By Oluwasanmi Falobi
These are certainly not pleasant times for commercial motorcyclists otherwise called okada, especially for those operating in Lagos. “Be prepared”, the motto of the Boys Scout, has become the watchword for any okada rider still plying his trade on the roads of Lagos, else he finds himself under the might of the law. Suddenly, okada business, which had become a thriving form of daily income for several hundreds of jobless people, is now a no-go area, because over the past two to three weeks, they have become the hunted as they have had a raw deal with the law enforcement agents who have launched an onslaught against them in a move to effect total compliance to the Okada restriction order as contained in the Lagos State’s new traffic laws recently signed by Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola. A part of the law prohibits commercial motorcyclists from plying 475 strategic roads.
Although there had been debates and argument on the justification of the law banning motorcyclists from plying the major roads, consisting of the highways and dual carriage roads in the metropolis, none had expected that the Lagos State government would take an action so drastic as an emphatic clampdown as being presently carried out by the law enforcement agents, with several hundreds of okada impounded and destroyed. In fact, what Lagosians were awaiting was to see what will play out from the face-off between the government and Okada riders association, because sequel to the passage of the Act by the state House of Assembly in August 2012 and subsequent signing into law by the Governor, the okada association in Lagos under the aegis of All Nigerians Auto Bike Commercial Owners and Workers’ Association, (ANACOWA) had actually taken the state government to court on the premise that they were not consulted when the bill to ban commercial motorcyclists was in the works.
So, they sought a stay of execution and for the court to seek the judicial interpretations of the law. However, government had maintained that the law was not going to be reversed, in spite of the judicial proceeding instituted against it by ANACOWA, and had used available media platform and public fora to sensitize and consult with stakeholders with a view to soliciting public understanding on the law, even as the public held varying views on the desirability of okada or not, vis-à-vis the inherent hazards and dangers it possess to other roads users due to the increasing recklessness of riders, on one hand, and its popularity as an alternate form of a quick intra-state transportation, on the other hand.
The above were the hypothesis that were on ground until Tuesday October 16 when the police in Lagos, on the orders of the Commissioner of Police, Umar Manko, swooped on operators, impounding and arresting them in different areas of the metropolis. The seizures were unprecedented. From Ogba to Iju, Pen Cinema through to Dopemu and Iyana Ipaja; Ikeja to Anthony and Yaba areas, it was a harvest of motorcycles as hundreds of okada were impounded. Within few hours of the operation, the premises of the police station in the areas were full with impounded motorcycles as passengers were made to forcefully disembark as tens and tens of impounded motorcyclist were being seized with their riders bemoaning their ill-luck for falling victims; and the lucky ones who got the information about the raid, made a detour and ended business for the day.
However, if there were allusions that the swoop was a one-day affair, the events of the following days dispelled this as the onslaught intensified, especially when some of the okadamen, attacked the Lagos State mass transit ‘BRT’ buses in protest against the Fashola administration for what they called its harsh policy. This, the police authorities saw as an affront on the part of the okadamen and this infuriated both the Lagos State government and police authorities, causing several of them to be arrested. Reading the riot act, the Police Public Relations Officer, PPRO, Lagos Police Command, Ngozi Braide, said the police was fully ready to dislodge okada riders from the routes they are banned from plying across Lagos and that the whole content of the traffic law would be enforced to the letter. “We have begun full scale clampdown on okada riders plying the prohibited routes.
This is in compliance with the new road traffic law passed by the state government”, she told journalists, warning okada riders to stay away from the prohibited routes as the police would sustain the raid on them. “The police are all out to enforce full implementation of the new state traffics laws. We will not be deterred by any amount of blackmail or any kind of noise by the group,” she added. And the police, truly lived up to the challenge as over 7000 motorcycles have been impounded. With this trend, the sight of an approaching police patrol vehicle, or a group of policemen within the Lagos metropolis is a danger sign to any okada man. Like mother hen scurry her chicks into hiding when she sights a hawk, so have okada riders become, at the sight of the law enforcement agents. The fear is real and valid because okada business for many is the main stead of their survival, especially considering the opportunities and the income from providing a quick transport in a place like Lagos with over 18 million people.
