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The ban on okada in Lagos: Matters arising

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The Lagos State government never bothered to officially tell the public why it banned okada in 15 local government areas in the state this month. We are left to speculate on the reasons. This is not the first time the state government has banned these men who behave as if they have a permanent death wish but it is the first time the government decided not to make the ban general and, therefore, ineffective but restrict it, I understand, in the first instance to the 15 local government areas.

The Fashola administration first banned okada from major highways in the state capital. The ban failed to achieve its objectives because it was observed completely in the breach. That government also banned begging and street trading, particularly at traffic bottlenecks. Both bans were intended to address a serious and worrying problem – increasing insecurity in the state capital. It was established at the time that armed robbers used okada for their nefarious activity day and night. The ban first restricted okada men from operating after 7 pm.

Street trading in Lagos was banned during the military regime. The ban did not work then and it has not worked now. Every street in the metropolis is a busy market serving the harassed motorists trapped endlessly in the endless traffic congestion. This, in itself, is a security problem if you think of the able-bodied young men hawking everything from wrist watches to Aba-made slippers and giving you a baleful look because you are not persuaded by their sales pitch.

The okada ban was greeted with howls of protests – and for good reasons. The okada business is a legitimate business engaged in by the army of illiterates and the educated but unemployable throughout the country. It has become the most reliable form of public transportation system in our towns and cities for the masses, if not for almost everyone else. It is not unusual to find a well-heeled gentleman desert his car in a Lagos traffic congestion to hop on okada to get to where he is going with sweat pouring down from every pour in his body.

The okada business is a legitimate exploitation of the failure or the inability of state governments to provide reliable means of transportation system, public or private, for the people. It has obvious attractions for young people because no one needs to be tested to prove that he is capable of riding okada. All it takes is for a man to buy a motorcycle. Luckily for the okada business, South Asian countries ship thousands of relatively cheap motorcycles to the country every month. Like standby generators, there is a motorcycle to suit every pocket, no matter how shallow it may be.

I do not think anyone would be foolish enough to dispute the fact that okada men are comprehensively a menace to the public. Some of us, looking for a rationale for the ban, think it was intended to curb their menace. But I have since learnt that the primary objective of the ban has to do with the insecurity posed by the influx of okada men into Lagos. The ban may be the right response in the circumstances to the twin problems of the menace of these men on our roads and the critical need to contain the influx of criminal elements who pose security challenges to the government and the people, but it will not kill the okada business. It is too entrenched in the country to make it history anywhere, anytime soon. One good reason for this is that some of the state governments do not seem to give a thought to the transportation problems faced by the masses. Okada fills that vacuum.

Let us not forget that every action generates a reaction, positive or negative. We cannot discount this even if the resort to the ban was the only or the most sensible option open to the state government. The times are hard for our young men and women, both the educated and the uneducated. For some of them, the okada business is the one legitimate business that helps to feed them and their family. Once they lose that, there is no knowing to where the devil would direct them next. Knowing the devil as we do, it would direct them into anti-social behaviour which might negate the objective of the ban.

It could be argued, of course, that since the ban affects only 15 out of the 37 local government areas in the state, the okada men banned from the 15 local governments still have enough room to operate. All it takes is for them to migrate to the 22 other local government areas and continue with their mad business. Still, their ban from the 15 local governments and parts of the Lagos metropolis must have certainly created a vacuum in the state public transportation system. The state government cannot fill this vacuum. More problems for the masses, obviously. And that is not such a good thing.

Okada does not pose problems for Lagos State only. No state government in the country is entirely happy with the okada men. Some have partially banned them or restricted them to particular parts of the state. It seems to me that part of the problem with okada is that the state governments fail to see it as a legitimate private business enterprise and treat it like all such business enterprises. If the state governments recognise the okada as legitimate business, then the next step would be for them to properly license and effectively regulate them. Effective regulation would persuade the okada men to accept that they are not and cannot be allowed to be a law unto themselves on our roads. Their contempt for traffic regulations and the safety of themselves, their passengers and other road users is a legitimate source of worry. No one knows for sure how many people are injured, maimed and even killed daily through the careless bravado of the okada men who behave in the traffic as if they have a surfeit of lives. This is likely to continue as long as they are not properly educated and regulated and forced to obey traffic regulations and respect the rights of other road users. I suspect this would force them to respect their own common sense too.

To treat okada as a legitimate business primarily in the service of the masses because of the failure of the public system to meet their transportation needs, the state governments throughout the country should formally license all okada operators and tax them. The local government councils could do this easily and ensure that those registered in a particular local government area operate strictly within that local government area only. Registering them would ensure it is no longer an all-comers business operated by unknown young men. This would also end the chaos and make it easy for the police and other security agencies to police, all things being equal, the insane okada men.

I recall that the Obasanjo military regime enacted and enforced the law on helmets for motor cyclists and their passengers. The civilian governors scrapped the law soon after they assumed office in 1979. Their action was both insane and politically incorrect. The helmet regulation should be brought back and enforced on okada and all motor cyclists. They should also be made to wear reflective vests day and night.

In the case of Lagos State, the Lagos State Neighbourhood Corps could be deployed to parts of the metropolis to stop okada men from riding against traffic on all highways, major minor and endangering the lives of other road users. It should be made unlawful for those whose okada had been seized by the police to return to the business for at least six months. The licence of such men should be suspended.

To bring some sanity to Lagos streets would take more than the okada ban. Molue drivers, just like the okada men, believe they are above traffic regulations. They are as menacing as the okada men. I am sure banning them would be out of the question. But forcing them to obey simple traffic regulations cannot be out of the question – if there is the will on the part of the authorities. There is need to properly regulate them because they too do pose security challenges to the government and the people.

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo once described Lagos as a jungle because there is a deficit of decent behaviour among the people in the former federal capital. Let the state government end the jungle mentality and make us human again.


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