8.09.2012

The Importance of Okada Drivers in Sierra Leone's November Elections

Okadamen in Freetown, Western Area
         One group besides the youth that Presidential candidates in Sierra Leone are vying for in the upcoming November election is, believe it or not, motorcycle-taxis drivers, better known as Okadamen. After the civil war, the DDR process had no way to process every former rebel; therefore, many turned to other ways through which to integrate themselves back into civilian life. Seeing that there was profit to be made on city streets, many turned to becoming Okada drivers.

            In Freetown and Bo, it almost seems as if Okadas are a more common sight than people. Okadas are a cheap mode of transport for all Sierra Leoneans across town, which facilitates educational opportunities, business deals, and social gatherings. In Bo, a southern town and the second largest city in the nation, it costs only 2,000 leones (about 50 cents USD) for a ride across town. For the Okadamen driving the motorcycles, it is their way of “participating in Sierra Leone’s recovery from war and trying to become responsible and respected members of the community and society at large, contributing to its development and future prosperity in congruity with their own aspirations”.1 

           Furthermore, one of Sierra Leone biggest struggles is the ‘crisis of youth’ where many who identify as ‘youth’ struggle to find employment opportunities. Okada driving provides an alternative source of employment for disenfranchised youth. Okadamen consider their taxi services as a “livelihood” and a “survival strategy” since they “lack the connections and assistance necessary to find other, more ‘proper’ and lucrative jobs or education opportunities”.2 It might seem from this that Okadamen have found a decent livelihood which will prevent them from harboring enough resentment to remobilize; however, as the 2007 election illustrated, this was not true.

            In the 2007 election campaign, politicians from both the APC and SLPP - Sierra Leone's two major political parties - used previously established chains of command from the civil war to remobilize these okada ex-combatants for their political benefit. The okada drivers “served as private security or as violent thugs” for their preferred political party candidate and demonstrated their “willingness to resort to violence” if need be.3 APC candidate and current President, Earnest Bai Koroma, promised the RUF ex-combatants security positions within his staff while the SLPP candidate, Solomon Berewa, “called West Side Boys and soldiers for meetings” with his campaign.4 Although okadamen make a living taxiing Sierra Leoneans around, it is not the life that many imagined for themselves; therefore, it is no surprise that they were easily persuaded by presidential candidates to remobilize. As noted by Maya Christensen:

For hundreds of ex-combatants who decided to remobilize, their future expectations proved to be the most significant motivating factor. . . . When deciding whether to join politicians’ campaigns, it was the promise of jobs, further education[,] and other long-term benefits that had the most powerful appeal. At initial meetings, both presidential candidates promised ex-combatants that they would give them work after the election.5
It is clear from this that the promise of a better life provides enough incentive for many to (re)mobilize. This was the case for the start of Sierra Leone’s civil war in the early 1990s; the RUF promised its recruits jobs and education and placed blame on the government for their current woes. The fact that both the SLPP and APC used similar tactics as the RUF and West Area Boys to remobilize the okada ex-combatants for their own political self-interests is a worrying sign.

             Despite the lack of hard evidence as to whether these okadamen are being co-opted by politicians, one thing is for sure: okadamen are highly politicized and should not be ignored as significant political actors. Nearly every okada that I would take across Bo during my most recent trip to Sierra Leone, the rider would wander onto the topic of politics. One incident I found particularly insightful was when I got on an okada and the driver immediately starting discussing his complaints about the present administration. He lamented about the lack of jobs, the poor living standards that are only further diminishing, and mentioned how life was better for him during the war. When I arrived at my destination he concluded his speech on his moving soapbox and picked up the next customer, with whom he presumably had a similar conversation. So even if all the accusations about politicians re-mobilizing ex-combatants is false, it cannot be denied that these okadamen have felt all the woes of the DDR process and the decisions made by each presidency.

            Given this insight into the 2007 election gives some weight to SLPP candidate Julius Maada Bio’s claim that Koroma is mobilizing ex-combatants. If okada drivers were easily persuaded in 2007 to remobilize for promises of employment and education, then it is unlikely the situation will be any different in 2012. Bio claimed to have evidence of Koroma’s attempts at remobilizing former combatants during this election, but this evidence has yet to be released. If, however, Bio is accurate in his assumptions and Koroma is in fact taking advantage of disenfranchised Okadamen and remobilizing them in case the election results prove to be unsatisfactory – then Sierra Leone’s peace and ‘democracy’ may be put in jeopardy.  Only the coming months will prove if okadamen are being co-opted by politicians and if they are desperate enough to put Sierra Leone’s peace at risk.

1 Michael Burge, “Riding the Narrow Tracks of Moral Life: Commercial Motorbike Riders in Makeni, Sierra Leone,” Africa Today 58, no. 2 (2011), 60.
2 Anne Menzel, “Between Ex-Combatization and Opportunities for Peace: The Double-Edged Qualities of Motorcycle-Taxi Driving in Urban Postwar Sierra Leone,” Africa Today 58, no. 2 (2011): 99.
3 Ibid., 115.
4 Ibid., 116.
5 Maya M. Christensen and Mats Utas, “Mercenaries of Democracy: The ‘Politricks’ of Remobilized Combatants in the 2007 General elections, Sierra Leone,” African Affairs 107 (2008): 528.

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