The long decade civil war, Ebola, a never-ending corruption, high rate of unemployment, and social injustices, Sierra Leoneans have seen it all. 80% of our country’s youthful population are either unemployed or underpay. The 2018 election saw a divided nation – political parties used and promised young people with the hope that they will provide them jobs if they get elected in the highest office. These promises were not only left unfulfilled, they resorted using the police to arrest and detain young people: from the Okada riders, to those young people who find themselves in opposition or trying to hold government accountable to the general populace. This has led to high rate of youth unemployment; which many have resorted to violence and drug abuse.
Okada riders in Sierra Leone involved mainly the youths at age 18-30. Most of these young people are high school dropout, some are university students that are finding it very difficult to pay tuition fees, and also some at the age of 30-50 are married men that have families to feed. These riders are going through a lot on a daily basis – ranging from traffic police harassment – bike marshals harassment – and even passenger harassment.
Over the years, many young people decided to create self-employment in the informal sector especially in the area of commercial motor cycle transportation, popularly known as Okada.
According to the Sierra Leone Commercial Bike Riders Union National Public Relations Officer, Mohamed A. T Nabieu, he noted that over one hundred thousand Bike Riders are in Freetown municipality and over eight hundred thousand nationwide. This placed okada riding on the chat as the most informal employees after government.
Previous government of former President Ernest Bai Koroma hastily implemented a ban that prevented Okada riders from running in the Commercial Business District (CBD). This has greatly affected those unemployed youth whose daily bread comes from their Okada riding – making things very difficult for them.
Before its implementation, many Sierra Leoneans noted that before such a policy, the Ministry of Internal Affairs should have initiated a long term ministerial and departmental engagement involving the Ministry of Transport and Aviation; Youth Affairs; Labor, Employment and Social Security; Trade and Industry; and Political and Public Affairs; as well as the Sierra Leone Police; Office of National Security; and pressure groups like the Sierra Leone Labor Congress, as well as the Bike Riders Union. Such a consultation process should have allowed for the discussion of alternative job creation opportunities for the affected young people, or an alternative way to reduce commercial motor cycle in the CBD.
Another possible way to have resolved concerns around frequent accidents, could have been for both Government and the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority to implement policies that could prohibit buses from plying Kissy Road and replaced with Okada and tricycle, which would have been monitored by the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority (SLRSA) and relevant unions to ensure that they do the right thing.
Though it will cause more traffic in the CBD areas, but we believe if they strategize well, all of these issues will be tackled.
Another alternative is for the government to provide Small Medium Enterprise (SME) loans to affected youths that want to go into other private business ventures.
Ishmeal Dumbuya is the Public Relations Officer for Bike Riders Union, Bombali District. The bike riding in Bombali is going smoothly as expected by the public and the government amidst the numerous challenges we continue to face, he said. Mr. Dumbuya said a country without means of transportation, the progress of that country will be limited. That is why we (bike riders) we strongly believe in transportation. In Sierra Leone, youth unemployment is very high, and because of that we are tempted in involving in stealing and all sort of reckless actions that are against the laws of this country, Instead we decided to be self-employed through bike riding.
At Salone Messenger, we had an interview with him to tell us the challenges they (bike riders) are facing in Makeni
Q. What are some of the challenges bike riders are facing in Makeni?
Answer: The cost of licenses has increased to 110%. The previous price was at LE 300,000 compared to the current price which is at LE 750,000. And currently, they (the government) want to increase it to one million Leones. We are also going through a lot of challenges on the road with the police and road safety officers. The daily harassments by the police and safety officers is affecting us a lot. For example, a police officer will arrest a bike rider and in a twinkle of an eye he/she will charge the bike rider to court. Bike riders are not criminals, we are not gangsters. We are just a group of unemployed youths trying to get our daily bread through bike riding. Sometimes, when they charged a bike rider to court for a minor offense, they’ll fine that particular rider LE 1,000,000 to 2,000,000. If you don’t pay, you’re going to prison. As I’m talking, we have a lot of bike riders in prison for an offense that didn’t worth it. A bike rider will spend months in prison for a minor offense, whilst a criminal or gangster with major offense will spend few weeks – that’s not fair. Another challenge is that, there are some areas in Makeni that are not part of the Centre Business District (CBD) that bike riders supposed to ride through but they are not, because traders have occupied these areas and left the bike riders little or no passage to use which sometimes cause minor and major accidents. Another Challenge is coming from the Sierra Leone Road Safety Association. A safety officer will arrest a bike rider for a minor offense only for that rider to pay a sum of LE 100,000, sometimes LE 400,000. Now tell me, “if safety officer take 100wetin go lef na d bike man ihn hand?”
Q. As the PRO for Bike Riders Union in Makeni, what are you and your Union doing to settle these challenges?
Answer: As a Union, sometimes when one of our riders got arrested by the police, we will accompany the rider to the police station and see how best we can do to release the rider. Sometimes we can have them released, sometimes we can’t. 80% of our riders are charged to court after their arrest. Every day the police and safety officers are arresting our riders, the union may want to negotiate but the police will not. We are trying our best to see how best these arrests will stop or minimized, but the police and safety officers on the other hand seems not to. It is really frustrating.
Q. What is your message to the government?
Answer: What I want to tell the government is, they should know that bike riding job is not a permanent job – bike riders don’t want to ride bikes till they are old. We are not happy in doing this job. We are doing it because there is no choice left and we have families to take care of. We are calling on the government to see how best they can create jobs for us. We have bike riders that have teaching certificate, some are degree holders, some are professional contractors, etc. OR if the government can’t provide jobs for us, let them buy more bikes for us and loan them to us that will help salvage the unemployment crisis. if they can’t, let them negotiate with the police and safety officers to see how best they can minimize the arrest of bike riders.