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Douala 

By Divine Ntaryike Jr

Government officials in Cameroon’s largest city, Douala, are seizing advantage of fatal clashes in early January between motorbike taxi riders (otherwise known as “benskins”) and natives of the Deido Canton to tardily enforce longstanding measures designed to regulate the thriving ‘benskin’ sector.

The clashes, that left three persons dead, several others injured, scores of bikes and half-a-dozen houses set ablaze was sparked by a December 31 killing of a Deido native Eric Mony.  He was allegedly slain by unidentified bike-riding assailants for reasons still clouded in opacity.

In the aftermath of the five-day riots, local administrative authorities banned the circulation of motorbikes in the area, pending the burial of Mony (earmarked for January 28).  They blamed reigning anarchy in the sector and especially the riders’ resistance to identify their bikes as a major cause of the bloody skirmishes.

“You people have categorically refused to respect a prime minister’s decree to register your motorcycles, refused to identify them and refused to organize the sector.  By so doing, you have only allowed brigands and all sorts of criminals to hide among you and commit serious offences for which you are now taking the blame,” Wouri Prefect, Bernard Okalia Bilai informed the riders in the heat of the Deido confrontations.

Days later, the Government Delegate to Douala, Fritz Ntone Ntone convened the city’s six mayors to ponder ways of re-implementing a December 31 decree signed by then PM Inoni Ephraim fixing modalities for practice of the motorbike taxi profession nationwide.  The decision requires riders to among others possess the category A drivers’ license and number plates, be duly identified and their bikes distinctively painted yellow, possess bike registration documents of carte grise, wear helmets and have another handy for passengers, wear identification jackets, be insured and operate only on the fringes of urban areas.

While experts note the decision has been satisfactorily enforced elsewhere across the country, Douala bike taxi riders have stubbornly resisted it, albeit several attempts by the authorities.  In February 2010, the city council and administrative authorities engaged initial steps towards applying the PM’s decree.  The “benskins” activities were to be delimited to the city’s peripheries and have their bikes painted distinctively per municipality. 

But the riders took to the streets in protests that scared the authorities and thwarted the drive.  Several other ensuing attempts equally culminated in futility as the riders complained the measures required them spending huge sums to procure the documents and also curtail their earnings.  An operation to distribute 4,000 helmets and jackets in 2010 preconditioned on riders meeting the stipulated requirements attracted only 150.

At the moment, the authorities have only succeeded in prohibiting motorbikes from the administrative seat, Bonanjo since two years.

“The reticence demonstrated by the riders is partly due to the fact that the administrators sideline motorbike riders and their union leaders when they take decisions.  They cannot expect results when they refuse to include us in decision-making,” Georges Bedime Ebona, Deputy President of the National Union of Motorbike Exploiters told CameroonPostLine.com.

The ongoing month-long free identification campaign, flagged off January 10 on the back of the Deido riots is effective in the city’s councils.  But critics are generally apprehensive on expected results.  “It’s a laudable decision.  I have just identified my bike.  But there are looming threats from my colleagues who are against the process. They are planning an upheaval and have warned they will attack us for betraying them,” Joel Nansi, a rider in the Douala II municipality warned Wednesday.

The genesis of the now-rapidly expanding activity in Douala dates back to the 1990s.  The collapse of the intra-urban transport company, SOTUC; the ghost town operation, the horrible states of inner city roads, nightmarish traffic jams, the increasing availability of cheap bikes and galloping unemployment rates have fuelled the proliferation of the business.

“Motorbikes are very practical.  I live in Nkomba which is inaccessible to conventional taxis.  I use “benskins” to and from work.  I cannot imagine what will happen if they were not there.  They are a necessity,” Georgette Nkum, a Douala resident explained.  The rides come in high demand during the morning and evening rush hours and it is commonplace to see sizzling bikes carrying three and four passengers.

The City Council estimates that Douala counts at least 52,000 bike taxis.  But other sources put the figure at over 200,000. Over the years, the riders have cemented solidarity within them and on several occasions have teamed up against security forces obliging them to present documents. Observers say their solidarity explains the repeated regulations implementation flops.

“It is a sector plagued by lawlessness and easily attracts persons intending to manipulate them for their political or other interests,” Fritz Ntone Ntone warned at a meeting designed to fathom ways of ensuring effective regulation of the activity Wednesday. Elsewhere, he says the riders are responsible for over 90 percent of urban accidents.  Officials at Douala’s biggest health facility, the Laquintinie Hospital have reported that in 2011, some 45,000 “benskin” accident victims were hospitalized.  Several others died from their wounds.

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