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Frank Talk – The great Okada debate

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By Steve Nwosu

There is a great Okada debate currently going on in Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu’s Lagos. Sanwo-Olu’s government, with effect from February 1, 2020, has outlawed the operation of both the infamous commercial motorcycles and their kindred spirit tricycles (know to Lagosians as Keke Marwa) in some parts of the state.

Motorists and private vehicle owners are mutedly celebrating, commuter bus and cab drivers are exploiting the situation, commuters are trekking and swearing, Okada and Keke operators don’t seem to know what hit them.

They have resorted to their usual protests – both violent and non-violent, but there does not appear to be too much of public sympathy. And the state government is digging in, daily launching ferries and mass transit buses.

Of course all manner of perspectives have been thrown into the public arena over the new policy – from the credible to the incredible and credulous, the ridiculous and the ludicrous, and the outrightly dumb and mundane.

But if you genuinely thought that riding an Okada is an honest answer to either our transportation challenges or economic downturn (both national and individual) then you sincerely need to get your head reconfigured. But I’ll get back to this grand deceit of an Okada economy.

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Now, I must confess, I have never been a fan of Okada, Achaba, Ina-aga, or whatever name you call commercial motorcycles in your neck of the wood. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I can afford to get around in my own car.

No! It is also not because I have never really been able to master the art (and science) of sitting comfortably on bikes, without bouncing up and down on the seat as the rider gallops along. Yes, I’ve had to ‘fly’ Okada on a few occasions to beat the traffic bedlam of Lagos, but I always dismounted each time with a renewed resolve never to do it again. I have never considered it a worthwhile transportation option.

The phobia I have for Okada is only equaled by the phobia I had for the now-extinct Molue. Long before I could afford a car tyre, I resolved never to ride a Molue again. I could never understand why a bus driver would not properly stop to let passengers board or disembark.

On several occasions, I had fallen down either trying to board or disembark – staining and tearing my clothes in the process, and on some occasions, seriously injuring myself. Till this day, I still feel a shock sensation on the two middle fingers of my left hand, where the zinc sheet of a Molue’s door slashed deep into my skin, as I clung on for dear life, when the Molue suddenly began to drive off as I was trying to disembark.

My fingers got stuck and the bus dragged me for a few metres before I managed to extricate my fingers and fall to the ground, albeit without a sizeable chunk of the flesh around the fingers. It was in 1994, and from that day till some four or five years later, when I could afford a car, I never rode on a Molue again.

I still recall occasions when I trekked from the GUARDIAN office (at Toyota Bus-stop), all the way to Cele – and sometimes, Ijesha, bus-stop simply because there were no Danfos on the road. On other occasions, I had to trek to Oshodi, from where I could board a Coaster, which would take me through a much longer route home.

 Unlike many respondents have said on TV over the ban, I do not believe that Okada is a cheaper means of transportation. It is only faster (to get around Lagos with.

Even at that, it is only faster because the operators ride in total disregard of every known and unknown traffic law and rule. My only grouse with this partial ban regime is that the buses (and ferries and light rails) that should replace the motorcycles are not yet available. But then, if we wait until when we have enough buses and trains, we’ll never phase out the okada.

I’m also not too happy that the Keke Marws got caught up in the Okada debacle. Even though the tricycles are now as much a menace as their Okada cousins, the three-legged vehicles could be allowed to take care of the inner roads for now. Incidentally, I’m actually looking forward to the day we will also phase out Danfos and clear the road for large and genuine mass transit buses.

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My reason? Look at any major traffic snarl in Lagos: apart from those brought about by bad portions of the road, the rest are almost exclusively caused by Danfos, Okadas and Keke Marwa either dropping and picking passengers right in the middle of the road or simply, and indignantly, occupying a large chunk of an otherwise busy road and turning it into an illegal park.

So, Okada, Keke and their Danfo kindred spirit cause the ‘go-slow’, and then turn round to feast on the mayhem, in the guise of providing succor for stranded passengers – and those running late on their appointments. And the exploitation is unimaginable.

A trip from Cele Bus-stop (on the Apapa/Oshodi expressway) to Ikotun, for instance, which would ordinarily cost between N100 and N200 by bus, shoots up to between N500, N700 and N1,000 on Okada. But the most inhuman of this unconscionable exploitation is along the Bank Anthony Way and Airport Road axis.

