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On Motorcycles and Inequality

In Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, a motorcycle ban displaces migrant workers twice. 

Words: Ope Adetayo
Pictures: Ope Adetayo

One Thursday in early November 2022, Muhammed Ibrahim, 25, sat under a tarpaulin with some friends by the road in Idi-Araba. The community in Lagos — the West African giant’s cosmopolitan megacity in the south of the country — is predominantly home to internal migrants from northern Nigeria. It was around 7 pm and the piercing voices of muezzins calling the Islamic evening prayer from different mosques mixed with the buzz of traffic along the narrow road that passes through the lively community.

Normally, the group of friends would have been on the streets, riding their motorcycle taxis popularly known as okadas. Okadas are popular among Lagos’ low-income population who use them to navigate the city — which is notorious for its traffic — especially for last-mile routes. But okada drivers are now out of work, and commuters are in a jam, following a governmental crackdown on the practice.

On May 18, 2022, the Lagos state government banned okadas, citing safety and security concerns. On Aug. 18, 2022, the ban was expanded, covering almost all parts of the state. The ban was sparked over the alleged killing of a man by okada drivers, but it also follows a litany of anti-poor legislation in the city, which has among the highest rates of inequality in the world.

Lagos has often cleared off its poor to portray a modern city on par with global standards, hence its disdain for systems used by the urban poor in the city. The state’s record includes the violent sacking of slums; the arrest and imprisonment of roadside retailers, and the displacement of low-income earners.


“I swear to God; it is very painful. Why would they do that?” Ibrahim asked, incredulous. He is still in shock, months after.

Ibrahim, whose small frame belies his age and experience, left Sokoto, one of Nigeria’s poorest states, in 2012 when he was just 15 to seek better economic opportunities for himself in Lagos more than 600 miles away. He followed a well-trod path, 500,000 people are estimated to migrate to Lagos every year.

On arriving in Lagos, he quickly started riding okada. For ten years, he made between five and 10 thousand naira ($11.36-22.72) daily, which was sufficient to make a living for himself and support his family back home. For decades, Lagos has attracted internal immigrants from other parts of the country and also immigrants from neighboring countries due to its concentration of economic opportunities. With worsening insecurity, climate change, and dwindling economic opportunities in other parts of the country, young men from the Northern region now travel to the southwestern state more than ever to survive, and the rates are expected to increase.

Nigeria’s many ethnic groups are woven into complex ethnic relationships due to the convoluted process of state creation during the country’s military era in the 20th century, but the country is widely seen as divided into the Southern and Northern regions. The Northern region has a majority Hausa population. Hausas account for 30% of the country’s population and also have a vast representation across the West African region. The community largely engages in agrarian activities. The Southern region, meanwhile,  has a higher concentration of industries due to its proximity to the sea and the presence of oil deposits.

When Northerners move from their poorer home regions to the busy city, they mostly engage in petty jobs. Many gravitate towards the transportation industry, a multi-million dollar unregulated sector in the state of more than 20 million people. But with the okada ban, internal migrants face a double loss of livelihoods.

“They have always declared bans, [but] in the real sense they are just always declaratory because in the absence of proper road networks or any viable infrastructure, you cannot just declare bans,” Ayo Ademiluyi, a public-interest lawyer who opposes the ban told Inkstick.

“The governor can use his discretion [to ban okadas] but as lawyers say, should man suffer for law? The ban is even against the reality that we are a backward country where there are no good roads,” he said.

With no economic opportunities in the formal sector, a ban on survival economics feels both unrealistic and inhumane.

The ban is the latest in the culture of disdain the government has toward the practice. Each of the four governors the state has had since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 has issued a ban on riding okada. The riders, mostly uneducated and without a chance at corporate industries, say it leaves them hopeless.


Ope Adetayo

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