Friday, January 16, 2009

Okada helmets and road safety

WHATEVER may be the challenges and contradictions in the Nigerian society, one basic redeeming factor remains the capacity of the Nigerian to laugh at himself, to draw a comedy from the most unlikely situations and to push up lessons in the process, even if these may be lessons he or she does not intend to take seriously. But the good thing about comedy is that it makes us think. The burlesque, the farcical, the incongruous of daily living ultimately challenge the intellectual aspects of our being. And so it has been with the recent introduction of safety helmets as a compulsory tool for riders of commercial motorcycles and their passengers on Nigerian roads.

The Federal Road Safety Commission's (FRSC) regulation on safety helmets is in direct response to a tragic situation, namely the terrible accidents that have resulted from commercial motorcycling in Nigeria. Last year, the FRSC reported a radical surge in the number of road accidents, a significant percentage of which was traced to commercial motorcycles or what is known in Lagos as Okada, and in other parts of Nigeria as Going, Along, or Akauke. At the Orthopaedic Hospital in Yaba, Lagos, and other hospitals across Nigeria, there is what is called the Okada ward, a ward for patients with broken limbs and skulls, all resulting from a sudden tumbling down from the back of the okada. The mortuary is similarly filled with okada corpses. The real tragedy is that the majority of Nigerians find themselves helplessly forced to ride commercial motorcycles.

This is not England or Washington DC, where there is an efficient public transportation system. This is not a country where the cities and communities are well planned and every part is easily accessible. The Okada phenomenon, and what I have described before now as An Okada Economy, are both products of the failure of leadership in Nigeria, the failure of urban planning, the anti-intellectual nature of the governance process and the widespread corruption in the land. Because urban planning officials grant approvals for building constructions without visiting the sites, new neighbourhoods and communities spring up in Nigeria every day, every year, without access roads, without potable water and without electric poles. Vehicles cannot access such locations, so the people have to depend on motorcycles, which have earned a great reputation for their capacity to navigate through bushes and potholes.

Because nobody, over the years, has paid enough attention to population explosion and the standards of existing infrastructure, even in cities and towns that are accessible, the roads are congested. Easy movement is impossible. And so, Nigerians have come to depend on the commercial motorcycle as an escape mechanism to meet an urgent appointment, to catch a flight or to simply escape the stress of a traffic hold up.

In Lagos, ordinarily, a traffic hold up can last for a minimum of one hour. Because there is no efficient public transportation system and network, no metro system, no subway, no public bus system, no alternative means of urban transportation other than the road, and not enough taxis, or buses, Nigerians are compelled to hop on to the back of the okada to be able to get by. For these reasons, the commercial motorcycle has become a necessity for most Nigerians: it has helped so many to realise their Constitutional right to the freedom of movement! Without the okada, many Nigerians would be constructively and literally rendered immobile.

The FRSC regulation on the safety helmets is at best an attempt to rescue an already embarrassing situation: to save a few more limbs and to signpost the importance of safety for both passengers and riders of commercial motorcycles. The safety helmet rule is therefore in the public interest. But Nigerians, two weeks later, see it as a joke. The natural cynicism of the average Nigerian is on full display. The ThisDay newspaper has already published on its front page a celebrated photograph showing an okada rider wearing a paint bucket as a helmet. It invites instant laughter, except that when you look at the same photograph closely, it will be seen that the motorcyclist actually has a real helmet he has chosen not to use. What point is being made? That point is much clearer on the streets of Nigeria. There have been reports of persons who wear painted calabash helmets. It looks like a helmet alright, but it cannot provide any security in the event of an accident.

