MC Oluomo, who rose from being a bus conductor to one of the most feared political henchmen in southwest Nigeria represents a crude brand of state-backed political instruments. As the leader of the NURTW, he has over the years allegedly been at the centre of political subjugation, playing an important, albeit terrible role in shaping the politics of Lagos State.
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, A Nation Divided. Buy the issue here.
A few days before the 18 March 2023 gubernatorial elections, a video went viral on social media showing Musiliu Akinsanya, commonly known by his alias, ‘MC Oluomo’, issuing a threat to Igbo residents of Lagos to either vote for the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) or stay at home. Speaking in Yoruba, MC Oluomo riled up the energetic men in the room to let those who refused to listen to his plea ‘understand’. It was a euphemistic call to violence.
Following public condemnation, the commissioner of police in Lagos State, Idowu Owohunwa, said the police was investigating the threat. In a swift response to the public backlash, MC Oluomo denied threatening Igbos in Lagos and claimed he was only joking with a certain ‘Iya Chukwudi’ whom he described as his sister.
On election day, however, it became evident that there was no humour in MC Oluomo’s message. Voting had barely started when political thugs went on a rampage carrying out civil-war-era-style eye tests to determine who was Igbo and who was not. Those they deemed to be Igbo were violently deprived of their rights to vote. In some cases, people of other ethnic groups who did not pass the eye tests were also beaten and forced out of polling units.
Such ethnic profiling was perceived to be a fallout from APC’s loss in the presidential election on 25 February where Peter Obi, an Igbo candidate and former governor of Anambra State won Lagos over Bola Tinubu, a Yoruba candidate and the famed political godfather in the South West. This defeat was perceived by Tinubu supporters to have been successful because of the high turnout of Igbo voters in Lagos. Perhaps to prevent a repeat of this political onslaught and enable Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu win a second term in office, MC Oluomo enlisted the help of his foot soldiers who are mostly members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and Lagos Parks and Garages Management Committee which he chairs to unleash political mayhem.
It is not the first time MC Oluomo would be caught on video issuing threats against political opponents. During the presidential election on 25 February, he was seen allegedly threatening those who were at a polling unit in Oshodi to either vote for APC or leave. The police at that time also promised to investigate the video and take appropriate action if necessary. Nothing has been done.
MC Oluomo’s political participation and influence did not begin with the 2023 general elections. In 2018, he and his men in the NURTW were in Osun State providing grassroots mobilization support during the governorship election which APC’s Gboyega Oyetola won to some controversy. Shortly after Oyetola’s victory, in a short interview, MC Oluomo issued a warning to the then-senate president and godfather of Kwara State politics, Bukola Saraki, stating that he and his men would be repeating the same exercise to win back Kwara for APC. A year after, APC won Kwara’s entire state political structure.
What has made the NURTW, a trade union for commercial vehicle owners and drivers, so powerful politically? How has MC Oluomo been able to amass so much political power and influence that transcends Lagos and spread to other states in the South West? What is his relationship with South West state actors that has made his political leadership and control not only normalized but also institutionalized? It all comes down to the structure of the NURTW, which has evolved from a revenue collection union to a political vehicle with hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers. In MC Oluomo’s case, he has elevated the interconnectivity between the thuggery embedded in the fabric of the transport union and that of Nigeria’s politics into a recognized, feared and efficient body that seems to operate above the law and makes a mockery of the democratic state.
NURTW: A BRIEF HISTORY OF POLITICAL THUGGERY
The NURTW was formed in 1978 as a successor to the Nigerian Road Transport Union which was created in 1934. Although a sister union, the Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria, exists and predates the NURTW, but the latter has become more popular and grown in size and relevance. Having also registered as a trade union with the Central Labour Organisation now known as the Nigerian Labour Congress, the NURTW has become a recognized body with almost 2 million members.
Apart from tanker drivers, all commercial vehicle drivers are expected to be members of the NURTW. As part of this membership, drivers are required to pay levies to unit representatives. Many of these collectors are recruited area boys or ‘agbero’, many of whom grew up and live on the streets extorting motorists and commuters, mafia-style in motor parks and markets. This makes them the perfect fit for the work of levy collectors for the union.
