By VICTOR OMOREGIE
AFTER the civil war, Nigerians in their droves headed for Lagos in search of the proverbial Golden Fleece. The military government of the time, through it populist programme,  hosted the All African Games, World Boys Scout Convention and the Festival of Black Arts and Culture, FESTAC.

These events were all held in Lagos and were global in nature. They attracted an additional population to the mega city. This influx of additional population took on a very drastic toll on services provided by the mega city.

Molue buses at Bolade, Oshodi...struggling to remain relevant

 

Although the government of the day tried to provide alternative forms of accommodation, it was not enough. Accommodation was the first casualty. Shanty towns and make-shift dwellings began to spring up in every available space to take care of the teeming population. Next to be assaulted was the sanitation of the megacity, known in the past to run on a very efficient waste disposal system.

It was mandatory those days for each house to have a large refuse-drum placed in the front of the house. Subsequently refuse vehicles of the city councils went round on specific days to empty these refuse drums. However all of a sudden things began to change, refuse dumps began to appear at different parts of the city, in the streets and even in the drainages that were swept occasionally to allow for free flow of run-off water.

With an increase in population, there arose the major concern on how the transport system on ground could cope. Before the civil war, Lagos was strictly an administrative city, with its various sections divided to cater for the different segments of its population. Thus you had the Victoria Island accommodating the elite and foreign nationals; Yaba and Surulere were strictly for the middle-manpower personnel. Isale-Eko, though on the Island was the traditional home of the indigenous population, while other places like Badagry, Ketu, Ojota, Gbagada, Ikorodu, Lekki and Epe were outposts of homogenous population far from main city at that time.

Stratification of persons

Despite the stratification of persons, there was bound to be some form of interaction and the transportation system on ground at that time could not cope. During the time in question there were very few personally owned private cars, while the then popular Red-coloured Lagos City Transport Buses could not cope with the increase in the number of passengers. There was barely any private sector input in the transportation system. Thus it became crucial for the city buses to reach the outskirts of the city where a majority of the population lived.

Another short-coming of the bus transportation system at the time was that all its terminals were located within the city. Thus to enjoy services of these city buses one had to either get to any of its bus terminals or join it from along any of its designated routes. It thus became imperative to have some sort of ‘Transportation Bridge’ for the population living in the outskirts which would connect them with the existing transportation system. What existed before were inter-regional forms of transportation, which was where the likes of bolekaja, an oversized wooden axial bus came in handy. It had a Bedford engine front compartment and a wooden back section was built as an attachment where passengers would seat.

It had only one exit and it took considerable to get passengers to disembark. Most times this simple act of exiting the buses led to numerous fights among the passengers, hence the origin of the name of the buses – bolekaja (come down and let us fight). The bolekaja was very popular within the Western region of the country. The bolekaja was most patronised by indigenous farmers and merchants criss-crossing the entire region of the country trying to network their business concerns.

Counterpart in Midwest region

There was also its counterpart in the then Midwestern region run by the Armels Transport Company. This version differed slightly from that used in the Western region as it had a compartment called the ‘second class,’  directly behind the driver’s and passengers’ seats in front. This section was patronised by middle-level civil servants on transfer to the different parts of the Western region from the Midwestern region.

In response to the transport problem of the time came a private sector initiative in the form of monster-looking and yellow-painted buses. This was a response to the yearnings of the teeming population, located in satellite towns like Maroko, Ketu, Iyana Ipaja, Egbeda, Okomaiko, Mushin, Bariga, Ikorodu, Ayobo, Ojota, Orile Iganmu, etc. Unlike the bolekaja, this form of transportation was built with the Mercedes Benz 911 front engine compartment, while the passengers sat in a built-up metal compartment that had rows of seats that could take three passengers on both sides of the compartment, with an aisle separating the rows. At the back to complement the rows of seats was a longer seat that took at least eight passengers. There were two versions – the 30-seater and 40-seater.

