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“Okadas” – The Informal Nigerian Subway System

 

This blog post is part of a series of contributions documenting time spent in southern Nigeria to attend a conference and gather data for the targeting energy infrastructure (TEI) project.

Prior to arriving in Nigeria, I heard about ‘Okadas‘ which are 2-wheel and 3-wheel commercial motorcycles found throughout cities in Nigeria. In reading up on domestic travel options I found that Okadas were commonly described in a negative light – often associated with the words “dangerous” and “reckless”. However, as I entered Lagos and saw the densely populated metropolis in action I saw the Okada system first-hand, and overall I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Rather than view this system through a negative prism I saw another expression of African, and in this case Nigerian, societal ingenuity at work despite living in challenging conditions. In a land where the development of strong state institutions is constantly being challenged by corruption, which hinders the reliable delivery of public goods  (decent roads and public transportation), civil society emerges as the engine of service; utilizing creative solutions harvested from below that circumvent the restraints that come from above.

After spending a few days in Lagos, the significant role that Okadas play not only to mass city transit but also as a form of employment to many, mainly young males who operate as drivers became clear to me. Bikes are more affordable and fuel efficient than cars, which is important given that gasoline shortages are an all to common feature in Nigeria. Granted, locals will quickly note how Okada drivers tend to aggressively push through traffic, ignore signs and motorists, and often take chances that can lead to fatal accidents. In fact, looking around one can quickly see that most bikes operate without helmets. Regardless, many admitted to using and benefiting from the service- some more often than others. In one particular conversation, a Nigerian friend told me that while she does not normally use Okadas she revealed that when running late for a meeting she has found herself on the back of a bike, cutting through traffic in the hopes of reaching her destination both quickly and in one piece. I also spoke with a few Okada drivers who shared with me the sense of pride they had in both having wheels to get around and being able to use it as a source of income.

Many of the young men I spoke with come from difficult conditions and had to choose working over school. For them the Okada not only gives them a sense of purpose and, in some regards, power, but it also places them within a community of fellow drivers. This is not to say that there are not some challenges within the system – there are – but these are the experiences and trade-offs that many Nigerians grapple with daily.

As I scribble this entry, I look out the window and see the Okadas zipping through traffic; weaving through the gridlock that keeps most baking in the hot afternoon sun. Perhaps dangerous and reckless at times, this service nevertheless offers an alternative to getting around town… quickly. In short, Okada’s  are the informal Nigerian subway/tram system.