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 and is fairly consistent in all societies. Regulatory laws, on the other hand, are rules of social conduct, and would usually differ, in their content and proportion, across societies. 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, supposedly, is to encourage 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 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.
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.
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.