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After parting with their money, how C’ River transporters were scammed of FG’s COVID-19 fund support – Investigation

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The initiative of the Federal Government through its Ministry of Trade and Investments to empower Nigerian transporters with Survival funds in 2020 to cushion the negative impacts of the COVID19 pandemic was widely applauded. But Correspondent, SUNDAY ELOM N in this exclusive investigation reports that it is a different tale of woes, about eight months after for beneficiaries in Cross River State as many only received fake bank alerts after losing money to the Abuja team that handled the so-called empowerment programme.

 
The grant, the purpose, the procedures

In December, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari-led government launched the Transport Track of the Transport and Artisans scheme under its Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) Survival Fund as part of its Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP) to cushion the effect of the Coronavirus pandemic in the country.

Specifically, the Transport Track, which covers rideshare drivers, such as Uber and Bolt, taxi drivers, bus drivers, ‘KekeNapep riders, okada riders and cart pushers is expected to provide a one-off grant of N30,000 to 4,505 qualified beneficiaries operating in the transport sector in each state, including the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja.

The Minister of State, Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, Amb. Maryam Katagum in March this year (2021), said that as of January 17, a total of 155,920 beneficiaries in the Transport Track had been approved for payment, while 9,109 pending cases were being processed for payment.

Going by the Minister’s pronouncements, it therefore implies that N4, 677,600,000 billion has been paid to the qualified beneficiaries under the transport track across the country.

According to the application guidelines as contained in a press release by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media & Publicity, Office of the Vice President, Laolu Akande, on December 6, 2020, registration for the grant was on a first come first serve basis while beneficiaries were to apply through their registered associations such as the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Keke Riders’ Association, Okada Riders’ Associations/Unions, among others to be enumerated.

Also, state focal persons, project field officers and enumerators were to work with the federal government’s MSMEs Survival Fund Project Delivery Office to accurately identify and ensure that members of the respective associations/unions who applied for the grant are paid.

However, there was further provision for individuals who are members of associations/unions but would prefer to apply directly with the enumerators. Such individual applicants must show proof of membership of an association in order to qualify for enumeration.

Also, Application or registration for the grant was absolutely free, and the grant was to be paid directly into the beneficiaries’ accounts.

The fraud, the tales of woes, the losses

Mr. Ubong Clement looked this reporter straight in the face and said, “Oga journalist, we would have gotten angry at you because your coming here only reminded us of what that woman did to many of us but it is not your fault; you are only doing your job.”

Clement, 32 is an Okada rider in Obudu, Cross River State.

He was among the few transporters in the state who registered for the one-off N30,000 grant of Transport Track under the federal government’s Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) Survival Fund approved in 2020 by President Muhammadu Buhari as part of the Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP) to cushion the effect of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the country.

Clement who refused his comments to be recorded said he applied for the grant when a team led by a woman who he said refused to disclose her identity, including her name, visited Obudu early this year but he received a fake bank alert. This therefore means that the money was not in their bank accounts even though they received credit notifications

“Those of us who were around when they came paid N2, 000 each for the form. After the whole registration process, the woman who was one of the team leaders, I think she is from Cross River here, said we will pay her a commission of N10,000 each from the money.

“Many of us who complained that the money is not enough let alone deducting N10,000 from it, received a bank credit alert after about three weeks but when we checked our account balance, we found out it was a fake alert,” Clement explained.

Clement said he went into transportation business in 2014 after he attended a total of nine unsuccessful job interviews in Calabar, Abuja, Enugu and Abakaliki respectively.

He started with a bike he got on hire purchase from a friend who lives in Kebbi State. By 2018, he had bought three more bikes for himself.

“Unfortunately I sold one of the bikes in June last year just to make sure my family and I fed. Meanwhile, one already had an engine problem which I was planning to change before Covid-19 issues started. I couldn’t work on it till now. I’m only managing with this one you are seeing here,” Clement lamented.

