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Another look at Lagos traffic law, one year jail term for facemask offenders 

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Babajide Sanwo-Olu

When the Lagos State Task Force on Environmental and Special Offences auctioned 44 vehicles forfeited to the Lagos State Government for various traffic offences, many felt the decision was rather draconian on the ground that it did not leave room for owners of impounded vehicles to get their cars back at a reasonable penalty. Some of the victims/offenders watched to their greatest shock as their vehicles that had been sized by the government for violating the State’s traffic laws were auctioned to businessmen and moneybags.

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The development has since generated concerns from citizens. They wondered whether the Lagos traffic laws, which was signed in 2012 by former Governor Babatunde Fashola, to contain indiscipline among drivers was not draconian by giving law enforcement agents unfettered power over road users. One of the provisions of the law also banned motorists from drinking or eating while driving or the offender risks going to jail on conviction. Ironically, there is growing agitation for the adoption of non-custodian sentences, for which Lagos is in the forefront.

While signing the law on August 2, 2012, Fashola said it was a decision to provide for road traffic administration and make provisions for road traffic and vehicle inspection in the State and other connected purposes. However, the law has been received with a mixed bag of sentiments.

In the last eight years, the State government, especially under Fashola’s immediate successor, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, could not enforce the law to its letter and spirit until recently, after the #EndSARS protests of October 2020 that the incumbent Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, insisted the administration could no longer fold its arms and watch as motorists recklessly violate traffic laws in the state.

In one of the provisions of the traffic laws, driving against traffic (one Way drive) is to attract one-year imprisonment and forfeiture of vehicles to the state, which are to be auctioned.

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Concerns have been raised in some quarters regarding transparency on the part of the relevant regulatory agencies in evenly implementing the law to all offenders. In his reaction, a former Chairman of Ikeja Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Yinka Farounbi, said it is important for the government to rather do something about deplorable state of roads, which according to him does not give room for stiff punishment against the government.

According to him, laws all over the world are meant to be enforced. “However, in making and enforcing law, the environmental practicability, influences and implications should be considered. The major traffic offence we have today, especially in Lagos is driving against traffic or passing one way. There should be no reason for that and it ought to be sanctioned, but what is the state of our roads? You can be in traffic for three hours for a journey of 20 minutes. In a situation like this, will people not cut corners?” He asked.

He also wondered if in actual fact, it is every offender that is punished. “The same law enforcement agents commit the same offence with pride and nothing happens.

I therefore advise that everything that needs to be done for ease of traffic should be done in the first instance and all violators afterwards should face the music,” he said.

Farounbi condemned auctioning of impounded vehicles in its entirety: “They should be made to pay fines and l know that whosoever pays about N20,000 will not attempt it again. A second offender should however be made to face stiffer punishment but not auctioning of the vehicle. Our law enforcers should again carry out the job professionally without any colouration whatsoever. Laws and regulations work better when citizens freely obey them. This is where enlightenment and orientation come to play.”

But looking at the issue from another angle, a human rights lawyer, Mr. Kabir Akingbolu said: “Before an impounded vehicle can be sold, there is a need for a court order. This is to ensure that the power of seizure is not abused. In this case, I think best thing government should do is to apply to the court for an order to sell impounded vehicles; if this is done, there will be transparency and proper exercise of executive powers.”

He said to do otherwise is to give government agency too much power in the performance of its duties and that would be prone to serious abuse and any abusive use of power leads to tyranny and oppression, which runs foul to our laws.

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Also speaking against the law, particularly auctioning of impounded vehicles, a legal practitioner, Yemi Omodele said: “Auctioning of vehicles that contravene law of the land is legal but the way Lagos State is handling it is an act of inhumanity to man. Are the roads in Lagos State motorable? Are the law enforcement agencies doing their duties as expected? Is it reasonable to reserve part of the road for specific vehicles? Why are some people who commit the same offence allowed to go free? Lagos State must answer those questions before it can justify its action.”

Aurguing, he insisted that the fine imposed by Lagos State on traffic offences is punitive, excessive and unjust, having regard to the income of the people.

Another lawyer, Mr. Ola Agbaje said auctioning of impounded vehicles over alleged traffic offences is not right.

According to him, you cannot impose fines that are clearly outside the income of citizens for offences such as traffic infractions. “Unfortunately, this has been the situation in Lagos. There is a need to give penalties attached to such offences human face. The same goes for the alleged penalty attached to failure to wear a mask. It is like giving death penalty to someone who attempted suicide,” he stated.

Yinka Farounbi

A Lagos-based lawyer and principal counsel, A.O Aponmade & Co. Mr. Akeem Aponmade flayed the government, saying that the law is vexatious and inappropriate. According to him, even the Yoruba ancient jurisprudence frowns at this type of disproportionate punishment. It is, he said, found in the expression: ‘why invite the Sango deity over a missing needle?’ Any law, he pointed out, that imposes a sanction that is disproportionate to the offence is repugnant to natural justice and is liable to be declared invalid and accordingly struck out upon a legal challenge.

But taking a different position, another legal practitioner, Mary Eluwa agreed that the law is harsh, but said on the other hand, if such stringent laws are not put in place some people would continue to disregard traffic rules. “I can only advise citizens of the state to do everything within their powers to avoid being caught in the web of that law by obeying the traffic laws to the letter,” she said.

