Friday, November 8, 2013

Liberia Bans Okadas: Any Lessons for Sierra Leone?

National authorities in Liberia have banned the use of motorcycle commercial transportation in the country's capital, Monrovia. Commercial motorcycles or "Okadas" as they are popularly called around West Africa, became the primary source of commercial transportation in postwar Liberia and Sierra Leone, a growing trend in West Africa, as all the nations copy  the lead of West Africa's trendsetter Nigeria.

Given the relatively low costs of operation of Okadas, high urban traffic congestion and the poor condition of roads in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Okada use has emerged as as an easy solution to the growing transportation problems in these and other West African countries.

However, with lax central control of the Okada transportation industry, the sector has largely had to regulate itself. Okada drivers with very little formal training have become an increasing health and social hazard, responsible for the maiming and deaths of many of their passengers. Everybody in Sierra Leone knows somebody who has been involved in a senseless Okada accident. Just a few years ago, a very good friend of mine, a very talented individual who had decided to temporarily relocate to Sierra Leone was hit and killed by an Okada while he was crossing the street to buy something. Two months ago my cousin had his leg fractured after falling of an Okada on the road to Kenema.
Okada Politics

A lot of Okada drivers are reckless, some ride drunk, putting both their lives and that of their passengers at risks. Unlicensed drivers flee the scene of accidents preventing immediate life saving care. The Liberian government has taken a stand against these drivers before, but it was unsuccessful and already the citizens of Monrovia who depend on them to get around have started to complain against the current campaign to get them off the streets of Monrovia.

Okadas would be difficult to regulate in Sierra Leone for a multitude of reasons. Firstly they provide a vital source of employment for the youths in a country where youth unemployment at over 70% is among the highest in the world. Secondly, most of the Okadas are owned by influential business and government figures who benefit directly from their operation and would hence be unreluctant  to lose this vital source of extra income.
Okada Recklessness

At the political level, Okada drivers form an important political pressure group in a country where every decision is now premised on political expediency rather than economic or social reasoning. No political party would want to alienate this vocal pressure group which is vital in electioneering periods to move people around from one place to another.
Freetown Okada Fashion

More importantly, Freetown is almost like a geographical trap, a congested city whose expansion is severely limited by the Peninsula mountain ranges and the Atlantic Ocean. Increasing taxi cars to battle the growing transportation needs of the geometrically increasing population of this city which is already plagued by perpetual traffic gridlock, would just add to the traffic, congestion and pollution. All other solutions like reconfiguring the road network would be prohibitively expensive for a government that is currently up to its ears in debt.

Will Sierra Leone follow Liberia's lead to ban Okadas from the capital? Not very likely, and not in the next few years. For now the best that can be done is for the authorities to work with the drivers and come up with some safety training, develop training manuals, develop a uniform code of conduct, revoke the licenses of those that have particularly bad safety records, and generally increase the regulation of this vital service sector.
Freetown Traffic Congestion

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