Knowing that intending air travellers heading to the airport would be stuck in the freak traffic (usually caused by their ilk), the okada hawks perch on both the pedestrian sidewalk and the grass median (which is against the law, by the way), waiting to pounce. They charge as much as N3,000 for the less-than-one-kilometre trip from Customs to the Local Airport.

It would even have been more tolerable if they would just restrict themselves to meandering through the maze of stuck vehicles – unapologetically scratching people’s vehicles, knocking off side mirrors and risking the lives and limbs of both rider and passenger. But No! They would ride on sidewalk, median, knock down pedestrians, face oncoming traffic and generally break every rule in the book.

They are not just a nuisance, but a nightmare on the roads. And some people are talking of regulating them? Don’t even go there. They are above the law. Apprehend any of them, and all his colleagues in the neighbourhood would swarm on you. You’re pronounced guilty even before they know the fact of the matter.

You’ll count yourself lucky if you escape with your life. For you could be lynched. It’s even worse if Okada rider rams into your vehicle. You’re also guilty. His mob would beat you, vandalize your vehicle, rob you, and still force you to pay for the treatment of the felon’s self-inflicted injuries. You are simply guilty because you’re driving a car, and therefore ‘trying to oppress a poor Okada rider trying to eke out a living’.

Of course the crime associated with Okada is a different kettle of fish. In fact, that alone, is enough to ban Okada for life. Yes, robbers also operate in cars and buses, but the case against Okada is that it is the preferred getaway vehicle of robbers on busy Lagos roads.

Unlike cars that could get trapped in traffic, Okada easily meanders through traffic jams, ignores traffic lights, rides on sidewalks, and can easily be carried over open drainages and medians onto the opposite lanes and zoomed off.

When yours sincerely was shot in Lagos traffic a few years back, the assailants came on Okada, shot me, left me for dead, and made away with the money for which they had trailed me from a bank in FESTAC Town 

They simply turned their Okada round, faced oncoming vehicles and sped off. A few years later, when kidnappers invaded my home and abducted my wife, it was through the same Okada riders operating in my area that they were monitoring the movement in and out of my house, as we negotiated for my wife’s release.

And when the police team, led by the then CP, Fatai Owoseni,  and Abba Kyari of the IRT, closed in on the kidnappers’ communication network and moved to arrest their contact among the Okada riders, the mob suddenly alleged that the police were arresting Hausa Okada riders and attacked the police team, inflicting several near-fatal stabs on the inspector who led the team. In the confusion, the suspect escaped.

But the biggest lie of the Okada debate, however, is the tale that it’s the way the poor struggle to eke a living in these hard times. But the truth is that the cheapest motorcycle out there today costs more than N100,000. That is more than twice the amount given to barbers, hairdressers, tailors, market women and all manner of start-ups as seed money. And many of them turn it around and continue to grow from there.

The celebrated TRADERMONI, the APC endeared itself to voters ahead of the last general elections was just N10,000 per person. The truth about Okada business is that it brings quick and regular petty cash. And it suits the get-rich-quick mentality of today’s youths. That is why many barbers, farmers, welders, auto mechanics, tilers and other artisans have abandoned their trade to embrace Okada riding.

That is also why Togolese, Beninoise and Ghanaians have taken over most of those jobs in the Nigeria today, while our youths are riding Okada. I know of a kinsman who sold all his furniture making equipment to buy motorcycle to face Okada business.

The tragedy of it all is that very few people who buy one Okada ever get to grow out of that first Okada. And that is if he does not maim himself prematurely. For as he is smashing his motorcycle into walls, bridges, cars, and hard road surfaces, he’s also smashing himself and killing himself instalmentally. He never saves enough to even treat himself properly, let alone buy another motorcycle.

Although the story is beginning to change with the entrance of corporate bodies into the Okada business, the risk, recklessness and lawlessness associated with Okada operations have remained unchanged.

…Supreme irony

A few months ago, a certain Lagos senator, just like the counterpart in the House of Representatives did before the National Assembly elections, organized an empowerment programme for constituents. The highlight of the event was the handing out of tricycles to lucky supporters. The beneficiaries and others hoping their own turn would come soon, praised the senator to high heavens. Today, those beneficiaries, considering the part of Lagos they reside, may soon be forced to relocate or restrict themselves to riding their tricycles in their compounds.