Meanwhile, divergent reactions have also trailed the state’s law on use of facemasks in public as a means to prevent the spread of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic. His words: “As a matter of fact, the need to reenact the facemasks laws must have been necessitated by the rising wave of the second phase of the pandemic, which is gradually springing up not only in Lagos but also across the country. Governor Sanwo-Olu, who has just come out of isolation after contracting the coronavirus pandemic, is determined to enforce not less than one years jail term for anybody that fails to wear facemasks in public.

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Faronbi said the proposed one-year jail for failure to use facemask in public would be counterproductive. “It will mean more people in jail and there will be unnecessary overcrowding, which could cause a spike in what intended to be prevented. The contemplation of the law is therefore ill-advised and will achieve chaos, rather than solve the problems. Enlightenment and massive education about the pandemic will achieve better results than the proposed punishment.”

To Akingbolu, wearing a facemask is not a fashion or a wicked imposition but a necessity for the prevention of further spread of COVID-19.

Kabir Akingbolu

“Although, failure to wear it ought to be visited with sanction, imprisonment is too much as a punishment. As a matter of fact, imprisonment of defaulters is like killing a mosquito with a sledgehammer.

“In other words, community service, compulsory public enlightenment or education would have been sufficient as punishment for violation of such minor infractions. To worsen the situation, all the correctional facilities in Nigeria are overcrowded with inmates so much that some are housing triple their capacities. Besides, in Nigeria today, the best prisons are those with times two of their capacity.

So if you convict everybody, where will you keep them? I think the government should change its resolve in this regard.”

Agbaje on his part said he is yet to see the law on nose masks, noting that if it was true, the state government should urgently re-think and make it reasonable and not draconian, even though it is for the safety of the people.

Aponmade insists that such punishment for not wearing facemask in public is draconian. According to him, it will produce injustice. It will appear that our lawmakers in Lagos State do not have sufficient knowledge about the people they are representing, he said.

“If they did, they would have known that making such law that punishes disproportionately is just to create a source of illegal income for some unconscionable police officers and officials of Lagos State Government. The common people of Lagos State will be made to suffer in the hands of extortionists. Very few cases will ever get prosecuted,” he argued.

But explaining why government needed to act urgently and tougher on implementation of the State’s traffic laws, spokesman for the Task Force, Taofeek Adebayo, said the exercise became necessary to punish offenders, with the aim of easing traffic on Lagos roads.

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He also said the action was not punitive, as some people but corrective in nature, adding that it would serve as deterrent to law breakers.

Adebayo added that it was regrettable that since the #EndSARS protests ended, motorists have been driving recklessly against traffic, driving on BRT corridors and causing obstruction on highways, which contravenes the Lagos State Transport Sector Reform Law 2018.

He noted that the exercise would continue, as more forfeited vehicles by the court would be auctioned to the highest bidder. “Recall that one of the fundamental determinations of the Sanwo-Olu’s administration when it assumed office in 2019 was to correct all anomalies on the roads in terms of violation of traffic laws and also to checkmate excessive crime rate traceable to the use of commercial motorcycles.

Aponmade

“It is also necessary for the incumbent administration to check excesses of lawlessness in the state. The Lagos State Transport Sector Reform Law 2018 was aimed at creating sanity on the roads by raising the dignity of commuters and commercial vehicle drivers. It also includes the restructuring of motor parks across the state, in a way that discourages sale of alcohol and such other illicit substances at motor parks,” Adebayo explained.

Some salient provisions of the law include restrictions of motorcycles and tricycles. The combined reading of sections 46 of the Law and section 15 of the Regulation made pursuant to the Law prohibit the operation of motorcycles and tricycles of 200cc engine capacity on major highways within Lagos State. In other words, for a motorcycle and a tricycle to commercially operate on any major highway within Lagos state, such motorcycle or tricycle’s engine capacity must be above 200cc. The only exception from this provision is a motorcycle used for mail distribution, which is prohibited from carrying passengers. This, however, must be fitted with mail cabin on the pillion and must obtain the permission of the Lagos State Ministry of Transport prior to commencement of mail distribution.

Interestingly, the law further provides that no one should drive, ride or be carried on a motorcycle without wearing a standard protective helmet. Additionally, having more than two people on a motorcycle is prohibited; so, also is carrying a pregnant woman, a child below the age of 12 years and an adult with a baby or a heavy/large load placed on the head or which obstructs normal sitting on the motorcycle. In addition, the rider of a motorcycle must not carry any person in front of him on the motorcycle.

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Any person who fails to comply with the above provisions commits an offence and is liable upon conviction by a competent court, to imprisonment for a term of three years. However, it doesn’t end there; such a motorcycle or tricycle will also be impounded by the government. It is important to also state that where a rider of a motorcycle or a tricycle is convicted for the above offence, the passenger (except in the case of a child) will also bear the same punishment.

On control of trailers and long vehicles: Section 45 of the Law prohibits any trailer other than petrol tankers and long vehicles used in conveying passengers from entering into or travelling within the metropolis of Lagos between 6.00am and 9.00pm. The Law further provides that any driver who contravenes this provision will have his vehicle impounded and will also be liable on conviction to a fine of N50, 000 or a term of imprisonment for six months or both.

With reference to public bus services reform, the law contains provisions aimed at ensuring the efficiency of bus services in Lagos as well as rebranding the State transport system.

According to the law, bus drivers will start wearing uniforms as approved by State Government. It also contains code of conduct for bus drivers as well as passengers. Imagine a Lagos with uniformed bus drivers and outstanding manners? Although those look unrealistic, they are not impossible if government is determined to see them through.

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