Wale Sokunbi CURRENTS, 08056180228 firstname.lastname@example.org
Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State made a tactical mistake last week. He began earnest implementation of the state’s controversial Road Traffic Law barring commercial motorcycle operators (okada) from Lagos highways only few days after Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Labour Party (LP) beat the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) candidate, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN), to third position in the October 20 Ondo State governorship election.
The defeat of Akeredolu, ACN and its leader, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, by Mimiko really dented the image and ego of the party. It also vividly demonstrated to the electorate in other ACN-controlled states such as Lagos that the party’s strong hold on Southwest states could be questioned, and the party kicked out of power, if the people are determined to do just that.
That period of gloating over the loss of Ondo to Labour Party by many people, including the Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere, was a very wrong period for Fashola to implement a policy which saw Okada riders being hounded like dogs on Lagos streets, with about 3,000 of their motorcycles impounded, and one two operators inadvertently killed by the police.
If, indeed, Fashola and the ACN had had “ears” in the markets, hairdressing salons and eateries in Lagos, last week, they would have heard that the anger of many less privileged Lagosians on the “okada ban” and the defeat suffered by ACN in Ondo State few days earlier, became a volatile mix that generated palpable discontent and ill feeling against the Lagos government. The outcry of the okada riders, however, does not detract from the propriety or otherwise of the law restricting operation of commercial motorcycle operators in the state.
Although the Lagos government hinged its decision to bar okada operators from 475 out of the state’s 9,100 roads on the frequent cases of okada accidents traceable to recklessness of riders, and their use for activities detrimental to security in the state, the implementation of the law degenerated into fracas, last week. The police seizure of offending motorcycles from riders in different parts of Lagos led to violent protests in which the operators damaged about ten mass transit buses of the state government.
The Lagos State Road Traffic Law has been a subject of contention since it was signed into law.. Apart from barring okada riders from the state’s highways, it has other controversial provisions that have earned the ire of many Lagosians. It, for instance, outlaws eating while driving. For a state in which a driver could be held up in a traffic snarl for hours on end, it will be interesting to know what type of food may or may not be eaten while on the wheels in Lagos.
Will consumption of the snack, gala, or a biscuit, by a famished driver, for instance, constitute an offence for which such driver maybe arrested and prosecuted? What if a driver takes a drink while driving? Other controversial aspects of the traffic law include its draconian provisions. For example, the law provides for impounding of vehicles caught being driven against traffic. Soon after implementation of the law began in earnest, a truck was caught driving against traffic somewhere en route the Lagos Island and was seized.
Some reports said the truck was to be sold by the state government. How more draconian and oppressive can any law be? Should an innocent businessman who has invested about N15 million on a truck or tanker, and has probably not paid off the loan used to purchase it, have his truck impounded and sold by the state government simply because an errant driver, possibly on monthly salary of N50,000, disobeyed a traffic regulation?
Where is the justice for the innocent owner of such a truck who was not even there when the driver committed the offence? Should he lose N15 million because of a disobedient driver? This would be the height of wickedness, which, I am sure, is not the intention of the state government. The traffic law also provides for jail terms for traffic offences. This should not be so.
What this provision can achieve is only to increase the amount of bribes that people will be ready to pay to officials of the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA). No one should go to jail for minor traffic offences in a sane society, especially when there are no appropriate signboards to guide drivers in the state. When this traffic law is viewed against other draconian initiatives of the State Government, such as the N15,000 fine extorted from drivers for parking in places that do not even have “No parking” signs especially in the Lagos Business District, some of these laws become questionable.
There is, however, no arguing the fact that the operations of commercial motorcyclists in Lagos need to be closely regulated. Incidence of death from okada accidents is unacceptably high in the state. Those who have been to the wards of the Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital, in Lagos, have testified to the high number of persons whose lives have been destroyed as they either died or lost their limbs in okada accidents. Lagos State government has put the number of people who either died or were seriously injured in accidents caused by okada riders in the last two years in Lagos at 619.
Other police records show that 513 fatal accidents recorded in the state in the last two years were caused by okada riders. 208 of the fatal accidents occurred between January and June, this year. This is believed to be largely due to the recklessness of the riders who do not undergo any training before picking up the trade. In addition, commercial motorcycle operators have been implicated in armed robberies.
Governor Fashola, in a statement last week, explained that records show that of 30 armed robbery incidents recorded in the state between July and September this year, 22 involved use of commercial motorcycles, while okada was also used in 10 out of 14 robberies in September, and five out of eight robberies in August. The Lagos State Commissioner of Police has also confirmed the atrocities of okada riders in the state, and has vowed that the law banning them from the state’s highways would be implemented to the letter.
Any observant Lagosian would also have noticed that the okada business in the state has been infiltrated by illegal aliens, with the Lagos authorities confirming deportation of 100 Nigeriens from Lagos recently. Many of the people in okada business in Lagos are not Nigerians, with the attendant security implications. Lagos State, then, cannot really be blamed for demonstrating concern for the welfare and security of residents of the state, especially as okada has become a veritable tool for robbery operations.
Okada riders have, however, instituted a legal battle to stop the government from implementing the law restricting them from 475 roads. They have instituted a case before a Lagos High court asking it to declare section 3(1) of the new Lagos Traffic Law which prohibits riding, driving or propelling of a cart, wheelbarrow, motorcycle or tricycle on major highways in Lagos, as unconstitutional. The All Nigerian Automobile Commercial Owners and Riders Association (ANACOWA) also wants a declaration that Lagos State government has no power “whatsoever” to make any law to regulate traffic on any of the Federal trunk or highway roads.
The court has promised accelerated hearing of the case. This is what the protesting okada riders, however, should have done, earlier, instead of their resort to damaging of government-owned mass transit buses. While the court adjudicates, it is necessary to say that it is good to restrict okada riders from certain roads, but, barring them from 475 roads seems rather draconian.
Again, the state government should consider provision of enabling environment for other sources of living for unemployed persons in the state. The argument of opponents of the okada ban is that the operators have a right to earn a living in a situation where government has not helped them in any way.
They, also, have a point, so government should rev up its skills acquisition and job creation efforts to keep the people productively engaged in the interest of security. The Lagos authorities should also modernize transportation in the state. Commercial transportation by okada is actually a sign of retrogression, especially in these days of fast trains.
It is not befitting of the mega city the state government is trying to build.