DRIVING IN LAGOS AND OTHER CRIMES | Some Thoughts by Ayo Sogunro

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Today, I paid my annual contribution to the Nigerian Police Force: I invested in a Twenty Thousand Naira “Get out of Jail Card”, in penance for the heinous “crime” of making a wrong turn—described by the law as “overtaking another vehicle”.  I have no particular complaints about the financial loss to my pockets—I wasn’t paying attention to the road or I would have noticed that I had missed my entrance.  Also, the arresting officers were quite considerate: they gave me directions to the nearest ATM and patiently explained the practical aspects of the Theory of Relativity.

The lecture from the policemen was quite important, considering that my other option was a booking and a ticket, with the gloomy possibility of a One Hundred Thousand Naira fine. At the end of our interaction, I was not only happy to invest in the welfare of the families of the policemen, but I also tipped the gatekeepers with something extra as I drove out of the police compound with relief.

Yet, I still consider that I have not been treated fairly in the transaction: not because I had to part with some of my monthly salary, but because, in my estimation, my supposed offence did not justify the trouble I had to go through in atonement.  There has to be an easier way to enforce traffic laws without disrupting the activities of citizens or handling the offender like a criminal. From the manner in which I was apprehended to the twenty minute drive to the police station—I didn’t think I had done anything significant enough to cause the consequent commotion.

Here’s the originating drama: I was driving to work, and trying to negotiate entry into a lane when, suddenly, armed policemen jumped out of a van and hastily surrounded my vehicle; transforming a benign Lagos highway into an impromptu war zone.  For a brief second, I was bewildered—but my mentality was set straight when a scowling officer barked, somewhat gleefully, that I had committed a traffic offence under the laws of Lagos State. Naturally, I was happy to see the taxpayers’ money at work, but I wasn’t quite convinced that five policemen with assault rifles were necessary to take care of an honest carelessness. Anybody could have made that same mistake, I thought, and I tried to explain myself to the boys. But there was no listening air: my car was promptly commandeered and I was ordered to drive as directed. As I was somewhat in the wrong, and also had a healthy bias for my own continued existence, I respected their directives and headed in the opposite direction from my original destination.

And here is the problem: the average Nigerian policeman is still unable to distinguish between a criminal offence and a regulatory offence. Because every offence is treated as a crime, a breach of the most innocuous law results in almost the same level of official antagonism as a grave criminal offence. But crimes are a direct threat to the life, safety and property of humans, and so criminal laws are meant to act as rules of human conduct. Regulatory laws, on the other hand, are rules of social conduct, and would usually differ in various society in their content and proportion. Someone needs to explain this to traffic law officials.

In a sane society, regulations are not enforced by guns and bullets—you do not need to commandeer a person’s car for an expired driving license. Yet, in Nigeria, I have seen honest everyday people suffer loss of time and money for something as ordinary as an absent triangle caution sign. This is crazy. Why would the law be used to hamper people going about their lawful activities?

Of course, people must obey all regulations—serious or otherwise.  Yet again, this is why the treatment of regulatory laws is different from criminal laws. For example, a policeman would have the discretion to waive a regulatory infraction, but he has no discretion to waive a crime. Still, discretion is a subjective element, and so human psychology is a vital part of police work: a policeman should know when to give a person a warning and when to book the person.

But, in Nigeria, the only psychology our policemen care about, probably, is their ability to gauge between the “big man” and the person who they can knock around with impunity.

To make a bad situation worse, the Nigerian society breeds lawmakers who misunderstand the nature of a crime: and so, in Lagos, for example, the offence of “overtaking another car” has a fine of One Hundred Thousand Naira. This is to force people to be self-regulatory, but how does the law compensate for simple mistakes of fact in daily commuting? It is one thing for a driver to deliberately rush past a red light: it is another for a driver caught in cross traffic at a junction to find himself inadvertently in breach of a red light.

Naturally, people will resist these rigid approaches to regulatory matters, which is why the scene of a car driver arguing passionately—or doing worse—with law enforcement is a familiar one on our roads. Consider a man driving along the road who sees a car on fire, he quickly pulls over and helps to douse the flames of the other vehicle using his fire extinguisher before proceeding on his way. But just ahead is a checkpoint, and, amongst other checks, he is asked to produce his extinguisher: he comes up with a depleted can—of course, nobody is going to listen to his story. He has the option of investing in a “Get out of Jail Card” gracefully, or—depending on which law enforcement official is on ground—journeying to a station or the nearest bank.

It is the unlikely law enforcement officer in Lagos that will take time to consider the facts of the situation and decide whether to book the offender or issue a warning without exacting some payment from him.

