10 February 2013

Nigeria: Tough, Hide-and-Seek Life of Abuja Okada Riders

Forcefully ejected from the city center by irate officials, commercial motorcyclists battle it out at the Abuja outskirts for a living and to fend for their families

One would need to visit any one of the numerous bus stops in the suburbs of Abuja to get a feel of the pains and trauma many commercial motorcyclists go through on a daily basis to actually appreciate their peculiar plight. The mad rush to attract passengers leads to violence in most cases. With thousands of them now pushed to the outskirts due to the city law banning their operations in the metropolis, it has become the proverbial 'survival of the fittest.'

A young motorcyclist, Nuhu who operates now at the New Nyanya village summarises the frenzy that accompanies 'okada riders' who operate outside the city centre now. 'It is no longer lucrative. With thousands of us now having to battle it out to make ends meet, now you can imagine the struggle one has to pass through to get a little amount of money. But as long as there are no other job opportunities we really have no other alternative.'

A resident whose name is undisclosed also gives an insight into the challenges the ban has posed for many households. 'The ban goes much deeper than envisaged by the authorities. Many households have been affected by the ban. Most of these young men come from many parts of the country based on the promises made to them by their representatives here. Once they get here they are given money to buy motorcycles and immediately they start operating on the streets. That is why you have so many of them in the business. But with the ban, a lot of them and the households they fend for, will be greatly affected.'

With the recent ban of commercial buses into the city centre, commuters say the authorities may be further exposing the average commuter to untold sufferings. Commercial motorcyclists, for many in the past, had been the only alternative, but with their removal from the city centre commuting to and from work, has become a stressful task for those who do not own vehicles of their own.

Kayode Fanola, FCT FRSC sector commander however insists that due to their effect on city security and transport system, they remain banned from the city. 'They are banned from the city itself. By this we refer to Wuse District, Maitama, Askoro, Utako, Jabi up to Life Camp, even Gwarimpa. They are allowed only in the Satellite towns such as Nyanyan, Gwagalada, Bwari, Abaji, Kuje, Kubwa etc. Those are the places they are allowed to operate. The federal capital authority ordered that any bike that flouts the law should be seized. We don't even expect to see them in the city. They are banned from operating in the city in daytime or at night,' he tells Sunday Trust.

The DRTS recently through its FCT Director, Col. Wilson Rotimi Alade (rtd) also warned the riders from venturing into the city centre. He said the FCT Administration has set up a special task force consisting other sister agencies like DRTS, Nigerian Army, National Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), Police and FRSC to enforce the ban. About 422 motorcycles were seized in January during spirited raids.

But are there alternatives for those affected? Matthew Ogwuche, Information and Strategy office, FCT Minister's office in an online reaction noted that alternatives were indeed provided for the affected cyclists. 'On the issue of alternatives, what do the facts show? First, widespread media advertisements were made by the FCTA in September ahead of the effective banning date, asking interested okada operators to apply immediately to fill existing vacancies for alternative employments in the service of the Abuja Urban Mass Transport Company (AUMTCO) as Drivers, Bus Conductors, Inspectors, Car Washers, Cleaners and Supervisors depending on qualification and expertise. Second, now the popular Red and Green Mass Transit Buses, with many having a 77-passenger capacity, have swiftly been introduced on Abuja routes. However, immediately the FCT received reports on the initial hiccups noticed in the operations of the newly introduced Mass Transit Buses which had (we are honest enough to admit) been inadequate on some routes, ordered the recall of the 500 Green Cabs from exclusive use to normal full passenger service on all routes to complement the buses.'

However some residents feel the ban may have been short-sighted. 'The worrisome aspect of the Okada ban is the hardship it has brought to the residents. Within the few days of it's enforcement, people have been telling their woes. Taxi cabs within the city are grossly inadequate to cater for the demands and they have consequently increased their fares astronomically. The logical step for the government, would have been to put in place, a stiff regulation for the Okada operators so as to contain their menace until such a time when the city is ripe enough to do without them. In the same vein, a gradual phasing out of Okada from the city is more appealing than an outright ban,' says a resident, Nuhu Shuaib.

For Muhammad Qaddam Sidq Isa, a columnist, the move may hike up crimes if remedies are not provided by the authorities. He says 'being a phenomenon that spontaneously resulted from the dramatic economic decline that had hit the country, okada riding can only be addressed through a realistic, comprehensive and sustainable strategy that addresses the immediate, short and long term implications of the ban. This necessarily requires a radical turnaround of the country's economy to provide real alternative and sustainable job opportunities to the teeming unemployed all over the country. Without this, any attempt to ban okada riding particularly in some states, has the potential of triggering massive violent reactions and more crimes in the country.'

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