From Fred Itua, Fred Ezeh, Tunde Ezu Odu, Joseph Inokotong, Okwe Obi and Joseph Inokotong, Abuja

Motorcycle operators, popularly known as Okada riders are now regarded as nuisance on many Abuja highways, posing serious threats to residents as well as other road users in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

Alhaji Ahmadu Hassan, a resident, recently had cause to engage in a heated argument with one Okada rider after he narrowly escaped a fatal accident due to the reckless manner the motorcycle rider manoeuvred his motorcycle at the popular Goza Market Junction, on the ever busy Abuja Airport Road.

During the squabble, Hassan cursed endlessly and described the activities of the ubiquitous Okada riders to Daily SUN as menace to other motorists and pledged to do everything humanly possible, within the confines of the law, to keep them away permanently from the Abuja highways.

It wasn’t always like this.

On October 1, 2006, the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA), with Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, as FCT Minister, banned commercial motorcycles as a means of public transportation in Abuja, following public outcry over the menace operators in the city had constituted themselves into.

Prior to the ban, motorcycles were reportedly used by criminals as means of a quick getaway from crime scenes such as banks and residential areas.

In many cases, they were also used to snatch handbags and mobile handsets etc, from unsuspecting passersby.

At that time, the rising number of casualties from accidents involving Okada riders increased exponentially, and these risks were prevalent with reports of a number of security personnel deploying that mode of transportation.

The FCTA subsequently restricted Okada riders to Abuja suburbs and on roads servicing residential areas.

Years after, Okada riders defied the ban and can be found on highways and even Trunk A and Trunk B roads in the FCT even during peak hours.

Regardless, the travails of Citizen Hassan began early last October on a Monday morning while driving his Toyota Venza SUV from the precinct of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport to the Abuja City Centre. Hassan recalled how he had to reduce the speed at which his car was moving on approaching Kuje Junction, to give way to other vehicles linking the Airport Road from Kuje Area Council. Thereafter, his car was on full throttle again in other to meet up with his early morning appointment in the Central Business District of the FCT.

However, few kilometers off Kuje junction, at the Goza pedestrian bridge crossing by Goza Market Street, an Okada rider conveying three big bags of garri on the back seat and two men on the bike’s petrol tank suddenly appeared on the major road and tried to cross the expressway oblivious of oncoming vehicles. Hassan swerved his car to the left, promptly stepped on the brake pedals of the fast-moving vehicle before it screeched to an abrupt halt, thereby avoiding what would have been a fatal accident.

Within a twinkle of an eye, the vicinity was a beehive of activities as many Okada riders surrounded and literally swamped on Hassan and his car. Some of the motorcycle riders started banging on the vehicle while uttering all sorts of uncomplimentary remarks. This was followed in quick succession by other onlookers who struggled for space to catch a glimpse of the anticipated action that would have ensued, but for the quick arrival at the scene by men of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) who intervened and whisked away the Okada rider. That saved Hassan and his car from mob action that is fast becoming the trademark for Okoda riders’ unruly behaviour towards other motorists in Abuja.

The above scenario depicts vividly the menace Okada riders constitute on the expressway in the FCT despite being banned from operating on such major roads and restricted to the suburbs.

An Okada rider in Lugbe, an FCT suburb, who gave his name simply as Mr. Abdul, said he was aware of the warning by the FCT Taskforce prohibiting them from getting close to either the expressway or any junction close to the major road.

Speaking in Pidgin English, Abdul explained: “Before they will catch you, they will come like a passenger not wearing uniform. After you carry them, through the back they will grab you and your bike key. Sometimes they will use their vehicle and knock you down. From there, your bike will be taken away from you. They will now ask you to come down to their office. When you get to their office, they will ask you to pay the sum of ‎N30,000, or N40,000 before you will get back your bike.

“Sometimes they will not even release your bike for you, money or no money. ‎They will keep turning you up and down for four to five months. At the end of the day, they will not give you your bike back.”

Another Okada rider, Mr. Aruna, said they always have problems with private car owners and taxi drivers on the road because of speeding, wrong entry or overtaking and stressed that “sometimes, we the Okada riders, never submit to those car owners even when we know that he or she is wrong. We do that because we want them to pay for the damages.”

