By Chris Anyokwu
They come at you like storm troopers, like horsemen of the Apocalypse. Multitudinous. A restless run of ants zigzagging on the highways, the roads, side-streets and even footpaths. You are only probably absolutely safe in your bedroom. And, don’t take this as a joke. Okada or commercial motorcycle riders have become a real menace in our towns, cities and villages in Nigeria. Let’s be clear from the outset. Truth be told, you actually need them or their services on account of our bad roads riddled as they are with craters, potholes and the like, rendering a lot of them practically impassable. Visit, for instance, a Lagos suburb like Agura-Gberigbe in Ikorodu or Satellite Town, you would weep over the criminal neglect of the roads.
The “roads” are so bad that the inhabitants and residents living in these areas always leave their vehicles at home and hop on okada to commute around the neighbourhood. Heartbreaking sights of broken-down cars, vans and buses in pools of stagnant, fetid rain-water on the roads are a common fixture on these off-putting landscapes. In some instances, some communities are effectively cut off from the rest of the world by gully erosion which destroys road networks, leaving the people with the only option of commuting on okada. Under this scenario, therefore, one wonders how those who go to work must get to their offices on time. How about those who have appointments to keep? If taxis, buses, etc are unavailable because of the sorry state of the roads, what does one expect working people, the army of sweat merchants, to do? Trek miles and many kilometres to their places of work? Also, in some desperate situations, when you have a flight to catch, domestic or international and, lo and behold, the notorious city traffic rears its ugly head. What do you do? Hail an helicopter to ferry you to the airport or put a call to the control tower, asking the officials on duty to delay the take-off time for your sake? That will be the day, my friend! Even in more quotidian, everyday situations, say, when you go to the local market to buy foodstuffs and other household items, sometimes a car might not be able to get to your house. In such a situation, you need the services of okada to get you and your stuff to your gate.
The fact of the matter is that okada motorcycles help reduce the volume of commuters at bus stops who would have otherwise been stranded, waiting, always waiting for buses and taxis that hardly show up on time. It is reasonable to assume that many able-bodied, decently-educated people, mostly male, have elected to take up the okada business owing largely to unemployment and joblessness in the country. The Bible says, he who cannot feed his family is worse than an infidel. Work is life, therefore, a jobless person is a living dead, useless to self and society.
Thus in order to stay alive, in order to support their families, most people go into this line of work. They raise money to purchase a motorcycle and, pronto, get on the road, ferrying folk from place to place for a fare. Okada has become, consequently, a means of livelihood for millions of hapless, disinherited Nigerians. But the snag, the trouble with this, is that many of the okada riders appear hell-bent on tempting Death itself by virtue of their recklessness. It doesn’t matter whether it is a trailer, a BRT bus, a danfo bus, or keke maruwa. These okada riders would plunge their heads into hell itself! For them, jockeying for precious little space in extremely dangerous situations is a rule of thumb in their line of business. You would think they are immune to pain, to mortality like the rest of us. Where do they get their derring-do from? You would find yourself wondering.
But the sad, tragic part is that, they are not always lucky. Sometimes the rider and the passenger are caught in a life-and-death situation. The speed-besotted rider might lose control and run into a jutting projectile and, as such, comes a cropper with his passenger. Oftentimes, the rider manages to cheat death, but not so his passenger. At times, they are both crippled for life because of the severity of the accident which may warrant amputation of their legs. Again, some of these devil-may-care okada riders do get on the wrong side of vehicle drivers’ temper and are run over by irate and irascible vehicles.
