The Sierra Leone Okada: A Positive Development in the Public Transportation Sector, or a National Safety Problem?
For many of us who have observed the riders of the Sierra Leone version of Okadas – with close attention to their riding etiquette, the traffic rules they follow or fail to follow, interactions with their passengers, disregard for the rights of pedestrians, the frequent accidents they are involved in, and the nullification of the many legal suits against them by authorities, we are left pondering as to whether the introduction of this means of transportation in Sierra Leone is a positive development in the transportation sector of our country, or a mere national social problem that our people now grapple with. (Photo: By Phodei Ibrahim Sheriff, Houston, Texas, USA)
My first experience with the Okada idea was in Nigeria in 1997 when for the first time I experienced motor cycles being used as a means of public transportation. This form of public transportation is very popular in Nigeria, especially in the north where Nigerians use it as a faster means of getting to places and running their errands while avoiding long traffic. I even first heard of the name “Okada” in that country referring to special types of motor cycles that are ridden by special licensed motor cyclists on specially demarcated paths along streets. I observed that they neither congested the streets, disobeyed traffic, nor disrespected their passengers or pedestrians. This is so mainly because the traffic rules are strictly enforced and the judiciary doesn’t play with traffic rule breakers. In other words, there is complete law and order among all Okada riders in Nigeria.
When I first learnt of the introduction of the Okada idea in Sierra Leone, considering the deplorable conditions of the roads, and the extreme hard times our people were having in getting around to fend their daily livelihoods, and especially in the cities and between towns and villages, I thought it was one of the best legacies left in our country by the Nigerian soldiers who were part of the ECOMOG forces that helped with the establishment of peace in our country. In those years, only few of the motorcycles could be afforded by Sierra Leoneans – in fact, a large amount of them were owned by the Nigerian soldiers. These were in the days of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) under the leadership of former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Today, motor cycles used as means of public transportation, with the Nigerian-borrowed name “Okada” can be found all over Sierra Leone – in cities, towns, villages, hamlets, footpaths, yard roads, etc. By the mere look of things, the Okada transportation is almost a phenomenon in Sierra Leone today as our people seem to have gotten serious transportation relief from it. They help fast-track our people’s movement around the country, transporting essential items, and almost acting in replacement of Sierra Leone’s former feeder roads.
Equally, the introduction of the Okada means of transportation in Sierra Leone by mainly some of the ECOMOG soldiers was a timely idea introduced in our country at a time when our 11-year civil war had come to an end with former combatants disarmed at the time, and with a country’s inevitable quest to reintegrate those former combatants into our civil communities. Hence, the idea is perceived by many Sierra Leoneans as a development to both our transportation sector as well as partly addressing the unemployment problems of our youth. Across Sierra Leone today, about more than half the population of those who ride the Okadas are young people who are always busy navigating the streets, footpaths, yard roads, bush roads, etc… and getting our people around to take care of their business. That is a positive thing – that most of our youth are actually busy and generating income for themselves as they mature into adulthood. On average, the riders charge Le1,000 (US25 Cents) to take one passenger to any destination in the provincial cities, or to some reasonable stretch of distance in Freetown; and between Le2,000 to Le4,000 (US50 Cents to US$1respectively) between towns and villages depending on the condition of the road and the rider. Passengers seem to have no problem with the fees.
While the Okada phenomenon is regarded as a positive idea that has had a very positive impact on how quickly our people get around, the idea is also largely perceived as a national safety and social problem that needs urgent attention, if it is to continue to help our people.
Many of the Okadas that ply the streets, the roads, footpaths, and bush roads of our country are largely owned by influential and influential people who are amassing themselves with a good sum of money per each Okada. The Okada itself costs about Le4.8 million (US$1,400) for both the motor cycle and all required paper work including license and insurance. On my last visit to Sierra Leone in 2012, I spoke with the Secretary General of the Okada Riders Association in Kenema. He told me that an average charge per Okada per day by an Okada owner is Le50,000 (US$10.25), and that the rider is responsible for gassing the motor cycle and taking care of all repairs and maintenance. When I did the Math, I came up with this calculation and results: Le50,000 x 313 = Le15 million, 650 thousand (Le15, 650, 000 or US$3,208.25) if 52 days are to be taken away from the 365 days in a year as Sunday non-riding day for each Okada. This Math 101 simply indicates that one Okada is enough to buy two more Okadas within 12 months if all owners’ rules are observed. When I went further into the conversation with the Secretary General of the Okada Riders Association, he told me that most of the motor cycles are owned by people in higher government positions and well-to-do businesses, or people who have relatives abroad who buy the motor cycles for their family members. He went further to lament that the best owner to ride an Okada for is either someone in the police force or in higher government position who often protect the riders when they do anything wrong or when they make mistakes – either as a moving violation or a civil law breaking. Today, if we do a head count of the owners of the many Okadas in Sierra Leone, we will unravel that most of them are owned by such people in law enforcement, legislature, executive and judiciary arms of the government. To them, the Okada phenomenon has turned out to be a very lucrative business – and many own more than two of those motor cycles.
