No Bikes for You: Nigeria Bans Motorcycles in Terror-Struck City

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An Okada, a public transport motorcylist, carries four passengers past a mosque in Maiduguri, July 28, 2010. (Photo: Pius Utomi - AFP - Getty Images)

Officials in Maiduguri, Nigeria’s seventh largest city and capital of northeastern Borno State, banned motorbikes earlier this week in a bid to curb militant activities borne on the backs of these ubiquitous vehicles.

Yet even though nearly 7,000 innocent Nigerians have now found their livelihoods on the wrong side of the law, the Borno State government is desperate to crack down on Boko Haram, the Islamist sect that has killed at least 40 people in the past two weeks. The group, which is seeking to overthrow the secular government in favor of a Muslim state, is rabidly orthodox (including reportedly forbidding its members to wear shorts), and has become known for brazen public attacks conducted while riding motorbikes.

But while Boko Haram gunmen have assassinated police officers and politicians in drive-by motorbike attacks, these bikes are the predominant mode of transportation in the mostly impoverished city. Members of the Motorcycle Transport Union have protested the ban on their livelihood, but the government has promised to provide 5,000 new rickshaws and buses to create jobs.

A motorbike ban does not directly address all of Boko Haram’s regular terror acts: the group has also been known to attack bars, churches and prisons as a protest of Western or Christian influence in the predominantly Muslim northern half of Nigeria.

Although Boko Haram’s violence began and is most prevelant in the northern reaches of the country such as Maiduguri, the group has claimed responsibility for acts of terror throughout Nigeria. Last month, the sect attacked police headquarters in the centrally located capital of Abuja, killing at least six people. Haram is an Arabic term meaning ‘legally forbidden by Muslim law,’ while Boko literally means ‘fake,’ but has come to signify Western practices and attitudes.

Everett Rosenfeld is a TIME contributor. Find him on Twitter at @Ev_Rosenfeld. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.