However, the clampdown has now become a tool in the hands of some of the policemen to extort money from okadamen as some of them now go to the inner streets to indiscriminately arrest okadamen, and once arrested, you are expected to “bail” the okada with sums ranging between N2,000 to N3,000. This act is being perpetuated by both uniformed and plainclothes policemen, especially in the late evenings in places like Agege, Iju-Ishaga, Fagba Junction, Abule Egba, and Iyana Ipaja, amongst others. Okada appeared in the late 1980s, during the economic downturn in Nigeria. What started then as an option for Jobless youths, who used the motorcycles to earn money by transporting passengers on poorly maintained roads, soon became very popular with the declining economic fortunes, worsening unemployment opportunities and declining infrastructural development.
Soon, more and more people turned to okada business and what was to be a stop-gap measure in the undeveloped areas soon became a lucrative venture within the city centres as graduates who also couldn’t get employment embraced the option. As taxicab and bus service remained inadequate due to growing population, congestion and poorly maintained roads, okada as a means of transportation then became very popular, and acceptance of it increased steadily such that okada now became one of the primary modes of intra city transportation with the advantage that it was not only cheaper, but faster, owing to the deplorable terrains of most roads. Another factor that aided the flourishing of okada business was their low purchase price and their superior fuel efficiency, which particularly became a factor, especially with the increasing tirade of petrol shortages across the country.
However, it usage over the years began to have increasing occurrences of reckless driving, resulting into accidents and posing hazards to other road users. This trend made the government and respective road management agencies legislate laws to regulate, modify or restrict their operations, such as contained in the Lagos traffic law, which is not novel as other states like Rivers, Cross Rivers, Enugu, and the FCT have similar laws. So why is the Lagos case different? Investigation by Aspire reveals that there are many factors at play, ranging from issues that has to do with daily livelihood and survival in a cosmopolitan city like Lagos as well as the consequence of such action having a spill over to making living conditions harder and tougher for the citizens. This, critics say the Lagos State government action against okada riders does not address.
According to Comrade Dandy Eze, National President, Path of Peace Initiative (PPI), it was unfair for the Lagos government to ban okada from plying the 475 strategic roads, saying this amounted to stopping okada business in Lagos, as millions of Lagosians would be deprived of means of transportation. “Banning okada operations on these routes will not only inflict serious hardship on members of the public but also send scores of thousands of okada operators into the already choked labour market,” he said, while addressing newsmen in a protest against the law. “Our demand remains the immediate delisting of the 475 routes from the law. We want all harassment and arrest of okada riders and impoundment of their motorcycles to cease forthwith”, he stated, adding that okada riders are no criminals. Speaking in similar light, Stella Nwofia, who works a Lagos based NGO also picks holes in the manner the Lagos state government is going about implementing the law.
“Putting an outright ban on Okada from plying the major roads of Lagos is bad. People who depend on it as a means of livelihood would find it difficult to make ends meet and may result to other misdemeanor”, she noted. According to her, at least the state government should have given a specific time limit for them to withdraw to other routes or other places instead of taking them unawares and impounding their motorcycles. “The government should have waited till at least next year so that those who have okada should have sold it off and those who need to get other jobs should have done so. Considering the traffic situation in Lagos, it is bad and especially on the deplorable conditions of the roads”, she added, noting that it was this same government that gave the okada riders several thousands of helmets and riders vests in the build up to the elections barely a year ago.
“The government is creating problems rather than offering solutions. After getting them to support their re-election, the government is now saying that they don’t want them around again. What solutions are they offering them? What alternatives are they offering the okada operators whose means of income to fend for themselves and their family were cut off by the seizures of their okada?” she queried. She noted that the action has also placed a burden on the citizens. “This is also causing hardship for the citizens. For example, from Yaba bus stop to Ojuelagba and other inner roads like Biney, Lathan Street, Popo and Atan road where I Iive, I usually bike, but now I have to trek the long distance everyday when I am going out in the morning and when returning in the evening. These routes are only accessible by okada, and even if you wanted to take a taxi, the taxi would not even go because of the stress of having to turn round the bad road. So, we have no choice but to trek, even when you are coming in with goods from the market and such things,” she lamented.
Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, Bamidele Aturu also described the massive clampdown on Okada riders as illegal, especially when there is a pending case in the court. “This clampdown is illegal because there is a case in court which has been adjourned to 24th of this month,” he stated, adding that the current action by the police revealed an act of lawlessness and callousness meted out to hapless Nigerians. “My worry is that they should not turn these okada riders into armed robbers by depriving them of their means of sustenance”, he said, adding that efforts to make Lagos a mega city must not be at the expense of the poor. However, despite the protests by the okada riders and the citizens, the government maintains it stand and vowed to curb the excesses of okada riders. According to Mr. Kayode Opeifa, commissioner for transportation, government was not ready to bend the new law to suit okada riders, warning that if they did not comply, the full wrath of the law would descend on them. In a similar vein, the Lagos State taskforce on environmental and special offences (enforcement) unit reiterated that there was no going back on the clampdown. “Okada riders must obey our traffic law.
They are fond of riding against traffic, on kerbs and several unauthorised places. The law has been passed and gazetted and there is no going back on enforcement,” said Bayo Sulaiman, the taskforce boss. “This is to inform the operators that the law has started and there is no going back,” he restated. The state Commissioner of Police also did not mince words on sustaining the clampdown, noting that 98 per cent of robbery incidents in the state are committed by people using okada. According to him, the menace of Okada riders necessitated a complete ban. “I think the government of Lagos State is lenient with them. If I were to make law for okada riders, I will recommend that it should be banned completely,” he stated, adding that nobody was above the law. “Nobody is above this law and nobody will be above it for the period I am going to serve here. We will continue to enforce the law until the governor says otherwise,” he added. However, while it may be desirable to limit the operations of okada in the metropolis, using maximum force to achieve it is a step taken too far, so says Francis Abayomi, the executive director of Peace and Development Projects (PEDEP), a Lagos based NGO.
“I think that the government has a point to have decided to restrict okada in some routes in Lagos because if you look at the hazard and accidents accompanying their use as a means of transportation in the metropolis, we should actually be thanking the government for taking the decision. However, if you look at the larger picture, the citizens who are saying that banning okada is a demonstration of the government’s lack of feeling for the masses also have a point, because many of those riding okada are graduates who wouldn’t be riding okada if they had something else to do. Fine, they have banned okada in the routes, but I think the government should have taken a step further beyond just impounding the okada, to finding an alternative means of livelihood for them. Until recently, government was still registering okada riders and giving them riders card and I think that, since they have made money from registering them, the government should have also made a projection and give some time limit to phase them out of the routes, rather than using brute force,” said Abayomi.
“Before you have a policy that will affect the people, you must plan properly for it. The fact that it was done in Port Harcourt or Abuja does not really mean that it can be done so easily in Lagos like that because the truth of the matter is that the population of Lagos is dynamic as the former federal capital and a city that people troop into everyday. Fine, we may no longer want to tolerate okada on the highways, but the action of the government in impounding them and destroying them, to me is rather punitive because the riders bought them with their hard earned money and at least about 70 percent of those okada were registered by the Lagos State government. So, if you wake up one morning and said you don’t want them again, the government should have created a scheme to encourage these people riding okada to take up riding Keke Marwa, except they are also planning to phase that one out too. The truth of the matter is that the problem of transportation in Lagos is a huge challenge and just banning okada, without an alternative will compound the transportation challenges.
The government should realize that they were part of the problem by collecting money to register them in the first place, so I think rather than using the might of the law enforcement agents against them, they should have made an integrated projection and plan to phase them out like they did with molue buses,” he stated. Meanwhile, as the onslaught against erring okada riders continues, Lagosians may have to accept the reality and take to trekking, using Keke Marwa and jostling for available buses at the bus stops as the sacrifice they have to make for the Lagos mega city plan, because as the government had consistently maintained, “The law prohibiting okada in the 475 routes is here to stay!”