It is easy to tell that accountability is a big issue with the Okada riders. While in Sierra Leone, I witnessed two issues. At the intersection of Hangha Road and Main Street in Kenema, I saw an older man pushing a wheelbarrow with four bags of cement on the side of the street. While concentrating on this heavy carrier job, an Okada rider who was in haste to pick up a passenger – as they always are – hit the man and the wheelbarrow turning over the cement and his motor cycle. While the wheelbarrow man was laying down on the street, the Okada rider hurriedly removed his motor cycle from under the cement bags and hurriedly pushed it across Hangha Road without neither helping the wheelbarrow man to get up, nor assist him get his cement bags back into the wheelbarrow, or even offer an apology to him. The people stood by and watched the entire scenery without saying a word. I went to the scene and helped the old man up while I was being looked at by passersby in a strange manner. Similarly, on my way to eastern Freetown from Goderich, while bypassing the busy Sanders and Shiaka Stevens Streets, I happened to have taken the shorter course via Circular Road. The experience here with the Okada riders is terrible. They are many and in a very rude haste – all the time. While in full speed, they navigate the thinnest paths between cars and people without consideration for hitting someone or cars. In a twinkle of an eye, I witnessed two Okada riders coming from two opposite directions on Circular Road on the same side of the street, and one being blinded by a vehicle in front of him, but who did not care, instead, hurriedly jumped in front of the coming Okada and both had a big crash that was like the big bang theory. They quickly got up, cussed at each other’s mothers, and fled away before the traffic wardens and police got to the scene. These two experiences are examples of the many daily problems Okada riders perpetrate in Sierra Leone. And I was wondering what the traffic wardens and the police would have done at the scene of the accident because I noticed that they are either part of the problem, or they are disrespected by the Okada riders for reasons beyond my imagination.
Lawlessness and Disregard for Pedestrians
It is very clear that Okada riders neither care about the law, nor about people who walk on their feet. First off, they are all over the streets, and they do not care for lanes demarcated for incoming or outgoing traffic. The Okada riders are all over – and only get to the right side of the street when they have no option to navigate around the incoming traffic. One thing I spotted from the Okada riders is that they feel very differently about themselves once they are on top of the motor cycles. I learnt that they look down on pedestrians, disregard their rights to the road, and could smash anyone who stands in their way. While driving on Blama Road in Kenema, several cars in front of me were moving slowly because they had to navigate their way around the pot holes. Hence, I frequently stepped on my brake to keep within the flow of traffic. While being cautious, several Okada riders behind me had gotten enraged at me for frequently stepping on my brake and going with the flow of traffic. At the slightest opportunity, they rode speedily up to my side window and said to me, “Bo because you na JC nor mean say you foh block de road-o.” The other said to me, “Bo you nor sabi drive. Lie lie JC.” I smiled at them and showed them two fingers symbolizing peace. In another instance, a certain woman with mental disability was hit by an Okada rider on Prince Williams Street in Bo without the rider stopping to pick her up, or to even apologize to the woman. The woman got up, and said in Mende, “Maada yeh nga ha leh” (Grandfather said I shouldn’t die yet). These kinds of incidents are very popular among Okada riders all over Sierra Leone. They have no regard for people who walk along streets, pavements, yard roads – anywhere, as long as an Okada passes along that particular area. And they mostly like to say nasty words to people who do not offend them.
It is now apparent that with the many lawlessness among the Okada riders, that they pose a very serious national safety concerns. Indeed, the people have demonstrated their need for such means of transportation, but the lack of law enforcement to further control these Okada riders poses a very serious threat to our national safety. It is believed that while many of the owners of the Okadas are amassing themselves with the monies generated by their motor cycles, they have deliberately decided to pay deaf ears and blind eyes to the many safety and social problems these riders pose to our people. There is a concern over the safety of our pedestrians, moving traffic, Okada passengers, and even to the Okada riders themselves. The failure of the All People’s Congress (APC) government to pay attention to the lawlessness of the Okada riders have started showing its gruesome results in places like Kenema where a dangerous conflict erupted among students and Okada riders that led to the wounding of some people and the death of one person. Several fatal accidents continue to increase where even a Sierra Leonean who paid a visit to that country from the United Kingdom was fatally killed in an Okada accident. These fatal accidents are occurring and increasing simply because majority of those who are issued motor cycle licenses to ride Okadas in Sierra Leone either do not know how to ride those Okadas, or they are ignorant of basic traffic rules and moving violations. Many ride the motor cycles without either license, insurance, or even helmets, and by their riding etiquettes, it is easy to tell that they are novice in the motor cycle riding business.
