling on some feet as he bullied through clusters of helpless passengers, some that had asked him why he could not keep to his own stated time of departure.

And like a huge python, the 42 capacity Brazil made bus finally meandered through the highway in Lagos in the darkening hours of that Monday. Very few street lights dotted the sideways of the Federal Highway, soon to fade into little distant stars as the bus ate up the 6km highway from Oyingbo on the way to Kaduna, about 2000 kilometers away.

Travelling in the night has its own culture. For example, a police orderly with an AK-47 is attached to every bus, the police man usually announce the departure with a gun shot into the horizon, travelers must switch off their phones, majority of the buses have no toilets and nomadic pastors usually accompany the passengers.

The pastor’s routine is to preach to the congregation for the first few minutes before disembarking. The pastor would drop on the way after saying the last prayer and receiving the voluntary donations from commuters.

As the bus inched away from Lagos, thick darkness began to envelop the sky, with the bus becoming literarily a tiny midget racing through the blind alley, only to be guided by the courage, brute doggedness and amazing sense of imagination of the man sitting on the wheel chair.

As time scurried by with the huge Lagos city vanishing into a far-flung image, the bus soon became a candle in the wind, blown forth in a zigzag. From the driver’s cubicle, Bob Marley’s hit track, ‘life is one big road with lots of signs…..when you passing through, don’t complicate yourself’ came with an irresistible force. The music, at least, gave the passengers a sense of immunity, even if false, from the raging lunacy of the driver’s killer speed.

Passengers began to prattle away, some closed their eyes, trying to lure sleep, ignoring, albeit helplessly, the possible fatal accident and death that hunted us like an incubus beast. Beside the reporter was a sweet lady, obviously in her early twenties.

She was already seated before the arrival of the reporter at the bus station, so the idea of measuring her height and hip sizes were out of the question. Beauty could easily be bestowed on her nevertheless; her eyes were sharp and incisive, her lips like that of a princess, her colour was chocolate, her eyes were brown and her hair was long and blonde.

The usual awe that surrounds beautiful women was her lot. Who would say the first ‘hi’? Maybe the Ebony magazine the reporter was holding might interest her? Maybe not? At last, something happened. She wanted to have a glance at the magazine, which I obliged.

We got talking. She was on her way to Abuja, as a University student. She had left Abuja in search of her mother, but on reaching the house where both had lived in years gone by when cell phone was a taboo, the mother had relocated to an unknown place, having broken away from her father several years ago. So, Helen decided to sneak out of her University to visit her mother without the knowledge of her father who lives in Abuja.

After a futile search, she was now on her return journey to Abuja. ‘I didn’t tell my dad. He won’t allow me to go. It’s painful I could not locate her’, she said. The sad thing about the lady was the fact that the previous year, her two brothers had left Abuja in search of their mother in a night bus. Unfortunately, they never returned.

Their corpses were later discovered at a mortuary in Ile-Ife, after a fatal night accident that took the lives of 40 people, including ten children. ‘I vowed never to travel by night. I lost two brothers,’ she moaned, the neon bus lights x-raying her eyes with images of grief etched in them led to the discovery that she had only one hand, having lost the other in a separate accident during a night trip from Abuja to Kano.

‘Hundreds of armed robbers were on the highway. They fired at our bus. The driver lost control.’ All thirty in the bus died except her. Fuelling an emerging grim picture, another passenger said there were no road signs, the drivers are usually drunk they are poorly trained and worse still, it is as if police men usually abandon the nights for armed robbers to take control.

The situation is compounded by the lack of respect for travelers, evident by bus owners’ disregard for safety rules. ‘Some of them don’t have extra tires. The buses are too old. No toilet facilities and the requirement of medical fitness of drivers are ignored by bus owners,’ another passenger said.

Subsequent events confirmed their observations. For instance, few miles away from take-off point, the bus halted, disrupting the conversation. The bully driver jumped down, followed by a cynical co-driver. Both left the passengers for about one hour.

They returned without any explanation. A passenger pounced on the driver: ‘You are a wicked man. What kind of company is yours? You left without any word.’ The driver retorted: ‘hey, don’t talk to me anyhow, if not I will break your head o.’ The session became rowdy with some passengers surging to hit the driver, who in turn shot out a huge iron rod, promising to send any of the frustrated passengers to the mortuary.

Some that were used to the shameful, tragic drama of night travels chose to be spectators. The bus had developed tire problems, but there was no explanation from the drivers or the two equally pugnacious bus conductors that they had returned to the bus station to source for the extra, indicating that the bus had no intention of driving through the over long distance to Kaduna with extra tires.

An official of the FRSC who does not want to be named said the number of deaths each night is ‘irritating.’ He said apart from the lack of lights on the highways, there are no traffic signs, no hospitals; no adequate training for drivers that ply the highways in the night, adding that the terrible situation mirrors the character and form of governance in Nigeria.

Andrew Magana, a teacher in the bus said he had been travelling in the night for close to two decades. He said people travel by night for so many reasons. He lectured that the bus owners constitute a powerful cartel that consciously works to frustrate government’s attempts at funding alternative means.

A source at the Federal Ministry of Works told Saturday Mirror that transportation by waterways and railways are ‘constantly frustrated by some bus owners for their own selfish ends.’ Officials claim that in one night alone, over 5 million Nigerians are on the road, signposting the depth of associated hazards. For now, transportation by road remains the most common among Nigerians. But the deaths recorded each night appear a reflection of the general malaise associated with traveling by road in Nigeria.

An official of the Federal Road Safety Corps, FRSC, B.O Oyeyemi link the growing inevitable interest of Nigerians in road use to the ‘restrictive nature of the waterways, coupled with the near collapse of the rail system and the high cost of air travels’ which he said have exerted a lot of pressure on the road transport industry.

Though there is a grim global picture about road mishaps but the situation in Nigeria appears appalling. An expert on road transportation, Mr Yomi Fawehinmi in a paper he delivered not too long ago said that in 2004, road traffic injuries were the ninth leading medical cause of death in the world.

According to him, it kills millions of people yearly around the world the figure of which is said to be higher than the number of people killed by malaria or diabetes.

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