Editorial: Restrictions on Okada in Lagos State

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Quite predictably, the clampdown on commercial motorcycles popularly called Okada by the Lagos State government ostensibly in enforcement of the transport sector reform law of 2018 has generated mixed reactions. The law bans the motorcycles from plying certain major routes in six LGAs - Apapa, Eti Osa, Ikeja, Lagos Island, Lagos Mainland and Surulere. In protest of the ban, Okada and Keke riders clashed with police officers in the Lagos suburbs of Ijora and Iyana Ipaja; leading to an unconfirmed number of deaths and wanton destruction of property. Clearly, the excesses of security agents is an advertisement of how the law should never be enforced and underscores the need to rein in state traffic agency officials and make them achieve orderliness without becoming disorderly themselves. Lagos is a big city in dire need of orderliness. The state government is doing its best to make Lagosians live in the 21st century and these efforts should not be undermined by wrong behavior.


To some extent, there is genuineness in the complaint about the arbitrary nature of the ban and the seizure of motorcycles, including private non-commercial ones by agents of the state government; and the hardship faced by thousands of commuters who use Okadas. Added to this is the near absence of other reliable means of commuting, the dearth of buses and the dilapidation of roads. Lagos state's Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotosho, said the ban was needed because of deaths, accidents and disorderliness caused by Okadas and commercial tricycles. The main reason many Lagosians support the ban is on account of the recklessness and numerous accidents caused by Okadas. Besides, criminals readily use Okadas to perpetrate their unholy activities, taking advantage of the Okada maneuverability. These reasons are weighty enough, however, to necessitate some official intervention, in the interest of peace-loving Lagosians. What is important is that sanity, law and order should prevail in the system, and the state has a duty in that regard.


Recall that the new Lagos Traffic Rules and Regulations, which former Governor Fashola signed into law, among other things, restricted Okada operators from 475 designated strategic highways within the Lagos metropolis. Subsection 4 of the law forbids Okada riders from carrying more than one passenger, pregnant women, and children below 12 years of age, adult with baby or heavy load on the head. The Fashola administration stood by helpless as the Okada riders ignored the law and went about their business as usual. But the new Babajide Sanwo-Olu administration seems committed to bringing sanity on Lagos roads. After a period of grace, which the state used to enlighten the public on the impending new Okada restrictions, it came out in full force to enforce the law. Expectedly, the law caught up with thousands of Okada riders, who argued that their ban on several roads would effectively put them out of business in the face of crushing unemployment. 


Many have defied the law and continued to operate on the restricted highways, inviting confrontation with the police and Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA) officials; who have subsequently pounced on the riders, impounded and crushed thousands of motorcycles. The Okada riders have been staging mass protests in different parts of Lagos, causing heavy gridlock. They also reportedly attacked commuters and vandalized LASTMA buses. Policemen of the Rapid Response Squad (RRS) were deployed and some protesters arrested. The Lagos State government has warned that there’s no going back and threatened an outright ban on Okada if the riders were not ready to obey the law.


The bike riders are called Okada riders as a befitting tribute to the business ingenuity of the original Okada Man, Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, the founder of the first privately owned airline in Nigeria, Okada Airline. Since the bike man also takes you swiftly from one point to another like Igbinedion’s planes, Nigerians with their remarkable genius for travesty, nick-named them Okada riders. So Okada came to represent the ingenuity of Nigerians to deal with the inadequacies of Nigeria’s public transportation system. But Okada has been a persistent public nuisance for many decades. There is no doubt that the emergence of Okada has brought both pain and relief to many families. Whereas the phenomenon has helped to ease the transportation challenge and served as a stop-gap for millions of unemployed youths who depend on it as a means of livelihood, the pains and agony it has brought are equally enormous. In the opinion of many people, it has done more harm than good and acquired an unwholesome reputation. The proof is at the orthopedic hospital, Igbobi, Lagos where the limbless and armless ones are sojourning, thanks to Okada accidents. The Okada riders have even become the subject of prayers at religious night vigils.


