(By Tunde Leye)
“In many cases, the problems are systemic. The systems are simply set up in such a way that it makes following due process superbly hard for citizens and exploitation extremely easy for the citizen. Where there is ineptitude on the part of the government and its agents, it is the citizen that still pays for this ineptitude“.
In Nigeria, the citizen is required to be law abiding and play his part in the way the nation runs. The laws of the land and the regulations for using the infrastructure available place a burden of obedience on the citizen. And to ensure that the citizen complies, various agencies have been set up by the Nigerian government with the authority to enforce the many laws, known and unknown. Sadly, the same burden of obedience is not placed on the government and personnel of these agencies. They are usually the worst violators of the very regulations they are set up to enforce. Even worse, the principle of having two sides to the coin is hardly followed by the government. So they empower their agents who are made very aware of their powers. However, these agents are not held responsible for the responsibility that comes with the abuse of these powers in all but very few of the cases. The ordinary citizen, that very unfortunate member of Nigerian society is offered little or no protection from such abuse of powers.
In many cases, the problems are systemic. The systems are simply set up in such a way that it makes following due process superbly hard for citizens and exploitation extremely easy for the citizen. Where there is ineptitude on the part of the government and its agents, it is the citizen that still pays for this ineptitude.
Classic case is the relationship of road users with the agents of the federal, state and local governments. First, it is a supremely cumbersome process to get a drivers license. In Lagos, for a long time, most of the scanners for which a lot of money was awarded did not work. So, for most motorists like me, it was long process of hunting for an FRSC office where the scanner worked. I live in Ajah. I had to search and search until I got to the Odonguyan, Ikorodu office of the FRSC before we found a working scanner. For those who do not know, on a work day, it will take me about three to four hours to get from home to Ikorodu. I had to go past the FRSC office in Lekki, Lagos Island, Gbagada and so on, on different days, until I got to Ikorodu. When I went through the cumbersome process of renewing my license, I was issued a laminated paper temporary license which was valid for three months, during which my permanent license would be produced in Abuja and shipped down to Lagos. I wondered why it was necessary to produce the licenses centrally in Abuja, knowing it would simply open up the avenue for unnecessary delays and loss in transit. And this was exactly what happened. I completed what was required of me in July 2013 and my license is yet to arrive in Lagos until now, more than a year after.
The second part is in the enforcement. I have been stopped by FRSC officials, the Nigerian police (operating illegal checkpoints) and Vehicle Inspection Officers (who have no business checking my drivers license) and each time, they have tried to book me for driving with an expired license. It took me insisting on the fact that I had played my part as a citizen, many times rather loudly, for the agents of government to back down. Of course, I would end up wasting hours in many of these instances. And God help me when they left the license matter to check other things and I was found wanting. They typically went out of their way to make sure I suffered.
And that brings me to the third part of the matter. Why does the government insist on making compliance with fines for offences such a cumbersome and punishing on the citizens? In spite of complaining about a desire to grow internally generated revenue, government makes it incredibly hard for citizens to pay up. For honest mistakes for example, citizens are treated like criminals. Two instances will suffice to illustrate this. Recently, the guy that washes my car forgot to put my fire extinguisher back in the car after washing. As these things go, it was the day FRSC officials decided to pull me over and check my car. I make it a point of duty to ensure my car documents are complete. It always seems that the agents are disappointed when they go through my car documents and see there is nothing to hold me on. So here I was, sitting smugly in my car as the FRSC agent went through my documents. And then he asked me to open the booth so he could check the C-caution and fire extinguisher. No problems, I thought and jumped down to go and “show him”. You need to have seen the smile on his face when I couldn’t find the fire extinguisher.
“Oga, I will write you a ticket, there is nothing you can do,” he said, now the smug one. The ticket was Three Thousand Naira and I could afford it. But here was the problem. It was a Sunday and in order to pay the fine, I would have to wait until banks opened on Monday morning. But the official insisted on taking my vehicle license and drivers license (which we had gone through the ritual of arguing about) with him to their office. When I paid, I would then drive to their office at Magodo to collect my license. That was three hours from home and two hours from the office. I assured him I would pay the fine. In frustration, I even asked if they had a POS or took mobile banking transfers (I got an incredulous look from them at this). So there I was, willing to pay the fine. But there the government was, making me have to go through extra tedium to comply. Small wonder citizens prefer to pay the fine and a little extra on the spot. Contrasting that with my friends in Dubai, he got an SMS when he got home, notifying him of his fine and he could pay from the same phone. He would have issues only if he did not pay. There was another day I parked along Marina to pick a friend I spotted unexpectedly up. Now, I didn’t know I couldn’t stop there. So it was a honest mistake, albeit a traffic offence. I should have paid a fine. Out of nowhere, two police Toyota Hilux trucks pulled up, one blocking me in front and the other in the rear. Six policemen jumped down from each truck and pointed their guns at me, undoing the safety and shouting orders at each other. If a foreigner was riding with me that day, he or she would have thought I was a hardened wanted criminal. But alas, I was only an unwitting traffic offender.
There are other examples of how government makes life incredibly costly for their citizens. I was speaking with a friend who is doing his PhD along with his wife in Japan. They have to fly down to Nigeria to renew their passports. Each ticket costs them Four Hundred And Sixty One Thousand Naira. That’s almost a million in ticket costs for both of them. I wonder why they cannot change it in Japan where we maintain an expensive Nigerian embassy and be saved such huge costs. My sister had to go to Abuja to change her passport to her new name after she got married. I could go on and on.
The Nigerian government needs to, to use the street parlance, stop falling the hand of its citizens.
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