By Steve Nwosu
Every time I remember Emeka Enechi, my late friend and former colleague at THISDAY, it is not his painful and avoidable death that comes to mind, although it still hurts that the guy, who we fondly called Biafra, had to die at his prime.
What I always remember about Emeka, who would later become the Sports Editor of THISDAY, is the experience he once had with commercial motorcyclists around the Council bus stop, in the Idimu area of Lagos.
Driving in his old reliable Toyota Camry, Emeka was trying to negotiate his way through the roundabout when he had a slight thud at the rear end of his car. It wasn’t particularly forceful, but when he instinctively glanced at the back to see what happened, he noticed a rough-looking young man sprawled on the dusty road beside his motorcycle. He did not seem too much in a hurry to get up, as he exhibited all manner of pains and convincing grimaces, indicative of someone genuinely hurt. Curiously, as he put up this act, he was also yelling, in Yoruba, “e ma je ko sa lo o! (don’t allow him to escape!).
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That was all the directive his fellow okada riders needed to bay for blood and block the road (which had already been severely narrowed on both sides by the encroachment of street traders and undisciplined commercial motorcyclists and bus drivers, as well as pedestrians). Some of the motorcyclists even sat on Emeka’s bonnet.
His offence? He had hit a motorcyclist and was trying to speed off. Their verdict? He must take the wounded rider to the hospital, pay the medical bill and also give the “victim” some cash to take care of himself and his ‘damaged’ bike.
No member of that mob of Okada riders bothered to interrogate what had really happened. They conveniently overlooked the little detail that it was the motorcyclist who actually rammed into Emeka’s slowly moving car from behind. That there was no way the car could have, therefore, pushed down the bike, let alone run it over.
They were either blinded by their deliberate commission of solidarity or innocent omission of ignorance. And to make matters worse, Emeka, who didn’t understand a word of the local language, by the way, was the ‘big man’ in this instance (for the simple reason of his being a car owner). He, therefore, stood guilty of trying to ‘oppress’ a poor man (okada rider).
Of course, he couldn’t have expected a different verdict from a jury of Okada men, who also doubled as plaintiff and prosecutor.
It’s like the proverbial cockroach before a jury of fowls.
Of course, the ‘mob’ had its way. The only snag, however, was that on reaching their preferred hospital (which happened to be the hospital my family was using at the time), the nurse with whom they always connived to extort unsuspecting motorists was not on duty. They were compelled to see the hospital’s medical director instead.
The doctor examined the allegedly injured okada man and concluded nothing was wrong with him. It then dawned on him that the entire accident was actually staged to extort Emeka. Many of those who had joined in arresting and molesting the motorist didn’t know they were being used by a gang of criminals masquerading as okada riders.
Knowing that Emeka was my colleague even made the doctor more willing to manage the situation. He convinced the obviously disappointed cyclists to take a token and leave. But I’m sure they’d set the same trap for other motorists. And probably change hospital too. This criminal enterprise has continued to blossom to this day, albeit in varied forms. That is why if you get into an accident or argument with an okadaman, within the twinkle of an eye, all the okada riders in that axis swoop down on you. They never ask to know what transpired before they pounce on whomsoever is perceived to be having a misunderstanding with their okadaman colleague. You could get lynched. Recall the recent incident at Lekki!
Rushing to meet a 9:00 am appointment at Lekki Phase II penultimate Thursday, I was lucky to be driving against the usual heavy traffic into Victoria Island from the Lekki/Ajah axis.
The traffic on my side of the road was not particularly light, but it was way better than the gridlock on the other side.
And just as I was thanking my stars, as I pulled out from behind a truck that was in front of me, preparatory to overtaking it, I came face to face with a commercial motorcyclist, with two passengers, coming towards me at breakneck speed. Yes! On my side of the road! Facing oncoming traffic! Swaying and shaking dangerously as he tried to steady his bike with one hand while using the other hand to wave us off his way, which was ideally our way! At one point, he was almost crashing into the concrete median.
It was outright divine intervention that gave me the instant presence of mind to quickly swerve to my right and narrowly miss running them over. In so doing, I hit my car against another car beside me. We missed a multiple accident by whiskers! And as we pulled off the road to begin the usual Lagos you-don-hit-my-car argument, it was clear that the other driver hadn’t the foggiest idea of why I suddenly swerved into his lane. He was convinced I slept off in motion.
Meanwhile, the culprit motorcyclist and his passenger didn’t as much as slow down, as they continued on their deathwish ride. They even threw a snide remark at me as they sped past, noisily chattering. It didn’t occur to them that they were only a hair’s breadth away from becoming kebabs.
To this moment, I still get goose pimples at the thought of it, and how the colony of okadamen in that axis would probably have torched me in my car, in blind protest, without finding out what happened. God forbid!
Policemen on the trail of kidnappers who had abducted a woman from her home within the area had reliable intelligence that an informant of the kidnappers was embedded with the commercial motorcyclists at the Ago Waterside bus stop. Using the veil of okada rider, the kidnappers’ accomplice combed the entire area, providing useful information to his gang members.
