Ride-hailing apps in Nigeria have provided technical fixes and education to stop male drivers harassing female passengers, but will it change anything?
On a visit to Nigeria in 2019, Rebecca*, 26, forgot her phone in an Uber. A few days later, she noticed a strange pattern. The driver in whose car she had left her phone would show up every time she ordered a ride. Sometimes he would show up at her destination after a journey with another driver.
Rebecca suspected that he had managed to access her email and was able to track her ride requests and destinations. She changed her name and other contact information on the Uber app.
"I felt violated, I felt very afraid, I felt unsafe," she told African Arguments.
Similar allegations have dogged ride-hailing services like Uber and Bolt since they launched in Nigeria. Both are dominated by male drivers, and many women feel the need to constantly change their identities to use them safely.
CNN host Arit Okpo has described how an Uber driver had texted her after a ride, discovered her identity, and followed her on Instagram. "I can't even describe the sense of violation I felt, the blind panic. This man knew my address, phone number, and details of my identity - he could hurt me or my friends," she tweeted.
Lawyer Modupe Odele has explained how she never lets drivers drop her off in front of her hotel or Airbnb when she's travelling. Rather, she asks to be dropped off at a nearby restaurant and pretends to enter until the driver leaves. "Just heartbreaking what women have to do to feel safe," she tweeted.
Sometimes harassment happens in real-time. In 2019, Temidayo Adetola, 24, ordered a Bolt ride to Ikorodu, a border town in Lagos, to visit her mother-in-law. Along the way, the driver stopped suddenly.
"He said he liked my body shape and I would be good in bed, that merely seeing my picture from the app, nobody would know I am this sexy," she recalled. She left the car and sought alternative transportation.
"When Bolt asked why I was ending the ride prematurely, I clicked on the app that I was not comfortable with the rider," she said. Although Adetola was yet to be married, she added a "Mrs" to her name on the app. "It worked, there is the respect they accord you when they know you are married," she said.
Both ride-hailing apps say they have been tackling problems around driver misconduct, safety, and privacy. Bolt now enables users to shield their numbers and see more information about their drivers, including a photo. Uber rolled out Safety Toolkit in 2019 that includes a "24/7 Incident Response Team, Share My Trip, GPS tracking and insurance cover".
The companies also stress that they also have disciplinary measures for erring drivers and that they inform the authorities when necessary. "When a driver is reported for any kind of misconduct, our High Priority Team is activated to investigate the incident," says Nthabiseng Mokoena, Bolt's PR manager in Africa. "During the process of investigation, the driver is suspended from operating on the Bolt platform, and in the event that the driver is found guilty they are permanently blocked from our platform."
Last year, Uber rolled out a mandatory sexual misconduct and assault education for drivers in Europe, Middle East, and Africa.
"Expanding driver education is another step in our efforts to put safety at the heart of everything we do," said a spokesperson from Uber. "Uber is committed to doing its part to help drive awareness, education, and prevention among driver-partners and riders."
"Getting into the cars with strangers"
These initiatives may offer some protection, but users point out that drivers typically have access to riders' phone numbers and chosen addresses by default. Moreover, the real problem arguably runs much deeper and is located in Nigeria's widespread patriarchal attitudes.
Indeed, drivers often disagree on what constitutes a privacy violation or harassment in the first place. According to Oluwasegun Amos, a driver in Lagos, many of his counterparts see their actions as acts of friendliness or ways to establish personal relationships to bring more customers.
"We are dealing with human beings," he said. "You are going to pick some riders and you are going to have a very good relationship with them. You can keep their numbers and become friends."
Amos also explains that some drivers feel unjustly vilified. When the story of a fight between a female passenger and a male driver went viral, for instance, he says that members of a private group chat questioned why no one was asking what led the driver to hit the woman. "Although we strongly condemned the beating, we have a Facebook page where we discuss these things," he said.
For victims of harassment, the issue is much clearer. Esther is an Abuja resident who has received unsolicited messages on Whataspp from a Bolt driver. "Unfortunately, we are still from a country that is so patriarchal and it is the same patriarchal beliefs that the drivers will have," she said. "They don't really see women as people to be respected to start with... The companies can do as much training for their drivers but if they are not willing to learn, at this point, I don't know [what can be done]."
For women like Rebecca, the only solution is to take extensive precautions oneself. During her last few days in Lagos, she kept to a drill. She tried to use the same driver for each journey, made sure to always share her location with her colleagues and family, and would secretly take a picture of the license plate. She is now back in the US, where she thinks the system is safe but still does not use her real name on Uber.
"It is exhausting definitely to have to do that just for taking a ride," she said. "I feel the companies need to put a lot of administrative measures and engineering control in place to protect women more and mitigate these kinds of safety risks, because, really, we are getting into the cars with strangers."
* name changed to protect her identity
Ope Adetayo is a Nigerian writer and journalist based in Lagos.