‘We Move’ The Subversive Economy of the Lagos Danfo

Danfos, and particularly their subculture of slogans, offer an acute window into the political economy of everyday life in Lagos, especially the order and chaos that mark this megalopolis as simultaneously familiar and strange.

Urban megaprojects and megacity planning across Africa today threatens to injuriously exclude or predatorily include hundreds of thousands of informal workers, provoking shock, anger, and resistance from below. Such large-scale projects—generally couched in the Manichean dualism of Euro-American modernity—reproduce the DuBoisean double consciousness of colonized subjects: always looking at African cities through the eyes of the West. But what if we looked at African cities through their own eyes? Through the eyes of the danfo?

Since the 1970s, Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub and one of Africa’s largest cities, has run on informal modes of mass transportation, mostly privately owned and operated. Typically, minibus taxis—danfos, which in Yorùbá means ‘hurry’—provide the core (about 70 per cent of motorized trips), although motorbikes, tricycles, and shared taxis all contribute to the public transportation ecosystem. Far from being mere containers that constitute the mise en scène in Lagos, danfos mirror for Lagosians the duplicity of Nigeria: both as a place filled with hope and joie de vivre and as a redoubt of stuckedness and immiseration. The failure of state-owned mass transportation services occasioned the emergence and popularity of these ‘transportation torture on four wheels.’

Danfo buses at a bus stop in Ketu, Alapere, Lagos. 19 May 2018. © DAMI AKINBODE / UNSPLASH.

MORPHOLOGIES OF THE DANFO

Successive Lagos State governors have sought to phase out the danfo but with little success. As former Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, lamented in 2017, ‘When I wake up in the morning and see all these yellow buses… and then we claim we are a megacity, that is not true, and we must acknowledge that it is a faulty connectivity that we are running. Having accepted that, we have to look for the solution and that is why we want to banish yellow buses.’

Ambode’s comment reproduces pathological assessments of Nigeria’s—or rather, Africa’s—informal transport sector, a pathology of which the danfo is its ne plus ultra. The favoured substitutes are the Lagos light rail project (also known as Lagos monorail)—contracted to the China Railway Construction Company—and Lagos BRT (bus rapid transit) system, generally deemed more befitting of a modernizing megacity with world-class ambitions.

Yet, danfos, and particularly their subculture of slogans, offer an acute window into the political economy of everyday life in Lagos, especially the order and chaos that mark this megalopolis as simultaneously familiar and strange. To encounter the danfo slogan is to encounter how Lagosians turn the real—that is, their daily struggles to get by and get ahead—into semiotic. By reading Lagos through danfos, we reclaim new ‘pedagogies of presence’ that dispose us to seeing public transport as a lively archive of popular culture—that unofficial, expressive politics of, as Tom Dumm writes, ‘ordinary life, the life-world, the everyday, the quotidian, the low, the common, the private, the personal.’

Danfo slogans are the public transcripts of the ‘unpeople’—the part who has no part, as the French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, puts it. Pithy and wide-ranging, danfo slogans shape the mood and choice of commuters on a daily basis. They may express the operator’s gratitude to a family member who provided the down payment on the vehicle (Ola Egbon: ‘Brother’s Generosity’); they may remind people to show gratitude (‘Thank You Jesus. Have You Said It Today?’); they may reflect the operator’s supplication to God (‘Oh God! Do Not Be Silent!’; ‘No Loss, No Lack, No Limitation’); they may indicate an operator’s loyalty to a football club (‘Never Walk Alone’ [Liverpool]); they may convey a message or warning to visible and invisible enemies (‘Shut Up!’ or ‘Let Them Say’); they may celebrate the operator’s yearning for money (Owo-Lewa: ‘Money is beauty,’ or Ododo lowo: ‘Money is desirable’); they may represent the operator’s approach to business (‘Punctuality is the Soul of Business’); or relate to his personal philosophy— Life Na Jeje: ‘Life is Easy’ and No Lele: ‘Stay Vigilant’.

Commercial transportation buses, popularly known as ‘Danfo’, travelling along the Lekki-Epe expressway, which is notorious for its traffic jams. Lagos, Nigeria. © ANDREW ESIEBO / PANOS PICTURES.