The Role of the APC Government
It is disheartening to conclude, after the many experiences, that the APC government does not care about the national safety and social problems that are being posed by the Okada phenomenon in Sierra Leone. This may be due to both political and commercial reasons. Politically, the Okada business has become a phenomenon like a Mafia trade in Sierra Leone. Many of the motor cycles are owned by the politicians or people in law enforcement. Introducing laws and enforcing them to control the increasing safety and social problem may jeopardize the political future of the APC and many of the politicians and those in law enforcement. Matter of fact, it is inevitable that the Okada phenomenon is now a major voting bloc in Sierra Leone as the riders are organized at regional and national levels – and once they put their weight behind any politician, he/he is almost bound to win elections in Sierra Leone. Hence, since the APC is renowned for relying heavily on lawless youth in elections, they are assumed to have declared the Okada riders as a “No Touch Zone” further putting political agenda above national safety. Commercially, immorality and unethical standards have no place when a Sierra Leonean realizes that he/she is making life changing profits in a certain business. In a country where workers are the least paid in the West African sub-region, with their salaries not forthcoming in many of the months, people will resort to money making businesses that augment their meager incomes regardless of whether they break laws, or engage in immoral or unethical behaviors.
But then the question arises about whether the role of government in national development is to down play the safety of its citizens in a precarious situation involving the Okada phenomenon. The Okada riders are not unpatriotic citizens, but because they operate in an environment where their government is not concerned about enforcing laws regarding traffic and its citizens, with much shielding from the influential and afluential owners of the Okadas, they disregard the safety of the national populace while also escalating already deplorable law enforcement in our country. What they look forward to is government’s direction of their activities with regards to traffic and civil laws. They are like other Sierra Leoneans who can quickly adapt to changes – but only those changes are introduced and managed well by a responsible government.
What’s the Solution?
According to the Guardian Newspaper of Nigeria, the Lagos State government had to step into the seriousness of the traffic and moving violations caused by Okada riders to control traffic and save lives of both Okada passengers and pedestrians. The federal government of Nigeria also found out that most traffic violations by Okada riders are caused on unpaved roads or roads with potholes where the riders go against traffic. Hence, Lagos States Law Makers were able stipulate that no Okada rider must ever drive against the direction prohibited by traffic laws. They also stipulated that no Okada is allowed to ride on the kerb of the streets. They further stipulated that riding an Okada without a crash helmet is not only punishable by fines; but that the rider will lose his/her motorcycle entirely. Other stipulations include smoking while riding, failing to give way to traffic on the other side, failing to yield to pedestrians, disobeying traffic controls, route violations by commercial vehicles, prohibition of issuing license to under-aged riders (under 18 years old), and any rider riding without a valid riding license. These stipulations were enforced in the wake of the death of 13 Okada passengers in Lagos state alone.
In Ghana, the debate is on now in the Ghanian parliament about whether to ban or continue to permit commercial motor cycles due to the increasing insanity and safety issues posed by the motor cycle riders. Ghana has been grappling a lot with lawlessness in relation to motor cycle riding on commercial basis – such lawlessness causing deaths and increasing amounts of fatal accidents. While waiting for that motor cycle ruling to materialize, the Ghanian police are cracking down on everybody associated with motor cycle riders either breaking traffic laws or shielding law breakers.
In the state of Texas in the United States, a motor cycle rider has to fulfill or conform to established laws to ride a motor cycle in that state. Such laws include riding at age 18 with proper helmet, eye glasses and with the motor cycle headlights on. Also required is that a motor cycle rider must have the right education about riding a motor cycle. This law has very minimal difference with regards to other states of the United States. It is the same in the United Kingdom.
In essence therefore, for governments to institute laws for the riding of motor cycles means a lot about their concerns and care for the safety of their citizens. With the many potholes and increasing evidence of fatal accidents among Okada riders in Sierra Leone, one wonders as to why a Sierra Leonean parliament or government cannot introduce a bill in parliament for the control of the Okada riders and the enforcement of traffic rules. Why a government would choose politics or money-making over the safety of its citizens? That remains to be a burning question to many Sierra Leoneans who have concerns over the precarious nature of Okada riding in Sierra Leone. Indeed, these are some of the reasons why a new direction is inevitable in Sierra Leone – a new direction that prioritizes those crucial issues in our country such as saving the lives of our people. And until the people of Sierra Leone vote for that New Direction, the country will continue to head in the wrong direction.
By Phodei Ibrahim Sheriff, Houston, Texas, USA.
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