OKADA: TO BE OR NOT TO BE

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Sonnie Ekwowusi writes that the government cannot afford to turn its back on the masses

Doing nothing lying down

Spending my whole life playing cards

Got no job, got no cash

I will make it

Overtaking molues

Cruising down the wide express

All the gals will die for me

What a thrill it gives me to ride

On own my Okada

The above lyrics were culled from the song entitled My Okada. The song was composed by a Spanish friend Juan Fernandez (Juanfro as he is fondly called) in the 90s when he was still in Nigeria. The song came to my memory last weekend after the Lagos State government had banned the operation of commercial motorcycles and tricycles (Keke-Marwa) from plying the Lagos expressways. At the time Juanfro composed his song he was in charge of the Helmbridge Boys Club, Surulere, Lagos. On seeing the okada riders cruising the Lagos expressways with reckless abandon and even overtaking the rickety Lagos molue buses (which at that time were the common means of transportation in Lagos), Juanfro suffered from what we could call a culture shock. Thereafter he sat down to compose My Okada which became a popular song among the Helmbridge boys at that time. Every weekend the boys would gather around Juanfro as he played his guitar and intoned My Okada to the delight of the boys.

In My Okada, Juanfro satirizes the okada rider in his quest to become a man like his colleagues. He recaptures the relentless efforts of the okada rider to eke out a living against seemingly insurmountable odds. To Juanfro, the okada rider is a metaphor for the endless struggle of the Nigerian poor. As far as Juanfro is concerned the okada rider is a symbol of hope and resilience amid hopelessness and frustration in the land.

Anyway, if Juanfro is still keen on the happenings in Nigeria, I would like to inform him that the Lagos State government has recently banned the operation of okada as well as rickshaws in Lagos. The ban has been trailed by mixed reactions. Since the ban took effect last Saturday many Lagos commuters have been staging different forms of protest urging the government to lift the ban immediately. But there are many others who glibly maintain that the ban is praiseworthy because it is aimed at restoring sanity in Lagos.

Let me begin by saying that we all have a responsibility not to deprive the poor in our midst the chance to live a dignified life if not for anything but for the purpose of emphasizing our common humanity and our transcendental concerns. God has created of us and put us in this world to cherish and love our fellow men and women, not to scuttle the fulfillment of their life ambitions. Therefore we have the obligation not to foreclose the solidarity options open to us in order to hearken to the assistance of the suffering and poor in our midst. Placing a ban on the operation of okada and keke in Lagos is tantamount to placing a ban on the means of livelihood of many poor Lagosians. More importantly about 70% (if not more) of Lagosians including school children and workers depend on okada and keke as their only means of transportation to and fro their school and work places. So why should the Lagos State government suddenly wake up one morning and place such a ban without providing an alternative means of transportation especially for those Lagosians living on the outskirts? The BRT buses are not yet the answer to the problems of transportation in Lagos. Many passengers are seen every day stranded at different BRT bus stations due to the scarcity of buses to convey them to their respective destinations. Some BRT buses are even seen trapped in the chaotic vehicular traffic for hours. This is why many Lagos commuters resort to riding on okada or keke in order to get their different destinations on time. For example, two weeks ago this writer almost missed his international flight. I had left my house in good time with the hope of getting to the airport in good time. But on getting to Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, Ikeja, we encountered the usual vehicular traffic gridlock. On learning that I was travelling abroad and needed to be at the airport two hours before flight departure, the wise Bolt driver suggested that I should jump down and pick an okada to avoid missing my flight. This I did. I jumped down from the cab, lifted up my heavy suitcase and placed it on my head. Thereafter I flagged down an okada rider who eventually took me to the airport in good time. Okada is an asset in Lagos.

Having said this, no responsible government will like to see an important city such as Lagos being ruined by okada and keke riders and refuse to do nothing to ameliorate the problem. Over the last few years a new crop of “okada riders” obviously from terrorist-prone countries sharing boundaries with Nigeria have been infiltrating Lagos and constituting themselves as security threats. It is frightening to see these riders encumbering Lagos roads with their okadas, thus making it difficult for motorists and other road users to use the expressways. Of course there have been many cases in which these riders metamorphosed into murderous mobs and began destroying their victims with lethal weapons. This, in my view, is the insecurity consideration that compelled the Lagos government to place a ban on the operation of commercial cycles. Additionally, it is a notorious fact that Lagos has become lawlessness writ large due to the recklessness of the okada riders. The most terrible thing is that the okadas and kekes in Lagos have horns that sound like those of big trucks and trailers. If you are not careful you could suffer a heart attack on hearing the thunderous sounds emanating from them.

But considering the untold hardships which many Lagos commuters are experiencing at the moment, the Lagos State government should have mercy on the suffering Lagos commuters. In the coming days the government should unban the operation of keke in Lagos. It should also unban some categories of commercial motorcycles being run by well-organized companies. The government cannot afford to turn its back on the suffering masses.