Conceptually, the conversation around the ban involves another error. The “masses” – on behalf of which this culture war is presently waged – are nought but a convenient stalking horse. Always argued as if the concept were a blank canvas, it allows different agglomerations of interests to project unto it their current pet peeves.


The ban (from plying parts of the metropolis) on motorcycles and motorised rickshaws recently enacted by the government of Lagos State has excited intense passions across our echo chambers. In the “red corner”, the anti-elite, pro-masses crowd has pitched its tent. Leveraging footage of Lagosians trekking, waiting in long-queues at bus-stops, and clear evidence of a hike in bus fares across some routes, this side of the debate is asking for government to walk back the decision. You do not have to agree with its core argument that a collapse of transport infrastructure in Lagos is the vacuum into which these weak traffic participants have stepped, to sympathise with the folks in the “blue corner”.

Demonised as “elitist”, this opposing cohort has backed the ban in the name of all that’s decent. It is not just that casualties are higher when weak traffic participants are involved. It is that the impunity with which the okada riders and Keke Napep drivers ply their trade is a disquieting metaphor for the larger Nigerian dilemma. Clearly, an enforcement of traffic rules, including enforcing the law requiring all vehicles to have valid insurance, and riders/drivers to have documentation that prove their competence to be at the wheels, would see many of these vehicles off our roads. As indeed would many a danfo be forced off the roads too. There are few forces more disciplining of behaviour than the prospects of annual hikes in insurance premiums, as poor road etiquette results in accidents that are referred to the insurers.

Nonetheless, beyond all of these, there is a further question. In designing, from scratch, a modern (multi-modal) transport infrastructure for Lagos State, would it make sense to include either or both of these forms of transport? Inland waterways? Check! Subways? Check! Metro lines? Check! Rail? Check! Roads? Check, too. But isn’t it the case that a new transport plan for Lagos State that incorporates a mix of road-based traffic, including either the okada, or Keke Napep would be a step back in time?

…the masses also present a question of political representation. Without “voice”, the “masses” are said to lose interest in and bring about the delegitimisation of participatory democracy – eventually undermining faith in government. Leaving room for all manner of messiahs and caudillos to try their luck at ruling.


Conceptually, the conversation around the ban involves another error. The “masses” – on behalf of which this culture war is presently waged – are nought but a convenient stalking horse. Always argued as if the concept were a blank canvas, it allows different agglomerations of interests to project unto it their current pet peeves. Accordingly, the masses are in one breath a seething mob, always in poor gruntlement. Available, therefore, to be mobilised against enterprise by those who would democratise ownership, access to, and use of all property. Described this way, the masses are a policy problem around which social safety nets must be designed, in order that not too many are left behind.

In this construct, the masses also present a question of political representation. Without “voice”, the “masses” are said to lose interest in and bring about the delegitimisation of participatory democracy – eventually undermining faith in government. Leaving room for all manner of messiahs and caudillos to try their luck at ruling. And because democracy is a good in itself, it is being argued that the traditional “first past the post” system be replaced by alternative voting arrangements – proportional representation, preferential voting, etc. – in order to keep the people engaged.

Exhale, however, and in the same breath, the masses acquire a radically different colouration. Here, their privations – as in the instance of Lagos State’s partial ban on commercial motorcycles and motorised rickshaws – are the result of an elite conspiracy to deny large portions of the populace access to the means of production and the modern comforts arising therefrom. There are those who would argue that both representations are simply different faces of the same coin.

For whatever else it might be, the masses ain’t an undifferentiated whole. They may coalesce around particular conflicts – for example a rally against the recent ban in Lagos. But as Marxist-Leninists’ advocacy of the use of “national fronts” suggests, even gathered as a mob, diverse streams feed into a mass movement.


Yet, the main problem with this latter typology is that it is also a big lie. For whatever else it might be, the masses ain’t an undifferentiated whole. They may coalesce around particular conflicts – for example a rally against the recent ban in Lagos. But as Marxist-Leninists’ advocacy of the use of “national fronts” suggests, even gathered as a mob, diverse streams feed into a mass movement. The agitprop’s nirvana is to get the masses out on the streets in the first place. And thereafter, playing on these different streams as would a virtuoso on the violin – as in the restiveness in Hong Kong – keep it there until the movement is big enough to force a change.

The problem with this route to “unfreedom” is that whereas different parts of the masses may pretend to be anti-elite, they invariably pretend to this, not so that they can bring about a just society. Not at all. For as Marx himself observed, if Spartacus’s rebellion had succeeded, his would have been a slave-owning state.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

Picture credit: Wuzup Nigeria.