As Sierra Leone turns 60, its army of bike riders call for end to police corruption
Thousands protest in streets of Freetown sparking sometimes violent confrontations
An okada motorbike driver carries a passenger in eastern Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Sierra Leone celebrates 60 years of independence on Tuesday, but the capital city’s army of motorbike drivers say the milestone has been marred for them by the stresses of constant police corruption.
Over the past week, thousands have protested in the streets of Freetown, coming into direct and sometimes violent confrontation with police, whom they accuse of exploitation and harassment, and of imposing so many restrictions that they can’t make a decent living.
Deputy executive director of the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority, James Bio, told local reporters more than 400 motorbikes were seized in one day last week. “The number of road crashes is appalling,” he said. “All these motorcycles we have apprehended today are either not licensed, uninsured, or without proper registration.”
There are roughly 16,000 registered “okada” motorbike drivers operating in Freetown, according to union representatives – and many more unregistered. They weave between cars carrying passengers around the city. After the cost of fuel and motorbike rental, each driver earns around 60,000 leones (€4.88) a day.
“The police have been harassing us too much for money, manhandling us, taking us to the station, brutally treating us,” said Abdulai Conteh, vice-chairman of the bike riders’ union for the city’s Mountain Park area. “[There is] absolutely [corruption]) and 500,000 leones to be set free.
“I just came from a cell,” said Bairanking Conteh, a student who said he can’t find another job to support himself and his family. He said he was caught in the central business district with a passenger, in an area where motorbikes are not supposed to drive. The police kept him in a police station for 2½ hours. He borrowed 370,000 leones from a friend, which he paid to secure his release.
“If I had a job I would quit the bike riding. In this country we do not have any professional centre to learn a professional job,” he said. “If you have connections you have not any problems with police. This is the main reason so many people want to leave this country. We, the riders, want a stop to police brutality.”
“They take away my bike, no reason, the police steal my bike,” complained one driver. “It’s risky, sometimes the police chase us, we get accidents. So dangerous,” said another.
Two rolled up their trousers to show injuries on their legs, with one saying a police vehicle hit him before driving away.
Another man said a policeman chased him in 2017, causing him to fall from his bike and break his leg. It never healed properly and the bone still protrudes. He takes tramadol, a narcotic-like pain reliever, to cope with the pain.
In response, Sierra Leone police superintendent Brima Kamara said police did not demand bribes, but imposed legitimate fines, and anyone who was exploited could report it to a complaints division.
“What they called harassment is not. It is enforcement,” he said. “If you don’t chase and arrest them, it would be exercise in futility. All that is needed from them is to obey police stop signal[s] and submit themselves for police interrogation and arrest, where necessary.”