The use of motorbikes for commercial purpose, popularly called ‘okada’, has become the new-found trade for many young people across the country. What used to be just a means of transport for rural folks in particular is now a viable source of livelihood for many a Ghanaian youth.
Motorbikes have been the preferred means of transport for rural folks because it is the easiest and cheapest means by which they ply their business.
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In the three regions of the North and the northern part of the Volta Region for instance, motorbikes are revered so much among farmers, teachers, nurses, social workers and many others, who rely on them to get to their places of work.
No wonder in the latter part of the 2000s, Apsonic motorbikes were christened "Single Spine" in reference to the improved finances of teachers as a consequence of the introduction of the single spine salary structure (SSSS).
While farmers use motorbikes to carry heavy loads to and from the farm, nurses and health workers see it as the most efficient means to access the hinterlands to dispense healthcare services.
However, the last five years has seen a rise in the use of motorbikes for commercial purposes in towns and cities such as Accra, Kumasi, Tamale and Cape Coast.
In Accra for instance, the okada fever has caught up with all corners of the city such that the travelling public now turn to patronise the okada instead of taxis.
From Ashaiman, the Kwame Nkrumah Circle, Agbogbloshie Zongo communities to other parts of the capital city, okada operators pitch camps and compete with taxi and "trotro" drivers for passengers.
The daily gridlock caused by vehicular traffic which further compounds during festive seasons and special occasions make motorbikes the preferred option for many a people.
Even though they charge higher fees as compared to taxis and other commercial vehicles, the operators are still in good business.
This stems from the fact that they outdo their competitors by meandering through thick traffic to get their clients to their destinations in good time.
The booming okada business puts food on the table of many young men and their families who had little or no formal education.
For 28-year-old Mohammed Awal, a resident of Old Fadama, ‘okada’ has been his life wire since he dropped out of an apprenticeship four years ago because of financial constraint.
He makes more than GH¢ 150 on a good day from that business.
"I make sales of GH¢ 50 to him every day. After all deductions, I am still able to make some savings for the future.
Through the savings, I have been able to set up a store at Sandema where I come from. My sister is taking care of that store while I also hustle here in the hope that things will improve for us in the future," he said.
The ugly picture
Even though these okada operators are working hard to make a living, their activities have been described by some people as counterproductive because many of them flout road traffic regulations.
They fail to wear protective clothing such as helmets, thereby putting their lives and those of their clients in danger.
Some of them ride recklessly resulting in road accidents.
In some cases, the motorbikes are used to commit crimes such as snatching of mobile phones and money from people and speed off after.
Figures from the National Road Safety Commission (NRSC) show that in 2014 alone, 2,571 people were knocked down by motorists out of which 1,856 lost their lives.
In 2015, 2,289 motorcycles were involved in road crashes nationwide while in the first quarter of 2017, about 708 road users died from 4,049 road accidents, with 3,983 others sustaining various degrees of injury.
The statistics show that 1,199 pedestrians were knocked down by 6,468 vehicles and 1,289 motorbikes. These negative tendencies necessitated a call for an outright ban of the practice, especially when the laws frown on it.
Despite these challenges, many strong voices have advocated the legalisation and regularisation of the okada business.
In 2015, a Deputy Minister of Local Government, Mr Edwin Nii Lante Vanderpuye, made a strong case for a review of provisions outlawing ‘okada’, saying it had the potential to create employment opportunities and increase government revenue.
Last year, some Members of Parliament (MPs) from rural constituencies also made statements on the floor of Parliament that ‘okada’ ought to be legalised because motorbikes were faster, convenient and cost-effective means of transport in their constituencies.
They argued that ‘okada’ operations had become a source of livelihood for many rural folks, so regularising and regulating it would create jobs and improve the transport system especially in the rural areas.
In February this year, a Deputy Minister of Transport, Mr Titus Glover, added his voice to the call for the legalisation of ‘okada.
A couple of weeks ago, Nii Lantey Vanderpuiye reignited the advocacy for legalisation of the practice in an interview with the Daily Graphic, calling on the Ministry of Transport to collaborate with key stakeholders to mainstream it into the national transportation system.
In 2012, the use of motorbikes for commercial transport in the country was outlawed under Section 128 (1) of the Road Traffic Regulations, 2012 which states that: "The licensing authority shall not register a motorcycle to carry a fare-paying passenger."
The law also prohibits any person from using a motorcycle or tricycle for commercial purposes except for courier and delivery services, while it also prohibits pillions from riding on a motorcycle or tricycle as paying passengers. Offenders are liable to fines or imprisonment.
In their duty to enforce the law, officials of the Driver, Vehicle and Licensing Authority (DVLA) and the Motor Traffic and Transport Department (MTTD) of the Ghana Police Service have kicked against proposals from advocators for okada to be legalised.
The two state institutions argued that the open-sided nature of motorbikes exposed riders and patrons to danger.
As the debate on the legalisation of okada rages on, there is the need for a national discourse on the issue, involving stakeholders in the transport sector, regulators and policy makers.
If it is properly regulated and mainstreamed into the national transport system, it will not only help to safeguard the lives of the travelling public but also widen the government’s revenue base.
Let us review the law to accommodate okada operators so that they can be identified, registered, licensed and policed to work within the road traffic regulations.