The Lagos State Road Traffic Law 2021 prohibits the use of slogans, stickers, painting, and photos on commercial vehicles. By implication, the practice of danfo slogans in Lagos constitutes the danfo as a subversive mobility that poses a threat to city order.

Danfos are built locally on chassis derived from second-hand (tokunbo, literally ‘from overseas’) trucks and engines imported from Europe. This process of hybridization is the stuff of cultural production and globalization in postcolonial Africa. Depending on the model, danfos are designed to seat anywhere from 12 to 16 people. Constructing the outer body of a danfo is very much a process of hybridization that reflects the grit, creativity, and inventive responses to contingencies that we have come to associate with Lagosians.

Danfos are notorious for their squealing breaks, bald tires, and rattling exhaust pipes emitting thick, black smoke. Most have lost the padding that is placed in the ceiling to insulate passengers from heat. Their windows are also permanently sealed-off, creating a stuffy atmosphere inside. And the practice of overloading has long been a trademark of danfos, even in a pandemic moment serenaded with ‘social distancing’ tunes. The danfo is a non-place where ‘humans [are] crushed against one another and against market produce, sheep, and other livestock suffocated by the stench of rotting food and anonymous farts.’ Here, humour tends to alternate with pathos and dreams coexist with existential angst about widespread corruption, endless ‘go-slows’, and marginal earnings.

The form of the danfos tends to conform to the slogans painted on them. Rickety danfos are often driven by older men and bear slogans like ‘E Still Dey Go’, ‘Slow but Steady’, ‘No Shaking’, ‘Tested and Trusted’, ‘Experience is the Best Teacher’, and ‘All That Glitters Is Not Gold’. Conversely, newer looking danfos are often driven by younger, inexperienced men and generally bear slogans such as ‘Lagos to Vegas’, ‘Fresh Boy’, and ‘Land Cruiser’.

A driver using the foot pedals in his commercial transportation bus, popularly known as ‘Danfo’, as it makes its way along the Lekki-Epe expressway, which is notorious for its traffic jams. Lagos, Nigeria. © ANDREW ESIEBO / PANOS PICTURES.

DIRTY WORK

In 1958, sociologist Everett Hughes used the phrase ‘dirty work’ to describe occupations and labour conditions that are perceived as disgusting or degrading. This term well describes the workaday world of danfo operators in the struggle economy that is Lagos. Despite lengthy workdays averaging around 20 hours (or ‘24 Hours on the Road’, as one danfo slogan puts it), danfo operators take home meagre incomes due to the exacting demands of danfo owners, bribe-eating law enforcement agents, and the extortionate powers of violent agberos who roam transit spaces, collecting onerous fees from danfo operators with sovereign immunity. ‘How are we to make a profit?’ One driver said in a 2020 report by Premium Times. ‘Put yourself in our condition, we pay for fuel, bus maintenance and still pay dues at every bus-stop, including some monies paid to police officers and LASTMA officers.’ ‘This work is just daily income,’ pointed out another driver. ‘What you get today you use today, and tomorrow you start again from scratch.’ A third driver lamented that, ‘At the end of the day, you check the money you have earned, and you see it is nothing. You ask yourself if this is all I have worked for since daybreak.’ Their plight is, perhaps, best summed up by this danfo slogan: Ise Ko Lowo (‘Not by Hardwork’).

Danfo drivers are under pressure to remit a specific target income to the danfo owner (very few drivers own their bus) each day; they are paid according to how much they bring in. The driver is responsible for all overhead costs, including ‘union dues’ violently imposed by agberos and LASTMA (Lagos State Traffic Management Authority) officials. The nomenclature ‘agbero’ is a euphemism for a cohort of dreaded urban youths who survive through their parasitic dependence on the spatial regulation of public transportation in Lagos. Typically male youth, agberos appropriate motor parks, junctions, and bases across Lagos, which they use as an operational platform from which to extort cash bribes from danfo operators in the name of the politicized and mafia-like National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). During elections, agberos transmogrify into political thugs used by the incumbent to attack rival political candidates, coerce members of the public, and for rigging.

A man tries to fix his danfo bus with a hammer and chisel. Lagos, Nigeria. © ANDREW ESIEBO / PANOS PICTURES.