And here’s the irony of corruption: in a sane society, that same official can issue a warning and let you off without fuss. In our socially cannibalistic society, you have to pay the policeman to exercise a similar discretion. This is a discretion that exists morally, yet you have to pay for it to be exercised. Unless one has a strong point to prove—and plenty of time to see it through—a fair number of Lagosians would rather pony up the cash and continue with their hitherto honest journey.

The argument remains valid: the costs of evading the irrationalities of Nigerian law is far lower than the price of its application. The Lagos traffic law, for example, screws the average citizen: it has punishments but no protections. And so, would the average Lagosian really risk a trip to traffic court?

The injustice is worse when you consider that the makers of these laws are not bound by their own regulations: drivers of government and law enforcement vehicles are known to disregard traffic laws with impunity.

This is when you remember the Theory of Relativity and donate the requested amount.

Hence, you have corruption.

This is all unfortunate. Maybe all of this is just brisk business for the police: a way of redistributing the wealth. The government makes the laws, and secures its observance with heavy fines—trusting the policeman to know who to arrest and who to caution. But the average Nigerian policeman is not concerned with policy making, he simply spots the economic opportunities the legislation presents, and he bundles off the unfortunate traffic offender like a common thief.

I can hardly fault the policemen for taking care of themselves. Police work is tough anywhere in the world; but in Nigeria, it is damn near suicidal.

THAT CHIBOK MEETING | A Quick Look by Ayo Sogunro

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Now that the president has met with the Chibok community, is he satisfied? Has his political paranoia been assuaged? Does he now believe the news of the abduction? Does the sad sight of despairing parents trigger some remorse for his late response? Has he drunk enough from the cup of their sorrow? Does he retract the negative statements made by his representatives in the last 100 days? Has the president learnt anything?

Probably not.

Probably, the president didn’t have the meeting to learn anything from the community. Probably he didn’t ask the parents what he could do to alleviate their pain. Most likely, he didn’t commend the ordinary Nigerians who kept the Chibok tragedy fresh in the local and international news. In fact, if the press statements of the event, and the pictures released by Reuben Abati are any indication, the meeting was called by the president as an opportunity, as the Christian idiom says, to fulfil all righteousness.

Look at the pictures.

If you can take your admiring gaze away from the starchy shine of the president’s attire, you will note that this was an unusual photo session. The faces in the pictures are a stark difference from the happy crowd and enthusiastic handshakes that characterize typical scenarios of presidential interaction.

Just look at the pictures.

The audience is sombre, still in shock. Some manage to look hopeful as they face the president; after all, they have been told, this is the man who can change everything for them. In one picture some women are crying. In another, a girl covers her face, presumably teary over the fate of her colleagues—or maybe just embarrassed at the shameful nature of the ceremony in which she was an involuntary participant.

For this event is a shameful one, whether or not we acknowledge the indecency of victims of a national tragedy being permitted to meet their ostensibly democratic leader. These are grieving men and women—and children too—and they have been compelled, despite their mood, to dress in their best and go see the president. And pictures are taken of them as they march past to see the leader. Not sympathetic pictures by bystanders—but professional photos taken by a paid staff.

And then these pictures are uploaded to the internet and tweeted to the world by a journalist-turned-hatchet man.

Pictures of a grieving people.

But hope is a powerful thing. And so the community went to Abuja with hope: never mind the insane display that has been made of their tragedy; never mind that Abuja is not Chibok; never mind the overwhelming opulence they are confronted with; never mind the soldiers, cameras and powerful officials that surround them; never mind their discomfort. Yes, they managed to dress fine, act sane and pose for the cameras. They stand still and act sane—in the hope that some definite and positive action would be taken to return their missing girls.

It takes a hard-hearted photographer to take these pictures without a lump in the throat. It takes a cynical journalist-turned-adviser to post these pictures and not hang himself afterwards. It takes a disbelieving president to meet with these parents and not lose composure. And why would the president lose composure? After all, his handlers chalk all policy criticism to opposition politics or mere disgruntlement, and so, they also have come to regard all policy decisions as an opportunity for counter politics, forgetting that humans—Nigerians—are affected by the outcome of their bloody games.

For no, we still have no guarantee that the president is convinced of the seriousness of the situation. A meeting is not an achievement; especially as the Presidency believes that, when it comes to Boko Haram, the evidence of presence is not the presence of evidence.

If Jonathan believes the truth of the abduction, he would immediately apologise to the parents and to Nigerians for the reactive tardiness, strip down to his work clothes, and preside over a 24 hour situation room to rescue the girls.

Instead, the president gave a lecture and the usual promises. Like royalty addressing the commoners, he graciously interacted with the community in the splendour of Abuja. And he took pictures with them over a red carpet.

Red carpet for a grieving community.

