By Olusegun Adeniyi
Only someone devoid of humanity wouldn’t have been moved by the heartbreaking story of the 49-year-old widow, Dorothy Dike and her son, Osinachi Ndukwe. Last week, they wept profusely as their vehicle (and the family’s only means of livelihood) was publicly auctioned. The Lagos State Taskforce auctioned 134 confiscated vehicles at the event and defended their action by stating that 80 per cent of pedestrians knocked down by hit and run drivers on Lagos roads, especially in the morning hours, were victims of motorists who drove against traffic. According to the Chairman of the Task Force, Shola Jejeloye, “Some of the supposed victims who pleaded for their vehicles to be auctioned to them were serial and notorious one-way defaulters. One of them was the man who came with his mother (widow) to reclaim his vehicle. He was arrested sometime in May for driving against traffic all the way from Oshodi to Mile 2 and even assaulted the officers trying to arrest him by biting off the officer’s finger. He was charged accordingly, and he spent three months in Badagry Correctional Facility and his vehicle impounded.” Jejeloye also listed cases of people who had been killed due to the recklessness of one-way drivers.
Notwithstanding the explanation, public opinion is swayed against the Lagos State government on this issue. Last Saturday, the governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the 2023 general election, Olajide Adediran (popularly called Jandor), visited the family and gifted them an undisclosed amount of money as a relief gesture. Although Jandor can be accused of political opportunism, especially in this season, I am delighted that the poor widow received the assistance. Jandor also spoke well at the occasion by stating that he does not condone traffic offences. What he opposes are impunities: “A situation whereby markets were announced closed just because one individual or two committed a sin” and laws that take away peoples means of livelihood simply on account of traffic infractions.
For me, the real issue is not that the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) is enforcing their law, however draconian it may seem. But rather that such an exercise is selective in Nigeria. I have seen the photograph of the confiscated vehicles put up for sale by the Task Force and can hazard a profile of those who own them. While I will never use Whataboutism to excuse infringement of the law or query the Lagos authority for doing their job, it is also a notorious fact that we have managed to create two jurisprudences in our country: one for the rich and connected and the other, for the poor. If you belong to the latter category, no matter how minor your infractions, you will be punished severely. On the other hand, the rich and the powerful who have the means to secure the services of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) are most likely to get away with any crime, however heinous. No society advances with such dichotomy in the application of the law.
I dealt with this issue seven years ago in a two-part series titled, ‘Crimes and Punishment in Nigeria’. For the benefit of readers, I have merged the two pieces and abridged the text to illustrate the class character of the administration of justice in Nigeria. I commend it to readers before I conclude with a few words.
Because I would be driving to the airport by morning and I was not sure the fuel in my car would take me there, I decided to patronise the black market. I drove to the road linking Asokoro to Garki by Area 11 where many young “fuel merchants” were waiting. After much haggling, I eventually struck a bargain with three boys who agreed to accept N5,000 for a jerry can of 30 litres. That would translate into around N167 per litre (as against the official N87 per litre at the time) but a fair deal in the circumstance.
To avoid policemen who were trailing them, the boys begged me to drive into a poorly lit corner of the road. Although a bit apprehensive, I nonetheless felt that the boys were mere hustlers and not necessarily criminals out to harm me, so I obliged their request. When they eventually appeared with their jerry cans of fuel, there was a sense of unease about them that worried me. “Why are you looking scared?” I asked. One of them responded: “The police people are always after us and they have arrested many of our people.” As they were speaking, a pick-up van drove in almost from nowhere as seven gun-wielding policemen jumped out of the vehicle to engage the boys in what became a hot pursuit in different directions. Inside the police vehicle, I saw no fewer than 30 jerry cans of different sizes, filled with petrol which I presumed were seized from ‘similar operations’.
I pondered on what I just witnessed. Assuming what the boys were doing was criminal, how many of such people have been arraigned in court in Nigeria? Since many of them are arrested every day, it means that their cases usually end up in police stations where they either pay to regain freedom or are dumped there to swell the list of detained people. A corollary to that is the issue of the “exhibit”. What happens to the fuel usually seized from those boys? Do the police have the right to deploy “proceeds of crime” for their own use, if we assume that selling fuel at the black market is a crime in Nigeria?