Enter the MOLUE, which became the ‘King of Lagos Roads’ for over two decades. The sobriquet molue is a corruption of the words “Maul Him” that was given to it by the city’s elite, who were appalled at the manner in which the passengers had their clothes and in some cases their flesh torn while trying to embark or disembark. The attraction of molue was because of its very affordable prices and they readily filled the gap the government could not provide. For most job seekers, students, marketmen/women, factory workers and low-income civil servants, the molue was it. Thus the molue in the 70s and 80s became the symbols of Lagos’ burstling transport system, hauling large numbers of the citizenry from one end of the state to another. It represented the bustling and pulsating signature of Lagos and never-say-die spirit of the average Lagosian.

Molue buses at Bolade Oshodi...before the advent of BRT and LAG buses in 2009

The molue made no pretence for comfort or cleanliness, all it did was to ferry its teeming passengers from end of the town to another. It has been said that the dominance of the molue in the transportation system in Lagos may had led to the collapse of the Lagos State Transport Corporation, LSTC, despite its huge promises and virtually brand new buses. But the truth of the matter, however, was that like all government ventures that ought to do well by making profit, LSTC was run aground and ended up being ‘white elephant’ projects. The molue bus enigma was just around at the right time.

The great Afro beat icon, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, aptly described the situation in the molue bus in his monster hit titled ‘Suffering and Smiling.’ He described the seating and standing arrangement common in most molue buses in his lyrics which satirically referred to the 44 sitting passengers and 99 others standing, manner the passengers are packed in the molue.

The average day begins for the typical molue driver as early at 4:30 a.m. when he picks up his passengers at the nearest terminals. With seats filled, the aisles are then crammed with passengers who would be forced to stand by choice and then the buses begin their racy journey to its destination.

The driver is enclosed in a small compartment with a mesh of wire separating him from the passenger section. His steering wheel is a big as the tyre wheels. The dash-board is virtually non-functioning, while there is extreme heat coming directly from the engine in front and the gear-box by his side.

This often makes drivers of most of the molue buses to become permanently naked on their upper bodies. The molue has open portions of the back compartment that serve as windows, but this is the nearest you can get because when it rains, the passengers close to these open sections bear the brunt of the heavy down pour.

Different destinations

As you enter the bus you are notified of the various fares for the different destination stops along the route. There are usually two conductors manning most molue buses. One is at the rear of the bus and he is responsible for collecting fares from passengers, while the second acts as a traffic monitor to assist the driver in navigating the hectic traffic as they head toward their destinations. He informs the driver when it is safe to change lanes, when to overtake; when to slow down for a passenger to get down and to pick up new passengers.

The rear conductor begins his job by collecting fares from the back and then works his way to the front of the bus. Before he collects fares, commuters are told to bring out their monies for the trip to make it easy for collection. When the rear conducter gets to the front lines he steps off the bus to return to the rear, at the same time urging the commuters standing in the aisle to move forward to make room for new passengers to enter from the rear of the bus.

Back at the rear of the bus the conductor begins the process all over again. This is to pick out those passengers he missed and also to collect fares from new passengers in the bus. It is a general rule that passengers must board the molue from the rear. This is to help check payment of fares by all, but if in times of contingency you board from the front, the front conductor would either collect the fares from you or point you out to his colleague to collect the fare.

When the molue driver takes off, his main aim is to quickly reach the final destination and return to its starting point as many times as he can. This he has to do because of the very stiff competition among his fellow drivers who are also scrambbling for the same passengers. As the buses head on their journey, the front conductor bellows out names of the bus-stops and advises disembarking passengers to come close to the door as they hear names of their individual bus-stops. The molue bus does not stop at the bus-stop but merely slows down. You have to learn to disembark or you might find yourself sprawling on the road. The technique is to run backward as you step off the bus, as trying to run forward would lead to an increase in uncontrollable acceleration that would eventually make you fall down.

