Banning the motorbikes in Monrovia has improved road safety, but has inconvenienced commuters and curbed drivers’ incomes
Musa Sayee Konneh stands on a street corner in Monrovia amid a fleet of parked motorbikes, with faded Liberian dollars folded around his middle finger. On a good day, grubby bills would fan from his hands. But since the government banned motorbike taxis from the capital city’s main roads this month, Konneh’s work has been curtailed. So far today he has earned just 90 Liberian dollars (7p) for half a day’s work, a quarter of his usual take.
The ban took effect a week after the driver of a motorbike taxi, or pehn-pehn, was killed in a collision with a schoolbus. In response, an angry mob set the bus on fire.
An official from Liberia’s ministry of transport acknowledged that the schoolbus incident had prompted the ban, but said public safety was the prime motivation.
“We have been getting a lot of alarming figures from the ministry of health about accident rates going up,” says Charles Nelson, a deputy minister at the transport ministry, who admits that he does not know how long the ban will last. The city’s motorbike unions have failed to enforce the government’s safety policy, he says, which encouraged, but did not legally require, pehn-pehn drivers to wear helmets, closed shoes, and reflective jackets, and to carry only one passenger at a time.
The ministry of health says that in October alone 1,011 patients were admitted to the city’s hospitals because of motorcycle accidents; in contrast, only one accident was reported in the three days after the ban.
“[The ban] will significantly reduce the costs on Liberia’s health system,” says Tolbert Nyenswah, the assistant minister of health, although he admits that data needs to be collected over a longer period to measure the full impact.
Pehn-pehn owners have a reputation for dangerous driving and theft. John Saah, chief of traffic for the Liberian police force, says the authorities are trying to curb the “carnage and mayhem” the pehn-pehns are causing. Drivers have been accused of rapes and snatching bags from women, he adds.
But the ban inconveniences commuters in Monrovia, where roads remain congested despite recent improvements. Before the ban, hopping on the back of a pehn-pehn that could weave through traffic was an efficient mode of travel for commuters in a rush. The transport ministry plans to provide three or four buses to help ease the crush, but until then people are having to join long queues to use dilapidated yellow taxis.
“Pehn-pehns are fast. They were really helping some of us,” says Patricia Nyakun, a middle-aged woman who takes her vegetables to market every morning. At 5pm on a recent weekday, she waited two hours for a taxi home. “Now you are fighting for a car,” she says, adding that taxi drivers have been raising their prices since the ban.
Representatives from Monrovia’s five motorbike unions are negotiating with the government, but for now it looks like the ban will hold.
Clarence Quaye, chairman of the Motorbike Riders Organisation of Liberia, supports increased regulations and safety measures, but not the ban. He says the government needs to take responsibility and develop plans to improve safety. If the authorities do not listen to the concerns of motorbike owners, he says, they will take their protest to Liberia’s parliament and the presidential mansion.
In the meantime, the economic impact of the ban could be devastating for Konneh and the 12,000 other pehn-pehn drivers in the city. A former fighter in Liberia’s 14-year civil war, Konneh exchanged his AK-47 for a motorbike when the conflict ended in 2003. He says the ban’s adverse effect on his income means he may not be able to send his son back to school. “We don’t want to steal, we don’t want to kill,” Konneh says. “Let the government give us a chance.”
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