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Are the Okadas the proverbial ‘Necessary evil”

By: J. ALUSINE KAMARA   E-mail: jalusinekamara@yahoo.com

One of my most favoured Christian songs when growing up went something like this: “One door, and only one, and yet its sides are two. I’m on the inside, on which side are you? One door, and…. I’m on the inside, on which side are you?” This recall is what visits my take on the issue of benefits/menaces the preponderance of the two-wheeled motorcycle transport poses for the generality of the public.

The somewhat disturbing phenomenon has engaged, engulfed and overwhelmed traffic planners and law enforcement agencies in developing countries, leaving them flummoxed as to how to effectively counter it. For, it is a well-known fact that the emergence of what the travelling public especially in the West African sub-region nickname the ‘Okada’ transportation system, is bedeviled by complexities.

This two-wheeled motorbike mode of transport is known to have been introduced in the nineteen-nineties initially in Nigeria where it was christened with the nomenclature, ‘okada’. The adoptive name is thought to have been coined after the low-cost OKADA Airline launched and operating within Nigeria before eventually expanding and fanning out to the sub-region. Why the name was twinned with this form of transportation, when, and by who should be left to the intellectual discourse of historians to research, decipher and correctly ascertain.

It is instructive to note however, that this means of mobility had been in vogue since around the mid-nineteenth century in places as far-flung as North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, not to mention both India and Pakistan. Photographic evidence from these areas and during this era depicts bike riders weaving in and out of snail-paced traffic as passengers – sometimes wide-eyed – timidly pillion-cling for dear life’s sake.

Before one could say, “Jack Robinson”, the ‘okada’ syndrome evidenced a spectacular and breathtaking surge in this part of the world as travelers disinclined to time-wasting during rush hour traffic and in a hurry resort to this not-too-cheap means of transportation. For, ‘okada’ operators routinely charge sometimes prohibitive rates for comparative distances when one uses taxis. Operators very adeptly capitalize on discernible urgency, contending that being limited to legally carry no more than one passenger at a time as against four by taxi cabs should see the shortfall covered by over-charging.

Although logical to a point till one considers that an ‘okada’ uses less than one Imperial gallon of petrol daily compared to an average of six gallons a taxi cab consumes, the obvious and isolated fault lines contemptuously dismiss this contentious rationale. When the fact that taxis cannot weave in and out of traffic kamikaze-like as ‘okadas’ are prone to do is configured, this excuse dissipates into nothingness.

Furthermore, starting  and operating costs of running a taxi are up to five times higher than those of an ‘okada’, which underscores why operators interviewed claim they can on a good day ‘take home’ anything between Le120,000.00 (One hundred and twenty thousand leones), and Le150,000.00 (one hundred and fifty thousand leones) easily! This, by any stretch of the imagination is not ‘chicken feed’ when one considers that tenured college professors earn considerably less in salaries. A taxi driver will also consider realizing two-thirds of that amount more than welcomed and helps explains why it is nowadays common to see taxi drivers resorting to ‘okada’ operatorship. Those who are not lured to make the transition claim the inherent dangers exposed with that vocation attend their decisions.

This contention is what visits the mind and makes for headlining this article, “ARE ‘OKADAS’ THE PROVERBIAL ‘NECESSARY EVIL’?” In that vein, I shall deal with the ‘positives’ first, then leave readers to judge whether they outweigh the ‘negatives’ to be posited later in this article, or vice versa.

With the national unemployment rate seemingly high especially amongst the teeming unemployed but not unemployable youths in the labour market, ‘okada’ ownership and operatorship provide the stimulants and resultant provision of food on the table, health care, house rental/ownership, not to speak of the pursuit and furtherance of educational opportunities and other various and varied family needs. The list is endless.

Furthermore, importation and use of these two-wheeled motorbikes and their needed spare parts have enjoyed the kind of unprecedented surge in the last decade nobody can justifiably discountenance or over-simplify when calculating income generation of much needed funds for government coffers. When one throws in the monies paid for licenses and other fees – with special cognition and reference to fines levied on all-too-often errant and miscreant operators – one reluctantly begins to come to terms with, and reluctantly appreciate the ‘NECESSARY EVIL’ appendage attached to this mode of transportation.