Typical town hall meeting

A trip in a molue bus can be likened to the attendance of a typical ‘town hall meeting’ of some sort. You will find inside the molue the itinerant medicine retailer, who has the cure of any ailment on earth, the preacher man who aside from wanting to save souls is out to make some few pennies from donations made by passengers to augment his daily bread, to the dupes on the look-out for gullible passengers that they can sell their scams to. There are also pick-pockets, who take advantage of the tightly packed passengers to fleece their pockets and pick valuables from them. To cap this town meeting of some sort is the continuous on-going arguments for and against on very topical issues. Inside the molue you are bound to hear the latest gossip about whatever celebrity. If you are one that is finicky about your dressing or the odour around you, then the molue bus is not for you. It conveys both man and goods in the same compartment.

The end of the era of the molue bus could have come during the tenure of Alhaji Lateef Jakande as Governor of Lagos. Governor Jakande had proposed a mass-transit transport system to be called the Metro Line.

Its establishment could have taken care of the transport needs of the teeming population in search of an alternative form of transportation. But because of the ‘politics of bitterness’ of the day, the project did not see the light of the day. Alhaji Jakande had successfully completed and embarked on an educational project that brought education to the door-steps of practically every Lagosian, with the introduction of neighbourhood schools.

His housing project was another success story. The metro line project would have introduced rail-lines that would have criss-crossed the entire length and breadth of Lagos. It would have been a good replacement for the molue buses, as it would ferry as much or even more passengers than all the molue buses put together.

The metro line was meant to cover longer distances in the shortest possible time and with more conducive environments for its passengers. The Nigerian Railway services were not doing enough at that time as its trains were reduced to plying a restricted route – Agege-Oshodi-Iddo axis.

This draw back became a plus for the molue buses and gave then a breather to continue on its operations, without regard to its passengers, who had become addicted to this form of transport, without choice. However, the signal to the end of the days of glory of the molue began when Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu banned molue buses from Victoria Island. This move restricted their operations to Obalende, Falomo round-out and Idumagbo axis. Again, all this was just a small chip off the entire route network of the molue buses.

A lot of the citizenry still lived in the outskirts of the city, mostly in the satellite towns. The little buses (danfo as they were called) were meant to replace the molues, but they could not meet the demands of most commuters. Aside from fact that they were too few, they were extremely costly. What the average commuter needed at that time was a commercial vehicle that would pick him from the closest point from where he lived and then drop him at his destination.

The smaller buses were into ‘relay-transportation’, dropping off commuters at terminal boundaries, from where the commuter would have to board another vehicle to continue his journey. Aside from the inconvenience of jumping buses, it costs more while changing buses. But with the molue bus, it was just one straight journey, from pick-up point to your final destination. Above all it was just one fare and very cheap.

What signalled that the end of an era for the molue buses was gradually coming to an end came when Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola on March 17, 2008 commissioned a set of blue Bus Rapid Transport, BRT, buses, with a definite road-map to cover the entire Lagos State. To achieve this he invited members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers of Nigeria, NURTW, to partner with the Lagos State government in the venture.

Operators ofthe new project

The move was a master stroke as it assured members of the NURTW that the government was not necessarily going to disrupt their means of livelihood. In fact operators of the new project would support their members, who could purchase these buses by getting soft loans through the formation of cooperative societies. To further enhance the viability of the project, the BRT buses were given dedicated lanes to ply on the roads to the Island. This ensured that they got to their destination on time and did not have to contend with the usual traffic grid-lock usually experienced in Lagos.

To further spread the popularity of the BRT buses, the Lagos State government went ahead to build modern bus terminals all over the state to cater for commuters that would patronize it. With this move, most of the routes hitherto covered by the molue were gradually being taken over. Another master stroke by the Lagos State government was the conversion of open spaces to recreational parks, which hitherto used to serve as ‘motor-parks’ for molue buses.

