An Okada Economy
By Reuben Abati
My mechanic returned from his workshop wearing a dour look, a radical departure from his usual boisterous self. "Something definitely is wrong with this fellow", I thought. In place of his sunny disposition was a sullen mood. A squat fellow, just a little above five feet, whatever it was that was bothering him had made him to arch his shoulders a little. Human beings tend to adopt different postures to give non-verbal expression to the turmoil within. In his own case, he actually looked as if there was an imaginary weight on his shoulders, pressing him down, making him appear shorter than he is. My mechanic and I have a good rapport. He was anxious to tell his story.
It turned out that three of his apprentices had just left him: the reason for his frustration. He was down to just one apprentice in his workshop. Nigerian artisans generally: tailors, mechanics, vulcanizers, plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers etc. cannot do without apprentices, the more established ones among them even engage those they call "join man". A join man is a fully trained artisan, who had been set free by his own master, and had undergone the ritual of what local people call "freedom", a kind of graduation ceremony. These days, that graduation ceremony involves the wearing of academic gown and the issuance of certificates, nicely tucked inside a scroll. Other masters in the particular trade or craft are invited to deliver Convocation lectures! If such a graduate is unable to set up his own shop immediately, due to lack of resources, he or she teams up in the meantime with an existing practice, not as an apprentice but as a junior partner. He is an important part of the sociology of the trade and craft guild in Nigeria.
Apprentices learn the craft and the tricks of the trade from the more experinced master. They also contribute to the making of the master's business by running errands, and taking on less complicated tasks. They would have been handed over to the master by their parents and relations, to be trained, to be disciplined, and to be moudled into self-reliant professionals. In most cases, the master is even paid for taking on such apprentices. This apprenticeship system is an informal ssytem of education which has worked over the years in the absence of a well-structured Basic Education system in Nigeria. Most apprentices are school drop outs, children of poor parents, who in order to make something out of their lives are sent off to learn a trade.
It is a popular system of education particularly in the Southern part of the country partly because it is close to the traditional mode of education in local communtiies. In traditional communities, fishermen, hunters, dancers, priests, weavers, and other local artisans learnt their trade through apprenticeship. As the Nigerian society became exposed to technology, the apprencticeship system became more diversified. And many of us continue to rely on the services of its graduates: the Mr. Kamoru who does your plumbing work, Sunday, the bricklayer, the owner of the Wait and Get photo shop in the neighbourhood, Chiedu, the electrician, Fatai, the roadside vulcanizer, Emeka at the computer village, Folly, the phone repairer and so on. They are all useful to the educated crowd in Nigeria that cannot change tyres or fix a leaking tap. But these artisans are not products of any government-owned Trade and Craft Centre or any Polytechnic providing technical education. They are products of the apprenticeship system and they have managed to learn how to offer service and earn a living through trial and error. However, if you live in Nigeria, you must have noticed that the competitiveness crisis that assails the nation, the skills deficit that is one of our major national problems are felt even more seriously at the level of artisans. The quality of instruction under the apprenticeship system has become terribly low.
It is so bad now that most mechanics in our so-called mechanic villages actually help to destroy cars. Many of the cars coming from the West these days either as brand new or as used cars are so technologically sophisticated that the average Nigerian mechanic has no clue. He fumbles around with your car and he ruins it, because he has had no opportunity to upgrade his knowledge and skills. Even Nigerian plumbers can no longer fix basic equipment. The makers of sanitary wares in Europe and elsewhere are constantly changing their designs. Good, old bricklayers who can build a straight wall are in short supply. The world is leaving Nigeria behind. A country whose citizens cannot do basic maintenance chores is an unlucky country, and it should be pitied for losing its capacity to compete. I have lamented about this once, but it is a continuing problem. My mechanic offered a fresh explanation which I had never thought of.
"Dr.", he had said. He calls me Dr. "You have to write something about this okada menace and let government know that with okada on the streets of Nigeria, this country will not make any progress."
I was shocked. My mechanic trying to tell me what to write or think? My countenance changed but I was curious. I tilted my head to a side as if I wanted to get more details. I am beginning to get used to all kinds of persons trying to tell a me what to write, what to think, and how to write!
"We can't get apprentices anymore. When parents bring a child to learn a trade these days, there is no guarantee that the child will stay to learn anything. After a few weeks they all run away to ride okada. If this trend continues, a time will come when there will be no mechanics again, no plumbers, no electricians, no carpenters, no road side vulcanizers, there will only be okada riders in Nigeria."
I thought that was frightening. I didn't think this will happen and I told him so.
"But I am telling you what I know. We even discussed it at our meeting last Thursday. The young men that are growing up now, they don't want to do anything that requires the use of the brain or the body. If you ask them to change a tyre or fix a bolt, they would soon tell you that it is a difficult way to earn a living. Even drivers can't get conductors again. Nobody wants to be a conductor. And if they agree, they will insist on earning the same amount as the driver. It is easier to ride Okada. Two of my apprentices are now okada riders. All the boys in our mechanic village now ride okada. They say they are happy to do that, instead of learning difficult trades."
"Is okada that profitable?", I asked, fishing for further explanations.