The National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi in Lagos, for example, is full to capacity with patients with mangled limbs caused by the trademark recklessness of okada riders. Apart from road misadventures, people have complained bitterly about invasion of privacy by okada riders. They say okada riders hardly ever know where to draw the line in their desperate search for money. No place is off-limits to them – walled-up and gated residential estates, high-end villas, private quarters, streets and compounds. They do not just set up a racket with the infuriating wuum-wuum of their motorcycles, they also honk their horns into the bargain. Sleeping is an impossibility when they are around. To make matters worse, okada motorcycles are criminals’ vehicles of choice. They could carry out their nefarious acts using these bikes and disappear quickly. They use these okada to rob in traffic, snatching ladies’ bags, knifing innocent people and generally sowing mayhem on roads and highways. As if this is not bad enough, particularly in urban areas in the southern part of the country, we are now witnessing an alarming deluge of okada riders everywhere you turn. You would think Nigeria is at war or on the brink of a major conflagration. Where are they from, these locust-like armies on motorcycles? Is it just to eke out a living that we’re being literally swamped and invaded like this? Is this a prelude to Somalia or Rwanda? Are we walking with our eyes closed into a well-laid hecatomb, a necropolis?
What is more troubling is that most of these recent arrivals are from the northern part of Nigeria and a good chunk of them are not even Nigerian! Their physiognomies and accents easily give them away as strangers. Incredibly, our cities and villages are now home to questionable characters from Tchad, Niger, Mali and Libya. And these unbidden guests are mostly uncouth, brusque and always on a short fuse. They are always quick to remind you that they are in power, that they hold the aces. In other words, they are untouchable; they are above the law. Talk of impunity among the fellahin!
Furthermore, whenever there is an accident in which, 9 out of 10, they are at fault, these okada roughnecks would rally their kin who also do the same business, and then attack the victim(s). I’m sure those reading this article will be nodding their heads in approbation because this is pretty routine in Lagos, for instance. Some of these bikers sometimes commit arson, injure innocent people and brandish dangerous weapons such as daggers, swords, spears, and machetes. Lives have been reportedly lost in some okada-related fracas over fares in most cases. It is equally important to raise concerns over the health status of these “invaders”. Some hardly have their bath, making them mobile vectors of vermin and communicable diseases such as Tuberculosis. How many of them have been vaccinated against the Covid-19? Do they observe the Covid-19 precautionary protocols?
For all we know these aliens among us might be mercenaries, spies, on advance duty to study the terrain, to know our soft underbellies. Again: I ask, are they an army-in-waiting, to be unleashed on unsuspecting and, hence, defenceless citizens? We can only hope our security people are a step or two ahead of them and, therefore, have everything under control. Arising from the remark above, charges of alarmism, discrimination, finger-pointing and profiling might be levelled against one. But that will be lazy and dumb, to say the least. We cannot afford to play the ostrich on this one. Our mumu don do! The okada menace is a ticking time-bomb that must be defused urgently for the safety and security of us all; of the country itself!
Going forward, it’s meet for government, especially at state level, to re-jig our mass-transit policy. And, in this regard, we need to know if there is any provision for okada in that document. Government has to urgently create jobs for these okada riders if they must be asked to leave our roads, to stop operating. Hunger is a more ruthless and intolerant dictator. It does not brook officialese. We need more BRT buses here in Lagos and elsewhere to reduce our reliance on okada.
Rural areas have got to be gentrified and urbanized to stem the tidal waves of rural-urban drift. We must make agriculture attractive and less irksome and more profitable by deliberate mechanisation of agriculture. If okada operators must be left to continue doing their business, the relevant authorities must REGISTER all of them and have a ministry set up to monitor their operations. Besides, trailer-loads of youths coming in from God-knows-where must stop. Officials of LASMA, the police, Internal Affairs Ministry, etc must wake up to their statutory responsibilities regarding this delicate matter. We just cannot afford to continue kicking the can down the road, hoping to God that this problem will disappear, by and by. We need ACTION NOW! What the foregoing discourse revivifies beyond doubt is that the system is just not working. Government has gone AWOL. The social contract is at present in tatters. We are in a bad place; ours is a case of ungoverned space writ large as far as Nigeria is concerned. May the day break.
Chris Anyokwu, PhD, writes from University of Lagos.