Now that even police officers are riding okada, their guns dangling dangerously from their shoulders, we can no longer pretend that we don’t care, that if we ignore the okada wahala long enough, it would go away. It won’t.

If anything, the lawlessness and carnage associated with okada are getting worse, and continued government inaction is no longer an option. The sooner we confronted the problem, the better.

And confronting it means considering what for many may be unthinkable – but unavoidable: Legalising and regulating okada like any other business.

Unless of course the authorities have a yet-to-be-disclosed master plan to clear the streets of okada in one fell swoop and rid the country of the kind of vehicular madness that plagues other countries in the sub-region.

But it is doubtful that such a plan exists, nor would it be feasible if it did; we have gone too far – way too far – to be able to reverse this scourge on our roads through the usual cat-and-mouse approach. The only option, it seems, is to contain and manage it, properly, legally.

Some argue that the police would long have dealt with the okada menace had it not been for the call by a public official – a single public official whose word carries no force of law – that okada provides jobs for the youth and that it should be left alone.

But even before that official spoke, the okada problem had long been left to fester. Had the authorities done their job and taken the first few bikes off the road in the early stages, there would have been no need later for a “crackdown” after their numbers had swelled, prompting that official to make that statement in the first place.

Nobody knows the overall number of okada jobs that have been created so far – or the number that would be created in the future if current trends continue. We do know, however, that the vast majority of the riders were already employed elsewhere and simply switched to okada evidently because they found it more attractive. Some may have found something else to do any way, if there was no okada, and still others may remain unemployed for whatever reason. For this last group, okada of course is unambiguously beneficial, risks and all.

Tellingly, a significant number of the riders are not even Ghanaian – they are actually unemployed youth from neighboring countries brought in by furtive “financiers” who buy fleets of motorcycles and rent them out to the riders. In parts of Accra at least, they are responsible for the explosive growth in okada, complete with their stables of brand new motorcycles. It is big business, and it is of course a violation of the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre law that restricts the participation of non-Ghanaians in certain retail activities, including transportation services – legal or not.

But irrespective of the background of the riders, the legitimacy of their financiers, or the carnage that has come to define the okada industry, the economic case can also be made that, besides employment, okada does provide useful transportation services, especially in the unplanned outskirts of cities and town where the road network is rudimentary or nonexistent and residents often must walk long distances to the nearest road for a trotro or a taxi.

The policy question then becomes, How do we facilitate okada-related employment and economic services without sanctioning the lawlessness or recklessness that is synonymous with it?

The blunt answer is that by pouting and looking away while the okada business expanded, government effectively legalised a practice it claims is illegal. This paradox, or hypocrisy, explains why a police officer would mount an okada rather than impound it. What shouldn’t be is. And continues.

We can either continue to bury our heads in the sand and let okada follow its own haphazard growth path, or do the right thing by bringing it under the control of the law to facilitate proper oversight, curb the carnage and bring sanity to our roads.

If we choose the latter, here are 12 tips to help us through:

1. First, repeal the dormant law that criminalizes the commercial use of motorcycles.
2. Formulate a policy to keep okadas off all major roads, highways and city centers and restrict them to side roads and local community roads, especially where trotros and taxis are rare. (The police would work with district assemblies to set out these parameters. Special signs designating okada-restricted areas may be erected).
3. All riders must undergo appropriate training, be licensed and then registered with the district assemblies, subject to verification of their age and nationality to avoid violation of labour and immigration laws (and to ensure that the jobs are in fact for Ghanaian youth).
4. Outside financing of okadas must be explicitly outlawed.
5. The number plates for okadas must be of particular colour for each region.
6. Riders or owners must pay fees or taxes to the district assemblies in which they are registered.
7. There should be a curfew: No okada after a certain hour (preferably 8:00 PM). This is both for safety and security reasons.
8. Every rider must be required to do the following:
(i). Wear shoes, not slippers or sandals
(ii). Wear a reflective vest at all times
(iii). Have their headlights on at all times, day or night.
(iv). Carry two government approved crash helmets for himself and a passenger (much of what pass for helmets now are actually baseball helmets from America, bicycle helmets, or, in some instances, hard hats designed for construction sites).
9. There should be no more than one passenger per bike; passengers must wear helmets at all times.
10. No children or goods allowed.
11. Riders should obey all traffic regulations (eg, no weaving in and our of traffic or running the red light).
12. They should be encouraged to form associations to seek their welfare and facilitate easy engagement with government.

Time is not on our side. The longer the authorities wait, the worse the okada problem will get and the harder it would be to deal with it when they finally decide that we’ve had enough and that it must be dealt with.

Over the long term, as the economy grows and better-paying jobs are created and of course the public transportation system is well developed, the okada business may atrophy or disappear altogether.

For now, it’s here with us. It’s our headache; it’s our albatross. We must deal with it.

Or be dealt by it.

Credit: Nii Moi Thompson