Sierra Leone’s ‘Okada riders’ are no ordinary taxi drivers. Many of the drivers, who whisk passengers around on motorbikes, were rebel fighters in the country’s brutal civil war that ended in 2002. But Ebola is slamming the brakes on Sierra Leone’s economy, and government efforts to contain this deadly virus have hit the drivers’ businesses.

The latest figures released by the World Health Organization say the virus has claimed more than 4,000 lives. Most of these deaths have occurred in the three worst-affected countries: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As a result, the International Monetary Fund has cut its growth forecast for Sierra Leone by 3.5%.

'Okada riders' in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Photo taken and sent to FRANCE 24 by Ibrahim Shaid.

The government’s measures introduced to stem the spread of Ebola have hit the country’s multitude of Okada riders particularly hard. Using motorbikes as taxis took off as an idea in the aftermath of the civil war. Thousands of unemployed youths signed up in the aftermath of the conflict, desperate for a source of income. But new restrictions on daytime operating hours and limits to the number of passengers they can carry have cut deep into their earnings. Many are now earning only 25% of what they took home before the virus broke out in May.

“Our fear is that these people could return to crime to make ends meet”

Reverend Samuel Lavely is a union representative for the National Bike Riders Union. The outfit is charged with registering and supervising the activities of Sierra Leone’s Okada riders.

Okada riders have been a mainstay of the country’s economy for years. We have a membership of 147,000 riders across the country. But during the recent Ebola outbreak it’s been a real struggle for our industry because we used to operate 24 hours a day. Unfortunately because of Ebola, the government has banned us from riding after 7pm and before 7am. This has taken a big toll. Many people no longer have a means of transport accessible to them.

Normally the peak hours of the Okada riders would be about 9pm in the evening when people are getting off work. Most of the time they used the Okada bike riders, but now we can’t work at that time. It’s putting a lot of strain on the young guys because they’re not making enough money anymore to pay for things like university. If an Okada driver is caught by the police on the streets after 7pm they can be arrested and taken to court. That’s why you now see lots of people walking after 7pm.
 
'Okada riders' in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Photo taken and sent to FRANCE 24 by Ibrahim Shaid.

Motorbike taxis are the most important means of transportation in Sierra Leone. Because of the poor condition of the road network, it’s impossible for vehicles to go into poorer neighborhoods. They stick to the main city streets. Only Okada riders can use the roads that lead to impoverished areas in and around the cities. That’s the reason it’s popular as a means of getting around. They go into 90% of the villages.
 
In a way, the policy has helped limit the spread of Ebola - but it’s to our detriment

One of the reasons the government introduced the measure is because most people travel from poor, rural areas into the city centers. Since Ebola started spreading in impoverished rural areas, the authorities worried that by ferrying people in and out of poor neighborhoods the Okada riders would spread the virus onto other people [The current outbreak began in rural communities but later spread to large cities like Freetown and Conakry, the capital of neighbouring Guinea]. In a way, the policy has helped limit the spread of Ebola - but it’s to our detriment.

'Okada riders' in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Photo taken and sent to FRANCE 24 by Ibrahim Shaid.

We’ve lost 13 of our bike riders to Ebola. That’s simply because they took sick people from one point to another without knowing that they had the virus. At the start of the outbreak, many people didn’t even believe it was real, so they didn’t take any precautions.
 
After the war, there were no jobs and youth unemployment was extremely high. There was lots of crime around the country: some people still had weapons, there were armed robberies. But since motorbike taxis came into existence the number of armed robberies has dropped considerably. This has been the main job opportunity for many young people. Now our fear is that these people could return to crime to make ends meet.

This article was written with FRANCE 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).