SIERRA LEONE: Reinstating rule of law starting with motorcycle licenses

Friday, September 14, 2007

A decade of civil war left Sierra Leone’s administration in tatters but when the Catholic diocese in the former rebel stronghold of Makeni set up its Access to Justice Law Centre it found the biggest obstacle to creating a society with rational rules and regulations was in fact the government.

“We thought it would be easy if we started with something simple but we soon had a big problem,” said the local bishop, Giorgio Biguzzi.

The problem provides insight into what Sierra Leone’s newly elected government will face in creating a functioning bureaucracy and in helping its citizens defend themselves against injustice.

When the centre opened in 2005 the brutal armed conflict had already ended. The most common instrument of death in this notoriously lawless town after the civil war has become the motorcycle.

In post-conflict Makeni, hundreds of ex-combatants and youth were eking out a living by ferrying passengers through the town’s muddied, potholed streets on the back of taxi bikes, known as ‘okadas’ here, as in much of Anglophone West Africa.

Few knew basic traffic rules let alone defensive driving techniques, and even fewer have legal drivers’ licences.

“They were injuring passengers and pedestrians but as most were unlicensed they were also uninsured so victims were unable to claim compensation,” Benedict Jalloh, who heads the law centre, told IRIN.

The ‘okada’ riders were not earning a lot of money, Jalloh said, “so fining them or taking them to court didn’t seem as though it would achieve much”.

Instead Jalloh’s legal aid group took a different tack.

Carrot over stick

The centre set up a free, five-day training course and convinced around 300 riders from three districts to attend. “We invited police and road transport officials to come and lecture the riders on traffic rules and regulations,” he said.

That is when things went wrong. “The riders then said they wanted driver’s licences,” Jalloh said. But they were only able to pay the 80,000 leones (US$27) for the licence, not the additional fees of a learner’s permit and driving test which totalled around 210,000 leone ($70).

Moreover, the riders did not see why they needed learner’s permits as they were riding already, many for several years.

The bikers had a point, said Jalloh. “They really don’t have enough money to pay all the fees. So we tried to make the case to road transport officials, noting that some road transport officials had already instructed the bikers on traffic rules and regulations.”

“We pointed out that while most Sierra Leone ex-combatants are unemployed, at least the ‘okada’ riders were engaged in economic activity - something the government was supposed to be encouraging,” said Susan Irona-Sky Toure, a legal assistant at the law centre.

Another important point the centre tried to make to the government was that it would gain a lot of revenue if thousands of `okada’ riders in Makeni and elsewhere in the country each paid 80,000 leone for a licence.

“Twice we wrote official letters to the federal government requesting a waiver for the additional fees, with copies sent to all the local authorities in Makeni,” she said.
“The request was ignored at all levels of government,” she said. “We never heard a thing.”

The corruption factor

IRIN went to talk to some of the ‘okada’ riders. Of the more than 34 riders IRIN met only one could produce his license.

“Local officials don’t want us to be able to get our licenses,” said Mike Konte who has been riding `okadas’ for three years. “They want us to be illegal so they can demand bribes”

The other bikers agreed, saying they get stopped on average two or three times a week. “And if we don’t pay the bribe we are arrested,” Konte said.

The bike riders, as well as staff at the legal aid centre, also said they suspected that local officials were pocketing the money from the additional fees. Irona-Sky Toure said she tested the system by applying for her own bike licence. “I paid the road transport authority a total of 245,000 leones but only got a receipt for 80,000 leones,” she said.

IRIN met officials at the local Road Transport Office in Makeni to get their side of the story. Patrick Mousa, who said he was in charge of issuing licenses in the Makeni area, insisted that receipts were issued for all payments made in his office.

“The problem in this country is that no one wants to pay their taxes,” he said. “The ‘okada’ riders think they should get special treatment just because they have been illegal up till now. That is not fair to the others.”

Asked if he thought the ‘okada’ riders could afford the additional fees he said that was not for him to decide. Asked why the government had not spent any revenue from licences on grading or tarring Makeni’s potholed streets, he said that that too was not his affair.

“People think that as the road transport authority takes the money we should therefore fix the road. But we are just civil servants collecting fees that go to the central government. Then the officials there decide how to allocate the money.”

IRIN also went to Freetown and talked with the director of the Sierra Leone Road Transports Cooperation Joseph Keifala. He too said, “No special concession will be accorded to ‘okada’ riders. All motorists will be treated according to the Road Transport Act.”

Bikers’ strike

On 18 June the ‘okada’ riders made a peaceful protest by staying at home that day. Suddenly the government took notice.

“Everyone started complaining,” said Maurice Ellie who also works in the legal aid centre. “People were angry they couldn’t get around town any more. Moreover suddenly our centre was accused of fomenting the strike which local officials claimed was illegal.”

But Ellie pointed out that `okada’ riders were not technically on strike. “They are self-employed and as such they have no contractual agreement that obliges them to work,” he said.

Moreover, most of the riders are illegal. “The irony of this story is that the day the bikers obeyed the law and stopped riding illegally was the day the government and everyone else got upset,” Ellie said.

Local authorities summoned the staff of the legal aid centre to tell them to stop the strike immediately. “They weren’t interested when we explained that we had no right to tell the bikers what to do. They certainly weren’t amused when we pointed out that they were asking the bikers to go back to riding illegally,” Ellie said.

He said the staff at the centre started to become concerned that they could be arrested if the `okada’ riders didn’t go back to work. “The authorities might have charged us with contravening the public order act,” Ellie said.

And all this was happening just a few months ahead of the elections, Ellie said. “So what we were doing started to be construed as having political motivations.”

Jalloh talked with the riders and everyone agreed that it was not worth the fight.


The `okada’ riders decided they were better off paying little bribes twice a week than the prohibitively high sum demanded by the state.

“It doesn’t matter to us whether the money goes into the pockets of police or to the government,” said Mike Konte. “Either way nobody fixes the roads or provides us with services so what do we care?” he asked.

Some local non-governmental organisations tried to come up with a novel solution to the problem, said Susan Irona-Sky Toure. “They suggested that we make a project proposal to donors asking them to front the additional fees for the licences.”

“We said ‘no way’,” Irona-Sky Toure insisted.

“We have passed the days of emergency assistance in Sierra Leone. This is a case in which the government and its people should be able to find a solution all by themselves.”

Source: IRIN