LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigeria’s commercial hub Lagos is trying to bring order to hundreds of thousands of chaotic motorcycle taxis, banning them from major roads and from carrying pregnant women or riding on the pavement.
The bikes, known as “okadas,” swarm like mosquitoes around sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous city, swerving to avoid bribe-hungry traffic police, often mounting the kerb and frequently carrying entire families on their tired frames.
Some estimate there are as many as a million okadas in Lagos, ferrying everyone from commuters to schoolchildren around a city whose major roads are almost permanently gridlocked. Even heart-attack victims have been known to be ferried to hospital on the back of the bikes.
Public information leaflets produced with motorcycle riders’ unions have been handed out listing new rules and pledging stricter enforcement of existing ones, including a ban on multiple passengers and on carrying school-aged children.
“No stereo or any other musical instrument should be fixed on the motorcycle,” says one of the more eccentric regulations.
Pictures of five passengers on one bike and of a rider balancing four sacks of rice are marked with ‘X’s, while a set of traffic lights is marked with a big tick. Major roads where okadas will be banned from September 1 are also listed.
Many okadas buzzing around Lagos, a chaotic city of 14 million people, were given to unemployed youths as part of poverty reduction programs or on hire-purchase schemes run by businessmen. Few riders have been taught traffic rules.
“I feed myself and my family, train my children so that they won’t be like me, that is all I am after,” said Frederick Eshi Eshi, a 40-year-old okada rider. “I don’t have much education so I came to do this work.”
Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola, one of Nigeria’s most popular politicians, is on a drive to modernize a city forecast to be one of the world’s 10 biggest in a few years.
New buses have been introduced and there are plans for mass transit rail links between the business district and the most populous neighborhoods. But the infrastructure remains woefully inadequate.
The new rules ban okadas from all bridges, which carry major roads in a city spread across a series of lagoons, and are likely to prove a major headache for many Lagos commuters. Okada riders said the government must provide them with new jobs.
“How do you take a man’s livelihood without giving them something else to do? Before you know, people will turn to crime,” said 32-year-old rider Paul Oluwagbemi.
Nigeria’s last effort to improve safety, by requiring okada riders to wear helmets, met with initial resistance.
Police ended up arresting scores of riders and passengers who had tied dried fruit skins, paint pots or pieces of rubber tire to their heads rather than pay for helmets.
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Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Andrew Roche