THE motorcycle taxi – known by various names, including boda boda (Kenya and Uganda), okada (Nigeria), bendskins (Cameroon) and moto (Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo) has come to define African city and village life in a way so fundamental that it is often taken for granted. But it a deep story of many layers.
The use of motorcycles for commercial transport has grown very rapidly in recent years, for several reasons that have been well articulated – Africa’s burgeoning urban growth, the collapse of public bus services in the 1980s and 90s, deregulation of the transport sector, and a surge of young, unemployed youth for whom the motorcycle taxi was an easily accessible way of making a living.
Sometimes, the state intervened directly, or indirectly, to encourage the motorcycle taxi business. In some cases, this was through the abolition of import duties, or the encouragement of local assembly factories.
BAJAJ BOXER RULES
India in particular emerges as a leading source of imports. According to a 2013 research note by Standard Bank, Indian motorcycle exports have increased by 175% to Africa since 2008, with the most pronounced rise in Egypt (850%); Rwanda (870%); and Sierra Leone and Djibouti (both over 1,000%).
India’s Bajaj Boxer, which is ideally suited in price and design for African urban and rural consumers, is the largest-selling single motorcycle brand in Africa. Bajaj boasts a presence in Egypt, Guinea, Nigeria, Angola, Namibia, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. In all, the company exports to 35 African countries; as at June 2012 Africa accounted for over 40% of Bajaj’s total overseas shipments.
Other times, state intervention is for explicit political reasons. Opposition parties in Africa often find their core support in cities, where people are more politically aware of their rights, easier to mobilise, and are shorn of the sustenance of the land – thus have a more acute need for jobs and modern service delivery.
But in Kampala, for example, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party has depended on boda boda riders to deliver urban votes in a city that is often politically hostile. In exchange, the boda boda sector is only very lightly regulated, which means that they violate traffic rules without sanction. They are also useful as a tool of state surveillance and intelligence gathering, most famously in Kigali, Rwanda, but in other African cities too.
In Lagos, the state government (together with other state governments in Nigeria) purchased a large number of motorcycles in 2004 to compensate political loyalists; motorcycles were also distributed to the unemployed as part of a poverty alleviation program. There is even a bulk purchase facility for organized groups such as the Nigerian Union of Teachers, available as hire purchase to ease their movement to and from school.
BODA-FUELLED VICIOUS CYCLE
But the impact of the motorcycle taxi is more than being a now-indispensible transport alternative in hopelessly gridlocked African cities. It has also led to urban sprawl, as cities become more spread out faster then they become dense. That puts cities in a “boda boda vicious cycle”, as they are unable to build the critical mass to make mass transport economically viable.
Residential areas used to typically built in areas with a level of accessibility – near a road, a railway, or a walkable distance from a bus stop. But now, you don’t even need a road to build a housing complex – all you need is a path that a boda boda can pass over and you are in business.
There’s also the alarm that motorcycles are leading to the faster depletion of forest animals hunted for meat in Africa – on a motorcycle, hunters can venture deeper into the forest, and carry bigger loads of meat than they otherwise would. With that, there’s also a larger risk of coming into contact with forest species that transmit zoonotic diseases – like Ebola.
In a way, then, the motorcycle is the 21st century equivalent of the horse or car, in the manner it has extended the borders of African life. Historically, the geographical boundaries of empires were limited by how far messages and commands from the centre could travel before they were overtaken by events.
The biggest empires were created by cultures that had mastered the use of most powerful transport animal then – the horse. The Mongol empire of the 13th and 14th century was the largest contiguous land empire in history, dominating the whole Eurasian landmass from the Sea of Japan, northwards into Siberia, south into the Indian subcontinent, the Iranian plateau and as far west as the Levant and Arabia.
Not coincidentally, the horse was first domesticated in central Eurasia, and the Mongols’ use of horses in warfare as cavalry, chariots and mounted archers made them fearsome warriors. The next comparable moment in the story of human speed does not arrive for another 5000 years – with steam trains.
THE CITY GOES QUIET
But perhaps the least appreciated impact is the way the motorcycle taxi has deradicalised African city politics around transport, sucking the life out of an issue that virtually everyone in the city feels strongly about and has a stake in – and that people would otherwise mobilise politically around.
With the boda boda, low-income residents have an affordable and convenient alternative to state-run public transport, and together with the riders themselves, they represent a significant voting bloc that ruling parties can now bank on.
With that, there is an insidious neglect of middle class car owners who drive vehicles for personal use – no matter how much African governments may sing about the “rising middle class”, their actions say otherwise; it is simply politically cheaper to ignore them and only shake them down for taxes.
No wonder a city like Nairobi had no qualms about shutting virtually the whole city down for an entire workday, without prior notice, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in town, leading to day-long gridlocks.
It could “afford to”, both in the immediate logistical sense (boda bodas are always an alternative to traffic jams), and in the broader political sense (inconveniencing car owners doesn’t affect your votes).