Every day, you would also notice that most of the helmets being used are factory helmets or jockey caps. But the ludicrous is in the attitude of both okada riders and passengers towards the helmet. Even when the helmet is available, there is really no attempt to use it as prescribed. Most okada riders and passengers wear the helmet on top of a cap, headgear or a turban. The people benefiting most from the okada helmet rule are the sellers of handkerchiefs, toilet rolls, baseball caps and polythene bags, which people first use to cover their heads before putting on the helmet when they decide to use it. The excuse is that it is risky to allow a helmet that has touched another man's head to touch yours. In our cultures, there is a superstitious belief that the head must be protected, because it is the home among Yorubas of ori or ayanmo and among Igbos of one's chi.

The meaning of these anthropological concepts is more spiritual than physical. Many Nigerians insist that sharing the same helmet with another person could result in the transfer of bad luck. I have seen ladies who hold the helmet above their heads without allowing it to touch even a strand of hair. When they see policemen or FRSC officials in the distance, they bring the helmet closer to their heads, but keep it apart by using their palm to prevent any contact. Other ladies rely on the protective shield of toilet rolls, handkerchiefs and polythene bags.

Okada passengers also complain about kidnappers on the prowl for whom the helmet could become a ready weapon. I have been told that there is a band of kidnappers called alajaale, who use human body parts for ritual purposes. They were reportedly exposed in a television programme, Nkan Mbe, once anchored by Kola Olawuyi. People are afraid that the members of this secret, underground cult can use the helmet to kidnap innocent people. Nobody has been able to unmask this criminal, occultic syndicate. Kidnapping is a major social phenomenon in Nigeria and the perpetrators are hardly ever found. In the meantime, okada passengers do not want to take any risk. When you come upon these spectacles daily, you can't but laugh. Even the policemen and FRSC officials who are supposed to enforce the regulation can't help laughing.

But the humour is of the dark, macabre variety. The introduction of the safety helmets may be endangering more lives than hitherto was the case. With one hand holding the helmet and another supporting the toilet roll, or poly bag shield, most okada passengers no longer hold on to the machine in any way. The roads that these motorcycles ply are pothole-ridden. One wrong manoeuvre and the machine, the rider and the passenger would find themselves in one huge heap on the ground.

The true test of law lies in its implementation and acceptance. The helmet regulation was also introduced in 1984, but after this kind of initial cynical response, Nigerians soon went back to their old ways. The agencies and regulatory authorities, should not just be interested in enforcing penalties for non-compliance, public enlightenment will be necessary, as was the case when the compulsory use of seat belts was introduced. People have to be reminded that it is in their best interest to use the safety helmet. Standards must also be prescribed. How to use the helmet must also be properly stated. It won't be right to assume that the motorcyclists and okada passengers are incorrigible and that the only way forward is to impose penalties. Many okada riders are college graduates, and the owners of those motorcycles belong to some of the most important classes in society.

All motorcyclists should be registered and given uniforms and numbers for easy identification. What can be done about the threat of kidnappers? This is so metaphysical and confusing. But Nigerians are addressing this by buying their own safety helmets. So many people now go out these days, carrying their own helmets. Due to the sudden surge in demand, the price of helmets has risen from N750 in December to as high as N6,000 in the second week of January. The cheapest for now is the factory helmet at N2,000 per unit. Every helmet, except the locally improvised caricatures, is imported. Things are so bad in Nigeria, we can't even manufacture crash helmets! The helmet-use directive is only one part of the bargain though. The FRSC and the municipal authorities must also insist on safe riding, and wage war against drunk driving and the use of sub-standard motorcycles.

I get the impression that commercial motorcyclists are having fun. They are beginning to obey the new regulation. Politicians are now buying motorcycles and safety helmets for okada riders. Companies are also now cashing in on the helmet-rule for advertisement purposes. Already, the company that produces Indomie noodles has turned many okada riders into mobile billboards. Commerce, humour and opportunism predominate. The problem is with the superstitious passengers. The onus is on government to create an efficient public transportation system that will rescue Nigerians from the terror of commercial motorcyclists. Our leaders may not know how serious the problem is. Afterall, their wives and children do not use the okada