Interview with Laurent Fourchard // Studying the Sociology of NURTW members

FOURCHARDfc10Can you explain to us what your current project in Nigeria is and what brings you to Ibadan?

I have been working on the NURTW for six years mainly because some of the colleagues here at the Institute of African Studies (Isaac Olawale Albert) started to work on this topic. I thought the subject was fascinating because the Union has a peculiar role: rather than protecting the rights of the Union members or drivers its primary role is to regulate transports in most of Nigeria and take dues over the drivers. My main focus is on Lagos and Ibadan, I am right now conducting my third fieldwork on this project.

The Union is often seen as a threat composed of uneducated people, criminals, area boys, Agberos. There are numerous names used to stigmatize Union workers. Of course, with the return of democracy, the Union has been involved in electoral violences, this has been documented in the literature, but I wish to go beyond that description and analyze the role of the Union in regulating transports because I believe that looking at the Union only through the lens of violence does not explain how transports are regulated. They do many other things than using violence.

What kind of things?

The main occupation of the NURTW is to organize the drivers in each motor park. In Lagos you have 220 NURTW branches, in each branch you have between ten and twenty units, each one running a motor park. In each motor park you have Union members referred as Exco ( short for Executive Committee) who regulate the transport daily. This means organizing vehicle queues, solving conflicts between the drivers and other transporters, negotiating with the police for spots to load and unload passengers and negotiating payment to other powerful actors coming to the park (cult groups, police, military, task force). The Union members carry these jobs on a daily basis. They can be considered as kind of unofficial street level bureaucrats - not paid by the government but by the dues taken from the drivers.

The drivers have been saying that these dues taken from their work is extorsion. The word is, in itself, subject to questions. Sometimes Union members provide services in exchange for these dues. They assist the drivers when they are arrested by the police. They help them when they go to hospital and, generally, they regulate traffic within the motor parks. This is an insider view trying to report the voices of the Union members. I am not underestimating the dominating role exercised by exco members on drivers but I also want to look at the many other tasks they perform daily in motor parks.

Did you already reach some conclusions through your fieldwork?

It is still a work in progress but some of the findings are that the relationship between drivers and Union Members is much more complicated than what is generally said in the literature where violence against drivers is generally the central focus. This violence is real, but at the same time Agberos, the persons collecting taxes and dues at the motor park, are often building careers in the motor parks. They stay there for ten, twenty, thirty years and know the drivers really well. They have personal relationships that developed over times, and this means that violence is not the only principle regulating their relationships. When there are conflicts amongst the drivers, they always go to Exco members which are elders in position of authority. As some occupy such position for decades, they know everybody, and their authority is recognized in the motor parks.  Regulate the traffic serves NURTW interests as, the more traffic, the more money is collected.

I am also starting to look at the sociology of these groups.  NURTW members in motor parks generally share some characteristics. They come from poor backgrounds generally with no formal education. Some of them went to university but it is rare, and in that case, they are generally secretaries in the motor park writing notes, minutes and performing other tasks. Many of them were street or area boys or drivers before joining the NURTW.

Being a Union member means “graduating” from the harsh environment of the street and the park before being recognized or elected as exco. It took years, sometimes decades, to be recognized. Exco members want the society to recognize that what they are doing is respectable work. For many of them, working within motor parks represents the opportunity of having a career and becoming wealthy without having a formal education. The former chairman of the NURTW Lagos State chapter which is now the chairman of the Lagos Park management under the authority of Lagos State transport ministry, used to be a street boy and is now close to the leader of the All-Progressive Congress, Bola Tinubu. He represents a model emulated by most of Lagos NURTW members. Their lack of formal education, their ways of speaking and their use of violence make them an undesirable subaltern class creating chaos in parks. This is a dominant vision from general public, but it is a harsh reduction of the sociology of this group.

You have been director of IFRA between 2000 and 2003, what have you missed the most since you left?

It was hard at first to make some new friends on the University of Ibadan campus but after one year, it became easier. Of course, night life is not the best thing in Ibadan, but the quiet environment of the campus was enjoyable. All the friends and colleagues met at the university were very welcoming despite the fact that I was staying only for three years. Professionally, it was quite complicated at the beginning because there was fuel scarcity, no phone and no internet on campus. I used to go to a cybercafé where it took one hour to download my messages. During these three years I learnt a lot, I could not have gained all this knowledge without interacting with many colleagues from the University. My little understanding of Nigeria is coming from the generous sharing of their knowledge. I can only thank warmly the professors, lecturers, Ph. D and Master students, research assistants, I encountered and worked with during the past 23 years.

Tags: Politics Unions, Urban studies

Find us

Institute of African Studies
University of Ibadan
Ibadan, Oyo State

Locate us

View Larger Map

IFRA Resource Centre

Opening hours: 9am to 4pm, Monday to Friday