It’s past noon on Tuesday, the 9th of June. The sky is clear, the sun is blazing. It’s one of the few days it hasn’t rained since the beginning of the month, and my first time out in five weeks, thanks to COVID-19. I need to restock my groceries and conduct interviews for this story. Isiaka, my chauffeur, a keke napep (tricycle) rider and one of the subjects of this story is on his way to pick me up. We settled into these monthly trips since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria.
I wait for about an hour at a friend’s shop before Isiaka arrives to get me. It’s past 2pm. He knows where we are headed, so he doesn’t ask. Instead, he asks how I’ve been, and is surprised when I tell him I’ve been indoors since our last trip in May. “Are you serious? You dey try o (that’s impressive),” he says in pidgin English. “Anyway, you can afford to stay at home like that, no problem. But me, I have to come out and find chop money (money for food),” he says. I ask him how business is faring and he laments the drastic decline in his daily income.
Before COVID-19, Isiaka made about N6,000 daily. Now he struggles to make half of that. The pandemic has forced people off the streets. The closure of schools, churches, and certain businesses means a significant percentage of Lagos’ population remains indoor. Furthermore, in adherence to the social distancing policy of the Lagos State Government, keke napeps must only carry two passengers per trip, instead of four as is the standard. This also contributes to the decline in daily income for Isiaka. “Before, I had a morning target. I could tell how much I’d have by 12 noon. But now with schools closed, no students, teachers, and other school workers to carry, I don’t have a target anymore. All I hustle for now is money for food. Anything I see, I manage,” he tells me.
I ask how much he’s made so far, he tells me N1,800. He was up and out of the house by 6am, he’s made about 16 round trips to and from the park in our neighbourhood in Kosofe. Half the day is gone, yet he only has N1,800 to show for it. Worse still, he has to retire by 6.30pm because of the curfew. Before the pandemic, he could work late into the night.
A month ago, on one of our regular trips to shop for groceries, Isiaka was singing a different tune. The country had just started a gradual ease off on a strict one month lockdown, starting with Lagos, Ogun state, and Abuja. Restrictions were lifted off certain companies and businesses allowing people to leave their homes for work and tend other essential activities for the first time in a month. There was a sudden increase in the number of passengers after a dry spell in April. Okadas(commercial motorcycles) remained banned as they allowed close proximity between riders and passengers. So keke riders owned the market in unrestricted areas where they operated. Business boomed then. Now, with okada riders back on the streets competing with them for the few available passengers, keke riders struggle to make a decent wage.
“Nobody can say they are meeting their daily target right now,” Isiaka says as we make a turn into Ogudu from the dilapidated road under the bridge that connects Ifako and Oworonshoki to Ogudu and Alapere. “For those of us who own our keke, we have an advantage compared to some who don’t own their keke, things are not easy for them,” Isiaka explains.
A significant percentage of keke riders in Lagos operate a remittance system where they rent keke napeps from people who can afford to purchase them. Some of these people have day jobs but own and rent out keke napeps as a side business, collecting remittances daily or weekly.
“By the time they pay for tickets, buy fuel, and remit money to the owner of the keke, they have little or nothing left. It’s not easy for them at all,” Isiaka continues. “They can’t stay at home, they have to work, else the owner of the keke will think they are lazy or unserious. Sometimes, they work all day and everything is remitted to the owner, there’s nothing left for them, the riders.”
I ask Isiaka to explain ‘ticketing’ to me since he’s mentioned it a couple of times in our conversation. I know transport workers pay for tickets daily, irrespective of the vehicle they drive or the area they operate in. I’ve seen danfo(commercial minibus) drivers and agberos (touts) argue over payment for tickets. I’ve witnessed okada riders dodge or attempt to dodge payment by dropping off passengers at a safe distance before parks where they’ll have to pay for tickets. I’ve also seen keke riders beg agberos for more time to work and make money to pay for tickets.
Isiaka explains that in a day, keke riders operating in the Kosofe – Mile 12 – Alapere area pay N1,400 for tickets. The actual amount they ought to pay as stipulated by the local government is N100. That is what is remitted to the government, the remaining N1,300 goes in the pockets of the agberos who sell the tickets. “I don’t know why it’s like that, but it’s been like that before I started riding keke,” Isiaka says. “You can pay for tickets at any time of the day when you’ve made enough money, but the money must be paid. Even in this period where we are struggling, agbero no care,” he says. Agbero does not care.
In addition to payment for tickets, keke riders also have to pay N100 at every park they operate in. For those in my area, it’s 300 for the three parks they often operate in, Kosofe – Mile 12 – Alapere or Kosofe – Alapere – Estate.