DEATH-IN-LIFE AND SUICIDAL CITIZENSHIP

On February 15, 2022, a danfo driver in Lagos took his own life by setting himself ablaze in protest after the seizure of his danfo by bribe-demanding LASTMA officials. Reacting to this spectacular act of self-immolation, another driver decried: ‘LASTMA officials are treating us like slaves. They arrest and extort us at will. We go through hell in their hands and those of agberos and local government officials. How much do we make? Out of the money we make daily, we will buy fuel, return money to the vehicle owners and at the end of the day, we are left with little or nothing. We are appealing to the state government to wade into the matter and save us from the hands of LASTMA officials.’

The self-immolating danfo driver—who apparently had lost his job the previous year before acquiring his danfo—must be placed in the wider context of precarity and disposability that surrounds informal urban labour in Africa, giving rise to death-in-life and suicidal citizenship. In July 2021, Yassine Lekhmidi, a Morrocan unlicensed taxi driver, set himself on fire in protests after what he saw as an unjust seizure of his wagon by officials, sparking waves of protests in his hometown. In December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, had set himself on fire, sparking waves of protests that eventually unseated President Ben Ali and launched the Arab Spring across the region. Bouazizi’s self-immolation was in reaction to the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by municipal authorities.

Similarly, in October 2016, Mouhine Fikri, a Moroccan fish vendor, climbed into the back of a garbage truck to protest the confiscation of 500kg of swordfish that he had recently purchased. The police gave an order to activate the garbage crusher mechanism, grinding Fikri to death. The video footage of his death sparked outrage and triggered the Moroccan Hirak, a protest movement against state corruption, repression, and neglect. These acts of death-in-life and suicidal citizenship reinforces Achille Mbembe and Janet Roitman’s argument that ‘it is in everyday life that the crisis as a limitless experience and a field of the dramatization of particular forms of subjectivity is authored, receives its translations, is institutionalized, loses its exceptional character and in the end, [becomes] a “normal,” ordinary and banal phenomenon.’

To return to the self-immolating danfo driver, onlookers noted that the LASTMA officials did not seem bothered by the fact that the victim was ablaze. Instead, they were more interested in seizing his vehicle.

Passengers try to resolve an argument between a danfo driver and other drivers travelling along the Lekki-Epe expressway. Lagos, Nigeria. © ANDREW ESIEBO / PANOS PICTURES.

THE WHEELS OF EXTORTION

The list of bribes collected by agberos—on behalf of the NURTW, LASTMA, and the Nigeria Police Force—is endless and borders on farcical: booking fee (owo booking), loading fee (owo loading), dropping fee (owo dropping), money for weekend (owo weekend), money for sanitation (owo sanitation), security fee (owo security), Chairman’s meal (onje Chairman), LASTMA’s money (owo LASTMA), police money (owo olopa or owo askari), money for parking (owo parking), money for the morning (owo aro), money for afternoon (owo osan), money for evening (owo irole), money for the night (owo ale), money for party (owo faaji).

Rough estimations indicate that a minimum of N200 billion ($514 million) is generated annually from dues collected by agberos, representing about one half of Lagos State’s internally generated revenue in 2018. Showing any reluctance to pay the required bribe can be a costly mistake that results in lengthy delays at roadblocks, detention in a police station, vehicle impoundment, or tire deflation. ‘We just pay them and go our way. What else can we do?’ asked a crestfallen danfo driver. It is not uncommon for police officers to open fire on danfos when drivers refuse to surrender portions of their hard-earned cash. For their part, agberos would smash the danfo’s side-view mirror or remove the windshield wiper and fuel-tank cover. Sometimes a conductor is mauled to death, in full view of complicit police officers.

In addition to these shakedowns en route, drivers are under immense daily pressures to meet the financial targets set by owners or forfeit their vehicles—their primary source of survival and social status. This pressure results in long working hours, high accident rates, and poor health. In this sense, then, danfo operators are the precariat par excellence. A product of the global liberalization of labour in the post-Fordist phase, the precariat is a multitude of people united by common fears and insecurities, a new dangerous class ‘living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development.’

