The dastardly and unfortunate attack against the Emir of Kano last Saturday, 20th January by gunmen riding on motorcycles has produced a huge group of losers and winners. The losers are the motorcycle commercial operators popularly known as ‘Yan Achaba’ in Kano while the winners are those who will profit from less pollution in the air. One of the clearest signs of social degradation in West Africa is the predominant role of the motorcycle in providing commercial transport. Following the economic crisis of the 1980s, the transport model of the urban centre based on five or seven sitter car taxis began to collapse. Mini buses and motorcycles then took over the transport business as informality became the organising principle of the business as people had to create livelihoods for themselves. The moped revolution is one of the most evident expressions of informality in contemporary West Africa. The economics is straightforward. The Chinese economy is capable of delivering motorcycles at prices that are affordable so people buy and use them.
The moped revolution started in Benin Republic around 1980. As workers lost their jobs in the economic crisis at that time, many of them who owned motorcycles started transporting their neighbours for a small fee and they never looked back. With the growing youth bulge in West Africa, more people followed the example and in many cities, over 70% of commercial public transport of goods, persons and services is provided by the informal sector, especially motorcycle-taxis. The phenomenon of rising unemployment, deterioration of the urban roads coupled with the economic crisis meant that the mopeds were not only cheaper but also more suitable for providing greater accessibility to areas with unpaved roads or degraded urban roads. Thus, as the conventional public transport become rarer and too expensive, the moped revolution took root. Kano is reputed to have the largest number of motorcycle taxis in West Africa. This city of six million inhabitants has two million mopeds or ‘achabas’ says Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the Kano office of the Federal Roads Safety Commission (FRSC). The figure of two million might be exaggerated but even half that number is enormous.
The moped revolution has been a source of worry all over the country. Most of the drivers are not licensed and do not have a clue about the Highway Code and traffic rules. They are not aware of the dangers of over speeding and many take prescription drugs “to stay alert” thereby raising the chances of having accidents. All over West Africa, motorcycle drivers have resisted laws to impose wearing of helmets. A good percentage of the mopeds are not road worthy, they often have defective brakes and lights and ply roads that are in very poor conditions. The result is a very high rate of accidents. Indeed, all hospitals in West African cities have trauma wards dedicated to motorcycle accidents.
Despite these problems of poor safety conditions and pollution which we shall address, motorcycle-taxis offer customers an undeniable service in terms of frequency, door-to-door transportation, and all at a distance-based cost, which explains why they are so popular. This means of transport also became a source of employment for many unemployed and young persons and is today the biggest employer in most West African cities. For a long time, the Kano state Government has been toying with the idea of banning the business of commercial motorcycle taxis but has been worried about the backlash. The attack on the Emir and his entourage provided an opportunity for a temporary ban. The problem for the state is the consequences of “suspending” the livelihoods of one or two million people. Does the state know what it is doing? Would the act not create more problems than it was intended to solve? The State Government has asked all the achaba owners to go to their local governments of origin and do biometric registration – why in their local governments and what of those who are not from the state. Is the intention to drive out non indigenes and then allow the indigenous achaba owners continue with the business? If so, can the state handle the social pressure and does it have the capacity to police such a policy? I believe that Kano and other cities must eventually prohibit the use of moped taxis but it has to be a gradual process if it is to succeed.
Over the coming years, the most important impact of the moped revolution would be the deteriorating health of urban residents subjected to the toxicity produced by the mopeds. Thanks to the mopeds, Kano has become extremely polluted over the years. A scholar has estimated that the two million motorcycles plying the roads of Kano produce as much toxic fumes as six million cars – too much for a city of six million people. The problem in Kano has been exacerbated by the 2006 government ban on commercial motorbikes in Abuja and the 2011 ban in Jos, which led more operators to head to Kano, where moped use increased dramatically.
The fumes from the motorcycle exhausts have the potential of causing skin cancer if one comes in constant contact with them, particularly because of the engine oil added in the petrol by users who think they are saving costs by so doing. A lot of infections that are common in Kano, including anomalies in the upper respiratory tract and eye infections, especially conjunctivitis, can be traced to the fumes people are ingesting. The density of motorcycle traffic is also increasing the number of accidents in the city, and according to the FRCS, the bikes cause at least 70 percent of the city’s road traffic accidents. Kano General Hospital has a ward called the ‘achaba ward’ where the accident victims from taxi mopeds are hospitalized.
Over the coming years, the impact of motorcycle toxicity on health might be greater than that of HIV/AIDS and malaria combined. A motorcycle gives off about 0.13 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) when it travels 1.6 kilometres. If the two million motorcycles we have today in Kano travel 1.6 kilometres, they give off 272,154.00 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2). If you ride a motorcycle for 16 kilometres, you are adding an additional 1.3 kg of CO2 to the environment. That is to say if two million motorcycles as we have in Kano today travel 16 kilometres, they give off 2,721,540.00 kg of CO2 to the environment. On the whole, motorcycles add an estimated 81,646,200.00 kg of CO2 every 30 days to Kano city’s environment. The impact of this on climate change in this Sahelian zone must be huge. The impact on the health of the population is also massive.
Motorcycles also produces Carbon monoxide (CO), when carbon monoxide gets into the body, the carbon monoxide combines with chemicals in the blood and prevents the blood from bringing oxygen to cells, tissues, and organs. The body’s parts need oxygen for energy, so high-level exposures to carbon monoxide can cause serious health effects and even death, Symptoms of exposure to carbon monoxide can include vision problems, reduced alertness, and general reduction in mental and physical functions. Carbon monoxide exposures are especially harmful to people with heart, lung, and circulatory system diseases. As the moped revolution grows, states, communities and the scientific world needs to closely study, monitor and act on the moped revolution to improve the quality of life of citizens. The Kano State Government therefore needs to engage on a more comprehensive analysis of the problems generated by the mopeds not just the security issues. Any viable solution must be gradual and involve the provision of alternative modes of livelihoods for the millions that depend on their mopeds to live and die.