In Ogudu, we make four stops; one at a bank to use the atm, the second at a bread shop, another at a fast-food restaurant, and the fourth at a supermarket where I often shop for some of my groceries. There is no queue at the supermarket like there was the last time. Then, customers were made to wait in a queue outside the store and were allowed in in fives as shoppers left the store. It was a crowd control cum social distancing measure. I shop quickly and return to Isiaka who is waiting outside. Once I get in the keke, I show Isiaka my receipt from the store, complaining about how expensive things have gotten while holding up two scanty plastic bags of commodities I just purchased. A little over N8,000. I feel robbed. He empathises with me.
On our way back to Kosofe, we talk about the increasing apathy of the public in relation to the pandemic and how he is keeping himself safe while being on the road and in contact with different people daily. “Before you enter my keke, you must have your face mask on. And when you enter, I politely ask that you observe social distancing,” Isiaka says. But some passengers don’t listen and he has to yell at them to do the right thing. “The government asked us to reduce the number of passengers we carry for a reason, it doesn’t make sense that some passengers still won’t observe distancing. It’s not fair. So I shout at them.”
He says he’s also careful with the way he exchanges and handles money, and he washes his hands regularly. “I have soap and water in my bag. I wash my hands up to 20 times in a day. Besides, we have running water, liquid soap, and a hand sanitiser at the park.”
We arrive at Kosofe and make a quick stop at the shop I was waiting in earlier to pick up the rest of my groceries. I gave them a list of the items I needed before leaving with Isiaka. They had my purchase ready in a carton. We drive to my place, drop things off, and head to the park so I can interview more people.
There’s a long queue of yellow keke napeps at the park, each taking turns to board passengers. Isiaka joins the queue, switches off his keke, alights, and asks me to wait while he finds some of his colleagues for me to speak with. As I wait, a young man enters the keke and says, “Fine girl, I hear say you be journalist. Write say, COVID-19 no dey. Na scam. Government just dey deceive people.” Fine girl, I heard you are a journalist. Write that COVID-19 does not exist. It’s a myth. The government is deceiving people. He has his face mask under his chin. I am not surprised. I tell him to wear it properly and explain that COVID-19 is real. I tell him that people are dying daily. He scoffs. When he sees Isiaka approaching, he hurriedly alights the keke. I later learn that he doesn’t ride a keke, he’s the owner of the small men’s boutique Isiaka parked in front of.
Isiaka arrives with James, a small, stout man I’m familiar with. I have boarded his keke on a few occasions. James is a 56-year-old father of four who rides a keke he doesn’t own. He tells me that before the pandemic, his daily wage was often between N1,500 and N2,000, after fuelling the keke, paying N1,700 for tickets and park fees, and remitting N2,500 to the owner. “Now, we cannot even boast of N1,000, even 500 naira is hard,” he says. “Because of COVID-19, many offices are not open, schools are closed. These are part of the reasons we are suffering. The money we are paying for tickets is too high. A man will labour from morning till night, he cannot even take N1,000 home. How can we feed our families?” James laments.
His wife is a trader at Mile 12, but James says business has been slow for her because not a lot of people visit the market these days. It doesn’t help that the cost of living in the country has gone up. He is struggling to pay rent and electricity bills. He thinks it’s ridiculous that the Lagos state government is increasing the cost of transportation for its bus rapid transit system at such a critical time. “The government is not listening to us, they are not helping. They have to reduce the cost of commodities. They have to. They have increased fares for BRT, prompting danfo to increase their fares as well. It’s not supposed to be so,” James says.
He is right. The cost of transportation is higher now for no reason. BRT fares are more than double the price they used to be, leaving Lagosians who rely on them as an affordable means of transportation, distraught. Danfo drivers have followed suit. My carpenter who visited the other day to replace a piece of fractured furniture complained bitterly about the increased cost of transportation. He paid N300 from Onikan to Kosofe by danfo. It used to be N150. There’s also a surge in the price of everyday commodities, and an increase in electricity tariff, despite the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission promising that there will be no increase, earlier. All of these are happening at a time where certain organisations are closed and people are losing jobs or forced to take pay cuts.
James says although he now remits N2,000 or N1,500 daily, what he’s often left with is not enough to feed his family of six. “The government has to intervene. People are suffering this period. Even our passengers are suffering, they are not working. If you tell them to pay 100 naira from here to Alapere, they will say, “ah! I no fit. I go trek.” Ah. I can’t afford it. I will trek.
