In pre-modern times, the road was no thoroughfare. It is what we call a bush path – sinuous, dusty, often tranquil with the scent of earth and trees on the cargo of soft winds. On it, women broke water, baby cries stirred birds, farmers trudged under heavy yams, preys strutted out of hunter’s sight, hunters crouched for the kill, kings crouched over nubile who crossed their paths.
But it was also the theatre of war, bearing arms and warriors in the shadows of shrubs. Okonkwo beheaded Ikemefuna, Nana’s Itsekiri blockaded the British, horses neighed to death in Osogbo of 1840. The bush path was romance and tragedy. But, apart from Fafunwa’s gnomes and blood spill, it invoked traveller as reveller.
“You must set forth at dawn,” Soyinka sang to the wayfarer, “I promise marvels of the holy hour.”
That was for pristine times by comparison.
With no cars or fuel, those in villages inhale that air today bleakly. City people look backward to it with nostalgic envy. We may say it was the good old days.
Today, whether in the village or in the city, the road enjoys no odes. We have neither the great ride nor great trek. The last time a great walk made news involved hundreds of boys in bush paths, trekking and eking out a living under the command of hooded fanatics on the outskirts of Katsina. The great journey, on road or air, does not happen. We have sneak journeys, where you hope that going to destination does not obviate destiny. Whenever you arrive, it is the great survival, or great escape.
In Soyinka’s play, The Road, it is “flat in treachery and deceit.” Soyinka did not write about Okada. But again, because he presents the road as myth and metaphor, the bard foresees today. The mystery of the road, as an odyssey of tragedy, as the province of ogun, has now become the place of pain.
Road became centre piece last week. The BOS of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu stepped in with a bang. Okada riders cannot have their way in key areas in the state. Just like in Soyinka’s The Road, the mask is off. No more the impunity of boys on bikes. No more the traffic subverts, the ones who dictate where the centre of the road is, who hug highways and clog streets, who turn express ways to the way to express lawlessness; men with heads filled with only air, cant and uncanny talent for violence. As I wrote in a poem, the bike/ is not a ride/ but a way to die.
On one of its major arteries, we witnessed a man, called David Imoh, who passed on over a dispute on a bike. The row between two became a metaphor for a nation unable to move without bloodshed. He is often inappropriately described as sound engineer as though he has no name. it happened not long after the Deborah Emmanuel tragedy in Sokoto. A nation calls itself a democracy but enacts laws on blasphemy. Yet, what was more painful about Emmanuel’s roasting was that a crowd was instantly called to the scene. In Bauchi, most of the people who haunted a so-called blasphemer were easily recruited because they had no jobs. If they were busy in an office or absorbed in homework, they would have no urgency for bloodthirst. That is the danger that Governor Sanwo-Olu wants to avert.
The issue of Okada is not new. Many commuters in the city kick when we say the bike is not the modern way to move. It is seen as elitist, words from a bored, smug airconditioned class out of touch with the mass. But it is more than that. The catalyst of the Imoh agony may now send the message home.
The riders of Okada are mostly not Nigerians, and most of them have no respect for law and order, and they belong to the class of marauders that have made the north prostrate with blood and death.
The other unknown is, who are those who have no bikes but who moon about on street sides or straggle at night like loafers? The other day on traffic, I witnessed three red-blooded boys, who were playfully harassing a few females inside a car. The furrows of their faces could turn to frowns from smiles, from cynical to maniacal. If the bike could be lethal, what of a mass of them? We have seen that the bike ought to be banned in parts of the north. Hoodlums see it as their cruise missile, or warhead. They ride it to burn down edifices, mow down churches and mosques, kidnap hundreds as in the Abuja-Kaduna train wreck. A market known as Alaba Rago was raided for weapons, and what horror finds.
The matter is being ethnicised. It is about safety, not tribe. The leaders of the Hausa community begged and blackmailed simultaneously, saying they would caution them and that they are a block vote. That cannot draw water. It is not about votes. We have to be alive first before we can cast our votes. Why did they not chasten their folks before the ban?
What we also need to address is the immigration policy. Where are the documents of most of those riders and their friends who have no bikes? Many of them do not speak the Nigerian Fulani or Hausa. Forget the inanity of the Bauchi governor who said we should open our borders for them. We have to decide whether we are a country first or a region first. If we are not a country first, why do we have a constitution?
The best way to handle these fellows is to isolate them, just like in the western countries where those who cannot show that they are legal are shown the way out.
Okada also is a hospital nightmare. Broken bones, limp and limbless citizens are all over hospitals in the state, especially Igbobi. The alternative may not be easy. But it can be done. The seven-seater Korope, a bus that is now filling the streets can replace Okada. They don’t run fast enough for a militant’s dare. And they cannot slide and hide. They reach any part of town, like the buses of the days before Okada. Apart from state government’s intervention, individuals are beginning to see it as a worthwhile investment. Banning Okada will cause some hardship and a sense of loss. But better to be alive than to live under the shadow of fear. Some cities have banned it, like in Akwa Ibom, and citizens have adapted. It will take some enduring, but if we keep our eyes on the goal, Lagos will triumph.
Poet Niyi Osundare writes that the “road never forgets,” but we can enshrine its memories, its bad ones, and move on.
NB: Omatseye is a respected columnist with The Nation.