To meet their daily targets, drivers must race between the two endpoints of their chosen routes, weaving in and out of traffic with reckless abandon. As Kenyan historian, Kenda Mutongi, insists, these drivers ‘do not race to experience sensations since they are not in it for a sport. They speed to meet deadlines if they are to keep their jobs.’ In similar vein, the urbanist, AbdouMaliq Simone argues that, ‘speeding up [is] the essential criterion for the ability to keep one’s head above water, to eke out minimal profit in sectors inundated with competition and seemingly infinite layers of subcontracting.’ One danfo slogan stated the issue tersely, ‘No Time to Check Time.’ Much like the Matatu taxi in Nairobi, the organizing logic of the Lagos danfo is simple: ‘jump in, squeeze, jump out—quickly!’

On average, danfo drivers spend 30 hours in traffic each week—or 1,560 annually—while drivers in Los Angeles and Moscow traffic spent only 128 and 210 hours respectively in the whole of 2018. In Lagos, according to the State Ministry of Transportation, essentially all danfo drivers suffer from hypertension, a health challenge directly related to the demanding and dangerous nature of their job. Survey evidence from the Lagos State Driver’s Institute shows that 22 per cent of danfo drivers are partially blind. Yet, about 95 per cent of sensory input to the brain needed for driving comes from vision. The poor conditions of Lagos roads, especially the dust and debris, partly accounts for this problem. The struggle to maximize profit compels danfo operators to reproduce the transgressive system that they condemn. Behaviours such as overloading, speeding, engaging in arbitrary pricing, failing to comply with the rules of the road, and feuding contributes to the stigmatization of danfo operators.

A danfo driver steering his commercial transportation bus in Lagos, Nigeria. © ANDREW ESIEBO / PANOS PICTURES.

THE PRECARIOUSNESS OF CONTROL

The danfo driver is generally responsible for hiring and paying his conductor from the day’s takings. The conductor occupies a subordinate role as an apprentice to the driver and, therefore, has less of a say in how much he is paid each day. The conductor’s dream is to become a danfo driver someday. In Lagos, conductors have a bad reputation for shortchanging their drivers by pilfering from the day’s takings and from bus fares while the driver is busy driving. One way in which conductors cash in on bus fares is through delay tactics, that is, hanging on to the passenger’s change for as long as possible in the hope that the passenger will forget to ask for it.

For any danfo passenger, ‘Conductor, shenji mi da?’ (‘conductor, where is my change?’) is a familiar expression. To which the conductor retorts: ‘Eni suuru’ (‘exercise patience’), an ironic response since conductors are the very epitome of impatience, especially in money matters. As is sometimes the case, passengers end up forgetting their change in the mad rush to exit the bus and catch another one. Danfo drivers expect conductors to appropriate some of the fares. At the same time, stealing must be done in moderation. As one danfo driver in Oshodi said: ‘All conductors will eat some of the bus fares. You cannot really prevent that since they hold the money, and you cannot keep tab of all the passengers that enter or exit the bus while you have your eyes on the road. You’re lucky if you find a conductor that at least eats you with love.’

Passengers travelling in a commercial transportation bus, popularly known as ‘Danfo’, along the Lekki-Epe expressway, which is notorious for its traffic jams. Lagos, Nigeria. © ANDREW ESIEBO / PANOS PICTURES.

Increasingly, danfo drivers are choosing to run their businesses alone, with passengers filling in the gaps. For example, drivers often invite passengers to help them collect the money row-by-row during the journey. The total money is then passed up to the driver. This is where the multi-tasking skills of the danfo driver are put to the test. While weaving from slow to fast and fast to faster lanes, and avoiding potholes and piles of debris that have started competing with motorists for rights of way, the driver counts the money to make sure that it is complete, responds to demands for change by passengers in undue haste, and settles the violent touts shouting ‘owo da’ (‘where are your dues?’). Amid all these distractions, the driver still finds time to take an incoming call and spot passengers heading in his direction, even from far off in the streets. This incessant state of readiness to change gears and directions at all times is a quality not just of the danfo driver but of the average Lagosian—rather, of Lagos itself.

Despite the modernizing spectre that haunts the danfo sector today, the response of the danfo operator is as defiant as that of the Lagos subaltern: ‘We move’

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