Trade unions are purely or originally organisations that were created and existed to protect the rights of workers especially from the exploitation and insensitivity of the owners of capital, their employers. Things like annual paid holidays, adequate working conditions, fair pay, secure working contracts, the 35-40 hour week etc. are the gains of trade union activities. However, there are malignant and highly deviant mutations of trade union or its ethos going on in Nigeria and elsewhere in the form of gang or cult activities.
Ever since celebrity, “Charly Boy” Oputa, became the head of the “Okada riders” (motorcycle transport operators) in Nigeria earning him the nickname “Area Father”, many local operators cum organisers around Nigeria came to see the unionisation of the business as a lucrative fiefdom. Most never made sense Oputa’s fight for the rights and benefits for Okada riders. It did not take long for unionism to mutate into gangsterism and cultism. Kwale in Delta State is a case in focus.
Kwale-Ndoni in Delta State has recently become a fiefdom of Okada riders “overlords”. These fiefdoms are setup in a manner that is neither exclusively gangster nor cultist but as a loose hybrid of both. While these cults operate like US-style organised street gangs they also use ghoulish practices and superstition to control their members.
Economic hardship is the main incentive for men becoming Okada riders. It is rarely ever an ultimate career ambition. For one thing its human cost is high. Many Okada riders do not own their motor bikes and have to pay daily rents for using them to earn a living. The “lure” for struggling riders to join these Okada cults is that they would “definitely” make much more money as members. The initiations are expensive and a big initial ego boost to the new initiate. However, without a honeymoon the initiate realises that he has to pay extortionate daily membership fees to the cult, a heavy unexpected burden.
Desperation soon makes the initiated cultists to do anything to make enough money to stay in the business. That a rider cannot afford to rent a bike is no excuse and there is no exiting the cult. If the cult fees are not paid they automatically without negotiation acquire ridiculously high interest rate as debts. Failure to pay off the debts often mean death. The customers become the only source of their survival income and hence their staple victims. Every customer of Okada riders in the fief is a very likely potential victim.
Extortion traps for customers became their modus operandi. For a journey that would normally cost an Okada rider’s customer N150, the rider would demand N200 or more. If the customer refuses to pay the extorted extra N50, at night the rider and his cohorts would break into his or her house exacting full scale burglary, assault and rape on the household. The terror this caused the Kwale residents soon made it easy for Okada riders to charge customers what they liked. The choice became simple: pay the extortion rate or catch hell from a “night visit”.
Okada overlords are definitely ruthless or psychopathic individuals who prosper immensely on the backs of their struggling and unquestioning members. The overlords, usually one to four men per group, are often secretly under the threat of a mutiny from equally ruthless subordinates who believe they are more deserving. Any successful or failed attempt to overthrow the current organisers is very bloody affair and may not be complete without counter-attempts.
Okada cults are well-known to the police and politicians but there are catches that enable them operate with impunity. The Okada overlords earn enough easy money to pay off the police and purchase local political patronage. More importantly, politicians rely on the support of Okada cults (like they do other transport workers associations) for election time manoeuvres. The impunity of Okada cultists is thus guaranteed.
An unjustifiable but apparently necessary reaction to the Okada cultists in Kwale is a very extreme. When an Okada cultist is identified and caught in a criminal act, the local residents opt for vigilante action; the victim is burnt alive often with his bike in front of his family compound. The strategy worked. After this happened a few times the Okada cultists started to rethink their actions and became mostly non-aggressive towards their customers.
“Bastardising” unionism into its very own antithesis is one thing but forcing a normally peaceful community into collective violent mortal action against a very visible criminal activity is another. The ‘rule of law’ is not working, it is failing the people in too many ways. When vigilante action becomes the best solution to a problem, the society is always less stable than is appears.