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
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 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
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.
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
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.
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).