October 2, 2022

By Allieu S. Tunkara

Facilities of the Sierra Leone Roads Safety Authority (SLRSA) are sad and desolate as workers have fled. SLRSA workers have escaped for their lives after commercial motorists stormed their building. The building was pelted with stones by Irate ‘Okada’ riders who thought their rights had been trampled upon for blocking the roads.

It is not clear whether an SLRA staff had been injured or fatally injured as the strike still lingers. As the strike continues, the day’s work at SLRSA had been disrupted, and customers who have come to transact business have been left disappointed.

Any imagination that the fleeing workers would return on the same day to work is farcical. Although forces of law and order seemed to be on top of Situation, talk of a complete normalcy is illusive. No one could tell what happens in the next moment.

It could be either an unexpected flare-up from the Okada riders’ side, but a police response could not be ruled out. As police have clearly defined redlines ‘Okada’ riders must not cross, daggers remain drawn between the two sides. Well-armed police and military officers fend off SLRSA building to prevent it from falling into flames and destruction.

Truckloads of police and military officers patrol the vicinity and other parts of the CBD to crush any pocket of ‘Okada’ resistance by over 100 strong ‘Okada’ men.

The riders say they are resisting what they refer to as oppression. Barricades of burnt tyres could be seen on Up-Gun Roundabout and Bai Bureh Road vicinities where the strike actions initially began. A great number of the riders have converged at the usual bike park and kept watch; situation could go out of control at anytime.

One of the Okada riders, Lamin Kamara who spoke to this press said the ban was the worst government had ever imposed on them. He told this press that all routes leading to the CBD had been blocked. He cited Fourah Bay Road, Kissy Road and the road under construction on the hill side as those that had been sealed off.

Since the roads had been blocked, livelihoods for ‘Okada’ riders are under threat. ‘Okada’ depend on riding to take care of their needs at home. They say they do not want to live on alms let alone to resort to criminal activities to earn a living.

However, Deputy Head of Police Media, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Samuel Saio Conteh tells a different story. He told this press that not all roads had been blocked as claimed by the ‘Okada’ riders. ASP Conteh said the road on the hillside had been opened to Okada traffic adding that no police officer would disturb them there.

“We are concerned only with the central business district and nothing else. No Okada rider plies the CBD for now,” ASP Conteh said.

The Police Spokesman pointed out certain areas in which Okada riders were permitted to ply without any interruption.

“Riders from the east Freetown are permitted to stop at Ferry Junction and take the hillside road while those from the west are permitted to ply on to Congo Cross community,” he said.

This press could not reach the leadership of Bike Riders Association for comment. The Okada riders’ strike came after they were banned from plying the central business district, a situation the commercial motorists considered as a big blow to their income. Authorities say commercial motorists are lawless, and therefore unfit to ply the CBD.

The police constantly receive reports of accidents from members of the public accusing ‘Okada’ riders to have been responsible. ‘Okada’ most times wasted no time drive off when an accident occurs. Recent accident statistics released by SLRSA are huge.  Commercial motorists are believed to have got a fair share of the horrible figures.

However, Spokesman of the umbrella body for the commercial motorists, Bike Riders Association recently defended the actions their colleagues.

The spokesman disagrees with public claims that they are lawless. He said they contributed to national development like any other institution of the state. Job opportunities, he went on, had been created for various categories of people throughout the country by the ‘Okada’ industry.

Okada riders seem determined to fight back until the order is withdrawn. The strike which germinated yesterday was sown months back after over 600 commercial motor cycles were seized by the police. The seizure also plunged commercial riders into ephemeral joblessness and hardship.

In the seizure spree of commercial motor cycles, the police have always been indicted by the ‘Okada’ riders who say police, most times, would not hesitate to steal various parts from their bikes. Most times, Okada Riders say, their bikes are sold off as scraps.

As if lending credence to Okada riders’ claim, a number of motor cycles arrested by the police were recently sold off by the courts. It was reported that the police who arrested the motor cycles also bought them, a situation that created a strained relationship between the police and bike riders.

As the ban remains in force, okada riders are determined to take on the security forces. A big fear looms among members of the public as a great number of ‘Okada’ riders are former fighters. After the war, most of them took to bike riding after it was clear that they had no future after the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Programme.

Members of the public say they could not breathe a sigh of relief after the ‘Okada’ industry was introduced to Sierra Leone. It was imagined, in the post-war period, that Sierra Leone would have been an unsafe place without bike riding. The situation currently unfolding shows that the bike riders seemed quite ready to go back to murky tricks and the world of crime.

The stand-off between the police and the ‘Okada’ riders have negatively impacted on commuters especially those who have to report to work at stipulated time. Many passengers were left stranded on the UP-Gun Bike Park waiting for either vehicles or tricycles.

Apart from the groups of commuters gathered at the Bike stop at Up-Gun, a number of commuters also cluster at Ferry Junction waiting for vehicles to convey them to their destinations. Those who could not put up with the long wait trooped to areas where they hope to get a vehicle.

Regardless of the incivility taking place now, hopes for a deal to be struck between the security forces and the bike riders remain intact.