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 is either unemployed or underpaid. 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, but they also resorted to 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 a 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 dropouts, 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 motorcycle 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 the government.

The 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 motorcycle 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 plan 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.

Salone Messenger’s Abu Bakarr Jalloh took to the street of Freetown to ask these young men what could have led them into okada riding, how they are coping with the day to day challenges they are facing, and give suggestions on how best these arrests and harassments are minimized. We started our interviews with the Okada riders at Shell, then Up Gun, and PZ.

We had an interview with an okada rider at Shell. His name is Gibril Sesay. Gibril Sesay sat to the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (WASSCE), but unfortunately for him, he didn’t get his university requirement at his first attempt. This led him to involve in okada riding just so he couldn’t stay idle. His main motive is to raise some funds to re-sit the exams. He is an okada rider that is plying around the Freetown municipality. Abu Bakarr Jalloh had an interview with him to tell us the daily constraints he’s facing as an okada rider.

Q. What prompted you to involve in Okada riding?

“Well, after I sat to my WASSCE and didn’t make it to the university, I had to attach myself somewhere in order to raise some funds to re-sit the WASSCE exams and for survival… So a friend of mine gave me this Okada to ride ‘Befo ar sidon idle, na ihn make ar turn okada man’ he said in krio.”

Q. What are some of the constraints you are going through as commercial okada rider?

“The traffic police are harassing me too much. There was a time I got arrested for a minor offense and my Okada was seized by traffic police. He was supposed to send my report at PTS police station in Eastern Freetown, but he didn’t, instead, he sent it far away at the Central Police Station which is approximately 10Km away from the eastern part of Freetown. Over three days, I was at different police stations finding my okada. That really was disgusting. Those three days I wasn’t with my okada, there was no money in the house to feed myself and my family.  I had to go back and forth, borrowed money from friends just to get my okada back from the police for an offense that was minor. A week later, I was also arrested for minor offenses, the traffic police that arrested me took my okada and called me in a corner and said ‘I am broke, what’s happening?’ So I had to give them some money to release my okada.”

Q. What advice would you give to those police officers that arrest you and those that have the habit of grabbing okada accelerator whilst in motion?

“First of all, I am a victim of police grabbing accelerators. Hadn’t been for grace, I would have been damaged seriously at a time when I was in motion. So my advice to those traffic police that is in the habit of grabbing accelerator whilst the okada is in motion is, please stop doing that to us. The holding of accelerator whilst the okada is in motion can cause severe injury to us, and also the passengers. Also, frequently arresting us is not a good thing to write home about. I have a family to feed under this okada riding if you keep on arresting us, how do you expect us to have food on our table? We don’t have any other job to do, but to ride okada. So please, have empathy for us. And also the Bike Marshals Officers commonly called (BMO) are putting us under pressure every day for union ticket fee. We have the traffic police arresting us on the right hand, and also the BMOs on the left hand. It’s really frustrating”

Q. What mechanism would you suggest that can help salvage the constraints that you’re facing?

“My own suggestion is that the government should caution the police to minimize some unnecessary arrests. Because the role of the traffic police is to monitor traffic and see if drivers and riders are abiding by the laws, but not to unlawfully and unnecessarily arresting us every minute and hour. The government should mobilize with the police to see how best the frequent arrests of us by the traffic police is minimize. If that happens, it will be a step forward for us.”

Special Thanks to the Misheal Kay Group of companies, for supporting with gadgets, Joblink Sierra Leone, for hosting us in Makeni, and Gibson Sierra Leone for hosting us in Kabala and to our amazing readers.

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