Kabiru Surajo, a commercial motorcycle operator at Kurudu, Abuja, said the reason for mob operation against motorists was because of the negative attitude they often get from some of the motorists, who display open hatred for them and never believe that they deserve a space on the road.

He said: “These motorists show us wickedness. They don’t see us as road users with equal right as they. Rather, they see us as nuisance, who are not supposed to be found on the road. So, any time we have the opportunity to revenge, we unleash terror on them to make them understand that we have numerical strength on the road.

“Besides, majority of the bike riders and even tricycle (keke) riders are a set of people that do not understand either English or any other language other than Hausa. So, each time one of us is involved in an accident, each rider stops to know what must have happened. Whatever the case may be, we usually put the fault on the motorists. We don’t accept the fault in case there is need for repairs which most of us can’t afford.

“However, some of these wrong perceptions and actions of the motorists are because of the way some of our people behave on the road. A larger percentage of okada riders on Abuja roads are people who, by chance, found themselves doing the job. No formal training, education and enlightenment, and it shows in their attitude on the road.”

Another motorcycle operator at Karu, Isiaka Bello, said he chose to operate along the Karu site axis because of the attitude and kind of okada riders that operate along that corridor.

He said: “For instance, at Karu Bridge where I mostly operate, there is a big difference from the attitude and character of the set of okada riders operating there. Some of us at Karu bridge and nearby areas are not ‘by chance’ Okada riders like the ones at Kurudu, Orozo, Karshi, Jikowyi, Gidan Mango, Maraba and other areas.

“Many of us are graduates and we have value for our lives. We have families and loved ones, even though we are not rich or have a good source of income.”

He lamented that the only challenge they have is the fear of FCT joint task force team that comprises the Army, Police, and others who often swoop on them, confiscating their bikes for unlawfully riding on the expressway.

He added: “They have caught me unawares twice while I was negotiating price with a passenger. They have also caught many others of my colleagues in the act.

“I pleaded with them endlessly to release my bike being my only source of income but they refused and went away with the bike. I was down for several days because of that, until a friend advised me on what to do. I spent over N30, 000 to bail the bike. I paid higher the second time they arrested me.

“There are people whose bikes have been confiscated and condemned by the task force officials because they could not afford to bail the bike. But I noticed that they auction the bikes after sometimes if the owners fail to come to identify and possibly bail them. I decided to bail mine because the bike was still new. If not, I would have left it with them and looked for another one.”

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Indeed, it has been a daily theatre of the absurd between motorcycle operators and motorists in the FCT. No day passes without an ugly incident involving both parties. It is fast degenerating into cat and mouse affairs, where each views another with suspicion and utter disdain.

The motorcycle operators are not alone in the war of supremacy over the right of access to major roads in the FCT. The many service industries that have sprung up in the FCT have given birth to delivery men and courier services, who move around Abuja with motorcycles clutching delivery boxes on the back seat.

Although this category of motorcycle riders are often well kitted with crash-helmets and not restricted by the authourity from plying major roads in the FCT, their mode of operation cannot be separated from the real Okada riders. The only difference is, not being unruly and lacking the ability to command large co-riders in solidarity whenever accidents involving cars occur. Their recklessness while riding bikes is similar to the real Okada riders. They do not restrict their movements to the service lane but prefer to compete with other vehicles plying the expressway. Their conduct portrays the culture of impunity, indiscipline and disregard for the law.

Indeed, it is common to see people dressed in the uniforms of security agencies riding their motorcycles on the streets of Abuja, with scant regard for other road users, and in the most brazen form of indiscipline. They ride against traffic.

In their defence, some of the security agents said the motorcycle was their sole means of transport to their workplaces. That may be true, but it does not excuse any violation of traffic rules. Many of the people working in Abuja leave in the satellite towns of the FCT and commute to the city center daily. If they are allowed to ride on their motorcycles to the city, the chaos this would bring can only be imagined.

To underscore their ruthlessness, and make a public spectacle of their excesses on the road, recently, motorcycle operators blocked Boundary Road that separates Abuja from Nasarawa State, to protest the death of a colleague.

The yet to be identified motorcycle operator was allegedly killed by a hit-and-run motorist. The next day, in solidarity, other motorcycle operators vowed not to work, conveying passengers to Nyanya-Abuja expressway.

