A scholar goes back to his hometown in Nigeria to study the informal transportation network that deeply affected his youth.
By Michelle Nicholasen
Before their shift begins, minibus drivers in Lagos, Nigeria do one of the following: pray, make token sacrifices to their deities, or take a stiff drink of ògógóró (a local gin). That’s because the business they’re in—the informal transportation network that’s characteristic of many African cities—is notoriously dangerous. In Lagos, drivers are constantly threatened and forced to pay bribes; they suffer health problems like hypertension and partial blindness, and accidents are common.
“Navigating the city is almost like navigating a slow death,” says Daniel Agbiboa, assistant professor of African and African American studies, whose recent book, They Eat Our Sweat: Transport Labor, Corruption and Everyday Survival in Urban Nigeria, offers an intimate look at this shadowy network.
Daniel Agbiboa remembers his childhood in Lagos, where he rode his parents’ minibus to school every day. After saving for years, his parents, both civil service workers, bought a minibus and hired a driver to supplement their income. But the business suffered from extortion, and Agbiboa’s family went into debt. “I have a lot of painful memories of those years. Initially, it was exciting to own a minibus and be driven to school. But then it became a source of stress for all of us.”
Years later, as a PhD student in international development at Oxford, Agbiboa’s interests turned to the interplay of state and nonstate actors in developing countries. In 2014, he went back to Lagos to study the transport sector to learn how such a harrowing and corrupt system could endure. Like most scholars, his plan was to interview the stakeholders involved. But a childhood friend who was a driver convinced him that to really understand the dynamics of this system, he should get behind the wheel himself. So he became a minibus conductor for two months.
“This was not premeditated. It was a chance encounter with an old childhood friend. I don’t think anyone in my family would have approved of it. I had to negotiate the ethics of this with my advisor at Oxford, who saw the value in my approach,” Agbiboa says.
He never imagined it would be the most stressful job of his life.
Like many cities in Africa, and worldwide, Lagos has a weak formal transportation system. To fill the demand for mobility, independent minibus drivers enter a “hire for purchase” arrangement where they return a fixed amount of their fares back to the owner of the minibus. If a driver makes a good profit, he may even take ownership of the bus after a year or two. But to get there, it’s a battle against the odds, because at the end of the day, there’s little left over. “They live hand to mouth…many have to forfeit the minibus because they just can’t make the return,” says Agbiboa.
The bribe extractors are formal entities working in an informal, yet enduring, network. The main culprits are police officers and “touts,” or thugs, from the National Union of Transportation Workers. The irony is not lost on Agbiboa. “The union was formed to defend the interests of the transportation workers, but it’s become a kind of tool of the government. A powerful one. They co-opt the government as much as they are co-opted by it.” Together, the police and the union extract money from transport drivers and share it with each other. The money passes up the ranks, to the union authorities and to political leaders.
A checkpoint can arise at any time along the route, Agbiboa says, where police or touts will approach a driver and use coded phrases, like, “It’s very hot; I am very thirsty,” to demand money ostensibly for water. A savvy driver will do his best to talk down the amount of the bribe, or delay payment. If a driver shows too much resistance, an officer might pull out a gun, seize the key, or vandalize the minibus. Sometimes recalcitrant drivers are even killed.
“Fear is a form of governance in this space,” says Agbiboa.
On a typical twelve-hour-plus shift, driving back and forth on the route between Oshodi to Ikotun-Egbe (in the local government of Alimosho), Agbiboa would encounter around 100 check points, where he would be forced to pay various amounts from the fares he collected. Along the routes, drivers would often pause in the road to share information with each other, so they could make spontaneous detours around checkpoints whenever possible. Passengers never knew exactly where they would get dropped off.
The job was one of constant stress and hustle to collect more fares and sometimes overcrowd the minibus.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘there’s no time to check the time,’” he says. “In the time it takes to change gears, another checkpoint pops up.”
Agbiboa remembers his first few weeks as nerve wracking, and he went through a period of emotional distress, until finally he “learned to put the stress to the back of my mind like most Lagosians do.”
Before he started the job, he shadowed his friend to learn the code of the street and how to “act submissive” in front of police officers.
“I was scared the first time I saw an officer pull a gun on a driver for refusing to pay the exact amount of a bribe. But then I would look at the passengers and the driver and I realized there was a kind of performance to it. A performance that could turn real at any point, but it was a familiar one, and the repetitiveness made it familiar and normal.”
Behind the wheel, he would find that the passengers themselves exerted pressure on him to pay the bribes so they could go on their way. Everyone was in on it.
Taking on the role of a conductor is perhaps a risky form of ethnography, but it nevertheless allowed him to see nuances among the actors that he might have missed with more detached research methods. Working from the inside, he overheard drivers and passengers condemn the system they participated in. “I have traveled extensively and I haven’t found a society that is more critical of corruption,” says Agbiboa.
His key research question became, why do they do this? Why do they perpetuate the very system they condemn?
The answer became obvious: “They have children to feed, businesses to keep, and they learn to negotiate this system. To resist the system entirely is to die.”
