Uzokwe's Searchlight

Monday, February 13, 2017

Alfred Obiora Uzokwe, P.E



ll day on the 20th of December, we continued to hear that arik staff was still on strike. This meant that our planned flight from Abuja to Asaba the next day was not going to happen. Chuks swung into action, taking my wife and I around Abuja to see if there were ground transportation options like hiring one of the Toyota sienna vehicles to take us to the east. At every one of the ground transportation stops, we had to inspect the vehicles. We were concerned about the condition of some of the vehicles we looked at. We did not want to hire a vehicle that will break down along Abuja- Asaba route. I was surprised that some of the vehicle companies did not even have vehicles available because passengers had booked them up for Christmas travels. As evening time began to draw nigh, we started hearing rumors that arik staff may end the strike in which case, our flight the next day could still happen. We still continued to search out ground transportation options just in case. Even though we were searching for ground transportation, though, my friend was concerned that the seven and half hour bus travel may become grueling for us and he voiced that concern. We were all hoping it would not come to that.

The next day, December 21, the day of our departure, around mid-day, my wife and I caught a cab to Abuja airport. I asked the driver, as we drove on, what he knew about arik flights at the airport. “E be like say they still dey cancel their flights but them say they don’t stop the strike”, he responded. My mind continued on overdrive. What would we do if indeed the flight at 3:00pm was cancelled? The airport was chaotic, people were milling around uncertain about their flights. There was a lot of talk about harmattan haze affecting visibility in the air. When time came, we were pleasantly surprised that passengers were asked to commence checking in for the Asaba-bound flight so we complied. Once in the waiting room, feeling relieved and confident that we were going to fly out, I ordered food to eat from one of the adjunct eateries. My wife said she was not hungry. I had just started digging in when an announcement came in. “This is for Asaba-bound arik passengers, please report to the check-in counter for an important information”. I turned and looked at my wife and said: “They just cancelled the flight, otherwise why would they ask checked in passengers to go back to the check-in counter”. I was not about to abandon the food, though, so I continued eating. In less than ten minutes, just before I finished my food, another announcement came, the flight had been cancelled. I was not surprised.

After eating, we slowly made our way back to the departure lounge. Arik air staff could not tell us for sure why the flight was cancelled. We had to get our checked in bag. I asked them at the counter if there was any chance that we could get a flight the next day. The young man responded that there was no guarantee. That’s it, I said. People started making frantic efforts to change flights and the likes. I did not do any of that. I just wanted to get back to a hotel we had already checked out of and bid the staff goodbye. My wife was adamant that we were not going to leave the airport without getting arik to refund our ticket money. I said we could do that later but she refused to leave the airport. It took a while before we could get someone to tell us what to do. Eventually, she queued up in the line. On the whole, it took almost 90 minutes of queuing up before we could get our money, it was about N59,000. We caught another airport cab and went back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel, my friend suggested that we try the Owerri route via air peace. The plan was for us to fly to Owerri and then use ground transportation to Nnewi. I originally did not want to think about that option but now that it had become clear that arik was not going anywhere, this option suddenly seemed viable. If I had considered it while we were still at the airport, we could have bought the ticket right there. When air peace was contacted, they said they had some seats for December 22nd. In the process of trying to make up our minds whether we wanted to fly to Owerri or Enugu, as well as determine the method of payment, since my ATM card was not yet functional, the remaining seats were taken by other people. It looked like we were officially stranded in Abuja.

Aware of our predicament, my brother in-law in Lagos sent me the name and phone number of the manager of a ground transportation system in Abuja. He said they had a large fleet of air-conditioned Toyota Hiace that commuted from Abuja to Onitsha or Awka that we could follow. I called the manager of the bus company and he confirmed what my brother in law said but warned that if we wanted to get a place in any of the buses, we had to be in a place called Utako, near the police station, at 5:00am.

At 4:00am the morning of 22nd December, we quickly got ready and checked out of the hotel. It was now about 4:30am. “How much from Sheraton to Utako?”, I asked a cab driver outside the hotel. “N4,000”, he said. ” I thought you guys said the place was not far, how come it is N4,000?”. I asked. “Oga, Sheraton charges taxi drivers a cut of the money passengers pay so we have to charge more to make up our money” I was appalled. For just a fifteen-minute ride, one has to folk over N4,000. Gouging I thought but that was the furthest of my worries. I was more concerned about the journey ahead of us at that hour of the day.

