In Indonesia, where it has been legalised, it is called ojek, but in Nigeria and other neighboring West African countries it is more familiarly referred to as okada.
Commercial motorbikes, popularly called kada, have gradually become a means of employment for many young people across the length and breadth of Ghana. Some of these commercial motorbike operators make a profit of between GHC30 and GHC50 or more, on average, on a good day.
However, in the past few days, the operation of okadas has become the subject of a discussion that has grabbed headlines on radio and television, and in newspapers, offices and homes. Various professional groups, from the Ghana Medical Association (GMA) and Bureau of Public Safety to the Ghana Private Road Transport Union (GPRTU), have taken a stance on the reignited debate.
What kind of promise?
Ghana’s laws make it illegal for a motorbike or tricycle (aboboyaa) to be used as a commercial means of transport. And yet, over the past decade, commercial bikes have experienced a sharp rise in use and popularity.
The flagbearer of the National Democratic Congress, John Dramani Mahama, reignited the debate in Kpando in the Volta Region last week when he outlined his plans to legalise the trade if given the nod in the general election scheduled for 7 December.
Mahama argues that the okada business, which has become a norm in many parts of the country and a readily accepted form of transportation, employs more young people than any formal intervention to employ the youth – a thinly veiled reference to the state-run Nation Builders Corps (NABCO) programme.
But Mahama’s argument and promise to legalise bikes have been shot down by the Transport Minister, Kweku Ofori Asiamah, and his deputy, Daniel Nii Kwartei Titus-Glover.
“When you look at the okada business, it has its good side and bad side. The bad side is the fact that they don’t respect traffic regulations,” Titus-Glover told Asaase News. “You see people dying on these motorbikes all the time; you see them crossing red lights all the time.”
He questioned the sort of deliberation and consultation engaged in by the former president to warrant such a promise.
“The Ministry of Transport has gone round this country to seek the opinion of the Medical Association, the media, okada riders and assemblymen to seek their opinion. You cannot get up alone and legalise their operations,” Titus-Glover told Asaase News.
Life in your hands
The deputy minister said despite the number of jobs the okada business is creating, there is no need to rush into legalising operation of the bikes for now.
The main argument for most people who patronise okadas is their convenience and the ease they allow of getting to one’s destination in a short time, regardless of how much traffic there is in town.
Statistics from the National Road Safety Commission for January to October last year alone show that 589 deaths were recorded on Ghana’s roads through motorcycle accidents.
It goes without saying that despite the convenience and relief that okadas bring, they also pose a great danger to patrons and the operators themselves.
It is because of the dangers posed by the operation of okada riders that the Ghana Medical Association has reiterated its stance on the okada debate on Wednesday 26 August.
The general secretary of the Ghana Medical Association, Justice Yankson, told Kojo Mensah of The Asaase Breakfast Show that the association frowns on any attempt to legalise the okada business in Ghana.
Over the years the GMA has shared statistics and position papers with various stakeholders, including Parliament, to explain why the okada business should not be legalised.
“Our position over the years and today is that it should be a no-no. The harmful effects are more than the benefit we think we can get.
“We have [issued] several press releases over the years and the position is still the same, if not still stronger, because the sort of harm that it causes Ghanaians in terms of traffic accidents, you won’t believe. The statistics keep escalating and the drain our resources when such patients are admitted [is great] … a lot of youth are dying in the process.”
Yankson proposed that the government consider improving the country’s road infrastructure and introduce with a proper mass transport system, as in developed countries. This will halt the reliance on okadas as a means of transportation, he said.
He said a revamp of the railways and the introduction of a rapid bus system through public-private partnerships will make it far more convenient for all to travel.
GPRTU rejects idea
Speaking on The Asaase Breakfast Show minutes later, Robert Sarbah, Greater Accra chairman of the Ghana Private Road Transport Union (GPRTU), also announced that the union is against any move to legalise the operation of okadas.
“Their operations are classified as illegal and therefore cannot be recognised by the union unless the legislation is amended to make them part of the GPRTU.”
He lamented that the rampant growth of the okada business has posed such an obvious threat to the survival of the riders’ business.
“When you are even in the market selling and there is another trader selling the same commodity, obviously you will not be happy,” Sarbah said.
Public safety first?
However, the Bureau of Public Safety is one institution that has welcomed the NDC flagbearer’s call, describing it as being in the right direction.
“At the moment, those guys are operating under no sort of regulations at all except the Road Act, which, as a country, we have not demonstrated enough capacity to enforce,” says Nana Yaw Akwada, executive director of the bureau.
“To the extent that the okada phenomenon has come to stay and is causing so much nuisance on our roads, we believe that the little sort of regulations we can throw at them to even get results can make an impact on our accidental death statistics, especially in the major cities.”
The Bureau of Public Safety boss believes the regulations to be enacted should be able to map out areas that the riders cannot access and also make them identifiable for the purposes of law enforcement. Akwada believes this will limit the numbers of deaths related to motorcycles, as 80% of the fatalities associated with the okada business occur in city centres.
“We want to see them outside the sprawling cities where transportation is not much of a big deal, where they are not likely to cause accidents and injure themselves,” Akwada said.
Surge in antisocial behaviour
One of the leading think tanks in Ghana, IMANI, has also endorsed the move by the NDC flagbearer to legalise the use of okadas. Its founder and executive director, Franklin Cudjoe, argues that the okada business is a source of income for thousands of young people across the country.
Some okada riders who spoke to Asaase Radio believe their trade has partly solved the problem of youth unemployment in Ghana. They argue that any attempt to stifle okadas could lead to a surge in social vices, and have urged the government to take a critical look at the matter.
For now, the debate on the legalisation of okadas is becoming interesting. Until a national dialogue to find a consensus begins, involving stakeholders such as okada riders themselves, the Ministry of Transport, Ghana Medical Association and National Road Safety Commission, the nation stands to lose socially and economically.