BusinessDay

Nigerians defy insecurity, pandemic, travel for Yuletide

Considering that about 2,287 Nigerians lost their lives to insecurity in the third quarter of 2021, according to a report by SBM Intelligence and EiE Nigeria, most people were advised to cancel planned trips to locations considered unsafe for the festive celebration last year.

As well, some parts of the country, particularly the South Eastern, which experienced lots of intimidation from security operatives across the year and killings by unknown gunmen, surprisingly welcomed more people during the festive season than in 2020.

It would be recalled that few months to the Anambra State gubernatorial election, the South East zone, which has been on partial lockdown on the order of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) witnessed a spike in insecurity with killings almost every day by “unknown gunmen,” a situation that warranted most Igbo town unions to advise their kinsmen to stay back in the cities for safety.

However, the advice to stay back in safer cities fell on deaf ears as more people travelled to celebrate the 2021 festive season despite the very exorbitant transport fares, though usual because of the Christmas rush.

The intrigue, according to Marcel Okeiyi, a manager at Starline Motors Jibowu, Lagos, is that despite the hike in transport fares, many travelled and were paying without complaint.

“Our average fare across the year is N9,000 to the farthest town in the country, but it increased to over N22,000 on December 24, 2021, and people paid without complaint. Now, we are shifting the hike to the return leg from January 3, 2022, to about N18,000 and people will still pay,” he said.

Read Also:Defying the Pandemic: How Nigerian MSMEs are Coping

To meet the huge demand, the manager noted that the young transport company had to increase its destinations from seven to 12 and fleet from 30 buses to 75, with a loan from the Bank of Industry, and hopes to pay back within two years.

“We will pay back the loan on schedule because the business is good and we are already surpassing our target for the festive season,” he said.

Libra Motors, an interstate transport company, had to introduce about 30 pieces of the all-new Toyota Hiace 2020 buses to complement its existing Toyota Hiace commuter 18 seater buses, as well as other top players such as: The Young, Peace Mass, GUO, God Is Good, ABC Transport, among others.

While the transport companies load an average of 1,500 buses out of Lagos every day during the off season, they load a combined 5,000 buses every day during the festive season. This number is expected to drastically reduce from late January when the rush to return would have been over and many of the buses packed or used to replace old ones.

Ikenna Ezekwesili, a manager at GUO Transport, noted that the volume of passengers in 2021 was so unprecedented that the company had to bring back some of the buses it leased to hotels and private companies.

“It was as if everybody in Lagos was leaving town, we were overwhelmed by passengers and we had to seek a solution to meet our huge demand. We also made huge revenue because it is usually our season to make money. We raked in millions of naira, I mean enough to pay for the buses we newly acquired,” he said.

Mike Onyekwere, a driver with Libra Motors, lamented that he had no days off during the peak of the festive period because of the huge demand by travellers.

“I had to move from Lagos to Owerri, return the next day with an empty bus, then load the next day to Owerri full and repeat the same until December 31, 2021. I will start the January return from January 4th and no rest until January 9th,” he said.

Ebere Onyeaso, a festive season celebrant, who has been in Abagana, his hometown, since December 23, 2021, noted that the so-called militarisation of the South East was not correct, as he experienced fewer military checkpoints as against the many people purported to be across the zone.

“We had a smooth drive home and security checks by the military, especially in the South East, were not as bad as people said,” he said.

Sam Ogazi, who has also been in his hometown in Enugu State, said the roads were smoother than most people imagined and security operatives were rather welcoming people home than harassing them.

“The only place we had issue was at Onitsha Head Bridge where the Army was controlling traffic, and one military checkpoint on the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway. But they were friendly and did their jobs professionally. I was not harassed by any security agent on the road,” he said.

Also, travellers along the Onitsha-Owerri-Aba route had a smooth drive as security operatives focused on their job without harassing innocent passengers.

I was surprised at the smooth drive and few military checks as against what we were told and expected on our journey home this festive season. The military checkpoint at Awomama before Owerri was the only place we were delayed because the driver was reckless. But the soldiers freed us later,” Anselm Obiako, a medical doctor, said.

Speaking on the reason for the mass travel, Esther Asabe, a psychologist and university lecturer, noted that travel is part of life and that many who could not travel last Christmas because of the pandemic took advantage of the respite in the various spread this year to travel.

“Yes, the Omicron variant is spreading, but with the vaccination a lot of people hit the road and also they are mostly people who could not travel last year because of the pandemic,” she said.

Bode Alamutu, a lawyer and entrepreneur, attributed the huge travel last year, despite the economic hardship, to natural wanderlust among Nigerians.

“An average Nigerian wants to travel whether overseas, within the country or his village. But COVID-19 impacted our passion for travel and those who cannot travel because of the cost now had to head somewhere this Christmas,” he said.

The mass travel was also against the outcry by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), which noted a week before Christmas that the country would witness community transmission of the COVID-19 Omicron variant if many travel for the festive period.

On December 26, 2021, the Centre confirmed community transmission and disclosed that though Nigeria had not recorded any death from the variant, about 39 cases of the Omicron variant had been discovered. This brings the total to 45, a number that has increased since then and is expected to spike this January as travellers return.

Abdulahi Nuru, a security operative, who had to travel during the festive period to see his family in Bauchi, noted that he did so because he had completed his vaccination.

For him, some who travelled believed that with vaccination, they are protected, while sadly many among them were still not vaccinated or partially vaccinated.

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