"Nothing sells like okada. Those okada riders you see, they make as much as N4, 000 per day and even more. All they are required to do is to deliver N2, 000 or less, to the owner. The remaining N2, 000 is theirs. There is no apprentice that can ever earn N2, 000 per day in this country. Even workshop owners don't always earn up to N2, 000 per day with all their hardwork."
"You really mean the riding of okada is that profitable?", I varied the question trying to do a mental calculation of what that amounts to in a month.
"The only other business that pays like okada is the sale of pure water. Those are the two main businesses now in Nigeria. The third one is aluminium work. The people in that line of business still get apprentices. But my suspicion is that this is because of the big money involved. Some of those boys if you give them a contract to do the aluminium windows of your house and they give you a bill of about N600, 000. We all know aluminium windows are expensive. Once they collect a deposit from you running into about N350, 000, they can disappear into thin air. They will just relocate to another town. Things like that happen all the time. Somehow, nobody wants to work hard again."
"But I don't see how banning the okada will suddenly help to change that?". I queried. "Those motorcycles help people to move around. They take people to their destinations faster than vehicles. Many parts of Lagos are inaccessible. Without the okada, it is not just in Lagos that people will be stranded, all over Nigeria, public transportation will grind to a halt."
"Then let government do something about public transportation"
"I still don't see how that will solve the problem. I think the okada, like pure water business has come to stay"
"If it stays, the country will pay a bigger price in the future. There will be no artisans in the country. It is better to take people away from the okada business now and force them to go and learn a trade, and acquire skills. Riding a motorcycle around town is too easy. It doesn't require any skills. Our workshops are dying."
"I hear some of those okada riders are graduates."
"The money is good. That's why. In fact most of the owners are company managers. I know doctors and Professors who own okadas. What they do is that they buy the motorcycle and give it to somebody to ride, on the condition that once he finishes paying an agreed value, the okada becomes his own. A new motorcycle costs between N60, 000 and N70, 000. The original owner may ask that the rider should pay N120, 000. Once he finishes paying, the okada becomes his. If you tell the okada rider that the motorcycle will become his after paying a certain amount, he will make sure he takes good care of it and that it is not stolen. One of my former apprentices now owns three okadas, He pays his rent regularly and he has two wives. He is living fine."
"I don't think so."
"He is making money. He has two wives."
"A country where the only thing that people do is to make money, and marry an additional wife as they get richer certainly cannmot make progress, " I pointed out, seeing that he kept stressing the point about two wives.
"If government can insist on the use of helmets by okada riders, that may discourage them", he continued. " I know that many Nigerians will not want to use a helmet that has been used by another person. And the use of helmet won't help the okada business. It will eat into the profit. Sometimes the okadas carry four passengers on one motorcyle. Is it possible for four persons to wear helmets riding one machine? Government can also insist that every okada should be licensed and that okada riders must pay tax. Their hours of operation and areas that they can cover in the city should also be reduced. Once the business is no longer profitable, all those boys will go and find a trade to learn"
"You are just interested in anything that will bring back your apprentices."
"I am also worried about Nigeria. "
"Government is not serious. They don't know what is going on. Last week, they came to threaten that they will shut down our mechanic village. They said we are not paying tax. But what tax are we supposed to pay? Why do they want mechanics and vulcanisers, rewires and spare parts dealers to pay tax when nobody is doing anything for us? For the past three weeks, there has been no electricity in that village. All the artisans who need electricity for their work, can't do anything. This is also what is forcing many people to ride okada. It is the last resort for failed artisans."
"I hear many of those artisans are arrned robbers"
"Because it is easy to rob with an okada. The police have not been trained to tackle okada robbers. Once they strike, they disappear quickly into thin air. You can't chase them with a car. Dr. This is a tough country o. Okada riders also rape women."
The way he presented that last statement, he sounded as if he was telling me something that I didn't know. I showed my mechanic a copy of PM News in which it is reported: "Okada Thieves Invade Ijegun". The story says that in a suburb of Lagos, four motorcycles being used as okada were stolen in one day. That should not be surprising he pointed out, since the okada is a major business tool in contemporary Nigeria. He asked whether I was aware that people who are involved in the pure water business are always offering prayers that the public water works system must never work.
Egunje wanted apprentices for his workshop, and he hoped that making the okada business less attractive will bring apprentices back to the workshops. But I was more concerned that the Nigerian economy has become an okada economy in every sense. The okada is an ad hoc measure, elevated into a main vehicle in the face of the failure of urban planning and the public transportation system. We run a national economy that is fuelled by ad hoc measures. That is why the proces of formulating the 2008 budget has so far been mostly experimental. The Presidency and the National Assembly do not know what they want. They can't agree on a road map.
Motorcycles have become the main means of transportation in Nigeria, because of the failure of planning. Okada-related accidents are often more fatal, and more frequent, than any other category of accidents, and yet the government is not sufficiently concerned. Even government officials, faced with a traffic snarl, jump onto the back of the okada. When they are thirsty, they buy sachet water or pure water as it is known. Many of those boys riding motorcycles around our cities and earning an income of less than $20 dollars a day and staging a dance for that, should be in more meaningful jobs or in a school learning a skill. It is a miracle how Nigerians still manage to be the happiest people on earth and the least vulnerable economy in the world. I guess an okada-driven economy was bound to be considered safe by Merrill Lynch since it is so peculiar, nobody in the West can really claim to know how it works.