“Meet with the Chibok folks, you say? Well, we have met them. Now, smile for the cameras, everybody. Stand here, you stand there. Everyone say cheese!”

And so it is easy to conclude: the president isn’t that much concerned with the missing girls. The president is more interested in being seen to be gracious. This meeting was not a sympathetic gesture by the Presidency—this meeting was, as admitted by the Presidency, at the instance of Malala, and its outcome is a promissory speech and a photo-op session.

Meeting over.

To these members of the Presidency, the people of Chibok are not humans to be dignified, but votes to be counted and PR opportunities to be exploited. First they were dismissed as charlatans, next they were displayed as supplicants. These parents had to be seen to be believed.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed” the biblical Jesus told a hard-nosed Thomas. But we can forgive the quest for empirical evidence by the president, we can forgive his public relations exploitation, we can forgive his aspersions on the activists who kept vigil for the girls—all is forgivable if a positive result is achieved.

But when will a positive result be achieved? For how many more days will this community continue to wait for its girls? No answers.

And so the president has seen the community, and Reuben Abati has tweeted the pictures. Is the president satisfied? Has his political paranoia been assuaged? Does he now believe the news of the abduction? Does the sad sight of despairing parents trigger some remorse for his late response? Has he drunk enough from the cup of their sorrow? Does he retract the negative statements made by his representatives in the last 100 days?

Has the president learnt anything?

 

 


Ayo Sogunro is the author of The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales. A lawyer by profession, he also indulges in socio-legal philosophy on this blog. Interact with him on Twitter via @ayosogunro.



Get “Sorry Tales” on Amazon/Kindle:

Or if you’re in Nigeria, on Addiba and Konga too.

 

 

 

OF BOMBS AND THE LAGOSIAN | A few thoughts by Ayo Sogunro

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Nothing adequately prepares you for being a private citizen of a bomb-prone country. You don’t wake up in the morning and check off a list to confirm that your security is adequate—not unless you’re an airplane pilot, and maybe not even then. There is no transition period: one year you are a normal resident of a normal country with its share of normal violence—and the next year there is the serious possibility of a bomb being planted under your car.

In fact, you have to wonder if any mental preparation is possible in Nigeria, today. It seems that the sensitivity of the Nigerian public to destruction and death is declining in proportion to the increasing terrorism in the country.

So far, it seems as if the major Nigerian city—Lagos—has been spared from this reign of infantile terror. Consequently, economic and social activities are, superficially speaking, unaffected by the security crisis riding the north of the country.

And so it was that, recently, on my way to work on an early Tuesday morning, I found myself quite unprepared for what seemed, at the time, to be a confrontation with the maleficent forces that were running amok in the north-east of Nigeria.

That morning, I had parked my car by a local intersection, opposite the University of Lagos, while waiting for a colleague to join me in our daily commute. Along with another passenger, I sat in the car as the local traffic converged; around us, the suburban community nestling the University of Lagos came to life and diffused into the Lagos metropolis.

My other passenger was late, but the day was early enough to accommodate some delay. I flipped through radio channels and watched the road. Across from where I was parked, was a makeshift booth from which an official of the traffic agency—LASTMA—guided traffic through the intersection. From my side-mirror, I could see, behind me, the direction from which I expected my colleague to emerge. When the minutes lengthened and my patience trickled, I squinted at every appearing female figure in the mirror to ascertain if my expected company was close.

I performed this mirror gaze several times, alternating my attention between the road behind and the passenger beside. Shortly, a woman appeared in the mirror’s view and approached the car. Just as she leveled with the rear of the vehicle she stooped, briefly, then straightened up and walked on past me. She was middle aged and unremarkably dressed. She didn’t glance back after she passed but hurried on along.

I glanced at my passenger puzzlingly, but she seemed not to have noticed this external activity. Curious to see what had made the stranger pause by the car, I craned out of the window and saw nothing worrisome. I shrugged off my concerns and went back to the radio talk. The news discussed Malala and her visit to the President in sympathy to the cause for the rescue of the abducted girls. Bring back our girls, Malala also said. Fair enough.

Our colleague eventually arrived, and we were ready to continue the morning trip to work.

Suddenly, the traffic official was by my side—rapping the car window urgently and cautioning me to stop. I had not seen him come over. My engine was running and I had just started to turn into the road. Alarmed at the intrusion, I wound down the window.

“Is this for you?” the official said, holding up what appeared to be a laptop bag of typical size. It was a black leather bag and the texture looked rough and old.

“No. Not at all,” I responded, slightly mystified.

“But I saw this bag under your car. I picked it up just now to avoid you crushing it.”

“That’s not mine.” I said, while my brain struggled to make some sense from the emerging scenario.