They also prevented every Okada rider from working, they stopped the motorcycle of those who disobeyed the directive and deflated the tires.

Fights erupted in the aftermath of deflating the tyres of a cycle owner on his way to work, which triggered the protest and blockade to spread as far as Masaka, several kilometers off Abuja’s border with Nasarawa State.

Some people have the wrong notion that motorcycle  riders have become endangered species probably due to the ban on motorcycles in some parts of the FCT, Abuja.

According to this category of people, most government regulatory agencies like the Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO), police and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) see Okada riders as their meal ticket. “They clamp down on them, confiscate their motorcycles and auction them in far away Zuba, Gwagwalada and Dei-Dei”.

A motorcycle rider, Ibrahim Saidu, explained the method of operation of security personnel.

“I know that we are not expected to operate in certain areas in Abuja, but the hardship in the land is not allowing us to sit idle. So we try to operate in the early hours of the day just to eke out a living.

“Our issue is the wickedness of the joint task force. They collect our motorcycles and take them to their office. If you have someone who is either a military person or who belongs to one paramilitary agency, you are covered because he would make a case for you.

“However, if you don’t have, you either pay between N5,000 and N10,000 to bail your motorcycle within a particular timeframe or you kiss it goodbye,” he said.

He added that “people who suffer it the most are those with brand new motorcycles. The Joint Task Force charge them heavily knowing that they would pay to redeem their bikes because if they delay, those guys would auction them.”

Musa Abdullahi, a motorcycle rider, who has been caught up in the web narrated his ordeal thus: “The joint task force caught me at Lokogoma Junction when I was making my first trip to Gudu from Dogongada. As I was about to cross the traffic light, two men in mufti blocked me and I almost fell down.

“They identified themselves and pulled out the key. I pleaded with them for about 10 minutes they refused. They towed the bike alongside seven others.

“When we got to their office at Mabushi immediately after Berger, they kept us there for about four hours before an officer came and demanded that we pay N15,000.

“I could not pay because I did not have money. They told me to leave their premises. As I was going out, another man who had listened to our conversation without my knowledge advised me to look for something and give to them, stressing that before the end of the week, they would auction the motorcycles. Because I could not meet the deadline, they auctioned my motorcycle.”

Alhaji Abubakar Abdullahi, who claimed to be the chairman of Okada riders in Kuje Area Council put up a strong defence for his members, explaining that his group has evolved measures to check the excesses of members who go contrary to laid down rules of operation.

One of the sanctions against defaulting members, he said, is a fine of N2000 depending on the nature of offence committed, in the first instance and subsequently, suspension from operating as a commercial motorcyclist for a month if the person commits the same offence a second time.

According to him, the union has sanction committee that ensures strict compliance with the code of conduct and enforcement of any punishment given to offenders.

Mr. Kalu Emetu, public relations officer, Vehicles Inspection Office (VIO), Department of Motor Vehicles of the FCT, Abuja, while reacting to the allegation of collecting money before releasing seized Okada to the owner and auctioning the confiscated ones, denied any wrongdoing.

He admitted that the VIO do impound any Okada found in the Abuja City Centre, operating contrary to the law banning them. “When this is done, we proceed to the court to obtain an order to confiscate the Okada, after which they are crushed. We do not sell any Okada impounded by our officers; we crush them after a court order must have been obtained. At the moment, there are 1,500 impounded Okada in our facility in Wuye waiting for a court order before proceeding to take necessary action,” said Emetu.

Acting Secretary of Transport in FCT, Usman Musa Yahaya, did not respond to a series of calls, while the Media aide to the FCT minister, Abubakar Sani, said it was not within his jurisdiction to respond when contacted.

Perhaps the FCT administration should overhaul the task force charged with the responsibility of implementation in order to block the obvious laxity in enforcing the ban.  It is simply unfair that while civilian violators of the ban are summarily tried and jailed and their Okada confiscated while uniformed security agents go scot-free without any query for the same infringement.

To curtail the problem associated with Okada riders, the FCTA should play its part by providing more inter-and intra-city mass transit buses that it promised in the heat of the last workers’ nationwide strike over the removal of fuel subsidy by the Federal Government.

Also, some residents opine that the proposed FCT Rail Mass Transit project could help move people en masse between the satellite towns and different districts of Abuja City, making the use of motorcycles less attractive.