By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Inflicting transportational misery on the poor appears to be the latest trend in governance in Nigeria. It started with Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola’s ban on commercial motor cycles in the city of Lagos. Then the Federal Capital Territory Administration followed with its own ban on the use of mini-buses in Abuja and environs. (Motor cycles have been banned in Abuja for years). Kano State’s ban on commercial motor cycles is the latest in the governmental craze to make intra-city mobility a nightmare for the poor.
Lagos, Kano, and Abuja are undoubtedly Nigeria’s most important cities. While Lagos is our commercial hub, Abuja is the center of governance, and Kano is the biggest city and commercial nerve center of northern Nigeria. It is interesting that the latest elite transportational war on the poor is being waged in these cities. Perhaps, before this article is published, Port Harcourt and Aba will enact their own versions of the cruelly insensitive transportation policies started by Lagos, Abuja, and Kano.
Now, let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing to celebrate in Nigeria’s omnipresent commercial motorcycles variously called "Okada," "Achaba," and “Going.” They are noisy, noisome, dangerous, emit toxic gases, and make the road experience hellish for everybody. Plus, lately, they have become the means by which domestic terrorists carry out senseless murders of innocents. I admit that the ubiquity of commercial motor cycles in our transportation system is a testament to the terrible state of our development. However, in the absence of an alternative, motor cycles are the only means of mobility for millions of our urban working poor and for people in the lower middle class.
It doesn’t require rocket science to figure out that you don’t arbitrarily ban a popular means of transportation for a people when you haven’t provided an alternative for them. That’s like imprisoning millions of people for the “offense” of being poor. But it’s even worse for several others: the bans on their only means of mobility have meant a death sentence by installment. The already economically dispossessed, from what I’ve read so far, are now in a worse shape than they’ve ever been. The working poor are massively stranded and have a hard time getting to their places of work. The informal economy, which is driven literally and figuratively by motor cycle transportation, is in desperate straits. This can’t continue indefinitely. Something has to give.
In all my travels—and studies of elite governance—I have never come across a ruling class as viciously cruel, unimaginative, and nearsighted as Nigeria’s ruling class. Our leaders just wake up from the luxury of their beds and take knee-jerk and precipitate decisions without a care for the immediate and long-term consequences of such decisions on the people they supposedly govern. Nothing instantiates this tendency more than the rash of unthinking bans on motor cycle transportation in major cities of Nigeria.
Maybe this is an opportunity to put intra-city transit to the front burner of public policy in Nigeria. There is no better time than now for Nigerian governments at all levels to come out with a coherent, workable transportation system for our major cities. I know of no one who argues that motor cycles should be a permanent fixture of our transportation system. But how about intra-city rail systems for our big cities like Lagos, Kano, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Aba, etc.? In most parts of the world, cities as big and as densely populated as Lagos, Kano, Abuja, and Aba have functional internal transportation systems that take city dwellers from point to point.
That is why in American big cities like New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, etc. transportation is a great social leveler: both the poor and the not so rich use mass transit services to get to their destinations. When I lived in the heart of Atlanta for five years, for instance, I didn’t need a personal car. Atlanta’s transit system, called the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority or MARTA for short, took me to every place I wanted. With it, I avoided the city’s crazy traffic, got to where I wanted on time, and saved money on gas and parking. (I felt compelled to buy a car a few years ago only because I’ve moved to Kennesaw, an affluent Atlanta suburb where MARTA doesn’t operate). Owning a car is a burden in America’s big cities.
Big cities here have efficient mass transit systems that serve both the rich and the poor. For example, Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s major and 10th richest person in America, often occasionally uses the city’s mass transit trains to go to work. Similarly, Joe Biden, America’s current vice president, took mass transit trains to work throughout the 30-plus years that he was a senator.
Can you imagine an FCT minister or a Nigerian senator in a mass transit bus or train? That would be the day!
The truth is that Nigeria has one of the most vicious transportational apartheids in the world. In Nigeria, the rich and the poor are like water and oil: they never mix. And the relational gulf keeps getting wider and wider every day. That is why governors and ministers can make glib, lumpen policies that deepen the misery of the poor without any compunction. They have no frigging clue how the poor live and what struggles they cope with daily.
But I think Nigeria’s ruling elite are pushing the masses to their elastic limits. If governments go on banning the only means of mobility for the poor without providing alternatives, I foresee a violent push back very soon. And it won’t be pretty for everyone.