By TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA
At last, the Lagos State government has proved doubters wrong that laws, especially the new traffic law, can be enforced. After several weeks of state-wide public enlightenment, which saw state officials, including Governor Babatunde Fashola, visit clubs, associations and professional bodies to take the message to the doorsteps of Lagosians and why they should support its implementation, government last week bared its fangs on defaulters.
And when the enforcement team came to town, the assignment was simple but akin to a shoot-at-sight order: Rid Lagos highways of motorcycles, popularly called okada. While no blood was shed, thousands of motorcycles were confiscated in one fell swoop. Across the state, policemen were catching fun dispossessing riders of their bikes and dumping them in the vans.
But like a man pushed to the wall, the men who had been the butt of police brutality in recent weeks, bounced back and revolted against the state. On Monday and Tuesday last week, economic and social activities were partially paralysed by okada riders to register their displeasure with government over the ban placed on their activities on some roads in the state.
The men, in their hundreds, trooped into the popular Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, disrupting free flow of traffic at the Alakuko-Mosalashi and Kola axis of the road, chanting slogans. But for the quick intervention of some mobile policemen who dispersed them with teargas at Kollington/AIT Bus Stop in the early hours of Tuesday, the okada riders had attempted to set another government commercial bus, commonly known as BRT, on fire.
According to an eyewitness, when the protesters sighted the BRT bus, they quickly rushed at the driver, beat him and later set the bus on fire. He added that the fire was put out by the mobile police officials, who eventually dispersed them with teargas
Many road users did not go scot-free as some hoodlums hijacked the protest to rob some innocent and unsuspecting commuters, as well as market men and women, around within the vicinity.
Meanwhile, some commercial drivers plying the road could not continue with their activities, while a few of them that attempted increased fares by 100 per cent. One of the witnesses told The Guardian that Alagbado to Oshodi was N300 as against the old N120 fare.
A mobile policeman disclosed that they were sent to maintain law and order within the vicinity, stressing that the okada riders should not have taken laws into their hands since they had approached a competent court of law to address the situation.
One of the commercial motorcyclists, who simply identified himself as Bello, said he regretted participating in the election that brought the incumbent administration into power, lamenting that all the policies made by Governor Fashola have been anti-people.
For the three working days of last week, it was a hellish experience for Lagosians, who were moving from one part of the city to another. Due to the ubiquitous Lagos traffic and unavailability of buses and tricycles, many were stranded at the bus stops, while others had to walk long distances to get to their destinations.
Many of the okada riders, whose bikes were yet to be seized took them off the streets and those who dared to operate charged exorbitant fees and carried two passengers to make up for the risk of being caught.
There were, however, conflicting reports on the Tuesday morning incident, which occurred along Ogunusi Road in Agege with some claiming that a motorcyclist died while others claimed he survived and escaped arrest.
Traders said policemen were executing the ban on okada in the area when the incident happened. Some motorcyclists around Pen Cinema junction alleged that one of the policemen hit an unidentified rider with a baton resulting in the motorcyclist falling into a ditch.
The rider was struggling to escape from the policemen when one of them allegedly hit him with a baton. The motorcyclist fell into a ditch close to AP Filling station and was reportedly severely injured, fuelling rumour that he had died.
Another rider also escaped death on Monday around Eko Hotel Roundabout in Victoria Island. The rider on sighting policemen, made a quick U-turn to escape but was unaware a policeman was lying in wait behind, who immediately hit him with the butt of a gun that saw the rider fall metres in front of an incoming truck.
Many who witnessed the scene hailed the rider for his close shave with death while they rained unprintable words on the governor and the policemen charged with enforcing the law.
A motorcyclist, Bashiru Abubakar, said the confiscation of their bikes had rendered hundreds of thousands jobless and for people like him who are fortunate to hold on to their bikes, it is now almost like a game of chess, as the battle for survival gets stiffer.
Egbe Esther said the situation is compounding the traffic situation in Lagos with many finding it difficult to get to their destinations on time. According to her, the numbers of cars on the road have increased as many now use their cars to meet up with appointments since there are no bikes and where few bikes exist, many commuters had to jostle for them at a higher fare.
Timothy Damilare works on the Island and normally takes a bike from CMS to Akin Adesola Street, where his office is located for N200, but since the enforcement of the restriction on some roads started, he now pays over N1,000 for cab to get to his office.
To Niyi Ademoye, commuting by bike is not a pleasurable ride, especially on the few times he had tried riding on it when he had deadlines to meet. “I can assure you that I never enjoyed the ride. In as much as I do not support the total ban, I will want commercial motorcycles to be available on inner-city streets, especially on the island and some parts of Ikeja.”
However, the state House of Assembly has said it might review the restriction placed on commercial motorcycle operators by the state Road Traffic Law to outright ban. The law had restricted okada riders from operating on 475 major highways, roads and bridges in the state. Speaker of the Assembly, Mr. Adeyemi Ikuforiji, in reaction to the protest, said if the riders did not stop the vandalisation of government properties, the lawmakers of the state might have no choice but to ban their operations.
As Lagosians get set to resume work tomorrow after the Sallah break, many people are apprehensive of the traffic logjam and chaos that would be experienced, as some fear they could be a social and economic shutdown in continuation of the protest by commercial motorcyclists.