Thugs have always been willing tools in the hands of politicians who help them to facilitate mobilization through campaigns, distribution of gifts, serving as unofficial security and going against political opponents. In the Second Republic (1979-1983), the Ibadan chapter of the NURTW was led by Busari Adelakun while in Lagos, Adebayo Ogundare controlled the union. Both men lent their support to the Unity Party of Nigeria and, through violent mobilization, facilitated the victories of Bola Ige and Lateef Jakande in Oyo and Lagos respectively.
In the early 1980s, however, to take control of Oyo and Lagos, the National Party of Nigeria-led federal government enlisted the help of Adelakun and Ogundare. The duo, using their members, fomented political unrest in the two states under the protection of the federal government. Ultimately, Ige lost his re-election bid while Jakande barely held on to his political control.
During Nigeria’s short-lived Third Republic (1992-1993), Chief Lamidi Adedibu, a well-known political godfather became notorious for using thugs for protection as well as for unleashing mayhem in Oyo State against his opponents. Adedibu’s political tentacles extended into the Fourth Republic (1999-present), where he was said to have had a hand in whoever emerged as governor of the state. Described as ‘the strong man of Ibadan politic’, Adedibu and his protege, Governor Rashid Ladoja, locked horns over political appointments in Oyo State. Using Latif Akinsola the then-leader of the NURTW in Oyo, who was popularly known as ‘Tokyo’, the political godfather, Adedibu, caused disorder in 2004. Armed thugs attacked both the state secretariat and the state assembly causing public unrest. Another faction of the union loyal to Governor Ladoja came to his defence leading to counter and reprisal attacks. A former Oyo state senator, Lekan Balogun, told Human Rights Watch in 2007, ‘I would call for the complete proscription of NURTW. They do not have any purpose. They are available for negative activities including thuggery and they (politicians) draw their thugs from there.’
Politicians sought the support of the NURTW because of the union’s structure. Despite presenting itself as democratic, leadership of the road transport workers was empirically based on bloody successions and autocratic control. Rival members were continually engaging in battles for supremacy and the leadership was usually someone who was both feared and respected. Perceived disloyalty was severely punished. Thus, a politician needing the support of the entire NURTW machinery in a state just needed to win over the union’s chairman and, by extension, would have the entire transport apparatus at his disposal. Because of the union’s ubiquitous reach across Lagos even into the hinterlands, it provided much sought-after control that resided in the hands of the chairman. It was this same control that MC Oluomo won in Lagos after years of rising through the state’s dangerous violence-infested ranks.
‘I GO CALL MC OLUOMO, I GO REPORT ALL OF DEM’
The image of MC Oluomo that is currently etched in the mind of many Nigerians is that he is the head of the NURTW in Lagos, a Tinubu loyalist, and a socialite whose praise Nigerian musicians constantly sing. This façade, however, doesn’t tell his full story.
Born in 1975 in the Oshodi area of Lagos, MC Oluomo dropped out from school (he was in primary three) and left his family home after the death of his father to work as a bus conductor. He then worked as a driver before switching to toll collection for the NURTW, a position that gave him a pathway towards the inner workings of the union. He eventually emerged as the union’s treasurer and leader in Oshodi but his ambition to become the chairman was met with stiff resistance, degenerating into clashes between his group and that of his opponent, Rafiu Akanni Olohunwa. In a bid to stop his ascension, he was prevented from contesting for the chairmanship position in 2012. Despite this, he continued to grow his followership and loyalty until 2019 when he was made acting chairman of the NURTW in Lagos, a position that was confirmed in 2020. Following his emergence, he publicly thanked Tinubu saying ‘I cannot but also thank my father, my leader, my mentor His Excellency, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, for his love and support towards my emergence as the NURTW chairman. He is truly a father and a father indeed.’
As is the tradition, MC Oluomo’s rise to the leadership of the NURTW has been fraught with violence. Nobody reaches the union’s pinnacle without engaging in some sort of power battle, some of which results in the loss of lives. In 2010, MC Oluomo escaped death when he was attacked by gunmen but his driver was killed. In 2019, he was stabbed multiple times at an APC rally in Lagos. He has also been accused by the chairman of the Tricycle Owners and Operators Association of Nigeria, Azeez Abiola, of masterminding the killing of opponents although Abiola recanted the accusation shortly after. In 2015, MC Oluomo’s long-term friend and loyalist, Olayinka Momora, was shot dead.