He said he is still mourning all the losses he encountered from the first phase of lockdown last year till now.

“First, my mother died of a stroke because I did not have enough money for her medications. Then I had to sell my bike to feed my family and when I was already hopeful that the N30,000 support from the federal government would be of help in some ways, this selfish woman that I don’t know where she came from decided to do me April Fool.”

Dashed hopes, expectations: How the Cross River applicants were scammed after parting with their money

Despite the government directive that registration for the survival funds was absolutely free, investigation carried out in the three senatorial districts of Cross River State by our reporter revealed that in some areas, beneficiaries were charged varying amounts of money ranging from N1, 000, N2,000 to N10,000 for registration forms and kickback (commission) before they could benefit from the funds.

Also, it was discovered that whereas some transporters under the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), the Road Transport Employees Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) and Okada riders Union/Associations knew about the transport survival funds, many people under the same unions and associations did not know about it while keke riders, Bolt drivers and other transport companies like Onitsha South Local Government Area Mass Transit in the state said they did not know about the empowerment due to low publicity and communication gap.

To find out the reality in the disbursement of the funds, this paper visited Ogoja and Obudu in Cross River North Senatorial District, Calabar Municipal and Calabar South in Cross River South Senatorial District and Ikom in Cross River Central Senatorial District.

In Ogoja, the Treasurer, Ogoja Transporters Friends Association, (Abuja Park), Ushe Stephen Akwandi, told this Reporter that those who registered for the grant were charged N1, 000 each for feeding and hotel accommodation of the team that verified their details.

Mr. Akwandi confirmed that 12 persons registered for the grant from his motor park but said only five persons, including him, received the funds.

“A team came to us and asked us to fill our names and account numbers. We did and sent it to them in Calabar through WhatsApp.”

According to him, after about a month, some other teams came from Calabar to Ogoja to verify the details they had sent.

“The team said they are also beneficiaries but the reason they came was that the people in charge of the disbursement (who the team did not reveal) chose them to work as allies and so they requested that we sponsor their feeding and hotel accommodation; so, everyone that went to check his name paid N1, 000.”

After the verification, he said it took about a month before some of them received a credit alert of N30, 000.

But Akwandi said they have been expecting another payment because “they told us it was going to be 10 times.”

Ushe Stephen, Treasurer, Ogoja Transporters Friends Association. Photo by Sunday Elom

Similarly, at Central Motor Park, Ogoja, Alibi Odey, who said that many transporters did not know about the grant, however confirmed that a team from Abuja came to their park and some drivers who were around at the moment registered but less than five persons received the funds.

Also speaking, the Ogoja branch manager of Onitsha South Local Government Mass Transit, Elias Nzekwe, said that although he heard about the grant over the radio, no team or individual government official has visited his company for registration or to explain how they can get the grant.

 “The only people that were sent here are from the Local Government who said they were sent to come and monitor whether we have sanitizer and all that. They never told us that there is any money the government is giving to anybody or individuals to cushion the effects of Covid-19.”

Meanwhile, he lamented that some of them were not paid during the lockdown. “We stayed for three months without going to work. Myself was only paid for one month from the three months, when I looked at it, I cannot blame the company. All the vehicles were parked and weren’t going to work. So, how do they get money to pay us?”

Speaking in a defeated tone, a female worker at Onitsha South Local Government Area Mass Transit, Ogoja who simply identified herself as Madam Grace, said that a male friend from Ugep informed her of the grant “but he told me that only females who own commercial buses, kekeNapep or bike are qualified to register.”  

“One day I saw some people filling forms at Abuja Park and when I asked them, one of the team members, a young man who did not mention his name, asked me if I had commercial buses or cars. When I said no, he said I am not a transporter and so I am not qualified,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ekas Silvia, who lives in Calabar and is neither a transporter nor an artisan but a job seeker said that she has received a sum of N60,000 in two months.

