It's definitely not a good year to be a motorcycle taxi driver in Nigeria
In Lagos, Nigeria's suburb of Yaba on the morning of June 1, motorcycle taxi driver Obaji Samson wasn't sure if he should go to work or not. Still clad in his pajamas, he listened to an announcement on the radio that summed up his dilemma: The government of the Nigerian state that includes Lagos was instituting a ban on motorcycle taxis — known as bike taxis or okadas — in six of the most economically vibrant districts at the heart of the bustling commercial city.
Should he drive anyway and risk getting arrested – or stay at home (and earn nothing).
It's not the first time Nigeria has cracked down on motorcycle taxis, which carry commuters who are in a hurry, weave in and out of traffic jams and head down roads that buses don't travel on. No one wears a helmet.
The reason for the bans is always the same: the government states that criminals like to team up on bikes, reach into cars and grab things like a wallet or phone from motorists stuck in traffic, then use their vehicle for a speedy getaway. The thieves also target pedestrians.
Traffic accidents are another concern. Of the 1,712 accidents recorded in Lagos the first quarter of this year, 767, or 45%, were caused by motorcycle taxis, Gbenga Omotosho, the state commissioner for information and strategy, said in a statement.
So the official solution is to ban the bikes from certain parts of the city.
The government claims that such bans are effective. Benjamin Hundeyin, Lagos state police public relations officer, told NPR that "since the ban has been announced, the incidence of traffic robbery has reduced drastically."
Similar claims have been made about accident reduction.
But not everyone agrees with the government strategy. "There is some anecdotal representation that some bike taxis are used in criminal activities but they do not represent the majority of criminal operations in Lagos," says Ikemesit Effiong, the head of research at Lagos-based security consulting firm SBM Intelligence.
Two things are certain: the ban makes life difficult for commuters – and for drivers.
On June 3, the government reported that about 2,000 seized motorcycles were crushed by state officials, and 21 motorcycle drivers were arrested and charged with violating the ban. No news yet about their sentencing.
Samson says one of his colleagues was arrested in addition to having his motorcycle taken away. "If I had decided to go out that day, maybe my bike would have been seized too," he told NPR as he chewed on roasted corn by the roadside.
The only safe option is for Samson and his fellow out-of-luck motorcycle taxi drivers to work in districts not included in the banned areas. But there just aren't as many potential commuting customers in those areas where the bikes are still allowed – so few that Samson jokes that motorcycle taxi drivers outnumber them.
Samson, who used to make up to $24 per day but now, now says he brings home less than $5 after the day's work in these less trafficked districts. "It has become hard for me to feed my children," he says.
He's eaten deeply into his savings and his family of ten is starting to miss meals. The rent of the two rooms in a large bungalow his family lives in is soon due. To make rent, he has started applying for jobs to work as a delivery man or driver. The stress is taking a toll on his marriage. "Every day it is fight after fight because of money."
And things are only looking worse for the drivers. On August 18, local government announced plans to expand the ban to cover four additional districts, starting September 1.
Drivers are also up in arms about enforcement. Some allege that the police have accosted drivers for no reason.
Hamza Bashir, who migrated from the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna to Lagos last year to earn money to support his wife and elderly mother, says that on July 17, he was riding his motorcycle on a street in Bariga, a district where the bikes are still allowed until September 1, when a police officer emerged from hiding and slapped him hard across the face, causing him to fall and injure his shins.
"The first thing I did was to run away" to avoid further beating, says Bashir, who says his abandoned motorcycle was confiscated. At the police station, Bashir says he was told to pay the equivalent of about $170 "or else I would never get back my bike."
Hundeyin, the Lagos state police spokesperson, disputes claims like this. "For those who make genuine complaints, officers are usually summoned to the headquarters where they are made to face disciplinary actions. We do that regularly," he says.
As for Samson, he says his future as a motorbike taxi driver looks bleak. "It is my way to feed my family," he says. "I want the government to reconsider."
Pelumi Salako is a Nigerian writer and journalist who covers culture, inclusive economies, development, business and technology. He has written for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Thomson Reuters Foundation, African Business Magazine, Mail & Guardian and other outlets. He is on twitter @SalakoBabaa
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