By Oladeinde Olawoyin
Jolted back to reality by the presence of this reporter having been dozing off for what appeared the whole day, Lawal Azeez sprang to his feet to make enquiries about this reporter's intended destination. Mr. Azeez was later joined by his colleagues, a group of old and middle-aged men. With desperation written boldly on their faces, they all scrambled amongst themselves to gain the attention of this reporter, whom they had erroneously identified as a potential passenger..
But the reporter's response, detailing his mission at the park, would later dash their hope, and they all wobbled back to their respective positions, awaiting the arrival of another passenger.
Mr. Azeez, 49, and his colleagues are taxi operators. But like others at the taxi park located around the Central Business District, CBD, Ikeja, their business has been disrupted by the activities of Uber operators.
Uber is an internet-enabled, relatively stress-free transportation system that allows passengers order for cabs wherever they are at fairly cheaper cost. The system, which started around 2014, has been widely accepted by internet-savvy Nigerians who prefer it for comfort and safety purposes.
"Ah, Uber people have spoilt business for us; I must confess," said a disgruntled Mr. Azeez, when probed by PREMIUM TIMES.
"To be frank, I didn't make a kobo yesterday. These days, in a whole week, you may not get N5,000... which wasn't the situation before now," he lamented.
When asked to give a rough estimate of how much he used to make daily before the alleged 'disruption' by Uber drivers, the Ogun State-born taxi driver said he couldn't give an exact estimate.
"But I know we make something in the region of ten-thousand plus daily on the average," he said.
"But as I speak to you, if you make N5,000, you must thank your stars. You, too, must have noticed it from the atmosphere here... imagine how everywhere appears deserted."
Mr. Azeez's position was corroborated by another Taxi operator at the Ikeja CBD, Hassan Murphy.
Mr. Murphy, 43, explained that the activities of Uber drivers have been a source of sorrow for them as they no longer get patronage like they did in the past.
"If you notice, there are many taxis on ground here and their owners aren't here. They've all gone home out of anger," he said.
"Many of them have been here for hours without seeing any passenger; they had to go."
Mr. Murphy, who claimed to have built a house from his taxi transport business, also lamented that the development has taken a toll on his responsibilities among family members and at the home front.
"These days, people I used to give N20,000 in the past would count themselves lucky if I give them N3,000.
"It has become so bad here in this park that in a whole week, it may not get to your turn to pick up passengers," he said.
"That's apart from the fact that we pay dues too. They tax us N200 daily and N1,000 weekly, despite the poor patronage."
"RECKLESS, UNSUSTAINABLE BUSINESS MODEL"
According to Messrs. Azeez and Murphy, although the business model adopted by Uber operators affects their business as taxi drivers, it is "reckless and unsustainable" even for the Uber operators.
Explaining further, they noted that what Uber drivers charge their passengers as transport fare is "ridiculous".
"From here (CBD, Ikeja) to Maryland, Uber may charge N800," said Mr. Murphy.
"That's nonsense. How do you maintain your big car and service it and realise what you will use to cater for yourself from that money?
"For a trip to the Airport, they charge as low as N600 sometimes, while we charge N2,000 or N1,500.
"See, let me tell you, unemployment is the reason people are into Uber. Ordinarily, the business is not sustainable," he said.
Mr. Azeez, on his part, agreed with his colleague, adding that many of the Uber operators are workers who got retrenched from companies due to the state of the economy.
"Joblessness caused Uber, and it won't last for long" he said.
On his part, another taxi operator who identified himself simply as Baba Sanje, noted that Uber would soon fade into extinction, like other similar initiatives that came before it.
"Uber met us on ground, they will leave us in the system. We have survived other similar competitors for decades. This 'Yellow and Black' (Lagos taxi) has nowhere to go," he said in Yoruba.
"TAXI, MORE SECURE"
Speaking further, the taxi drivers told PREMIUM TIMES that their taxi system is more secure and safer for passengers than Uber.
Citing a case of a passenger whose belonging was allegedly stolen by an Uber operator, Mr. Murphy explained that taxi drivers are more "loyal and trustworthy".
"Uber operators are ghost workers and they don't have any union. Passengers don't know them and you can't even spot them from outside unlike us that have our 'yellow and black' identity," he said.
"We are more loyal and trustworthy. When people lose their materials, we give them back; Uber people don't!"
Mr. Azeez on his part added that Uber will soon fade away because, according to him, most of the operators are "running at a loss".
"Before Uber, there were Orange Cab, Easy Cab and Metro Taxi, they all folded up," he said.
"Yes, there also was Afro Cab... LSPC, RED cab, Easy Ride, Oga taxi... they folded up.
"POD too came and folded up. But the 'Yellow and Black' taxi survived all of them. It will survive Uber too."
Uber drivers, however, disagree with the assessment by the taxi operators.
Charles Daniels, a Uber driver, dismissed the account of the taxi drivers, saying they were pained by the popularity and acceptability of the Uber system.
"I won't say Uber is really profitable, especially now, but it still provides food for some of us," he said.
Another Uber operator who declined to have his name in print, said in response to PREMIUM TIMES enquiry on how much they make: "You know, we charge very reasonable amount... so we don't make huge figures like that... but it is something good... say thirty-something thousand naira or even more weekly.
"That's not too bad, I guess... and it still depends on days of the week and how energetic you are," he added.
Habeeb Adewale, 27, a regular user of Uber, who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES, explained that he prefers the system because of the ease it affords him to order for a cab wherever he is.
"Wherever you are, Uber will locate you without stress," said Mr. Adewale, a banker who lives and works in Lagos.
Femi Owolabi, another Lagos-based passenger, said the system is cheaper and safer, especially for night crawlers.
"Uber, preferably (because of) the comfort, and the timely service," he told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview when asked about his preference.
For James Abiola, an IT expert, the Uber system is preferable because of its cheaper cost and comfort.
"Sometimes, Uber allows you comfortably ride an exotic car with less than a thousand naira," he said, amid laughter.