Many motorists in Lagos live in dread of the Vehicle Inspection Service officers primarily because of the belief that anyone ensnared in their web will pay a huge price. That perception was recently reinforced in a case involving Oluwadamilare Afolarin and the VIS, whose agents impounded his car over a traffic offence. Curiously, the car got burnt in VIS custody. Accusations have been flying back and forth over the arson. This is needless. The Lagos State Government should open an official probe into the incident and ensure that justice is done.
The VIS, a directorate in the Ministry of Transportation, was “established to inspect, control regulate and enforce the road worthiness of motor vehicles in the state.” But many perceive it as being high-handed in its dealings with the public. Afolarin, a painter, was flagged down in Ajah, Eti-Osa LGA. His car was impounded for a cracked windscreen and other infractions. He was fined N80,000.
However, the car was taken to the VIS office in Ojodu-Berger, several kilometres away from Ajah. In the process of gathering money to pay the bill, which took a period of two weeks, Afolarin was notified by a VIS officer that his car had got burnt. He was offered N200,000 as compensation at a meeting with VIS director, Gbolahan Toriola. The meeting only compounded his problem. For three days, he was locked up at the Ogombo Police Division for allegedly rejecting the compensation, and forced to write a self-implicating statement that he was the one that burnt his own property before he was released.
The narrative raises several posers. Why did the VIS offer Afolarin compensation? The normal practice by VIS officers is to ground an impounded car on its premises. Where were the security personnel guarding the premises when the fire incident occurred? The investigation should also focus on them, and not on Afolarin alone, whom the VIS has accused of sneaking into the complex to burn down the car.
A cracked windscreen is not a criminal offence, so, why was the victim locked up? State agents, in their zeal to meet revenue targets set by government, employ unconventional tactics to intimidate citizens. Shortly after its inception, Lagos State Traffic Management Agency officials won notoriety for the way they brutalised motorists and impounded cars. The Kick Against Indiscipline officials are not better. Local government officials in mufti forcibly intercept unsuspecting motorists on the road over spurious offences. This is ridiculous.
We need to adopt global best practices in enforcement. If an investigation finds that the VIS was culpable in Afolarin’s burnt car, he should be properly compensated. If not, he should head for the court to enforce the abuse of his fundamental human rights.
In the event of an infraction in the United Kingdom, a motorist is given seven days to report to the police station with his documents, according to the Department for Transport. Although the police can issue a fixed penalty notice for minor traffic offences – like using mobile phones while driving, non-use of seat belt or driving too close to another car – they can also decide to “take no action, issue a warning or offer driver training,” says the DFT.
We stand resolutely for the enforcement of the law: it is a bulwark against unruly elements in the society. The Queensland Police Service, Australia, says: “It is extremely important that officers know their powers, as they are often called upon to make quick decisions in responding to and resolving volatile situations.” The VIS officers should adopt a related system. The focus should not primarily be on revenue generation. Their desperation to rake in revenue has subsumed their primary purpose of safety.
Despite VIS operations, transport is still riotous in Lagos. The anarchy on the road is defined by jaundiced enforcement. Private car owners, perceived to be well-off, are given the toughest treatment, but commercial bus drivers illegally ply one-way, refuse to wear seat-belt, smoke, drink, drive recklessly while their conductors hang precariously on the door. Rickety and smoking trucks without rear lights constitute a menace all over Lagos, and the officials conveniently look askance. Commercial motorcyclists ride on unauthorised routes, yet they are left to roam freely because they do not bring in the money that is extorted from private and corporate vehicle owners.
The solution is to apply the law firmly across the board. Motorists who offend should be pulled in, but not assaulted. Governor Akinwunmi Ambode has impressed it on LASTMA and other agencies to respect the rights of citizens. He should modernise their operations by deploying technology. To this end, all state agents should be equipped with body and helmet cameras to record their interactions with the public. This way, there would be no contentions. This ugly situation calls for the retraining of VIS officers for optimal performance.