By Muyiwa Adetiba
It was a public holiday, the second of the two-day Sallah holidays, and I was being driven along Ikorodu road towards Surulere, grateful that the traffic gridlock of the first three days of the week had eased off considerably, when I saw him.
A man sprawled at Fadeyi bus stop in a pool of his own blood. I looked away, but not quickly enough that I didn’t see that his head was the source of the blood.
What struck me as odd was that people at the bus stop appeared oblivious to what I had just seen. There was a bus queue as usual, people selling some wares, as usual, people chatting in twos and three, as usual. A man lay dead in fresh blood, as usual? Are we so used to death that we have become completely inured?
And that is the crux of the matter. Okada as a mode of transportation, has made death very familiar on our streets. It has brought sorrow, tears and blood-apologies to Fela—to too many homes. The teaching and orthopaedic hospitals are, as we speak,brimming with victims of okada accidents. It costs, we must remind ourselves, tax payer’s money to keep them there – in doctors, nurses, hospital beds and of course, drugs.
So can we blame any government that wants to put a stop to the haemorrhage of its human and financial resources? Hence, apparently, the restriction on okada.
I am sure most of us will blame okada riders as the architects of their own misfortune. They have taken road rage—where road users become aggressive as a result of frustration—a notch higher. They have taken lawlessness to the road —most Nigerian drivers are lawless on the road—a notch higher. They have taken mob action, an inclination of the under-privileged, a notch higher. Its not unusual to see an okada rider break someone’s side mirror without stopping to apologise. Its not unusual to see an okada rider scratch or dent someone’s car without the courtesy of an apology.
But before we say good riddance to bad rubbish, let us remind ourselves that okada drivers are fulfilling a need. They are, in their own way, rendering a service; one that has apparently been ignored by government and society.
There are suburbs and settlements in Lagos State that have lanes and foot paths where motor able roads should be. There are suburbs and settlements in Lagos State that have holes and craters where tyres are supposed to pass. These areas including those that have inadequate supply of buses, are being bailed out by okada services. Then many people leave their cars at home during the week because of running cost. To these people, okada is like a ‘chattered car’. Also for many, the last bus stop is along way from home. Without okada, they will be trekking miles to and fro every day.
What I am saying in effect is that okada thrives as a business and as an occupation, because there is a yawning gap to be filled. Mass transportation all over the country, is woeful. That of Lagos State, with its huge revenue, is simply in excusable. We had more mass transportation in the sixties, despite the smaller population than now.
Okada also thrives as a business because of the huge unemployment market in the country. Many graduates, of tertiary and secondary education, find in okada, a means of feeding themselves if not their families. There is also the attraction of its having a low entry point. You could be introduced to okada in the morning, and by evening, you are on the road. No other trade offers that. For most trades, you need about three years of apprenticeship. And you are still not guaranteed a job at the end!
It is true that okada is a sign of poverty like Governor Babatunde Fashola said. But its not kind, or responsible for a government to throw poverty at the face of its people. Who and what made them poor?
I first entered and okada—well, ‘keke marwa’ about 25 years ago, in Bangkok, Thailand. I was amused that it was an acceptable commercial means of transportation for the masses. But for me, it was a tourist’s adventure. I had earlier seen bicycles and okadas in China and some Asian countries. Now, these countries have moved on and transferred the ‘poverty’ to us here.
What I think a responsive government can do is to recognise the ‘needs’ that gave birth to a thriving okada industry and take comprehensive steps to address those needs. We can make okada irrelevant, not by banning or restricting it, but by giving people an alternative.
Is okada desirable? No. Should it be restricted? Yes. Ultimately. But to ban or restrict okada without a viable alternative on the ground, is to increase unemployment, increase violent crimes and increase untold hardship on the citizens of Lagos State. It will, in the end, be like throwing the baby out with the birth water.