Four hundred bikers under the umbrella of Ghana private motorbike operators union (GPMOU) paid a courtesy call to members of Ghana's parliament on the 1st of February 2011. They had a simple message. They know very well that the laws of Ghana prohibit the use of motorbikes for commercial transport, but that is exactly what they have been doing. Listening to the leader justify their trade on radio, I'm convinced he could easily have read the following speech to the parliamentarians:
Let Parliament the citadel of Ghana's law live forever. Please be informed that we are law breakers, but due to extenuating circumstances we do not intend to repent. We are here to petition you, and therefore be petitioned, to remove our offense from the law, extricating us from our consciences that we may indulge, in peace. We appreciate the fact that we are a nuisance to most of you on the road, but we're sure you and Ogyakromians, who you represent, prefer this small menace on the road to armed robbery the other appealing option prohibited by the law. Okada provides us with employment and acceptability in society. We can also pay tithes when we go to church, we can do Zakat, the girlfriends can introduce us to potential mother-in-laws without shame, some can take second wives, and after a hard day's work, we can buy a bottle of overtaxed beer. On the subject of taxes, please remember that if you legalize our trade, our taxes will increase the money in the national kitty, and you will have less hassle approving 200% increase in your own salaries. It is worth mentioning that there are thousands of unemployed youth in Ghana who will gladly join GPMOU, and these are all voters. Be reminded of this important fact when you debate our petition, because we will be listening. Lastly, kindly tell the over-zealous MTTU to back off as you consider our petition.
I have never been a fan of Okada for a number of reasons. Firstly, motor bikes were not created for commercial transport. For safety reasons, the rider and the passenger on a bike are required to wear crash helmets. But this is almost impractical in the commercial arena as few people will want to share a helmet worn by thousands for obvious reasons. Neither is it practical to sling a personal helmet on your shoulder, next to your beautiful Gucci hand bag in anticipation of your Okada hops on your journey. The only realistic option is to avoid a helmet with its consequences. I can jump on any public transport without worrying about what I choose to wear on a day, but with Okada, a skirt or kaba slit may create balancing problems that will precipitate the crash, not to talk of the revelations and visions underneath that shall be savored by guys nearby when you attempt the jump that puts you in the passenger seat. Secondly, motorbike accidents break more limbs and kill more people per unit distance than cars. Put a thousand Okadas on street and surely you would have created lots of jobs, not only for the riders but also for the carpenters that will make the coffins. A study in the USA some years ago showed that for every one hundred thousand registered riders, almost seventy will end up in fatal crashes, compared to fifteen automobile crashes for the same number of registered drivers. It is unfortunate that in Africa, useful statistics are difficult to come by, but I will bet my last cedi that the statistic for bikes in commercial transport will be worse. The people who cite Benz 207 accidents to push the case for okada should have a rethink, because Okada will beat those accident rates hands down. Maybe find out from our Nigerian brothers why some hospital wards are called Okada wards.
I do not believe that any Okada association can regulate the activities of their members not be a bother to the rest of society. We shouldn't fool ourselves; Ghanaians are not the best example of order and discipline. We may be doing better than some neighboring West African countries, but these are bad bench marks. Okada will jump red light at will, squeeze into cracks too small for their size in regular traffic, get many decent road users to frequent the parish to confess to swearing and the dozens of expletives they are forced to utter in disgust. Okada will just make tro-tro and taxi drivers look like the long lost Saints of Ghana highways. One Okada will carry an entire family, the father, the son, the daughter and mother with baby at the back, basket on the head. Their union will only serve one purpose- a rallying point for them to gang up and beat up any driver who accidently knocks down an out of control Okada rider, just as they do in Lagos.
With all the 'wahala' okada conjures in any society, why is there no shortage of willing commuters ready to hop on? The answer is simple- Okada is simply goosing into a huge void created by the lack of decent public transport system. Our roads are so congested that, it is not fun commuting to and from the office on any day. Many are forced to leave home at 5 a.m. or earlier, to get to the office on time. The situation is not helped by our un-planned development that has forced residences to be located far from the business district without a public transport system to aid travel. If you attempt a tro-tro ride during off-peak hours, you may have to endure a long wait till the bus is full. The other option is a more expensive taxi ride. What do rational people do in such circumstances? If okada can drastically cut down the hours on the road, why not, and that is the value proposition of Okada. Don't mind the risk, we are very religious, God will take care of that. I have just returned from a funeral in the Volta region. When you mention transport, the first response is 'zémidjan', another name for okada borrowed from our Togolese neighbors. They are doing some 'wonderful' work moving people from homes, to hospitals, markets, schools, and even moving corpses to their final resting place. Many in the population they serve have no other form of commercial transport. In fact there are no access roads to many of the villages they serve. Thanks to technology Okada is a phone call away. Stop Okada, and the villagers will have to walk long distances to access services we take for granted in the city. Okada is simply a common sense reaction to a real problem. In other words, the growth of okada in Ghana is being fueled by demand. Attacking the supply may not get us the result we want.
I hate the idea of using motorbikes for commercial transportation of humans. I will never support legalization of the system, but by leaving such a yawning gap in our transportation system, we are giving a tacit approval to the okada business. Okada is not addictive, if people have better alternatives okada will be out of the news. We need a comfortable mass transportation system that our Ministers and MPs will have no problems using to get to parliament. We must be getting rid of the rickety tro-tros and uncouth drivers' mates and be replacing them with trains and buses whose calls at bus stops are timely and predictable. Under more professional guidance, these same drivers, mates and okada riders could be trained to be the backbone of a decent transport system, a system that makes okada unattractive and at the same time provides jobs. In the absence of this, Mr. Awuni, the MTTU boss, can read the riot's act seven times to all the three hundred okada riders that visited parliament, but it will be an effort in futility. Even the politicians will not back his efforts. For years, I commuted between my Accra New Town home and Burma Camp primary in a mummy truck (bone shaker) we called Agege. As better alternatives appeared on the Ghanaian market, the bone shakers receded into the background. There was no strenuous campaign to get rid of them in Accra.
Yes, I know the Vice President recently cut the sod for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Accra, but the name of the game is result not intention. Even If a successful public transport system is the only legacy Egya Atta presidency will bequeath to Ghana, posterity will gladly borrow the words of the Adisadel College ode and say 'Atta Mills has labored and we share the glory, ours to do exploits and add to his gain….'. Until then, we may have to brace ourselves for a bumpy ride, because there is an okada near you that is goosing into space given up by common sense and good governance.