How enforcement of Lagos traffic law, mobile court sittings smack of well-organised racket for officers
Ms Omolara Omotayo (not real name) works with a Lagos state ministry in Alausa. On February 5, she was driving to the airport road from Isolo axis with a Ford Jeep, which she had borrowed from her friend. Unknown to her, the bridge to airport road had been closed following a tanker explosion that burnt part of the bridge on January 7, 2021. National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) had stated that integrity tests would be carried out on the bridge before the route could be reopened. Unfortunately, the authorities are still carrying out their so-called integrity test, two months after, on the bridge, which leads to the busiest airport in Nigeria, while citizens bemoan their fate. Wondering how to connect to the airport road, Omotayo continued to head towards Oshodi until she got in front of the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) office, where a group of boys told her to take the bridge leading outwards fro the airport, which is a one-way. The motorist was arrested and taken to LASTMA office.
She said: “I was taken to LASTMA office, where I was told to use POS to withdraw money to give them. After prolonged and exhaustive pleadings, they agreed to take N30, 000. I was lucky to pay N30, 000 before my car was released to me because I saw others who paid as much as N120, 000. What surprised me the most was that those officers were hiding in a bus and watching people directing us to take that one-way. Obviously, they were the ones who stationed those touts there to misdirect us so they could extort us.
“Instead of them hiding with uniforms in the car, and waiting for people to fall victim, they can as well use the same uniform to direct people where to pass. They allowed Danfo to pass the bridge because they knew private car owners would follow them. My major concern is their staying in a corner and seeing touts telling people to take that route. It is definitely a set up.”
Omotayo is not alone in this ordeal. Theophilus Orumor, a lawyer said he narrowly escaped from the hands of the taskforce officials, who he said looked like hooligans on the same location. Orumor said he suspected they were out to rob him, while descending the bridge inward Oshodi. According to him, when they could not succeed in blocking his car, they attempted to remove his rear plate number.
His words: “Without prejudice, what LATSMA, the task force and their rented touts are doing on this “Akpakun” bridge is bad. They target only private vehicles and allow all yellow buses to pass through. In other cases, they also lead vehicles to take one-way on this bridge and thereafter turn against such private vehicles and arrest them.”
It is the same experience for Innocent Emeka, whose car was seized for driving past a BRT lane in a bid to enter an office in the Sabo area of Lagos. His words: “They caught me for breaching the BRT corridor, for which there is no sign post. I didn’t struggle with them. I obeyed them, believing they would show understanding but they took the car away. I tried to explain to them that it wasn’t intentional but they refused. So, I followed them to their office. The next thing, they ticketed me.
“They started nudging me to go to court. I didn’t know much about the court process. So, I made inquiries and was told to avoid the mobile court, that I should just pay the fine, which is N70, 000. A woman told me that if I go to court, I would be frustrated and at the end my car would be auctioned. Therefore, I quickly went to pay the fine and my car was released to me. I personally believe that it is abnormal to hide and wait to apprehend offenders when they could position themselves to direct people on the right route to take. You don’t set a trap, wait for your citizens to fall into it and you punish them. If you know Sabo very well, you will notice that the BRT of that corridor is not in regular use. Even if it is in regular use, you don’t just punish people like that. You have to find out if the fellow is a first offender. That is the normal thing. Instead they use their fellow citizens as their meal-tickets daily.”
Emeka lamented that people are afraid to go to court when their vehicles are impounded for fear that there will be no justice. According to him, there is no fair hearing once you get to the court and the fellow is faced with the only choice of losing his car for the state to auction. “That is why people find it difficult to go to court. Why would Lagos state government put such amount for first offenders? The money is too much. I paid N70, 000 for my car. Someone who doesn’t have such an amount will lose his car.”
These stories and more exemplify the daily experience of Lagosians as they go about their businesses. Traffic control authorities, like a lion in a lair, lurks for hapless citizens to pounce on. The level of extortion and high handedness of the Police, Lagos task force and traffic control authorities are quite discomforting. According to some lawyers, lack of decentralized mobile court and transparency in the operations of the mobile courts smacks of a well-organized racket. It is an environment, where the accusers or prosecutors never lose a case.
The Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Ikorodu Branch who is also the Chair of the Human Rights Committee of NBA Ikorodu Branch, Mrs Toun Adekoya said it is wrong to charge offenders arrested in Ikorodu in Oshodi.
