Guest Post #3: A short history of transportation in Lagos

The Lagos danfo

Interested in the history of early Lagos? Read it here

Contributed by Josephine (avidimes@gmail.com):

Lagos is synonymous with yellow buses. At least, until Ambode’s LASG successfully takes them off the road, these yellow buses with long, black stripes running their length will remain the most common and affordable means of transport in mainland Lagos.
In addition to the touts at the busstops, the impatient bus driver, the loud and obnoxious ‘conductor’ and the occasional religious preachers make up the full package delivered in no small measure by these buses as they continually fuel the adrenaline rush characteristic of the city of Lagos. Visitors and residents of Lagos are well accustomed to the hustle and bustle associated with the yellow buses, the fights and quarrels, the tight iron & wood seats and (goodness God!) the unpleasant ride into the Lagos haze. Not to forget also, the cute phrases bandied about by experienced conductors and passengers alike: waso (50naira), Wole pelu senji e o, (enter this bus with the correct fare), senji/changi (exact fare), esun (adjust to make space), owa o (to alight), O loyun o ponmo o (used for a woman who’s pregnant or/and carrying a baby, or for a passenger bogged down by his/her luggage). But, for Lagos transportation, it’s a long way to here; it started several years ago.

Public transportation in Lagos is older than the city itself. It can be traced to the 1920’s, when private individuals and foreign enterprises like J.N. Zarpas, a company owned by Levantine expatriates, started some form of public transportation in the city. This was so until the creation of Lagos state in may of 1967.

From then on many private individuals went into the lucrative transport business as the population of the city expanded. That era was dominated by customised mini Lorry buses. The sitting arrangements would seem similar to the yellow buses of today as the seats were made of wood and quite tight. These buses had only one exit point: at the back. Sooner, the Government, finding the mini lorries unsafe, banned their use for passengers. Ever adaptable, the Lagos drivers transformed them into conveyors of food, crops and livestock.

At this juncture, what is known today as ‘Molue’ was introduced. This was in the early 80’s. Almost as long as today’s luxurious buses, they were painted yellow and black, the Lagos colour. These buses were Mercedes Benz 911 model trucks, customised with locally made passenger sitting compartments, still made extensively of iron & wood (wood isn’t just tiring, is it?). The term ‘Molue’ is probably a slang derived from the phrase ‘maul them/him’ which was used by the to describe the anguish associated with taking these buses. Although a ride in the Molue buses was a rather unpleasant experience, the buses became ever so popular and soon depicted the face of Lagos – a developing city.

The Molue enjoyed its time on Lagos roads before it lost its face to a new queue of another black and yellow striped bus: the Danfo!

The origin of the word “Danfo” is not clear. Some have said it simply means the word “hurry”. One clear thing though, is that it has come to mean a struggling wreck of a bus.

The first danfo buses were Volkswagen Kombi buses which houses twelve passengers at a time. Now, Santos comprise Toyota Hiace buses, the Nissan Urvan, Mitsubishi L300, Volkswagen LT etc and any bus of any make able to seat 12 to 14 persons at once.

The danfo became the main means of commercial transport in Lagos because it could ply virtually all bus routes, including inner streets. Its slender figure and quick handling particularly made it desirable for most drivers who sought to go into transportation. By the 2000s, Danfos were virtually everywhere on the streets of Lagos.

After a spate of kidnappings in the early 1980s, the government decreed that all danfo and taxi drivers must become members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). Union officials allowed to enforce this law morphed into hardened touts, also known as “agberos”, who forcefully extort money from willing and unwilling bus drivers in the guise of “union dues”. Nobody knows for sure what these funds are used for.

Several years of unsupervised operation saw the danfo become a moving wreck – the sitting arrangements are uncomfortable, the noise from the engine can be defeaning, most lack rearlights and headlights, sometimes the bus driver is tipsy from gin and local concoctions, the conductors hangs out of the doorway, there are hazards of the door or conductor falling out while the bus is moving and the bus does not provide adequate shelter while it’s raining or sunny.

Recognizing that the danfo is not a safe transport system, the government has tried to provide some remedy. The Tinubu administration which started in 1999 tried to ensure that danfo buses were well maintained by requiring them to pass a Ministry of Transport (MOT) test. The danfo drivers went on strike to protest the policy and the government had to cave in to their demands to waive this test. The Fashola administration of 2007 to 2015 also tried to ban the danfo from Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Lekki as a prelude to banning it from other parts of the state. New buses were introduced into these areas under the management of a private enterprise. This required that the buses be painted in white to distinguish them from the infamous black and yellow Lagos colour. However, this didn’t work as expected. But a defining legacy it has left in place is that that danfo buses that ply those routes are painted now white instead of yellow.

The current Ambode administration, on its part, has promised to replace the yellow buses with better and safer buses. News articles have filtered into the public about the glorious plans the government has in place, but the jury is still out on its course of action.

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5 Comments

  1. Adedeji Adedayo

    March 23, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    I hope with our poor maintenance culture,we will be able to maintain the new buses proposed by Ambode

  2. joe

    March 27, 2017 at 6:16 pm

    I hope so too. let’s keep our fingers crossed.

  3. Sauer

    March 28, 2017 at 11:52 am

    Thanks for visiting, Adedeji & Joe. Please come back for more interesting articles.

  4. Yemi Stevens

    April 12, 2017 at 10:11 pm

    what an entertaining and enlightening piece!!!

    1. Sauer

      April 13, 2017 at 10:07 am

      Hi Yemi, thanks for dropping by. I hope to see you more here 🙂
      You can also share with your friends. Thanks.

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