The bus station was an open space, a sort of motor park with some make-shift structures. It had haphazard perimeter cordons around what seemed like about 20 Toyota Hiace buses parked in the premises. They all looked fairly new. The place was already a sea of people in spite of the fact that we got there before 5:00am. Some were seated on regular chairs, others on their luggage while others were standing around. I looked at the time, it was about 4:50am or so. Then suddenly, two young men, one in tie won over a white shirt and the other in jacket and tie, came in. The one in white shirt and tie announced that people should line up. People quickly lined up in front of signs above the make-shift shed building. I stood behind the people going to Asaba and Onitsha. I was standing about three or four people from the front of the line. Then the waiting began.

After standing in line for about 60 minutes, with periodic shoving and pushing, watching dawn break without any information from the two bus staff sitting in front of the line, my patience began to wear thin. The men were both hunched over the desk in front of them, writing copiously. We must have been standing there for over one hour when a lady standing in line like the rest of us said something that sank my heart. “The three buses allotted to Asaba and Onitsha are already full”, she declared authoritatively. “I checked online yesterday, we are only waiting to see if some of the people that booked online would not show up”, she added with an air of finality. That was my first time of hearing that one could have booked the bus online and that the buses were full. If it turns out that the woman was right, what would we do? I kept thinking. We had already spent one additional day we did not budget for at the Sheraton when the Arik air was cancelled and I did not like the thought that we could again head back to Sheraton. I kept blaming myself for not thinking of online booking for the bus.

It was now about 6:30am. I was feeling frustrated. “Excuse me”, I said to the lady in front of me and took one step forward, towards the two men sitting in front. “Excuse me”, I said, sticking out my head. One of the men was still hunched over writing. “Excuse me”, I said again in a louder tone to get his attention. “I am listening”, he said without looking up. “You are frustrating your customers. The people have been standing here for almost two hours hoping to get tickets to travel and you are just sitting there writing and not saying a word to anyone? This is bad customer service and poor communication” ‘I think I got his attention because he looked up and apologetically said he was waiting to get information from his boss before telling us the situation. At this time, the people around me saw that someone had gotten the man’s attention and so the spigot of complaints opened. People were venting their frustrations in various forms, yelling, pleading. I spoke further, “you don’t have to have all the answers before you speak to us. Just standing up and telling everyone what you just said would suffice for now”. “That’s all we want”, someone behind me intoned. “We just want to know if our continued stay on this line is mere waste of time”, another said.

About ten minutes or so may have passed before the young man stood up and looking like a reluctant person, said that the three buses earmarked for Onitsha and Asaba were full. He added that in the past, to avoid stranding passengers, his boss usually provided a fourth bus to take the remaining passengers. He asked us for patience as he awaited word from his boss as to whether a 4th bus was going to be made available. I was optimistic again. But then the lady handling the passengers going to Port Harcourt announced that all the buses were full and no more buses were available. The whole place erupted with angry passengers and angry threats. A lady to my right even said, “I will kill you people if you leave me stranded here”. I started preparing my mind for the same announcement about the Asaba /Onitsha route. Surprisingly, I heard the young man in front of us say that they now have 5 openings in that route. Probably the internet online bookers did not show up. I was now the third person on line. I figured that my wife and I would be accommodated.

Just as I positioned myself to submit our contact information to the young man in front as they had requested for the manifest, the man who was number two in line and in front of me, stretched his hand backwards and took a piece of paper from another lady passenger behind me promising to get her a place. I lost my cool because it was to me tantamount to jumping the queue. The gentlemanly disposition in me suddenly evaporated. I exploded: “If you don’t give the lady that piece of paper back, I will push you out of the line”, I blurted, fuming. It was that type of attitude that had made it difficult for Nigeria to fully develop. People are always looking for the easy but unfair path to everything. Nobody wants to wait for their turns anywhere, reaping where they did not sow, getting credits for work they did not do. I think the lady behind me sensed what was shaping up and said in a very low and resigned tone: “I am sorry, I did not mean to interrupt things, please give me back my paper.” Meanwhile, the man said to me: “You will push me out of line?” I chose not to respond as I had made my point and gotten the intended reaction. I could tell from the corner of my eye that he was staring at me and I knew that if he could, he would actually “deck” me. The lady he was trying to either impress or do a favor at my expense was still standing there with her hand stretched to collect her contact information back from him. After staring at me for a while, the man handed back the paper to the lady.