So how has MC Oluomo been able to inch closer to the corridor of political power? How has he become so powerful to the point where elected officials are presenting their certificates of return to him and he has had to clarify that he has no intention of contesting for the governorship seat in Lagos? It can be traced to power and revenue, two critical assets that he controls.
FROM REVENUE COLLECTOR TO POLITICAL GLADIATOR
In March 2022, the NURTW national body suspended MC Oluomo indefinitely, accusing him of ‘planning to instigate mayhem in the union branches that fail to obey his instructions.’ Almost immediately, the Lagos chapter of the union announced that it was withdrawing from the national body. A month after, the Lagos State government established the Parks Management Committee to oversee the operation that the NURTW used to supervise and appointed MC Oluomo as its chairman. It was a move by the state government that can best be described as a vote of confidence in MC Oluomo and a tactic to cement his leadership of the state transportation business.
The NURTW has been an effective toll collector for the government for years, collecting levies and taxes from not only drivers but also traders in bus parks and markets. NURTW operators have been able to permeate every part of Lagos with an effective network and through a chain of remittances. Levies collected by agbero go to unit heads who, in turn, remit these monies to zonal chairmen who then further remit the payments to the state chairman who subsequently gives the government its share. A 2021 report by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) revealed that the union generates N123.08 billion annually in Lagos which amounts to 29.4 per cent of the state’s internally generated revenue. The percentage that goes to the government is, however, not known. Checks by ICIR revealed that there are no sections in the financial statements where details of the state’s transport revenue are recorded or explained. What is indisputable, however, is that the union has been very effective in its duty of ‘earning’ the trust of the government to continue collecting levies despite calls by drivers and commuters for this to be rescinded.
Relying on a political playbook that has proven effective in the past, the Lagos State government has found a symbiotic tool in the NURTW: the group generates revenue, and its state-wide reach is also beneficial to the government politically in exchange for recognition and acceptance. Thus, MC Oluomo at the head of this system has been able to enrich himself and has built a large following the government seems to benefit from.
This system and relationship present three problems. On the economic front, there is no transparency on how much levies and taxes the union collects and what percentage of it is remitted to the government. As there is barely any proper documentation of all the different levies transporters pay, there is a high chance that what is being remitted to the government is way below what is being collected thereby enriching a few members of NURTW’s leadership.
Secondly, democracy as an institution suffers and becomes the casualty of a crude system when thuggery is used as a tool to determine who participates in elections and who is allowed (or denied) their civic rights to vote. It engenders a situation where the process of electing leaders is marred with violence and voter suppression. The result, moreover, is leadership that fails to truly represent the electorate. In Lagos, the situation has now degenerated into ethnic targeting where Igbo people are singled out and targeted by pro-APC thugs who perceive that they are not aligned with the present political leadership and thus try to disenfranchise them. In its assessment of the 2023 Lagos state election, the European Union said there was ‘increased divisive campaign rhetoric exploiting ethnicity (which caused) obstruction and organized violence (that) limited the free expression of the will of the voters, despite efforts by civil society to promote democratic standards.’ After the polls, areas dominated by Igbos in Lagos like Abule Ado/Trade Fair were attacked by thugs.
Finally, putting the transportation industry, a critical area of government revenue, into the hands of the MC Oluomo-led NURTW has not helped the growth of the sector. For example, in 2019, the NURTW was strongly against the operation of bike-hailing start-ups in Lagos because instead of paying levies to them, the companies paid tax directly to the government. Ultimately, the NURTW had its way and their operations were terminated in the state—a move that led to 20,000 riders losing their jobs and losses of up to $182.5 million across the ride-sharing companies.
The foregoing has provided MC Oluomo the fertile opportunity to cement his political significance in Lagos and in other parts of the South West, setting the region back in its democratic development. Ironically, for a region that prides itself as one of Nigeria’s most politically developed, the continued endorsement and acceptance of the union in its current format is antithetical and hinders Nigeria in its journey to becoming a unified democracy.
Following Governor Sanwo-Olu’s victory, MC Oluomo posted an update on his Instagram page saying: ‘Hope the Obidiots believe now that Lagos belongs to Yoruba and they’re now facing the consequences of Lagos being no man’s land’⎈
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