From inside the system, he could tease out the relationships among the parties and the implicit contracts between them. Agbiboa noticed a collective understanding that the police extorted money in order to supplement what was already a very low salary. For their part, the police implicitly understood a driver’s financial predicament and often negotiated with them. The drivers who struck up convivial relationships with the police and touts turned out to be the most successful.
He also saw important connections among the extortionists. “The motor park touts are giving a share to the police, as well as keeping some for themselves. And the police officers are connected not only to the state but to the dominant political party. ”
Agbiboa points out that the Western definition of corruption—the use of public office for private gain—is not applicable in Nigeria, nor in other parts of the developing world. “The lines separating public and private are often not clear. Like the case of the touts. Is he a public or private actor?”
“It was important for me to understand the logic of survival. To see that this was a culture as much of corruption as it was against corruption. The line between corruption and survival is blurred.”
Although Nigerian leaders have long pledged reform, and laws have been created to curb extortion, the efforts usually fail, says Agbiboa. “Why should leaders enforce these reforms when they benefit so much from the existing system?”
Instead of rooting out corruption, he believes mitigation or reduction is a better strategy. “I don’t think you can reform corruption any more than you can reform racism or police brutality,” he says. For example, when he was doing fieldwork, the drivers went on strike, not because they were paying bribes but because they wanted to rein in the system a bit, by means such as getting receipts for what they paid, or formalizing which parties were paid and how much. Any kind of regulation would have to focus on mitigation rather than elimination, Agbiboa believes. “We should move beyond this tendency to talk about corruption as something that we wage a war against.”
He believes that reforms will not result from throwing corrupt actors or leaders in jail. Rather, efforts to reform should target the roots of the imbalance, by focusing on the perceptions people have of each other.
“Sometimes when we talk about corruption, we obscure more important things like vulnerability. The city is the very bastion of the vulnerable, the place where you are anonymous, the place where you don’t exist. People who are seen as disposable are more likely to be exploited. And this is precisely what the transport operator is. He’s the stigmatized person who has no future, is seen as the wretched of the city.”
He believes reforms must acknowledge drivers as human beings who deserve respect and dignity. It’s an argument that has yet to enter political discourse.
“If we understand the complexity of corruption in terms of insecurity and vulnerability, it will extend the conversation across economic, racial, class, and gender dimensions,” he says.
His book also takes a comparative look at corruption in many other countries. Nigeria is far from unique. Across nations, even the language used to describe corruption is surprisingly similar, such as the use of the word “eat” as a proxy for extortion. (Rwandan refugees refer to corrupt Tanzanian officials when they say, “they eat our sweat.” In Mexico, a bribe is called a “bite.” In Hindu-speaking India, the phrase for corruption translates to the “eating of money.”)
“Whether it was looking at South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, or North America, it was important for me to drive home the point that systematic corruption is a global phenomenon, a way of life in so many developing urban areas.”
Although he was asked to conduct for a full year, Agbiboa declined. “The sheer toll it took on you, the impact it has on you physically and psychologically wasn’t sustainable, and I couldn’t go past two months,” he admits.
Though he stresses the importance of local context for any study of corruption, his lived experience and his comparative research extend our understanding of societies around the world where negotiating corruption is part of everyday life.
Faculty Associate Daniel Agbiboa is an assistant professor of African and African American studies in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Agbiboa’s research and teaching focus on how state and nonstate forms of order and authority interpenetrate and shape each other, and the spatialization and materialization of mobility, power, and politics in contemporary African cities. He recently published two books: They Eat Our Sweat: Transport Labor, Corruption, and Everyday Survival in Urban Nigeria (Oxford University Press, 2022) and Mobility, Mobilization, and Counter/Insurgency: The Routes of Terror in an African Context (University of Michigan Press, 2022).
- A Danfo (popular yellow commercial) minibus filled with passengers dashes through a street in Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria. The frenetic nature of Lagos makes other cities feel like towns. Eko—as the city is fondly called—is home to an estimated twenty million people and regarded as one of the fastest growing cities in the world. It is described as the city that never sleeps. The yellow-and-black-striped commercial bus, known as ‘Danfo’ is the most popular means of transportation within the metropolis. These buses have been retrofitted to carry between 14–18 passengers as they dash through the ever-busy streets of Lagos. The Danfo buses are not only a means of transporting people and goods, they have also become the signature of Lagos as they add the bright yellow color to the ambience of Africa’s biggest city. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 4.0)
- A minibus taxi with the slogan: “The Presence of God.” Ikotun market, Lagos, January 26, 2015. Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Agbiboa
- Danfo route of Daniel Agbiboa in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Kristin Caulfield. Map source: Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Video of “Why Danfo Drivers have to drive ROUGH in Lagos, Nigeria.” Danfo is a Lagos signature at this point in time. Danfo refers to the commercial buses that move people around major routes in Lagos. These buses are commonly the Volkswagen Transporter and Vanagon. It is a popular knowledge that these drivers are never patient on the road, they drive like the world is after them. We took to the streets to ask these drivers why they drive this way and here is a video on that. Credit: 234 Drive, YouTube