By Alaba Adeyemi
In 2012, the Ondo State government launched a free shuttle bus scheme for primary and secondary school students, picking them up to school and returning them back home after school. The project was expected to reduce the burden of high transportation cost on parents and guardians, thereby reducing lateness to school. This report by Development News Nigeria details how the scheme has now become unreliable and its impact on families across the state.
This lofty initiative took off on the heels of the fuel subsidy removal that rocked the tenure of the former president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in early 2012. Eleven years later and with worsening economic and transport situation for families across the country, the Ondo State government led by Rotimi Akeredolu unceremoniously ended the scheme.
The scheme took off with twenty ‘TATA’ buses in Akure but the government subsequently extended the scheme to all the 18 local governments in the state with the acquisition of another 50 buses. Ruth Olowooje, a former student of Fiwasaye Girls Grammar School described the bus ride as a defining moment in her schooling.
“It was a good scheme,” she said. “Students were getting to school early and getting back home early as well.”
A parent, Aderonke Clement described the scheme as one which had a positive impact at home as the burden of transportation was taken out of expenses on children.
Dashed Hope As Akeredolu Promise To Continue Scheme
After taking over as the governor of Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu continued the school shuttle bus scheme without a problem until January 2020 when it began to experience some hitches. At first, the buses were reportedly arriving late at the designated bus stop. This was due to the huge number of students that had to be conveyed. The official figure had reportedly moved from about 53, 000 school children in 2013 to about 100, 000 children by the end of 2019.
When schools resumed in January 2020, students waited in vain for the buses, a situation which led to a protest. The buses came back to life only on the streets of Akure, the state capital. The initial excuse was that the buses were taken for maintenance.
However, when the bus was no longer seen on the roads in many local governments, insinuation began to fly around that the buses had been taken to Imo state for promotion of the senatorial bid of the wife of the governor, Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu.
A former political appointee and a stalwart of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state, Olamide Hammed described the claim that the buses were taken to Imo State as “wicked lies”.
“Those buses were already old as at that time no one in his right mind could have driven it from Akure to Imo State,” he said. “If you were asked to ride on those buses to Imo state, would you?”
“It was rumoured at some point in 2019 that the government was planning to charge fees on the buses but we felt it was the handiwork of politicians in the opposition,” a parent who pleaded anonymity also revealed.
In August 2023, Development News Nigeria, DNN visited the Ministry of Works and Transportation premises in Akure where many of the buses are currently parked. In Owo, the buses had accumulated dust.
At the initial stage of the scheme, the buses ferried about 53, 000 students to school. A school pupil spends an average of 100 naira on transportation. This implies that the scheme helped parents across the state to save 5.3 million naira daily and about 26.5 million naira weekly. The figure had almost doubled by the end of 2019. At the end of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the buses were no longer seen anywhere. The government also used the need for social distancing as an excuse.
In June 2022, almost two years after the scheme had been unceremoniously brought to an end and COVID-19 lockdown had been lifted, Tobi Ogunleye who is the Special Assistant to the governor on transportation reiterated this same excuse.
He said, “We suspended it as a result of the pandemic in 2020 because the government could not afford the conditions by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
“The NCDC asked us to reduce the number per bus from 100 to 30 students boarding the bus. This is not economically wise; no responsible government can sustain that.
“The NCDC also said that we should be fumigating the buses at least four times in a week. They said that disposable nose masks should be provided for the students. When we weighed the options, we decided to suspend the scheme.”
He also insisted that the scheme had not been stopped nor were the buses taken to Imo state for campaigns.
“We did not disband it; we did not cancel it and we did not move the buses to Imo State as was speculated or rumoured.
“You can see them (buses) on our premises. There were 90 buses but four were burnt during the #EndSARS crisis at Okitipupa.”
He also admitted that the buses were old and needed repairs.
“We will still do a thorough overhauling of the buses and other work because they have been there for almost two years.
“Innovation can’t bring hardship to anybody. We are not wicked nor mischievous. We have not sold any of them nor been given to any other purpose,” he said.
He did not fail to remind the public that the scheme is not a right but a privilege.
Residents of the state believe that the government considered the project as a political tool for winning elections. In 2012, no serious budgetary plan was made before the takeoff of the project and in subsequent years there existed no clear-cut subvention for the buses.
“It was a project carried out by Mimiko to gain political capital. From the outset, they knew the project would be difficult to sustain yet they continued. The recession exposed them. They were also unwilling to cut down the cost of governance for the betterment of the masses,” a civil servant in the state who pleaded anonymity said.
However, in August 2023, the Ondo State government announced that the school shuttle bus scheme would be reintroduced when schools resume in September, to cushion the effects of fuel subsidy removal by President Bola Tinubu but it elicited no excitement from the majority of the people.
“How are we sure the government will not stop it after some time? The buses are older now, will they be buying new ones? Why did they stop it in the first place? They said it was for COVID-19 but after about two years we didn’t see any bus?” a parent asked.
“Many of my schoolmates had to leave our school for substandard schools close to us when they stopped that scheme as their parents couldn’t afford the transportation to our school,” Olowooje said.
Bus Resumes But Students Will Now Pay
On September 18th, 2023 as schools resumed across the state, the buses also returned to the streets of Akure but suspicion and uncertainty have trailed this development. A student, Tajudeen Fareed said he has not used the bus since it resumed as it is always overcrowded while one of the parents who spoke to DNN in Akure said the buses have been unreliable since it resumed.
“My children don’t join the bus in the morning because it doesn’t arrive early and sometimes, they don’t come at all”
Meanwhile, the Special Assistant to the governor on Transportation, Tobi Ogunleye has confirmed that there is a plan to begin to charge students using the bus between N200-N300. He had made this known during a recent media interaction.
” It is for sustainability not for profit making, so that we won’t have to wait for the government.
“At the last meeting we had with the Parents Teachers Association (PTA), N100 was agreed to be paid by each beneficiary to and fro because the scheme cannot be sustained free any longer.
“But with the economic reality of today, N100 cannot sustain the scheme. The price of diesel has jumped up. That is why we will have a robust and holistic meeting with stakeholders next week, to decide on a realistic fee.”
Also, a close observation also revealed that the number of buses in the scheme has reduced as areas serviced by three buses in the earlier days of the scheme are now serviced by one bus.
This report was published with the support of Civic Media Lab