The most glaring one was that at Oshodi, opposite the rail-lines and under the bridge. With the demolition of illegal structures, the government turned the open space into a leisure park and then built a modern bus terminal at Oshodi. The molue buses were now forced to manage out at Bolade bus-stop, which could only take a few of them.

With their numbers decreasing every day and the BRT and LAGbuses taking over their routes, it would seem as if the days of the molue are numbered. Have the molues become an endangered species that might soon become extinct? Vanguard decided to go find out whether these ‘dinosaurs’ still plied the road.

The journey began at 5:00 a.m. when I arrived at the Iyana-Ipaja end of Lagos. I was not expecting the surprise that awaited me. To begin with, the molue buses were parked in a very unusual neat and orderly manner, with no conductor screaming his lungs out to attract commuters. Commuters had to inquire first about the destination of any of the buses before they joined the particular bus of their choice.

Interior of the buses

It would seem that commuters entered the molue buses out of the choice for an alternative. In the guise of finding out the right bus that might take me to my destination, I took the opportunity to look into each of the buses. My first shock was the state of the interior of the buses. The entire interior of nearly all the buses had been repainted and were looking new. It was a far-cry from the interior of the ‘old’ molue, which was careless about its interior.

The present molue had sliding windows and could be operated depending on the amount of air one wanted to come into the bus. The seats had new upholstery with soft cushions and were neat. There were no wooden seats again. Next was the total cleanliness of the bus. The floor looked like it had just been swept. There were small loud-speakers located at the four corners of the bus and blaring from them was the latest Fuji music.

I also noticed that pasted inside the bus were posters of new generation Fuji musicians and some hip-hop acts. After deciding to board the bus going to Oshodi, I found my way to the front seat that was directly behind the driver to give me a vantage view of the entire operations of the bus. As I looked up, I noticed that the driver’s compartment though still demarcated from the commuter section by a wire mesh now had a fan directly above where the driver sat.

I had dressed up in faded jeans and a T-shirt in anticipation of a hectic and very rough ride, but it turned out that I was the only person not ‘properly dressed’ and I looked out of place. I looked around to assure myself that I was in a molue bus. I saw Nigerians dressed up in very decent attires and were not looking harassed as commuters of the days of yore.

Sitting beside me was a very young lady and I asked her why she took the molue instead of the other ‘modern’ buses. She replied that for her the molue was far more efficient than these so-called modern buses. The drivers of these modern buses most of the time were nowhere to be found when the bus was filled up. She said she had just come down from one of such buses before she decided to join the molue bus.

When I asked her whether she was not hesitant in joining the molue after the numerous stories told about it, her reply shocked me. She said the molue of today is still the best form of transport, as it was punctual, neat and very airy. As a closing remark she said she would only prefer the BRT and LAG buses over the new molue buses if they installed air-conditioners in them.

As the bus got gradually filled up, I watched with anticipation when a basket of fish, foodstuffs or poultry birds would be pushed under one of the seats. None of these ever happened until the bus was filled up with commuters. The entire process of getting the bus filled took nothing more than 25 minutes. Our driver was a middle-aged man whom I guessed would be in his mid-thirties. He was dressed in native attire made from our local fabrics.

After putting on the engine, the next thing I heard was the whooshing sound of the fan above his head. However, there were still some features common to the molue that still occurred. Some commuters still stood along the aisles of the bus, but they went not cramped up like in the olden days. The itinerant merchants were still on the bus, all trying to make a sale for the day. The new molue stopped at designated bus/stops along its routes towards Oshodi and at each bus-stop gaily dressed Nigerians took their time to enter the bus. There was less discussion these days, the only one that occurred, were between two or three commuters who had entered the bus the same time. These days most commuters seem to keep to themselves until they got to their destination.

When we finally got to Bolade bus-stop, I went in search of some of the operators of the molue buses. Alhaji Morufu Ajibade, said in the height of the glory of the molue bus, he owned nine of such buses. He is from Kwara State, but came to Lagos to search for better living condition. He bought his first Mercedes Benz 911 engine from the CFAO and then built up the metal body. From this single bus, he made enough money to increase his fleet. He ascribed the landed property that he now owns to the wealth brought to him in the molue business.