“Why should suspects be treated with so much disdain? We have courts in Ikorodu that can hear these cases and we have pro bono lawyers that can provide a good defence for the suspects,” she said and urged the decentralisation of the mobile courts and for the proper treatment of suspects.
The vice chairman called on the Chief Judge of Lagos State and the AG to work out modalities with the co-operation of all the Bar Associations in Lagos to ensure that citizens are fairly treated under the law. “What justifies the existence of the Judiciary as the hope of the common man when people’s rights are being trampled upon before our very own eyes,” she asked.
Also, the Vice Chairman of NBA Epe, Funmi Adeogun disclosed that February 4, 2021 made it five years since the Lagos State Government inaugurated the Special Offences (Mobile) Court to summarily deal with growing cases of traffic and environmental abuses within the state and yet, there is none in Epe jurisdiction.
The Vice Chair who is also the Chair of the Branch’s Human Rights Committee passionately appealed to the Judiciary to establish at least two mobile courts to cover the Epe and Ibeju-Lekki axis. She further noted that arresting suspects from Epe and taking them to Oshodi to face trial is unjust. “In the same vain, it is unfair to have lawyers travel all the way from Epe to Oshodi to provide legal services to these suspects,” she added.
Adebayo Akinlade, who was a former chairman of the NBA Ikorodu wondered why a mobile court is located in one place? “Is Justice served by gathering suspects from all over Lagos and taking them to a central location to be prosecuted? What impact does this have in the spread of COVID-19? ” He asked? Akinlade stated that a lawyer who tried to represent a suspect at the mobile court was told to go and get a written approval from the Attorney General to be able to represent the defendant, and that since the court has lawyers from the Office of Public Defender (OPD), any other lawyer including the Legal Aid Council would not be granted access nor right of appearance.
He said: “I was further informed that even one of the magistrates insisted they can’t appear since they are not from the OPD. The question is: what are they all hiding? Since when does a lawyer require the approval and or consent of the Attorney General (AG) to defend a matter, when the counsel is not a foreigner nor from a foreign country? Why must the OPD lawyer be imposed on a defendant against a lawyer of his own choice in breach of the provisions of the Constitution? Is there a conspiracy to cover up something?”
Narrating his experience in defending alleged traffic offenders, Bar Bode Sola Ajijola said his client was arrested at the Iponri outlet of the Costain Bridge. “He used the Costain Bridge inward Iponri axis after the bridge had been opened and vehicles were allowed thoroughfare. This person’s car was taken to Alausa and he was told to report himself at Oshodi mobile court. This he did and innocently informed the judicial officer that he was told his offence was one-way. With that, the judicial officer drafted his charge. This person was advised by ‘counsel’ within the court’s premises to plead guilty as first offender but he refused. Even the Magistrate seemed upset that he pleaded not guilty in the first instance.”
Ajijola quoted the Magistrate as saying: “You outside counsel come and tell your client what to say but you don’t know the mind of the court and can’t dictate for it, even after you have tried to prove their innocence,” which is an indication that the Magistrate was not comfortable that lawyers outside the circle come to represent defendants.
According to the lawyer, since development at the court appeared like an intractable conundrum, his client had to plead guilty afterwards, paid the fine imposed by the court and ran as fast as he could to get his car. Ajijola explained that although there was no attempt to stop him from appearing in the matter, it was obvious that the Magistrate would have preferred familiar lawyers within the court premises.
But the coordinator of the Lagos state special offences mobile court, Mrs Arinola Ogbara denied the allegations, insisting that the mobile court sits at different locations and that lawyers are allowed to represent their clients freely in all the courts. According to her, while the mobile courts’ head office is at Bolade Oshodi, it does sit anywhere in Lagos. “We go as far as Badagry and Epe for different matters for different agencies such as LASTMA, LAMATA, FRSC, Taskforce, Nigerian Police (at different divisions) LABCA, CBD and others, at their different locations.
“The suspects/defendants in any matter have the right to engage any lawyer of their wish to defend them. It is where they do not have a lawyer of their own that a lawyer from the OPD can defend them pro bono (for free),” she maintained.
