By Andrew Walker
In February 2009, I was at a motor park in Maraba, a satellite of the Nigerian capital Abuja, looking for motorcyclists wearing dried vegetables on their heads. The Nigerian Police Force had recently tightened laws requiring drivers and passengers of motorcycles to wear helmets. In the case of motorcycle taxis – known as achabas in northern Nigeria – drivers would now have to provide helmets for their passengers. There was an uproar. Everyone knew that taking a trip on an achaba could be a dangerous thing; the drivers had a reputation for recklessness. But many Nigerians did not like the new rules.
Above all, the law gave the police an opportunity for extortion. One motorcycle taxi driver told me it was going to cost him 10,000 naira (around £40) to buy two helmets. As he made between 300 and 400 naira per day (less than £2), there was no way he could afford to obey the new law. Everyone knew what would happen. The police would set up flying checkpoints, near markets, motor parks and busy thoroughfares. They would swoop down on motorcyclists, flailing sticks and canes as the riders madly accelerated out of their traps.
People who drive achabas are close to the bottom of society. They are men (andonly men) without much formal education, often without any other marketable skill. Many sleep rough, under bridges or awnings, some sleep on their motorcycles, guarding their source of income. Their passengers are also mostly poor. The vast number of achabas on the roads is a symptom of Nigeria’s economic problems. The new helmet law was, in the minds of most, just another squeeze on people already in perilous circumstances.
When the regulations came into force, something strange happened. As hardly anyone had helmets to wear, achaba drivers took to the streets in all manner of improvised headgear. There were pictures in the press of people wearing paint cans and buckets; but best of all were riders wearing hollowed-out watermelons and calabash bowls – rustic utensils made out of dried gourds that, before the advent of plastic, were ubiquitous as water vessels.
These achaba drivers had stood up against barely disguised official extortion. Their resistance was characteristically subversive. But most Nigerians simply added the new legislation to the long list of things that made their lives difficult – then they prayed, hoped the police would quickly lose interest and carried on as normal.
In one part of the country, however, this cat-and-mouse game between police and Nigerian motorists would have much more serious consequences. In Maiduguri, the capital of the north-eastern Borno state, enforcement of the helmet law caused an incident that would spark a violent conflict between the police and members of a radical Islamist sect that was then unknown to the world. This, in turn, would pitch Nigeria into war.
Picture: AK Rockefeller (Boko Haram) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons