There is a silent ‘war’ going on in Lagos at the moment. You may call it ‘Okada War’. The war was ignited recently when the Lagos State Government placed a restriction on the operation of motorcycles, particularly the ones being used for commercial purpose, popularly called okada, along certain routes in the state. The okada operators are saying that the restriction, which emanated from legislation by the State House of Assembly, has put them out of business. This is more so as they claimed that the 451 roads and bridges in the state along which their movement have been restricted are the most lucrative routes.
On its part, the Lagos State Government has maintained that the government is determined to curb the rate of fatal accidents involving these okada riders, check the rampant use of okada to commit violent crimes as well as bring sanity to the Lagos chaotic traffic system. Many public enlightenment and sensitization programmes have been held by the government in its attempt to make these okada riders to see reason and comply with the law. The okada riders too have held protests and even introduced violence to their resentment of the law.
A few weeks ago, there was tension on Lagos roads as the commercial motorcyclists took up ‘arms’ and vandalised government vehicles on sight. Mostly affected were the state’s mass transit buses, popularly called BRT. Some of them were torched, while many more had their wind screens and side glasses shattered. In the orgy of violence, the government and security agencies in the state quickly employed tact and caution to bring the situation under control. For almost a week, it was a hide-and-seek game as security agencies battle the warring okada riders to submission.
‘For this group of people, the first thing that takes flight is their sense of reasoning. Otherwise, what particular importance or benefits will wanton destruction of public property and brigandage do to their agitation …’
As they say, when two elephants fight, it is the grass beneath them that suffers. But in this case, the fight was between an elephant, which is the state government, and a ‘horse’, which is the okada riders. And instead of the proverbial grasses, it was the Lagos commuters that bore the brunt of the crisis while it lasted, although the smoldering effect could take eternity to overcome.
I have metaphorically referred to okada riders as the ‘horse’ instead of dismissing them as mere ants waging war against the elephant because of their resilience and die-hard spirit to fight any perceived ‘injustice’. For this group of people, the first thing that takes flight is their sense of reasoning. Otherwise, what particular importance or benefit will wanton destruction of public property and brigandage do to their agitation, if not to further portray them as good-for-nothing hoodlums.
It was a pitiful sight and it is still much so to see hundreds and thousands of stranded commuters at bus stops in Lagos metropolis waiting for the few buses on the roads. In many instances, many of the commuters have always resorted to trekking to their various destinations no matter the distance. Even the few buses available, I mean both private and government vehicles, have been overwhelmed by the flood of passengers.
Anyway, a regime of relative peace has since taken over. The new phase of the ‘struggle’ is the ongoing silent war between the okada operators and policemen. Perhaps, for lack of other things to do, by this I mean for lack of any gainful employment, the okada riders have been indulging in occasional forays to many of the routes where they have been banned. The incursions are done mostly in the evenings and early in the morning to avoid the prying eyes of security agents.
The police are not relenting either. Many a time, you notice them running after these okada riders who take the risk to thread where they are not wanted. This is why I believe that most of them still do the business for lack of any other thing to do. Otherwise, when you weigh the risk involved – police brutality, extortion, confiscation of motorcycles and the rest – you may begin to wonder why people still indulge in the business. That is the never-say-die spirit of the okada riders or mafia.
But why is this so? Lagos is the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria. It is this status that is responsible for the influx of people to the state in search of the proverbial “milk and honey” which, perhaps, may no longer flow as it used to be. That is, if at all there had been anything near that in the past. It is also a fact that Lagos is home to indigenes of all the states of the federation. What this means is that there is no state in the country that does not have a good presence of its indigenes in every nook and cranny of Lagos State. Many other people from other African countries and the diaspora have found sanctuary in Lagos.
Though small in terms of landmass, the population of Lagos is conservatively put at an amazing 20 million people. This burgeoning population is daily in search of their daily bread. In a situation where white-collar jobs are in short supply or outright unavailable, the next easiest option appears to be okada business. This situation is further fuelled by lack of adequate capital to embark on any tangible small or medium- scale business by those who are interested in trading and other commercial preoccupations.
Therefore, over the years, okada business has become a major stake in the economy of many families both in Nigeria as a whole and Lagos in particular. A cursory peep into history could lead us to this okada age. In the 60s and the 70s, there was nothing like okada business in Nigeria. If it existed at all, it was in some neighboring countries like Republic of Benin and Togo. Then it crept into places like the old Cross River State and some other far-flung states from Lagos. Today, the whole country has been engulfed by the okada business.
“Why okada?” you may ask. In the good old days, especially in the late 60s and early 70s, riding a motorcycle was both a social and status symbol. The one commonly used then was a brand of motorcycle called Vespa, with its tiny tires and alluring body design. Then there was Mobylette, a smaller version. And of course, there were Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and other brands. By the mid-70s, the Yamaha brand had entered the scene with its outstanding features.
To own a motorcycle then was regarded as a rare luxury because the cars were very few and the motorcycles had come to displace the bicycles, especially the popular brand known as Raleigh. The motorcycles became more conspicuous on the roads after the salary windfall of 1973 commonly referred to as “Udoji Awards”. Salary arrears rising to huge sums of money were paid to workers at that time. Many bought motorcycles, some small cars, others built houses while some married additional wives. Depending on what you wanted to ride – a motorcycle, a car or even a woman – there was enough ‘free’ money to do this courtesy of the military dictatorship of General Yakubu Gowon (retd) at that time. This was a scenario that gradually snowballed into today’s harvest of okada in Nigeria.
However, the socio-economic importance of okada cannot be easily overlooked. It has filled the vacuum of inadequate transportation in most parts of the country. Where the vehicles are in drastic short supply, okada seems to be making up for the shortfall. Similarly, where the roads have been rendered more or less impassable either for lack of maintenance or poor construction, okada has come in handy for the commuters. This is because okada don’t discriminate. It can navigate its way along bush paths or many of the pothole-infested roads all over the country. Lagos is no exception.