The Public Relations Officer (PRO), Lagos traffic offenders’ Task force, Taofik Adebayo said his men are not high handed in discharging their duty. According to him, it is traffic offenders who become volatile while being arrested. “Once you are apprehended for committing a traffic offence, the best thing is for you to be submissive, not that you will be using your vehicle either to hit the officers or in the process of trying to escape arrest, you end up killing innocent members of the public. This is exactly what happened about three or four weeks ago at Oshodi, when a commercial bus driver sighted our men coming behind, in the course of trying to evade arrest, he hit an innocent man who was trying to cross the road and the man died instantly. So, as much as they have committed that offence and did not kill, the best thing is to submit to the officers and be charged to court where you are asked to pay a fine,” he advised.
Explaining how they work, Adebayo said, once they apprehend any traffic offender, they hand them over to the court, adding that the matter is no longer within their jurisdiction the moment the suspects are taken to court. He explained that how the suspects are treated is left to the court to decide in accordance with Lagos State Transport Sector Reformed Law, 2018.
His words: “So, the issue of a lawyer asking them to plead guilty or not is not within the jurisdiction of the Lagos State Task Force. Once we arrest a traffic offender, we charge them to court. It is at the level of the court that a certain amount of fine is pronounced for the fellow to pay.
“And in a situation where you ply a one-way by driving against oncoming traffic, the penalty for the offence is outright forfeiture of the vehicle to the government. So, once you commit an offence and you have a lawyer who asks you to plead not-guilty, it is your wish. We are not concerned about that because it is beyond our own responsibility. Our own is to make an arrest, charge to court and then the court will take it upon themselves either to discharge and acquit you or to give you a fine.”
Adebayo revealed that the penalty for driving against traffic is outright forfeiture of vehicle to the government without an option of fine. “By virtue of that law, the offence doesn’t attract any fine other than outright forfeiture of such vehicle to the government. And the position is that after the vehicle might have been forfeited to the government, the law states further that the government should seek for a court order to auction such vehicle.
“And after the court order, the law still states that a publication will be made for interested members of the public who might be willing to buy the vehicle at an auction date. The court will list the make and registration numbers of such vehicles in the national dailies, after which the day would be made known to the offender to come around with a registered auctioneer of the state government,” he explained.
Insisting that the mobile court sits at different locations outside Oshodi, Adebayo said the court goes out with the enforcement unit of the traffic officers so as to dispense quick justice. According to him, once you pay your fine, you get your vehicle released. “If you are arrested at Epe, there will be a spot around that area where you will be tried immediately. And in a situation where you are apprehended at a very late hour, you will be asked to come to Oshodi,” he said.
Warning against giving bribes to his men, Adebayo said bad eggs within the system are being flushed out, adding that any officer caught would be dismissed and prosecuted according to the law. According to him, both the taker and giver are liable by virtue of that law.
“So we are asking members of the public to abstain from harassing or inducing traffic officers while on duty. It is not only in the task force, it happens everywhere. We regularly remind them that both the giver and the taker are liable in the law court. So they should stop inducing traffic officers while on duty. We are appealing to the public and have made so many publications with respect to this.
“In a situation whereby a driver is apprehended for plying BRT lane, such driver will look for a way to bribe his way out, but I can assure you that men of the task force would not collect such money. Some officers of our agency have been punished for engaging in such misconduct. We can’t outrightly say there are no bad eggs, of course there are and once you are caught, you will be dealt with in accordance with the law,” Adebayo told The Guardian.
The Public Relations Officer (PRO) for LASTMA, Olumide Filade. said LASTMA will not aid driving against traffic popularly known as one-way in any way. According to him, officials arrest commercial vehicles that ply one-way on the Apakun Bridge. “The allegation likely emanated from private vehicle drivers hoping to engender public sympathy. Recall the SUV driver that knocked down over the bridge, a police officer attached to LASTMA for security purposes about two weeks ago. His case is already in court and he’s been remanded in Badagry prison.
“Also recall that the General Manager of LASTMA, Olajide Oduyoye has a video trending where he warned motorists to desist from plying one-way on the bridge, while he also personally apprehended a yellow commercial bus on the bridge after that,” he told The Guardian.
On the allegation of collecting money through POS, Filade said the agency has investigated several reported cases diligently without any concrete proof of LASTMA officers owning POS, but added “we cannot disprove the possibility of collaboration with outsiders. Also note that we have some dismissed officers still impersonating. We are surreptitiously investigating, while one has been arrested, to face the full wrath of the law soon.”
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