Maiduguri — A motor park agent stood in the middle of the road, urging a commercial vehicle driver in a Volkswagen Golf wagon to quickly buy a ticket before takeoff time. The agent held a bunch of unsold tickets in his left hand and a pen in the right as he waved motorists down to get a 'Pass' before joining a massive number of private and commercial vehicles that lined up, waiting for military escort.
The driver, who looked, was asked to "park properly" by the roadside to allow other motorists on the line to move forward to get their 'Pass.' The 'Pass' gives every motorist the right to ply the Maiduguri-Damboa road. The expressway is now dramatically called "Buratai Road" because it was reopened on February 24, 2016 by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen Tukur Buratai. It had been closed since 2013 due to frequent attacks by Boko Haram militants.
When the driver "parked properly," the next car to get the ticket was asked to move forward. As he moved slowly, the agent quickly extended his right hand, offering him the ticket. He expressed optimism that he would sell more tickets before closing for the day's business.
"You are late and almost left behind. You cannot travel until tomorrow, so quickly obtain the 'Pass' so that you can catch up before they start moving. It's just N500," the ticket agent told the driver, offering him the ticket.
Our correspondent, who was on the passenger's seat in front of this car, queried the N500 fixed amount for the ticket.
"It is an official price. This amount wasn't fixed by us here, it was fixed by our union leaders," he explained, displaying the ticket he held between his two fingers to stress his point.
He called the attention of his colleague, asking him to support his claim, but instead, he urged him to allow the car go without buying the ticket.
"Please let them go; there are many motorists who would buy these tickets willingly. I've been telling you to let any motorist who refuses to get the 'Pass' proceed," he told his colleague.
Asked why some drivers were asked to either park by the roadside or even turned back if buying the ticket was optional, the ticket agent said, "No, those are commercial vehicles, which are not allowed to drive to Damboa town through this road without the 'Pass.' He said any commercial vehicle driver who didn't want to buy the ticket would follow the longer route of Maiduguri-Damaturu-Gujiba.
The agent, who declined to show his identity card or tell our correspondent his name, said he was a member of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). "You can see what is written on the ticket. You can also see that our members here are wearing the same cloths," he said.
Investigation by Daily Trust on Sunday revealed that for the past 21 months, an average of 500 vehicles - heavy-duty trucks, pick-up vans, buses etc, - usually buy the tickets every morning. Most times the number goes up, especially on the weekly market days held across towns and villages of Damboa, Chibok, Askira, Uba, Madagali, Michika, Mobi.
It was also gathered that commercial vehicle drivers returning from villages everyday are forced to pay the same amount of money to 'pass' through Damboa town in Damboa Local Government Area, where all the returning vehicles converge for onward military escort back to Maiduguri, the state capital.
On the outskirts of the city, where vhundreds of vehicles begin to assemble at 6:00am, waiting for the arrival of the military to start the journey at 9:00am, drivers who interacted with our correspondent described the operation as a fraud.
"We are always forced to pay N500 to ply this road and another N500 while returning. I had only one person in my car, but I had to give them the money before I was allowed to join other vehicles and wait for the military escort for the journey," a Gulf driver, Adamu Dan-Lassa, lamented."
A driver of one of the long vehicles, Malam Usmana, said that for more than a year he had been plying the Maiduguri-Damboa road he was always forced to pay N2,000 for the 'Pass' to and from his destinations.
"The ticket agents keep telling us that long vehicle drivers must pay double of what small cars pay. This is injustice. President Buhari will not tolerate this," the angry driver said.
When our correspondent went to the NURTW office, the unit chairman of the union, Mohammed Alhaji Bukar, also known as Ci mu ci, said his members were only directed to issue the 'Pass' to commercial vehicles at the rate of N500. He added that all private cars were only checked and allowed to go.
"Since the reopening of the Maiduguri-Damboa road over 20 months ago, we have never issued the 'Pass' to private cars," he said, adding that an average of 300 commercials vehicles ply the road on a daily basis. He said that when the road was newly reopened, about 600 vehicles left for Damboa every morning.
"Because of the N500 ticket we issue to commercial vehicles, some drivers, especially, those going to Biu town and environs started boycotting us and decided to follow the Damaturu-Gujiba road, which is longer.
"Some drivers are really hypocrites; they were the ones who complained that travelling through longer routes was costing them a lot of money. So as union leaders we appealed to the military to reopen the road for them. That's why we collect N500 only per vehicle and issue them this Pass," he said, displaying some unsold tickets to our correspondent.
Also asked where the money generated from the hundreds of commercial vehicle drivers plying the road goes to, Alhaji Bukar said, "Ours is only to sell the tickets and return everything to the state chairman. He knows how to share the revenue generated between national and state bodies of the union."
Asked if the military receives part of the money generated by the NURTW he said: "They are soldiers; they receive their salaries from the Federal Government. We don't give them anything from what we are generating here."
When our correspondent drew his attention to a soldier who asked for his share, the unit chairman responded angrily, "This is my personal friend; he was just reminding me of a promise I made to him. His demand has nothing to do with our Pass."
But a ticket seller told Daily Trust on Sunday that the union only provides bags of sachet water and other things for the soldiers who escort the travellers to enable them carry out their duties effectively.
Our correspondent further learnt that the original ticket printed by the NURTW for all its branches across the country bore N100 per vehicle in every motor park. It's the same tickets that are being sold at N500 to commercial vehicle drivers plying Maiduguri-Damboa road. An additional N500 stamp was seen on the tickets, apparently to justify their action. The tickets, therefore, bear two different amounts of money - N100 and N500, respectively.