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Transporters Groan as FG’s Ban on Inter-State Movement Lingers

-By Ironhand Sydney Chukwuemeka

With about 10, 000 buses parked at various terminals and fleet yards in parts of the country since the ban on inter-state movements took effect as one of the measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, public transport owners have many problems to worry about on the survival of their businesses.

One of them is a total of about N200 billion which they say represents the enormous direct and indirect losses immobilising their vehicles has inflicted on the industry since the first lockdown was announced three months ago.

Worsening this financial setback is the uncertainty regarding when the federal government will rescind the prohibition and for how long more it will continue to take heavy tolls on their investments even as domestic airlines count down to the June 21 resumption date with a N27 billion fund as lifeline.

But, perhaps, the severest of the transporters’ headaches bothers on confronting post-lockdown challenges, particularly the task of revamping their already financially encumbered businesses without an inevitable bailout.

Apart from the umbrella association, all the transport firms whose top executives have so far commented on the issue at different times, believe it would be extremely difficult for the investors to recover without the aid of the Federal Government.

The list of such companies include ABC Transport, Ifesinachi, E. Ekesons, Izu Chukwu Transport, G. U. O Transport, Efex Executive Transport, God is Good Motors, Famous Motors and many others. And consistent in their comments are the need for government to review the ban and the imperative of a special intervention fund from government.

Professor Iyiola Oni of Transport and Logistics Planning in the University of Lagos {UNILAG}

At a recent forum in Lagos, some of the transport owners not only made a strong case for the immediate unbanning of inter-state movements, but also called on the government to introduce the necessary protocols that would enable Nigerians travel safely thereafter.

Bemoaning the crippling effect of the lingering prohibition, the National President of the Public Transport Owners of Nigeria Association (PTONA), Isaac Uhunmwagho, appealed for an urgent rescission of the ban and introduction of measures to enhance quick recovery.

Uhunmwagho argued that if the embargo persists, it would compound the effects on the economy, considering that road transportation accounts for about 90 percent of movements in the country, and therefore, should be accorded as much support as the aviation industry, which is not presently the case.

The PTONA President is also worried that if the ban is not reversed as soon as possible, the number of small and big businesses that “will die permanently”, will further rise – a situation which he argued would have both economic and social implications because of the essential nature of road transportation.

The transporters are disturbed that thousands of their mini, medium and luxury buses which have been parked for about three months will cost each owner millions of naira to be restored to sound motoring condition before returning to their various routes.

Considering that the twin facts that the firms are faced with huge un-serviced loans used to purchase the buses and that they have been spending for months without earning, Uhunmwagho, who is the Chairman of Efex, contended that adding more commitments to the burden would be too difficult for the transporters to bear.
“Vehicles were never designed to be left idle, and even if they may re-start, numerous mechanical, electrical and system faults are bound to arise, including tyres, and the transport owners have very little funds left to meet up with these challenges. Some transport owners who have rented premises may be unable to continue using some of such premises,” he stated.

There is yet another problem, according to Uhunmwagho: “In the post COVID-19 operating conditions, vehicles are expected to carry approximately 50 percent of passenger as well as spend money on additional sanitation and health facilities.

If a vehicle takes 50 percent of passengers, simple arithmetic will dictate that the transport fare will have to double.
“The airlines have already come up with a similar answer. The question is: Can Nigerians, whose average level of income have been adversely hit by the effects of COVID-19 be able to pay significantly increased transport fares?”

Interestingly, a N27 billion-bailout has just been approved for the domestic aviation industry by the government; a gesture which seems to have further justified the road transporters’ call for palliatives. The plea for assistance was the thrust of PTONA’s letter some weeks ago to the Economic Sustainability Committee headed by Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osibanjo.
Signed by Uhunmwagho, and the National Secretary, Frank Nneji, the letter had requested the approval of a N20 billion COVID-19 Intervention Fund to be disbursed through the Bank of Industry (BOI) to the long distance public transport owners, to aid their recovery.

The transport owners also pleaded with the Vice President to direct the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to prevail on all commercial banks to restructure all term loans for businesses mostly affected by COVID-19 pandemic, especially the inter-state passenger transport.

“Government should face the challenge of ensuring that Nigerians comply with the guidelines and protocols which will be introduced for long-distance travels, as well as encourage Nigerians to abide by all other Covid-19 rules and regulations. That is the only way that we can say that we shall overcome COVID-19,” the association said last week in another statement.

Both the President of Association of Luxury Bus Owners {ALBON, an affiliate of PTONA}, Prince Emeka Mamah, and the Managing Director of GUO Transport Company Ltd, Maduabuchi Okeke, in separate interviews, lamented the debilitating effects of the ban, and called for a review and government’s financial assistance to save the industry from collapse.

“It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for inter-state transporters, whose thousands of buses have been ‘locked down’ for about three months, to recover without incentives, even after the COVID-19 measures have been relaxed,” Mamah argued.

Mamah, who is the Chairman of Ifesinachi Group, drew attention to the response to a similar situation in Britain: “The government of Boris Johnson appreciates the fact that the country depends a lot on road transportation, and so didn’t starve the owners and their drivers of palliatives. The country has provided about a million pounds for the transporters to maintain their vehicles, including washing and disinfecting them before they are back on the road.”

Remarkably, the bus owners’ plea for financial aid enjoys a strong support from a Professor of Transport and Logistics Planning in the University of Lagos {UNILAG}, Iyiola Oni, who observed that the grounding of the inter-state vehicles had led to some difficulties, “hence the request for bailouts to the bus owners, investors and operators.”

Prof. Oni listed some of the difficulties the transport owners might have been encountering as losing daily returns, inability to repay loans, and getting the grounded buses ready for trips after the ban has been lifted, noting that it would appear that the government was finding it hard to accede to their request for support.

He, however, proffered a solution: “Therefore, a more radical economic package, including grants, can be established to keep the existing companies and investors alive. Recapitalising the sector could come with the government requesting commercial banks to grant the investors a three-month moratorium for repayment of loans.”

Single-digit loans for restocking replacement parts for their buses, tax holidays, and reduction in the pump prices of petroleum products, were also recommended by Oni as means of alleviating the transporters’ post lockdown problems.

He explained that because of the importance of road transportation, umbrella unions like PTONA and decision makers should always engage in “serious and genuine dialogue” towards finding a solution to problems impeding the former’s operations.

“Government should eradicate the official and non-official monetary extortion on the road, as multiple check-points add to the operators’ costs”, the UNILAG don advised, urging the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing and FERMA {Federal Roads Maintenance Agency} to fix all the major highways across the country, in order to ensure that the transporters do not spend a lot of money repairing vehicles damaged by bad roads.

Some of the roads specifically mentioned by Oni are: Abuja-Lokoja, Okene-Kabba, Abuja-Kaduna-Kano, Onitsha-Owerri-Aba, Sagamu-Ore-Benin, Abuja-Keffi-Akwanga, Kano-Maiduguri, Lokoja-Benin, and Enugu-Port Harcourt.

Also identified by him as needing attention are Ilorin-Jebba, Lagos-Ibadan-Ilorin, Ibadan-Ife.