“They assigned each local government to different banks. Calabar South people are assigned to Zenith Bank. But if you didn’t fill the form, you can’t get it. Those that know have gotten their money, though they have not paid everybody. They said that it is only when we received a text message that we would know that they have paid,” Silvia explained.

The Chairman of Ogoja Cyclists Union, Central Motor Park, Christopher Akarakpa, who spoke with Orient Reporter on the phone as he was not in his office at the time this Reporter visited, said that they heard about the grant but their union did not partake in it.

“We just heard about it on the radio but we didn’t know the procedure so that we can benefit from it. So we have not benefited anything; otherwise, it is a good initiative but nothing of such,” Akparakpa said.

In Obudu, the Financial Secretary of the NURTW, Obudu Main Motor Park, Victor Ofom, said that although more than 50 persons registered for the grant, less than 20 persons received the money. He also confirmed that the team who came from the Ministry of Transport, Abuja, told them that the disbursement would last for three months but he lamented that the exercise lasted only a month.

“We did the registration and other things but very few people in this park got the money. In this park, if I should sample the people that got it, I’m not sure if they are up to 10 persons,” he said.

Victor Ofom, Financial Secretary NURTW Obudu Main Motor Park. Photo by Sunday Elom

Meanwhile, one of the top executive members of the union, speaking off-record confirmed that they were charged the sum of N2, 000 each for the registration form.

Similarly, Personal Assistant to the Chairman of Obudu Cyclists Union, Umarue Emmanuel, who spoke on behalf of his boss, Michael Ikachi Nyesom, said, the officials “collected N2, 000 from each member for the forms and registration.”

Emmanuel who said that more than 40 persons from the union registered for the grant disclosed that only about 11 persons received real alerts adding that “some received alerts but did not see the money when they got to the bank. So it was a fake alert.”

The Secretary General of the union who insisted on anonymity confirmed Ubong Clement’s earlier allegation that they were asked to pay N10,000 as “commission and when many of us refused, after receiving alert of the money, we went to the bank and found out that they have reversed the whole N30,000 to themselves.”

He said that the person who demanded for the N10,000 kickback is a lady whom they could not verify her identity.

In a similar development, one of the executive members of Ikom Cyclists Union, Ndifong Robezefun said that, “about 300 Okada riders in Ikom registered but only four persons received alert and we were charged the sum of N10, 000 for their own interest. But since many people refused to give them the money, most people did not receive the alert.”

Robezefun, who is among the few Okada riders that received the grant, however, demanded that the federal government should do everything possible to ensure that all the transporters who registered for the grant receive the funds.

“My opinion is that those people should be arrested for embezzling our funds because that fund was meant for us and not for them. One of them that came was Bobby Ibiam.”

According to Robezefun, Bobby Ibiam is one of the team members who conducted the registration exercise for their union in Ikom; but neither Robezefun nor other transporters who spoke with this paper know the details of the people who carried out the exercise.

 Also, the Welfare Officer, Ikom Cyclists Union, Bassy Obibia, complained that they were neither properly informed nor given enough time to apply for the grant.

“We did not know about the fund before. We just saw them here one time and they said we should fill forms and after that not more than three people said they saw the money. They didn’t give us time,” he said.

For members of the Road Transport Employees Association of Nigeria (RTEAN), the Acting Chairman of Ikom Chapter, Friday Okpata, who said they submitted names to their national Chairman through their State chairman, confirmed that some persons received the fund once.

“They came to Ikom and did image capturing and confirmed accounts but some people collected the money and some did not and since that time they have not paid again.”

Okpata, however, said he does not know the exact number of people that received the grant but confirmed that those who received the money were not many.

“It was the State’s Secretary of the Road Transport Employees Association of Nigeria that compiled the names from all the 18 Local Government Areas but in Ikom, about 20 persons registered. We could not confirm the number of people that received the money because we have a little challenge. There is a letter the local government chairman is supposed to give us before we reconvene but he has not given it to us and that is what is delaying us,” he explained.