He said he can modestly say that he is a contented man with over ten houses dotted over Lagos. He, however, said that his fleet has been reduced to four, as he had sold the remaining five. Asked if he had joined the new era of owning a BRT bus, Alhaji Ajibade said like every profession, there was bound to be innovations that would bring challenges.

To be part of the new world, there must be re-training and change of tactics. This is what is happening to the molue buses. “Government has not banned us entirely from the road but given us a choice to match what they are providing the commuter. Any molue operator who wants to attract commuters must change his orientation. You must have noticed the changes in the molue buses. They are now neat, cheaper and more acceptable” Alhaji Ajibade concluded.

The second part of my journey took me from Oshodi to Obalende. The story was the same. It was a new look molue on the roads. However, I still had one nagging doubt in mind. I could bet that the molue buses that plied the Obalende-Mushin and Obalende-Bariga routes still belonged to the old era – dirty and poorly managed. I took the first bus to Mushin and was taken aback to hear the news of the hour coming out of one of the speakers. After the news, a young man dressed in white lace material climbed into the driver’s compartment and tuned the radio to one of the frequency modulated (FM) stations and the “bumper to bumper” hit sound of Wande Coal blared out of the speakers.

My journalistic instinct forced me to ask him whether he was the driver and why this form of music. He replied that he earlier on noticed that most of his commuters always had on ear phones and were always listening either to good music or news, so he felt if he could provide such services it would attract commuters to his bus.

This has turned out to be the gimmick. The bus that I took to Mushin was filled mostly with very young Nigerians, who enjoyed the music being reeled out in the bus. The music was an admixture of old school tunes down to the modern indigenous rap music by 9ice, Dagrin and Ruggeman.

Quest for dedicated lanes

At Mushin I had a chat with Bayo Ogunmola, Secretary of the local NURTW unit in the area. He was of the opinion that if the government could give the molue buses the same dedicated lane preferences as it gave the BRT buses, they would take back all their ‘lost’ passengers. “As if getting dedicated lanes is not enough, members of LASTMA are conniving with the BRT operators to harass us. Where do they want us to go to” Mr. Bayo intoned. From Mushin I took the molue going to Bariga. The journey from Bariga to Obalende was no different, only that the music blaring out in the bus was totally of the Fuji gender. At Obalende, I sought of the views of one Obina Okoye, a fast-food retailer, who said he was a regular molue bus commuter, though he had a car. Since he came to Lagos in 1987, he had been patronizing the molue buses.

They had always been efficient and punctual, despite the few short-comings being dirty and stuffy, people complained about. The journey was for a few minutes and you would be off the bus. At least it is expected that one should be able to bear a few minutes of inconvenience to reach his desired destination. He said he wakes up very early every day except on Sundays to board the molue from Okokomaiko to Obalende to open his shop because he has customers who want his services as early as 6:00 a.m. He said the new-look molue was the response to the changing lifestyle of peoples. Gone were the days that traders or business men moved back and forth with the goods. Modernity has brought with it better ways to have goods secured in one place and so it was the retailer who shuttled back and forth.

The market women that used to carry their goods into the molue of the old, have either been replaced by a modern generation of traders or they must have found a new way to stock the goods in the market. “So to meet the demands of the modern age and competitions, operators of the molue had to join in the race of providing quality service or be phased out completely. But I think they are now wiser and a fighting back,” Obina concluded.

As I took my last bus from Obalende back to Oshodi, I knew that this dinosaur called molue was going to give the other buses a good run for their money. This dinosaur is fighting back, let no one be deceived, just take a ride in one of them. If not for anything but for the fun of it and let it be on record that you boarded one before they eventually go off the road, who knows. It might turn out to be a story you would tell to your grand children.

Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.