That now brings me to the most important issue. As I watched the drama and waited, I expected to be accosted by the policemen. If by selling fuel at black market the boys were committing a crime, the implication would be that the person also buying such product should be deemed to be committing a crime also. But the policemen didn’t bother about me as they entered their vehicle to wait. After a while when it occurred to me that they would not leave, I had to drive off.
Now, as I reflect on that incident and the enthusiasm with which the policemen pursued those boys, I cannot but wonder about how we have come to a situation in which the laws (including the ones that may not be in any statutes book) are made only for the poor. The message from the episode was simple: While those boys were pursued like common felons, I (as the big man in the scenario) was left alone because I was deemed to be above the law, even if the crime was an invented one. That unfortunately depicts the story of Nigeria. And the problem goes even beyond the police to the courts.
Indeed, nothing demonstrates this as graphically as two contrasting verdicts delivered within an interval of five days in January 2013—one in Abeokuta, Ogun State and the other in Abuja. In Abeokuta, a magistrate court sentenced a 49-year-old man by name Mustapha Adesina to two years in prison for stealing vegetables valued at N5,000. But five days later in Abuja, a former director of the Police Pension Board, Mr. John Yusuf, who admitted to stealing N2 billion in the N32.8 billion police pension scam, was sentenced to two-year imprisonment with an option of N750,000 fine. From media reports, the man practically dipped his hands into his babanriga, paid his fine and was driven home in a SUV, perhaps with some drummers in tow!
Meanwhile, a Kado Grade 1 Area Court, Abuja, last week sentenced a 27-year-old man, Sunday Vincent, to three weeks imprisonment for “wandering” around the streets of Abuja without any satisfactory explanation. The prosecutor, Zeerah Doglass, had told the court that the convict was arrested by a police patrol team and that the offence is punishable under Section 198 of the Penal Code. In sentencing Vincent, the judge, Alhaji Abubakar Sadiq, gave him an option to pay a fine of N3,000 which the accused didn’t have.
A concerned citizen who posted the story on a listserv to which I belong sought our intervention and a member immediately detailed a lawyer from her firm to follow. This was the feedback from the lawyer as reported back to us: “I visited the Area Court in Kado where I confirmed that Sunday Vincent was convicted for the offence of wandering, and he is at the moment serving his 21-day term in Keffi prison. I further learnt that the Presiding Magistrate is ill and that we will need him to sign a ‘Release Order’ which would be taken to Keffi Prison after the payment of the N3,000 fine. Furthermore, according to the court officials, if I pay the fine, we might be unable to get the Magistrate (due to his ill health) to sign the Release Order until the convict serves out his term. The fine would have been paid yesterday, but the revenue officer whose schedule is to receive such payments and issue receipts wasn’t on seat.”
Let us begin from the police officers who arrested the man for wandering and had to detain him for a week, apparently because he (Vincent) could not “bail” himself out. Then you have the “diligent” prosecutor for whom the less said the better. And now to the judge who could apply neither discretion nor compassion. And finally, we have the court revenue collector whose dereliction of duty ensures that Vincent cannot get justice even if he meets the condition for freedom. There is a way in which the actions of all the dramatis personae in the fate that befalls the “wandering” Vincent tell a tragic but compelling story of justice administration in our country.
Two years ago, a Port Harcourt Magistrate Court sentenced a 40-year-old man, James Okosun, to six months imprisonment without any option of fine for stealing a Nokia phone handset valued at N2,500. The judge also ordered that the convict be made to serve with hard labour and given 10 strokes of cane by the prosecuting police officer, Sergeant Ikosi Omanoje, before being whisked to prison. In contrast, Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos, last month sentenced five Filipinos and four Bangladesh nationals to five years imprisonment each, after convicting them for stealing 3,423,097 metric tons of Nigerian crude oil. I enjoin readers to do the financial arithmetic of that heist before reading the judgement that follows.
“The case of the prosecution is as clear as the daylight,” Justice Buba held, before he added: “It is people like the convicts that have made Nigeria a laughingstock in the eyes of the world. The court must send a strong signal that Nigeria is a nation, not a nation of booty. It is not right for either Nigerians or foreign nationals to deny this country its God-given natural resources through illegal use.” At the end, the “strong signal” for the accused nine foreigners involved in such a large-scale organized crime still carried an option of fine: N20 million!
