By Helen Ovbiagele
A town or city in Nigeria without the presence of commercial motorcyclists? Frankly, it’s something I never thought could be ever be possible anywhere in present day Nigeria!
Transportation through the ages meant that like in the history of man elsewhere in the world, we started out trekking everywhere, until other means were introduced – bicycles, various types motor-cycles, and vehicles. You picked which mode suited you and your pocket. Buses that were introduced early into major cities/big towns to ease the pains of travelling great distances, later found their way to small towns and rural areas. However, these were not enough to meet the needs of our ever increasing population, and expansion of dwelling places.
In Lagos, the tricycle (Keke Marwa) was introduced in the nineties to bring relief on those routes that buses may not reach, and which are shunned by taxis and privately-owned commercial cars (kabukabu). Other States were a bit wary in embracing this, and gradually commercial motorcyclists moved in to fill the void everywhere; triggered off by the huge unemployment among people of all ages.
Soon, it became a major means of livelihood of any unemployed/the retrenched, and the major means of moving around for the masses. It was convenient because it could convey you to your doorstep, and was affordable. As a job, for some, it was temporary/a stepping-stone to setting up a business, or keeping body and soul together until something better and safer was got. But for many young people from the rural areas, especially the uneducated/unskilled, it was seen as a profession. The fact that you don’t need to take/pass efficiency tests before you can mount a bike and begin to carry commuters, made it easy for it to be used as a means of earning a living.
However, with the increase in its use, of course, came all sorts of hazards and danger. The accident rate is very high, and many people (both the riders and their customers) have died or suffered serious disabilities. Not only that, since most roads in the country have no pavements, it’s no longer safe to walk on our roads, due to the reckless way many of these motorcyclists ride.
There’s no order as they loom up everywhere, weave in and out of vehicle lines and disregard traffic lights. Even those of them who try to ride responsibly and sanely, are in danger from the reckless ones who would push them out of the way, or knock them down for stopping at crossroads/junctions, or behind vehicles.
Whether you’re on an okada, or are just observing the riders and their passengers, it’s a frightening sight. All forms of transportation involve danger in one form or the other, but the sight of pregnant women, young children, and sometimes a mother with a baby on her back, riding on an okada, fills one with intense fear for all concerned. One slip of the tyre could cause a fatal accident. God forbid.
Both the print and electronic media have, over the years, done several features, articles, interviews on how this mode of transportation affects our lives; weighing the pluses and the minuses.
Some of the riders who were interviewed, agreed that their trade poses great danger to their customers and themselves, as they constantly stare death in the face due to the bad roads and recklessness of other riders. They agreed too that it could aid criminal activities. But they pointed out that it was unemployment that drove them to it.
The alternative would be to engage in dubious businesses and crime, they stressed. Some pedestrians said they don’t feel safe taking an okada, but that they had no choice. They explained that many people live far away from the roads that commercial vehicles ply, and that motorcycles are an easy link between dwelling places and bus stops, or the ferry, or railway.
With all these excuses, the nation seemed stuck with the okada business, even though motorcyclists are banned from certain roads in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja.
I was quite shocked when a friend who has just returned from Benin City told me that she didn’t see any commercial motorcyclist on the roads there throughout her five-day stay, and that had improved the flow of traffic.
“That’s not possible!” I exclaimed. “No okada? What happened to them?”
“A driver told me that the government had banned them from the city. They can only operate in the suburbs.”
“Are you serious? You mean the motorcyclists actually obey and are complying with government directives? No protests, no blocking of roads, no burning of tyres? We didn’t hear anything about a ban. So, it’s possible for a city in Nigeria to be without the services of those riders?”
“Apparently, it is. I don’t know how the Edo State government was able to get the necessary cooperation for the ban, but movement of people is normal; the parks and markets are full as usual. The only thing I noticed is that there are now bicycles on the roads. Not many, but it’s a sight I hadn’t seen in Benin for quite a while. Oh, the traffic is so sane now, and I’m sure the ban has lowered the rate of accidents and mayhem at junctions, etc. Benin is a delight to behold without okada riders. Some people moaned a bit to me about having to trek to bus stops or to their destinations, but by and large, the ban seems to have been accepted by the people.”
Well, that’s one up for the Edo State government who took that laudable and courageous step to place a commendable ban, and also for the residents of Benin City who saw the sense in the ban, and are cooperating with the governor, and adjusting to the ban.
However, the government has to ensure that more buses are put on the roads (public or private buses), and the network of commercial vehicles expanded so well that dwelling places are at most, twenty minutes from the nearest bus stop on the main road. This will provide big relief for the young school children and those workers who close late at night, so that they can get home without too much stress.
Also, as the government is engaged in serious rehabilitation of roads in the State capital, well-designed and constructed pavements should be part of the project.
Trekking is a very healthy exercise for everybody, so, the ban on commercial cyclists is a blessing as more residents now have to trek. The construction of pavements everywhere would make this a safe activity; even for the very young and the elderly.