The other side of my afore-mentioned ‘door’ however is literally stacked sky-high with what both frequent users and occasional passengers of ‘okada’ agree are multi-dimensional negatives that seemingly pale into insignificance the positives arrayed against them.

In most peoples’ eyes there is no other conspicuously reckless operator of a vehicle, bar none, than the ‘okada’ rider, whose display of crass indifference to road traffic signs and rules are surreal as they operate on a level that defies logic or respect for human life – theirs included.

In their unhealthy and unwholesome drive to actualize their get-rich-quick modus operandi, operators are known to take the type of risks that even the late dare-devil legendary American stunts man, Evel KeNevel, would have shied away from. While KeNevel was reportedly paid millions of dollars for orchestrated stunts which posed dangers only to his life, these operators expose the lives of susceptible passengers to hazards while receiving a pittance as fares in comparison.

With impunity that is hard to understand and define, the average ‘okada’ rider on a regular day commits no less than twenty traffic offences ranging from going against the grain of traffic, (at least ten times a  day,) overtaking other vehicles from the wrong side, using footpaths as carriageways, and operating without a license for motorbikes and riders. These last crimes bring into focus the ineptitude I believe licensing authorities, traffic police and wardens epitomize as they display a penchant for laxness one may be prompted to second-guess as tacit connivance.

Even those who may not be that foolhardy to straddle across the saddle of a motorbike are not spared the dangers they pose. There are numerous reported and unreported instances where pedestrians have been hit by these miscreant riders although more often than not they would have been off the roads. Stories abound about pedestrians being knocked down by hit-and-run ‘okada’ riders who would, at the slightest opportunity, jump onto their motorbikes and take off to the chagrin and discomfiture of the victim(s) as well as on-lookers.

It will surprise many of the ‘okada’ passengers to know that in the event of an accident there will hardly be any insurance coverage for them. And to those trying to cut costs by doubling up behind the rider, the problems would be compounded.

As much money as bike-owners are known to receive daily in leasing motorbikes to hired operators, I will personally resist the urge to invest in this sector of the economy for fear I might be the end-loser. Because ‘okada’ riders have a propensity to do a disappearing act with bikes leased and allotted to them. You will be surprised to know that quite a number of the bikes plying some routes in the hinterland are amongst the ‘disappeared’. Taking the bike to a remote area of operation throws the scent off pursuing owners especially if one relocates to an area he is not indigenous to.

What can authorities and the public do to curtail, or at least curb the societal menace operators present? First off the mark in my hypothesis is strict enforcement of traffic laws without fear or favour. This might not be too easy for it is known that quite a lot of officers in the police and military supplement their earnings through the purchase and hiring out of ‘okadas’. And with knowledge their masters can get them scot-free if and when accosted the operators become a law unto themselves.

The government should through the police sensitize citizens about their culpability if found to be a party to law-breaking. Sierra Leoneans should be made aware that their societal and ethical mores are at risk of prosecution if they become an accomplice before and after a crime is committed. And, that aiding and abetting a crime – which being a pillion-riding passenger when a crime is committed by the operator – is also punishable by law.

This then makes me orientate my discourse towards passengers. On countless occasions I have observed passengers grinning from ear to ear as they sit on these bikes and seemingly gloats as operators break every traffic rule, oblivious and/or unmindful of the dangers such reckless disregard portends for them. I do believe that if passengers caution the operators at the slightest transgression, and threaten to drop off if such persists – without paying them of course – sanity will prevail. Give it a try!

None can discount this means of transportation as of no consequence in the socio-economic climate since it is well established that communication is the bedrock commerce revolves around and thrives on. Though the free flow movement of goods and people is integral to the economy however, this must not be at the expense of people’s limbs and lives. Being ‘early days’ yet, concerted and sustained efforts should be made by authorities to implement new codes and enforce existing ones while ensuring impunity displayed by operators is arrested and curtailed before everything spins out of control.(Published verbatim)

Posted by on 10:53 pm. Filed under OPINION, OTHER NEWS, Uncategorized, VIEWPOINT. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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