Why Are Chadian Youth Rioting Over a Motorcycle Helmet Law?

In Chad, a new law passed requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets. But the cost of helmets has now tripled and students fear they won't be able to afford their daily rides to class.

Liberia Turns Towards Normalcy As Fight Continues To Eradicate Ebola
TUBMANBURG, LIBERIA - JANUARY 29: Motorcyclists ride towards a highway checkpoint between Monserrado and Bomi counties on January 29, 2015 near Tubmanburg, Liberia. The two counties are currently the only ones with Ebola patients left in Liberia, where the total number of new cases has dropped into the single digits. Health workers are trying to prevent the movement of any remaining cases as they move to fully eradicate the virus from Liberia. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Angry young Chadians took to the streets of the capital of N’Djamena in masses this week, blocking roads and targeting police officers, prompting the police to launch tear gas into the crowds. The violence killed at least three and forced authorities to shut down all schools and universities in the city.

But the riots weren’t over religion, corruption, social welfare cutbacks, or the other issues that typically lead activists into the streets. The cause was instead something far more banal: a new law requiring Chadian motorcyclists and their passengers to wear helmets.

That’s a big deal in Chad, where motorcycles are one of the most common and affordable forms of transportation and also double as taxis that sometimes carry as many as five people. The new law is intended to protect riders from bloody accidents that are a leading cause of death and injury in urban areas. But those opposing the law claim the cost of helmets is unreasonable for many in Chad, where close to 50 percent of people live below the poverty line.

The students who launched the protests would be disproportionately impacted by the new law because many depend on motorcycles to transport them to class.

In 2013, after the Liberian government banned motorcycles from main roads of the capital, Monrovia, locals were enraged by the inconvenience. On busy or poorly paved streets, motorcycles are able to quickly weave through traffic and around potholes in ways that buses and taxicabs cannot. And motorcycle drivers charge about half the price, too.

In Liberia, where more than 60 percent of people live below the poverty line, thousands of motorcyclists depended on their income as moto-taxi drivers to survive. And in Chad, where most of the passengers choosing motorcycles for transport can’t afford a bike helmet, the threat of increased unemployment for drivers looms large.

Although there isn’t an outright ban in Chad quite yet, the BBC reports that the cost of helmets has more than tripled this week, putting them even further out of reach for the average Chadian.

The government says that requiring helmets for motorcyclists and passengers will both save lives and relieve a medical system under strain by the huge number of motorcycle accidents each year.

But Daniel Deuzoumbé Passalet, the president of Human Rights Without Borders in Chad, told the Deutsche Welle broadcaster that the government should be especially careful now that Chad is engaged in an offensive with Boko Haram. According to him, the lack of transparency over the decision process could cause issues of distrust in the already aggravated urban population. And with the military deployed to counter militants in the rural southwest, resources to contain larger protests may not be immediately available.

“Even if wearing a helmet is necessary, the government should have initiated conversation, especially in the context of war when we are in a struggle against Islamists,” he said.

John Moore/Getty Images