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Did You Know? The First Commercial Bus Companies in Nigeria

The commercial buses in Nigeria’s cities are an unmistakable part of life in the country. They zap along interstate roads and chug up and down local avenues, drenching the environment in their colours and noise. Sometimes, they also instigate traffic jams.

For the majority of its urban-dwelling citizens, these vehicles are the most affordable means of getting between locations. They continue to be patronized by locales, whether they are well maintained Hiace buses or four-wheeled rickety shells. The understanding among the populace is that these vehicles are not designed to be comfortable, but to move humans and things.

The history of commercial road transportation in Nigeria is probably just as ‘colourful’ as the variety of inscriptions slapped on commercial buses in these parts. Bus companies came on the scene just as the key urban centers were beginning to expand into their satellites, and trade between colonial-era towns and cities was starting to intensify.

The Anfani Bus Service

The first indigenous commercial bus transport company was the Anfani bus service which operated in Lagos in the 1920s. It was founded by Charlotte Olajumoke Obasa, an entrepreneur whose business dealings were in part informed by her social consciousness.

Mrs. Obasa founded the Anfani bus service in 1914, just after Lagos’s existing steam-powered tramway service had been shut down. Records suggest that it wasn’t a profitable venture; secondary sources referring to her biographer’s notes say that she didn’t intend it to be a money-making venture.

Apparently, she had launched Anfani to help commuters move between Lagos and Ebute Metta. Most people didn’t have a private vehicle, and they were finding it hard to cross the creeks between Lagos’s island and mainland regions. The bus service, though comprising of just four buses, managed to help a large number of people through this route, for just a penny.

Zarpas Bus Service

By the late 1920s, bigger interests were moving to exploit the obvious opportunities that existed within the transport space. The largest of them was led by J.N. Zarpas, a Greek businessman who started his bus enterprise in 1928.

Zarpas seized on an opening that had been created by the British colonial government when they established the Yaba Estate on the mainland. The new enclave had been built to accommodate victims of the bubonic plague that had hit the city, as well as to decongest Lagos Island. The municipal authorities were in need of regular transport services that could take persons between these locations. Zarpas gladly pounced.

By the mid-1930s, the company had a staff of 75 indigenous workers and 2 Europeans. And although other bus transport companies were getting into the business in Lagos, they couldn’t match Zarpas’s fleet. Zarpas claimed that it had picked up and dropped off over 2 million passengers in one year -a huge figure for a city that had no more than 130,000 inhabitants at the time.

But there were complaints that the company was maintaining its near-monopoly of metropolitan transportation. These criticisms grew louder after the Second World War when more transporters entered the fray. In the end, Zarpas succumbed to the growing pressure. It was acquired by the Lagos City Council in 1958.

The Bus Services of the South East

Elijah Henshaw launched a bus service in the South in the 1920s. His service covered routes connecting Oron, Opobo, and Ikot Ekpene, all in the Niger Delta area.

Larger scale transporters began springing up at about the same period. One of them, J.C. Ulasi, had a trucking business based in Aba. A nephew of his, Augustine Ilodibe, founded the popular Ekene Dili Chukwu transport company in the 1950s. It also started off as a trucking company, and later expanded into passenger transport.

Other pioneer bus transporters include Ben Ubajiaka who founded Izu-Chukwu Motors, and Felix Okonkwo who started the Kano-based Okonkwo Transport Company (which had over 250 trucks and buses in 1975).

Featured Image Source: Daily Trust

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Ikenna Nwachukwu

Ikenna Nwachukwu holds a bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves to look at the world through multiple lenses- economic, political, religious and philosophical- and to write about what he observes in a witty, yet reflective style.

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