After several days of tracking his phone, and establishing incontrovertible proof of his links with the kidnappers, the police team moved in to arrest him.
Unfortunately, his fellow okadamen, largely unaware of his shady dealings, stoutly rose in his defence, attacked the police officers, and almost fatally wounding the leader of the team. The ensuing pandemonium enabled the criminal to escape. To this day, he has not been sighted again.
Police authorities would later reveal how guns, knives and other dangerous weapons have regularly been found on supposed okadamen. How many of them deliberately refuse to licence or properly register their bikes, and yet insist on using them for commercial purposes.
Jakande Bus-stop, Lekki-Epe Expressway
My business of the day was at the Ilasan Police Divisional Headquarters. But first, I needed to do a transaction at a bank in Agungi, on the other side of the same Expressway. I opted to use the footbridge, determined not to make a dash across the busy Expressway which, though risky, could have cut my journey by at least a half. But it is also illegal. But I was almost made to regret that lawful decision almost immediately. With homeless persons, lunatics and social vermins having turned one side of the footbridge into a permanent abode, I was forced to use the wing of the bridge with a flat surface. Suddenly an okada appeared from nowhere right behind me, almost knocking me over. The rider blurted out what sounded like an apology about his horn not functioning and continued down the bridge. Now, even if that wing of the bridge wasn’t ideal for walking on, it wasn’t made for okada either. It is supposed to be for trolleys and hand-pushed carts. But okadamen have made it their alternate route, whether in Lekki, Festac First Gate or Five Star bus stops – the same way they ride on sidewalks and medians all over Lagos.
That is why an outright ban on okada operations seems the most reasonable way to curb their excesses. For where really would anyone honestly hope to control them from?
This ban is one case in which beheading is indeed a cure for persistent headaches – contrary to what our elders believe.
Listening to Traffic Reports on the trailblazing Lagos Traffic Radio, 96.1FM, one comes away with the impression that the authorities in the state have long given up on certain traffic menaces, and also resolved that Lagosians must learn to make these anomalies the new normal.
One such anomaly is the ubiquitous Danfo and the above-the-law ways of their owners, drivers and unions.
It is on Traffic Radio, which I’m hooked on, by the way, that we hear such phrases as “activities of the yellow buses”. This is just a euphemism for the indiscriminate parking, dropping and picking of passengers by the usually yellow-painted commercial buses in the state.
Rather than the police, LASTMA and other relevant agencies apprehending these felons, they turn a blind eye and compel other road users to live with the pain. In fact, you regularly see these law enforcement officers exchanging banters with the felons, right there at the scene of the crime. These are the untouchables.
Ironically, these agencies are at their vicious best at the slightest infraction by us the otherwise law-respecting motorists, especially the private car owners.
I guess it’s because, unlike the Danto drivers, the rest of us are not disposed to stripping to our privates to engage in public rofo-rofo!
Nothing, on Traffic Radio, sounds more irritating to the ear than “the activities of the yellow buses”. It’s actually an insult to our collective sense of decency.
I guess it is also the kid-glove treatment of their ilk that had emboldened okada riders to, first of all, establish a strong union/lobby group, and then go ahead to break every law in the books, including those specifically targeted at them.
Who, for instance, still remembers that there are certain routes and roads Okadas are not supposed to operate on? Or that there is a minimum capacity required for bikes to be used as dispatch bikes? Isn’t there supposed to be a law on the wearing of helmets? When was the last time you saw an okadaman, or his passenger, wearing a helmet? How about not carrying more than one passenger? Pregnant women? Children? Obeying traffic lights? Riding against traffic in the wrong lanes? When was the last time you saw an okada with proper number plates and numbers? Weren’t there always rules regulating the use of motorbikes by soldiers and men of other security agencies? Did any law empower soldiers and policemen to keep confiscated motorcycles? What really happens to seized motorbikes and offending riders?
And now that we are all agreed on this ban, what is the arrangement for extra policing, knowing that crime might spiral?
I have deliberately refused to be dragged into the argument about people using okada to eke out a living. I’m not a proponent of the Okada economy.
Okada riders are not necessarily poor people. The cost of a new bike is more than twice the capital outlay many other people use to start and grow other more respectable businesses, which are less dangerous. The lure of okada business, I believe, is that attraction to quick and unaccountable cash – which has become the very bane of our country.
Many honest people who get into okada riding use it as a stop-gap thing, and they usually leave at the slightest opportunity.
As for transportation option, there is always a bus, cab or tricycle to take you to that place you wrongly thought only okada can get to. It only takes some thinking out of the box, rerouting your trip and taking a 200, 300 or 500-metre walk, which is actually very good for your health.
And, come to think of it, don’t we all desire some sanity in Lagos? I’m with Gov. Sanwo-Olu on his ban. 100 per cent!