ENDNOTE: As I stated at the beginning of this intervention, I do not blame the Lagos State Government for attempting to restore a measure of order on roads within the city. But I hoped to make the point that too often punishment does not correlate with crime in Nigeria so we can draw a few lessons from the experience of the widow and her son. I am sure that is what drives public outrage on the issue.
One, to the extent that equality before the law is fundamental to building a just, inclusive and egalitarian society, enforcement is good only to the extent that it is blind to the status of the individuals involved. It is also a prerequisite for peace and stability.
Two, since deterrence rests on the principle that criminal penalties do not just punish violators, but also discourage others from committing similar offenses, our society will be better if examples are also made of the Nigerian ‘Big Men’ who have scant regard for the law.
Three, laws must not become a not-so-subtle revenue generating gambit in which touts are deployed to the roads as government enforcers, as we see in Lagos and many other states across Nigeria.
Four, those who interpret laws that deal with what ordinarily are minor infractions should be compassionate and responsible. Five, in a milieu where driving against traffic and bullying innocent road users have become a status symbol for political leaders, most of whom exhibit no discipline when it comes to public conduct, how can anybody respect those who enforce traffic rules selectively?
On the whole, in circumstances in which laws that guide the conduct of all citizens should apply only to the poor of our society, it is difficult for the government to earn the trust of the people. And without that trust, we cannot build a new Nigeria.
A Majestic Exit
I arrived the United States in the early hours of Monday to participate in the Nigerian International Economic Partnership Forum (jointly organized by the federal government and the African Business Roundtable) holding today. Despite the exhaustion of a long flight, I stayed awake throughout the burial ceremony of the late Queen Elizabeth II, beamed live on television networks. It was worth the trouble. While no one should discount the facts of history on our continent, especially regarding slavery, colonialism and the role that may have been played by the British monarchy, I confess to being an admirer of the late Queen. Simply on account of her personal discipline, strength of character and fidelity to duty.
To be sure, Queen Elizabeth II was a ceremonial player in the leadership structure of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth which she headed. Yet for several decades, she remained one of the most powerful people in the world and an unparalleled icon of tradition and culture. And she understood the power of symbolism. In 1986, (36 years ago) in Sydney, Australia, at a ceremony to celebrate the restoration of ‘Queen Victoria Building’ named after her great-great grandmother, she wrote a sealed letter with an instruction and gave it to the Mayor of the city: “On a suitable day to be selected by you in the year 2085 AD, would you please open this envelope and convey to the citizens of Sydney my message to them.”
That letter remains sealed in a vault for the next 63 years. And with her death, the daily diary she kept throughout her reign would also not be opened for another 100 years! I don’t know a better way to preserve a legacy across different generations.
Since her passage two weeks ago, I have read numerous obituary tributes, but none captured her essence better than the one by Sarah Lyall in New York Times: “Queen Elizabeth II was an analog celebrity in a digital age, perhaps the most famous, and famously inscrutable, woman in a world more inclined toward oversharing reality TV stars and internet influencers. Discreet, reserved, impassive of expression and reticent of manner, she embodied traditional British values and was as remarkable for the things she did not do — in service of her sense of duty and self-discipline — as for the things she did. Even before she became queen at the impossibly young age of 25 — the newly elevated King Charles III her son, is 73 — Elizabeth set the tone for her reign by declaring, in effect, that the job was bigger than the person. Most Britons — indeed, most people — have never lived in a world without Elizabeth. There are many who questioned or reviled the institution but still admired the queen. She was a comforting figure, somehow both cozily maternal and majestically remote.”
On Tuesday, reports of her burial were the lead story in all the American national newspapers with several pages devoted to coverage and photographs. The New York Times headline says it all: “With sadness and uncertainty, Britons close an Elizabethan age”. To the Washington Post, she was a “seemingly timeless queen” while USA Today remembered her as “A woman who made history. A woman who—in dying at age 96 after 70 years on the throne—was history.”
Even though available reports indicate that Queen Elizabeth II played a role in planning her own burial, I doubt she envisaged it would be as grand. When you think of the genuine outpouring of grief not only in the United Kingdom but across the world, the sacrifices made by thousands of people from diverse backgrounds—David Beckham waited 13 hours in the queue at Westminster Hall—just to pass before her (closed) coffin as a mark of respect, and the number of leaders who congregated in London for the ceremonies on Monday, one can only conclude that the world may never witness a royal like Queen Elizabeth II again.
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