However, unlike the okada riders, Okpata said, “They did not ask us to pay commission before we could receive the funds.”

In Calabar, Mike Ukwa, a driver and member of NURTW in Akpabio Motor Park, Calabar Municipal said that the registration exercise was conducted by their union, but while few persons said they have received the money, many people, including him, have not seen anything.

“Anyways, I’m still waiting because they said they would be giving it after every three months but I have not even collected once,” he said while he lamented that, “COVID 19 affected my work a lot and for now, we don’t know what to say.”

Also, Gregory Bassey Edet, a NURTW worker in Calabar Municipal said that most of their drivers received the money but there are some who didn’t collect it. He, however, said that “those who received the money said that banks charged them N1, 000.”

 “There is nothing we can do because the money is not from us, but the union. It is from the Federal Government and they said they will do it. We are still waiting for it,” said Edet, who has not received the grant.

Gregory Bassey Edet, NURTW worker in Calabar. Photo by Sunday Elom

In the same vein, a driver in Etim-Edem Motor Park, Calabar South, Igor Bassey, said that although he received the funds once, “there are some people who have not received at all.” He added that “government promised to give us N30, 000 monthly for three months.”

Also, Ekpeyong Effiong, a driver in the same motor park, who said he is still expecting another payment, said he received N30, 000 a month after he registered for the grant.

But Bright Mathew, a driver in Miriam Bus Park, Calabar, explained that the first batch of beneficiaries have been paid, “remaining the second batch.”

However, he added: “For the second batch, they said they have to pay N1, 000 but the first batch did not pay anything. I asked the man in the National Union and the man said I should wait.”

For keke riders, it is a different story as they were never aware of the grant.

Enang Victor Ibong, a keke rider at Wapi Centre, Calabar, told this newspaper that “I don’t know about the transporters survival funds. I have never heard about it. I started keke work in May last year (2020).”

Ibong said they have a union but he hardly attends the union meeting “because mostly the meeting is being organized by the Excos (Executive members), that is, the people in charge of us. The only thing is that they only give us information of whatever that is happening but I traveled and I just came back but since I came back, I have not heard any of my colleagues talking about it.”

Unlike bus drivers who were open and freely spoke about the grant, keke riders were skeptical and avoided comments.

A keke rider who declined to identify himself said, “It is a waste of time. It is true but I’m not interested because even though the money comes from the Federal Government to our leaders, they will carry the money and use it and we will suffer and waste our time. We have a union but I have never heard anything about the money from them.”

Orient newspaper learnt that the only thing keke riders’ union leaders in Calabar do is to collect N250 per trip from each rider “but they don’t feed the riders with any useful information nor hold general meetings with them.”

Similar to the case of keke riders, Bolt drivers in Calabar and other executive taxi drivers in Ogoja said they were not aware of the grant.

A Bolt driver in Calabar, Henry Ugochukwu said, “I don’t know if there is such a thing but I never collect anything.”

However, speaking on the implementation of the Transport Track of the federal government survival funds, the Cross River State Commissioner for Transport, Oqua Edet Oqua, who spoke with our reporter on the phone as he was not on seat when this newspaper visited, said that the Federal Ministry of Transport conducted the disbursement exercise in the State directly with various transport associations and unions in collaboration with the State Chairman of the National Union of Road Transport Workers, Chief Ayi Ita Obo.

“They were not dealing through the State’s Ministry of Transport. What they did was that they were dealing with the various associations and unions directly from Abuja.  I’m aware that some of them registered directly and got the money but it is only Chief Ita Ayi that can give you the full details,” the commissioner said.

Oqua added: “At a point I had to meet with some transport stakeholders and we are wondering why they decided to deal directly with them.”

Unfortunately, every effort made by our reporter to speak with Ita Obo was not successful as he neither replied to the text messages sent to his phone number nor did he answer several calls placed on the same phone number.

* This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting. 
 

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