According to statistics from LASTMA, from 2016 to 2019, there were over 10,000 Okada accidents recorded at the General Hospitals alone. This number excludes unreported cases and those recorded by other hospitals. The total number of deaths from reported Okada accidents in the last two years is no less than 619 people as of date. Police records also show that 513 fatal accidents in the state in the last two years were caused by Okada; and that out of the 30 armed robbery incidents recorded in the state between December and January, 22 of them involved the use of Okadas. These figures obviously are not fully reflective of the situation’s gravity, as many incidents were not reported to the authorities.


Besides, the lawlessness of Okada on the road is most irritating. Most of the riders are stark illiterates who cannot read or understand road traffic signs. They have no regard for other road-users, and are permanently in a hurry to discharge their passengers. Clearly, the phenomenon has been abused and is never the best means of transportation. Okada is a reflection of the abject state of the economy and the failure of the government regarding public transportation. It portrays the diminished quality of life of the citizenry. Many riders take to it simply to avoid total joblessness.


That notwithstanding, it is indeed surprising that the state government corralled the bike-on-demand companies, like MAX, Gokada and OPay’s ORide, despite their meticulous documentations, with the rampaging Okada crowd. These new companies have brought orderliness and a level of discipline and setting the markers of what must be done by operators in the sector. Already, as a by-product of the ban, Fahim Saleh, Gokada CEO announced the lay-off of 70% of its staff, and a possible pivot to delivery and boats. This should not happen in a sector where since 2017, the likes of MAX, Gokada and OPay’s ORide have raised almost $150 million in funding, showcasing considerable investor interest in the ride-hailing market in Nigeria. What is even more surprising is that the ban also affected Keke Marwa; named after the popular former military administrator of Lagos State, Brigadier Mohammed Marwa, who imported tricycles from India as a safer and better alternative for city transportation. 


Governments at all level and in all the states should rise to the challenge of Okada. First is the need to resuscitate the industries where the idle hands can be absorbed in productive employment. The Lagos State government should also increase the number of BRT buses on different routes. A situation where crowd of commuters flock the bus stops waiting endlessly for few buses is unacceptable. The Okada riders should be encouraged to purchase tricycles instead of motorcycles; and public enlightenment campaign should be stepped up. These efforts should be complemented by a deliberate roads’ repair and construction scheme to ease vehicular movement and encourage private sector participation in public transportation; while adequate traffic signs and lights should be provided.


Lagos State deserves support and collaboration in its endeavor to bring sanity to the roads. The law enforcement agencies should, however, be cautioned to be humane and avoid being overzealous. LASTMA agents should not go beyond their limit to harass and intimidate innocent motorists on flimsy excuses; while private motorcycles that are not used for commercial purposes should not be arrested or impounded. Also, the government should regulate the activities of Danfo and Molue buses aka “one-chance” buses that have become the snare of kidnappers. Accountability for these buses should not be left to operatives of the National Union of Road Transport Workers; who themselves lack the requisite training to exercise their supervisory authority and keep Lagos safe for Lagosians. 


In the long run, the government should think beyond constructing roads. In 1983, the Lagos State Government of Governor Lateef Jakande had already paid over $200 million (N75 billion) for the metro line project, which was cancelled by the military regime of Gen Muhammadu Buhari when Captain Gbolahan Mudashiru became military governor of Lagos State. It would be a fitting payback for the people of Lagos if Mr. President would fully support the efforts of the state to have a comprehensive and ultra-modern public transportation system including rail and water transport. Above all, the point must be made with emphasis that despite the ban, the Okada riders will not disappear. The Federal and 36 State governments have to create jobs. An idle mind, it has been said; is the devil’s workshop. The devil still has the old formula of employing the jobless. That is the basis of insecurity in Nigeria. In the meantime, members of the public have a responsibility to obey the law and live by the rules. Law enforcement begins with obedience. That is the only way a city or any community can prosper.