“So who owns it?”

In the car, my two passengers were equally nonplussed. I gestured towards them for some confirmation that my brain was not missing a chunk of objective reality.

“No idea, officer. Thanks, but the bag’s not mine.” I said again.

“Who owns it?” The official repeated, expecting some sudden revelation from me. “Why was it under your car?”

Why was a bag under my car?

Some deep understanding of the security crisis in the country suddenly emerged in the morning air. Fresh attacks in Borno State had been in the news. Not long ago, a major district in the federal capital, Abuja had been targeted too. More recently, an explosion in the port area of Lagos had been claimed by Boko Haram as a bomb attack. The traffic official gently placed the bag down on the road and stepped back from the car. My passengers were now clearly alarmed but they kept mute and wide-eyed. I stammered out a response.

“A woman,” I started. “A woman was beside the car earlier. She acted very strangely. Then walked away.”

My right foot was on the brake pedal, and I felt a distinct quiver travel from my thighs to the base of the car. I switched off the car engine.

Why was a bag under my car?

All the while, the officer and I kept on staring at the bag, awaiting some self-explanatory logic to a mystery that was verging on the dangerous.

“Where’s this woman?” the traffic man asked.

I gestured helplessly: How could I know?

The official picked up the bag, and I automatically tensed.

“It feels heavy.”

It feels heavy.

The sweat that gathered on my forehead was not just from the morning heat. I thought of stepping out of the car to get some air but, in the circumstances, that didn’t seem a sensible proposition. On the other hand it didn’t make much sense to sit in the car, waiting for it to happen. One could always jump out of the car and run fast—but what about my colleagues? What about the people around?

How much damage could be done here?

My knowledge of improvised explosive devices was limited: the black bag looked nothing like any of the crude contraptions I had seen in newspaper tragedy pictures—but it looked very much like anything that could have been concocted in a spy movie worth its salt.

The sweat that gathered on my forehead was definitely not just from the morning heat.

The traffic official looked worse than I felt. He had put an arm against the car—not leaning against the vehicle as much as preventing me from making a dash for it. He looked at me and his telepathic message was clear: We are going to end this together.

I thought fast.

“Call the police”, I said. “Clear the area and call the police.”

The official looked at me askance, and I realized he didn’t know what police to call. He had no procedure for handling this situation. I shrugged; that was the best advice I could give. Vaguely, I remembered some public service announcement on handling suspicious circumstances. But it was a fragment of information, and the memory dissipated in the morning strain. I knew the official wouldn’t be releasing me. Whether or not I had any knowledge of the bag, the business still looked very bad.

Seconds are ticking. I thought. We stay here chatting and seconds are ticking.

A bus called passengers for the morning commute.

The traffic moved freely despite the absence of the traffic official.

Life went on around us. People moved on. Lagos was unconcerned by our little spectacle.

Lagos, Nigeria is safe; we had been led to believe this. Lagos was impenetrable. The terrorists would not dare to invade Lagos. The impervious activity that surrounded us confirmed this idea.

Strange, but even within that nervous scene, I understood the irony of our joint helplessness: the helplessness of both the official and the citizen. There we were, acting out a potentially tragic drama as the city passed by, ignorant of the destruction that the morning could suddenly unleash. Nothing had prepared us for how to be citizens of a bomb-prone country. The representative of the law was just as powerless as I—both of us trapped in the inefficiencies of Nigerian politics and government. Security had been politicized; terrorism had been given to bureaucracy.

On that Tuesday morning, as we all lay transfixed on the Lagos road, playing host to the bag of doom, I realized again that we, Nigerians, were already socio-political victims even before we became physical victims.

But the danger passed: from afar a well-dressed young lady came running towards us excitedly. It was her laptop bag, she said. She forgot it at the bus stop and it must have slipped to the side of the road. Now she had returned to claim it.

The spell that had immobilized our little group was broken, and the traffic official admonished the newcomer.

“We nearly arrested this man,” the official said with relief. “That was very careless of you.”

He was back on familiar territory—the omniscient government official—reigning supreme over the bumbling citizen.

I repackaged my emotional state and restarted the car; the potential for danger had passed. But it could easily have been another newsworthy event in Nigeria’s sorry tales. I drove off and joined the crowded traffic of workers on the Third Mainland Bridge, drove across the calm waters of the Lagos Lagoon, and the memory of the morning’s drama regressed as the day took over.


 

Ayo Sogunro is the author of The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales. A lawyer by profession, he also indulges in socio-legal philosophy on this blog. Interact with him on Twitter via @ayosogunro.



Get “Sorry Tales” on Amazon/Kindle:

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Or if you’re in Nigeria, on Addiba and Konga too.

 

 

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