Suddenly, another twist was introduced into an already uncertain situation. The man attending to our line again announced that the opening now available was for people going to Awka. I was confused. I had wanted to stop in Onitsha or Awka but at that point, even if they wanted to drop us in Enugu, I was willing to go along, at least we would be in the east and I could call Nnewi to come and pick me up from there. I said: “whether Awka, Onitsha or Asaba, just sign me up”.

Eventually, the young man in front took our papers, wrote our names on the manifest and said it was N9,500 each for the fare. A lady beside me protested that the normal fare was N5,500 but because of the Christmas rush, they were charging N9,500, a form of price gouging. She was correct but for me at that time, I was almost willing to pay anything to be taken home.

As I stood there watching the young man write the receipt after I had given him the money, I began to think to myself that humans were truly shaped by their environment. In just two hours, I had been forced to do two things I would normally complain about when people do it in Nigeria. I was forced to threaten a man who wanted to jump the queue because I was frustrated. Secondly, I was forced to go along with price gougers, something I would have complained about and blamed Nigerians for succumbing to. I thought to myself that before criticizing Nigerians for certain things in the future, I had better think deep and be sure I would not have done the same thing they do under their kind of circumstance.

At about 7:05am, the bus loading was announced and at about 7:38am, the bus pulled out of the “motor park”. To me, all that mattered was that we were headed to eastern Nigeria, the place I wanted to be most at that point in time. I saw my wife make the sign of the cross on her chest. The place was now less crowded as many passengers going to other places had departed in their buses. But you could see gloomy faces staring back at us. It must have been people who were unable to get transportation.

As the bus made its way out, I was lost in thought. I recalled that when passengers’ bags were being loaded onto the bus, I had hoped to see someone frisking the bags for security, but there was none. In this day and age and being in Abuja which had been a target of terrorists in the past, just loading bags without proper security check was not a good thing. Someone could easily load an untoward baggage and end the lives of many unsuspecting passengers. I also noted that when we came into the park early in the morning, we simply wheeled our bags, just like any other person, into the park without any checks and people were all over the place. That was wrong also. The owners or owner of that bus company and others should make people feel safe by restricting haphazard and easy entry into the place. Use perimeter fencing to cordon off the place and create just one entry and one exit and be sure that any and all bags that enter the place are frisked before being taken into the park and also frisked before being loaded into the bus. It is the right thing to do.

One could tell that I did not sleep well the night before because as soon as the bus picked up speed, I fell asleep. I was jolted up from my sleep by a loud bang followed by what seemed like a flopping or wobbly motion by the vehicle. I looked toward the driver and noticed that he was struggling to steer the vehicle toward the shoulder while reducing the speed. A couple of passengers had grabbed on to the arm rests or the safety grab bars attached to the vehicle. Slowly, the vehicle started coming to a stop and finally rested on the shoulder. Meanwhile, vehicles were zooming past at top speeds. I tried to look back to get a sense of what was happening but the rear window was blocked by bags stacked up in the luggage compartment in the back. “What is it?”, many, including me started asking. Then I heard someone say, “our tire don burst o”. The isle of the vehicle was packed full of bags that there was no way to make a hurried exit out of the vehicle. It dawned on me that if the vehicle had become involved in an accident and passengers needed to make quick exits, the bags would become obstacles. I seize this opportunity to implore ground transportation owners to caution their drivers about this violation. Passengers in a vehicle could survive an accident only to be trapped inside with attendant inferno all because of blocked isles. As we all started disembarking, in spite of the obstacles along the isle, I was lost in thought. Did we make the right decision by using ground transportation? I was sitting directly above the tire that busted.

Look out for the final part of this commentary in part 4 next week

Continued from Part 2

Changing tire

Making some notes and waiting for departure from Abuja airport

My wife was insistent on getting our money back

Our vehicle tire busted. I wiped out the logo on the vehicle for their confidentiality

Passengers stand around waiting for tire to be changed

Queuing up at Arik counter for refund

Working to change the vehicle tire