Last Flight For Okada Air?

Getting around in Nigeria’s crowded cities is taxing, with crushing traffic jams and public transportation systems that have collapsed or never existed. In their thousands, then, people take an Okada airlift: you pay a few cents to jump on the back of a blatting motorcycle, spitting oily smoke, to be whisked to your destination by the agile piloting of a young man who owns the motorcycle or is paid to drive it. Sarcastic Nigerians nicknamed the miraculous solution Okada, after a now-defunct and forgotten local airline.
Okada drivers numbered in the millions, but they are an endangered breed; one after another, Nigeria’s big cities have been forbidding them from central thoroughfares or banning them outright in recent years. They are blamed for horrifying rates of road injuries and fatalities (hospitals dedicate entire wards to Okada crash victims), choking pollution (drivers spike their gas tanks with oil to make the gas last) and criminality (purse snatching and organized crime from the backs of motorbikes). One of the last bastions has been Edo State and its Benin City, which was in the 1980s home to the real Okada Air.

Evidently, the love between the teeming commercial motorcyclists plying their trade in Edo State, and the state governor, Adams Oshiomhole, has gone sour and the romance is over. Last Wednesday, the Okada riders came out in hundreds to protest the sudden ban on their continued operation in the Benin metropolis. They unleashed mayhem on innocent residents and destroyed vehicles of hapless motorists. The security agencies, including soldiers, had a hectic time bringing the riot under control. While the relationship lasted, the Okada riders, as they are popularly called, were undoubtedly the staunch and most passionate supporters of the governor. Even in the course of his struggle to reclaim his mandate, and after, they were his foot soldiers; ever ready to abandon their work to serve as volunteer escorts as well as human shield around him anywhere they sighted him. Their love and support for Oshiomhole were so strong that it attracted the jealousy of opposition parties. The relationship was mutual so much so that on more than one occasion, the governor assured them that their operation would not be banned as had been done in some states.

For the army of Okada riders therefore, the sudden ban on their operations in three local government areas in the state capital – Oredo, Egor and Ikpoba Okha – came to them as a rude shock; it was like a bolt from the blue. The ban takes effect from Monday this week. The decision was the outcome of a recent Security Council meeting to review the security situation in the state, and was conveyed to the people in a broadcast by the governor. Oshiomhole attributed the decision to the criminal tendencies of some commercial motorcycle riders whom he alleged had been involved in kidnapping and other forms of violent crimes, including robbery. The governor blamed the spate of crime involving Okada riders on the influx of bike riders from neighbouring states where their operations have been banned. Oshiomhole similarly noted that more than 80 per cent of accident victims in the hospitals are bike riders and declared that, “we cannot continue like this. I therefore reached the painful conclusion that it is time to do something and we cannot postpone it further”.

But while many people welcome the decision, they however expressed misgiving over the manner it was introduced. They believe the policy should have been given a human face since it was intended for the good of the people. The protesting Okada riders felt betrayed by the governor. They said the most-unkind cut of it all was the suddenness of the policy that would have grave implications for them as family men with responsibilities and youths who had to resort to Okada riding in the absence of white-collar jobs. They were particularly disappointed that they were neither consulted nor given prior notice before the ban was slammed on them thereby catching them unawares and destabilising them. Nikaro Idiaghe who had no choice but to go into Okada riding four years ago, said he had travelled to Spain and Libya in search of greener pastures but had to come back home “because of paper matter”.

With the little money he came back with, he bought himself a motorcycle, which had been sustaining him and his family. With the ban on Okada, Idiaghe bemoaned his fate. And with an undergraduate wife and three children in private schools, Idiaghe wondered how he would cope. Thirty-five years old Ernest Akhueyan wished the governor had given them at least some months to prepare for it. With a younger brother in the University of Lagos whom he supports financially, Akhueyan told the magazine, “I don’t know what to do. I am frustrated”. Isaac Roland whose wife is pregnant, is similarly frustrated. “This is my only means of survival. My wife is pregnant; since I heard the news, I have been thinking whether to go and commit suicide because I have no hope”.

okada-gymnast21Okada riders, Lagos, Nigeria. Photo Bunmi Azeez/Vanguard

Not a few of the Okada riders spoken to felt betrayed by the governor’s action. They believed that they deserved a better consideration and treatment from the governor given the close relationship and synergy between them as his strongest group of supporters. Joseph Odigie told the magazine that “the whole country knows that we were his greatest support base; we supported him when he was seeking that office. Many of us died; some lost their bikes. If he was really our friend, he should at least have prepared our minds for this by giving us a few months to put our houses in order”.

The aggrieved Okada riders rejected the reason of alleged criminality given by the government. Oguns Christopher, a 500 Level student of International Studies and Diplomacy, University of Benin, who has an 11-month-old baby, says he has been sponsoring himself in school from what he makes from riding Okada, wonders how he would cope with the demands of his final year in school and a family to keep. Christopher said, “the governor should know that the most dangerous thing to do is to allow a group of intelligent people to be idle”, noting that many of the Okada riders are young unemployed graduates and undergraduates like him. He disagreed with the government that Okada riders were responsible for kidnapping and other violent crimes, arguing that highly placed persons using vehicles with tinted glasses aided kidnapping.

Oshiomhole agreed that not all the riders are criminals nor have criminal intentions. He however regretted that there was no way to distinguish between the criminals in their fold and those doing legitimate business, adding that, “this is just one sacrifice we all have to make to make our state safer”. Sounding rather apologetic perhaps given the bond that existed between him and them, Oshiomhole said while he was very concerned about the level of unemployment, he was convinced that the long-term interest of job creation required that investors and investments be attracted to the state. He said, “It is a settled issue that investors will not be in a hurry to go to any state that the level of crime has risen beyond unacceptable level”. Following the violent protests by the Okada riders, Louis Odion, commissioner for information and orientation, would be meeting with the leadership of the Okada Riders Association to rub minds on the development.

Commuters as well as opposition parties were also concerned about the implication of the policy not just for the operators, but also for commuting residents of Benin as well as in the absence of an alternative to the banned Okada. Matthew Urhoghide, state publicity secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, said if the ban was informed by security concerns, it was okay but was quick to add that, “in other states, alternatives have been provided. The PDP feared that flowing from the ban, “we are going to have extreme transportation problem”, arguing that if the policy was for the benefit of the people “it must have a human face”.

Adekunbi Ero