Monday, March 18, 2013

Why you must be concerned about your driver

Lekan Sote
When you consider the manners of an average Nigerian commercial driver, you could conclude that the rude drover of cattle in Homer’s Greek epic, The Odyssey, must be their progenitor. But this unruly conduct is not peculiar to Nigerian drivers. The Teamsters,  America’s union of road transport workers, is noted for bullying, beatings, extortions of people, as well as being in an unholy trinity
with shady politicians and the underworld. Just as the Teamsters suffered infiltration by organised crime outfits and extensive corruption of its ranks, many Nigerian drivers are no altar boys either. Many of them are dreaded because of their easy resort to violence and criminal activities. And when land speculators are fighting over a land, or when politicians need a private army to ensure electoral victory, they often employ the services of ‘boys’ from the motor parks. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., biographer of Robert Kennedy, profiles former Teamsters President, Jimmy Hoffa, who simply disappeared into thin air in 1975, as one “… designed for fighting– five feet, and five and half feet tall, with broad shoulders, big hands, thick legs; built… like one of his trucks. He had an incisive intelligence, an unparalleled knowledge of the trucking industry, a stinging tongue, unlimited energy, and … unlimited charm. .. He was also devious and perverse, had a raging temper, a bullying and sadistic disposition, a total absence of scruples, and an impressive capacity for hatred.”
If this does not exactly describe the average Nigerian commercial driver, his conductor and their extortionist agbero or touts, it is at least a rough estimation.
Modern man, living in modern societies, is stuck with drivers. They are integral to the transport system, if not of the modern city itself. Vance Packard, American journalist and author, notes in “Sexual Wilderness,” his largely anecdotal book, that the automobile has affected the modern world to the extent that the motorways have become dominant aspects of urban planning. And the drivers are the kings of those roads. You know too well that industry moves on the back of drivers: They drive the salesmen from the company to the customer; deliver letters and other correspondence; haul raw materials from suppliers to the shop floors; and deliver the finished goods from the warehouse to the depot, and finally, to the consumers. They even remove garbage from the consumers to the refuse dump. Nearly every farm produce and manufactured product have spent a portion of their life in a vehicle. A driver will always be there for you: They drive your new baby home from the hospital. They also drive the school bus that takes him to school, and the one that takes him back home on holidays. They drive the car or bus that takes him to work, and the cab that takes him round when he visits a new city. They drive the convoy that takes him to his wedding reception, and the van that hauls his wedding gifts to his new home. They drive the ambulance that takes him to the hospital when sick, and the hearse that conveys him from the mortuary to the cemetery when he dies. If drivers took just one day off duty, the economy would stop.
A scholar, Oladipo Olubomehin, of Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, whose thoughts triggered this discourse, reports that the commercial transport sector, with more than 1.5 million members, is one of the largest employers of labour in Nigeria. He contends that drivers exert considerable influence on the economy, and are bona fide agents of national economic development. Olubomehin adds that an aggressive road development policy, and the efforts of early indigenous transporters, like Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo and Timothy Adeola Odutola, and Sir Louis Odimegwu Ojukwu (and their drivers, of course) aided the development of the Nigerian economy.  These indigenous transporters conveyed, not only passengers, but were instrumental in freighting export goods, like coal, hides and skin, groundnut, cocoa and cotton, from the hinterland to the ports. For instance, their services encouraged foreign commercial houses,  like John Holt, to open stores in places like Ijebu Ode in 1923, to receive primary goods, and display imported manufactured products. Motor transport also led to the establishment of new markets.
Some cheeky people have described the average Nigerian male as a taxi driver, because of his legendary willingness to freight his family, friends, acquaintance, and sometimes totally unknown females standing by the roadside. This makes practically every adult male Nigerian who can drive a “commercial driver” of sorts. But really, you could categorise drivers along the following broad categories: The chauffeurs who drive the private cars; and the company drivers who drive executives in company cars. The taxi drivers, the new kids on the block tricycle or ‘marwa’ drivers, and the intra-city ‘mini bus’ or danfo drivers. Then, you would consider drivers who ply the long distance routes driving big or small passenger buses or articulated trucks conveying goods. But many don’t agree that driving is a profession. They are not impressed by the driving licence –a sort of certification– or the fact that (some) drivers keep records, fill log books, and must be in good health, like pilots. They certainly do not think that drivers ought to compare themselves with medical doctors, lawyers and engineers, who undergo prescribed training over a designated period of time. At the best they might regard them as craftsmen, though a good driver should have good knowledge of the roads and ability to do minor repairs on vehicles.
As everyone gets driven, it becomes very pertinent for everyone to be involved in monitoring the training, performance, conduct, and welfare of Nigerian drivers. This very large segment of Nigeria’s labour force, saddled with the enormous responsibility of freighting precious lives and invaluable goods, cannot be left to their own devices. You cannot cede this important only to the Federal Road Safety Commission, the Police, the traffic wardens, and the sundry state traffic control agencies, either. Everyone is a stakeholder, and must be involved. If you lost your father, like this writer, to a road accident, you would appreciate the urgency to confront a driver who is nursing a bottle of hard liquor or smoking a joint of marijuana at a motor park. The spirit in those drinks and substances, all too often, leads young men to foul-mouthed spats, unprovoked violence, preventable road accidents, and consequent loss of lives and property. It is awful hard to estimate how much is lost daily to accidents by drunken and overstressed drivers who are sleeping behind the wheels. Government must demonstrate greater interest in putting the roads in proper shape to ensure safe and timely deliveries of passengers and goods. The road traffic managers must be re-equipped and re-empowered for more superior enforcement of road safety rules. Lately, the beer and liquor lobby has been appealing to bibbers to drink sensibly, there must be a more effective way to separate the drivers from drinking (and engaging in substance abuse) not only while driving, but also just before driving.  Because the human being is a terrible thing to waste, everyone must assign to himself the responsibility of checking everyman behind the wheel of any form of vehicle, including the okada.

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