I ask if he believes the pandemic is real and not something the government made up to deceive people. He replies, “If there’s no COVID-19, the government wouldn’t have implemented a lockdown. Since they implemented a lockdown, it means there’s COVID-19.” However, he calls for more transparency. He doesn’t understand why the number of cases keep increasing when there’s been a complete and partial lockdown for months. He doesn’t understand why there are no faces to the numbers. He doesn’t understand why the activities of healthcare workers and the treatment of COVID-19 patients are undisclosed.
“We don’t know what happens in the health facilities where COVID-19 patients are treated. Overseas, we see them in the news, but here, it’s just figures,” James says in reference to the daily update of COVID-19 cases, recoveries, and deaths in the news. As at the time of publishing this story, Nigeria has a total of 16,658 confirmed cases of COVID-19, over 5000 recoveries, and 424 deaths. “They need to be more transparent about the whole thing,” he says. I tell him he is right and that I agree with him.
Celestine, a 33-year-old keke rider I talk to next, does not share James’ sentiment. He doubts the presence of COVID-19 in Nigeria. He says no one knows anyone infected with the coronavirus, which is something a lot of Nigerians say. I tell him I know people who were infected, and that people are dying daily. He retorts that the deaths are not caused by COVID-19. “Nobody knows whether it is the coronavirus that killed them. There is no coronavirus in Nigeria. Even if there is, it’s only infected people who came into the country from overseas.”
I take out my phone, go on twitter and show him a video someone shared of deceased COVID-19 patients being loaded on to the back of a pickup in body bags. I read out the caption that states the incident happened here in Lagos, at the Infectious Disease Centre, Yaba. I tell him that happens everyday. He is somewhat shaken but insists that government policies to tackle the spread of the virus are not coherent and disproportionately affects the poor.
“The government banned certain businesses and companies from opening, meanwhile markets are packed. Go to Mile 12 and see how people are gathered like sand,” he says, pointing in the direction of the popular Mile 12 market. “It’s like that everyday. Every blessed day,” he stresses. He further refers to the recent directive by the country’s Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 to ease off restrictions on churches and mosques, but with so many guidelines.
According to the new directive, institutions of worship can reopen but are required to keep a record of staff and worshippers for contact tracing purposes. Those with a large number of members are advised to split their services to ensure physical distancing. They are also to observe at least a 30-minute break between services to disinfect the premises or for members to wash their hands. People from the same household should stay together. There must be mandatory temperature checks at points of entry. Volunteers and workers with underlying illnesses and members above 55 should not be allowed to attend service. Services and prayers must not exceed an hour.
“How would all these work?” Celestine asks. “The whole thing doesn’t make sense. These policies won’t stop the spread of the coronavirus. As a businessman, woman, or worker, you cannot isolate yourself and you cannot truly protect yourself. They said we should not touch our eyes and nose. That’s impossible. There’s no way you will not touch your face. If you go out now, people are not taking precaution. People have stopped wearing face masks. People are suffering. They are tired,” he says exasperatedly.
I tell him I understand his frustration. Celestine speaks for a lot of Nigerians. Besides the obvious lack of policy coherence and the lax implementation of these policies by the government as he’s pointed out, these policies are also not put together with the perspective and needs of the most vulnerable Nigerians in mind. While these measures are within reach of people in the middle-to-high-income strata, they are not for the 82.9 million Nigerians who live on or below the poverty line. Like Isiaka mentioned in our conversation earlier, I can afford to stock up on a months’ worth of groceries and self-isolate, he cannot.
In saner climes, governments are providing financial support and welfare packages for citizens to cushion the effects of the preventive policies put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Nigerian government has not been successful in its attempt to do this. As of a month ago, only 3.6 million poor households had received cash relief from the government. I ask Celestine and James if they have received anything from the government, they say they haven’t although they are aware of the government’s promise to send out palliatives.
“Covid-19 has affected all areas of our work. Before now, I could make up to N5,000 or N6,000 a day after remitting money to the owner of my keke and paying for tickets. Now, I don’t even make up to N2,000 a day. Sometimes, I come out as early as 5am or 6am,” Celestine says. “You see what the government is doing? They are just suffering the poor. The government should lift restrictions. The economy should be reopened fully. Everything should return to normal.”
Isiaka says apart from the decline in his income, he doesn’t enjoy working anymore because his work hours are now often riddled with tales of woe from passengers. “Everyone is complaining about the lack of money,” he says sadly. “Everyday we pray that this pandemic ends so that things can get back to normal, and we can have our customers back. Nobody is happy about COVID-19.”