On Motorcycles and Inequality

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

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.

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

“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.

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.


Experts say the ban, amidst the country’s troubling economy, will have negative impacts as Nigeria struggles with insecurity. With no economic opportunities in the formal sector, a ban on survival economics feels both unrealistic and inhumane.

“Over time, we have always been telling the government that in a situation where the government is not providing jobs for people or creating an enabling environment for Nigerians to have a legitimate income, the government must not come with rigorous policies that undermine the efforts that Nigerians are making to have a means of livelihood,” Auwal Rafsanjan, the executive director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre said.

The police have confiscated and destroyed hundreds of okadas when their drivers were found to be flouting the ban. In June 2022, 2000 motorcycles were destroyed by the state task force in a show of defiance.


Annas Abdullahi, 25, grew up with his farmer parents in Jigawa, a state in the North West region. But as climate change took a toll on their farm and the price of fertilizer shot up, he had to leave his family of seven and travel in search of opportunities. He headed to Lagos where he crashed with friends and started innovating his own hustle. He started polishing shoes in Mushin, a low-income suburb of Lagos, earning a pittance but soon he moved up to driving an okada, like many friends he had met in Lagos. As with many communities networked through informal economic ties to West Africa’s commercial capital, Abdullahi’s family back home lived solely on the remittances he sent back. Now, with the ban, the family has no source of income.

Jigawa has been badly affected by Nigeria’s worst flood disaster in a decade. The flood which has affected 34 of Nigeria’s 36 states, killed more than 600, displaced 1.4 million people, and wreaked havoc on farmlands with 108,392 hectares washed off across the country. Abdullahi said he cannot return to Jigawa because “there would be nothing to do at home.”

Concerns for his family were evident as he spoke animatedly of how urgently he needs to remit money back home. Earning between five and 13 thousand naira ($11.36-$29.53) a day when working as a commercial motorcyclist, he said he would not mind earning even 700 naira ($1.59) a day now. As the ban lingers without an end in sight, and with many thousands of men like Abdullahi and Ibrahim out of jobs in a challenging economy with a 17-year-high inflation of 20.8%, the future looks bleak as they decide whether to stay in the city or move back to their impoverished and unstable hometowns.

“Part of the problem we have in Nigeria at the state and national level is that people who are saddled with the responsibility to govern us move without any planning or looking at the implications of certain policies they are taking,” Rafsanjan said. “I think they are moved by just emotions and not providing alternatives to cushion the positions they have taken.”

In the crux of global crises, it is individuals and families who suffer. Abdullahi nodded reflectively and spoke slowly. “In the past, all of us used to have work and take care of our families but now, no more,” he said. For now, the future is uncertain.

Ope Adetayo is a Nigerian journalist and writer based in Lagos.