Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Law and Order Public Notice Lagos State (A response to its criticism)

The recent Law and Order notice from the Lagos State Government has become the kind of discourse that the Nigerian chattering classes love. A seeming intellectual attempt to selflessly protect the ‘common man’ from a rampant state whose unbridled exercise of power threatens to destroy democracy as we know it and return us to the Militaristic dark ages. Never mind that all these comments only thinly disguises their own interest in the impunity that masquerades as driving on the roads of Lagos. How else would anyone in their right minds hold brief for such egregious and dangerous acts like driving against the flow of traffic? Recently a friend of mine driving along Obalende landed herself in the trap that the status quo currently lays for the law abiding. Two Okadas vying for primacy driving against a one way system collided spilling one of them into the path of her oncoming car. The inevitable consequence was a fatal accident in which one of the riders died. She has not only spent far in excess of the N250,000 that is the penalty of the offence that the Okada riders committed. In fact she has spent double aside from having to sleep in a police cell and still going through a court case in spite of being entirely faultless in the case.

Our elite and their chattering, nattering , negativity are the bane of responsible governance. The target in this case the Fashola government which came to power with a clear agenda and mantra of “Eko O ni baje” and pursues it with the vigour we have all desired and dreamed. They won the election on this mandate and have through the peoples representatives in the House of assembly prioritised rescuing the public spaces from all the uncontrolled excesses of the past which has made the city of Lagos and its surburbs into a far more dangerous sight that it is in reality. I often joke that in Lagos you either do business or become the business and for many years we Nigerians have reduced the City and by implication the state to a byword for chaos. This government in line with its goals and priorities has decided to reclaim the public space from shameless acts that threaten life and limb on a daily basis and not a day too soon.

The most quoted critic of the new Law is the Assizes law firm’s long and legalistic argument . It is at the very least a great positioning or excellent PR tactic for the firm however through their widely circulated article by design or otherwise they are doing a public service. A discussion of the merits of a law is an end in itself but it is a shame this was not done when it was still a bill in the Lagos State house of Assembly. Nevertheless we are where we find ourselves with debating after the fact. This is itself a very good reason for active citizenry and proper accountability of constituency representatives during their tenure not after the four year term . The Law firm through Chinua Asuzu’s much publicised article must congratulate itself on incredible publicity it is getting. Unfortunately the dubious populism that it uses does not mask the failure to truly consider the issues that the Notice seeks to address. The article reeks of myopic self interest without any comment or concern about the many thousands that die on our roads everyday.

The first problem is that the writer admits that he has neither seen or read the legislation he is challenging. The risks of distorting the facts through the lens of his own perception was not caution enough more disturbingly he refuses to address the public policy imperative that makes such a law desirous. I actually think the failure to enact such a law is a severe dereliction on the part of any government that is worth that name. The FRSC recently released the figure of 60,000 for Okada related deaths and serious injuries which in my opinion is a gross undercount. One of the greatest causes of death in the African continent and Nigeria specifically is road accident. It takes the numbers of people off the streets in line with a low intensity war. I could set out the toll on my family and others of untimely deaths on our roads. Many promising and talented people lost to excesses and self indulgent drivers with no recourse. It surprises me, in fact I am totally flabbergasted that the Government is being criticised in this area where it should have given number one priority, the protection of life and safety of its citizens.

It would seem the Assizes firm is more concerned about the people who are made responsible under the Order and the level of penalty imposed. About this people the writer makes the point about vicarious liability claiming an unfairness or injustice for the Employer who would be liable for the misdeeds of his or her driver. This argument is not only disingenuous but it suggests that the writer is motivated by other subjective interest rather than serious public concern. In fact Vicarious liability is a staple of strict liability traffic offences across many jurisdictions. The principle that acts committed during the legitimate discharge of employment that would invariably benefit the employer should be also be the liability of this benefactor. Most drivers exercise haste and recklessness to deliver their employers in a timely manner through the crazy Lagos hold ups. It cannot be effective to punish the driver whilst the employer who benefits goes off free. In public policy terms the intention is to make these acts so prohibitive that not only is the driver deterred , no one (not even Oga) contemplates them. Also those that commit the offences are isolated and lose the outlets and comfort that their networks especially employers can give them. It should be the employers obligation to recruit those with the knowledge , skills and attitude necessary to be good drivers on the roads. Quite simply they are responsible and accountable for those they unleash on other road users.

It is the same principle that applies to the passengers. They are active participants in the actions of the driver. Their passivity is no excuse, most passengers are active by either raising objection or egging on the drivers intransigence. Unlike the obvious case of the employer their role as benefactor is probably case specific however the Nigerian public space is so fraught with permissiveness and impunity that the initial interventions will have to be a bit oppressive to disrupt the culture that has evolved. The law makes sure all the direct contacts and beneficiaries of the drivers actions are themselves at risk leaving no outlet for anyone to accommodate or encourage such behaviour. The benefit of such an approach and the level of punishment are quite perceptive of how deeply ingrained the malaise is on our roads. I would rather lives are saved than protect people from the economic pain and inconvenience of paying large fines when they do what is obviously destructive. I would go as far as to treat such cars going against traffic with the legal assumption that it is prima facie evidence of intention to kill others. It is quite similar to someone packing a gun along to an argument or fight the likelihood of use makes it beyond recklessness. There should be a presumption of intent. Tough and aggressive?This is exactly what is needed.

The writer makes a key point abut the lack of officially sanctioned driving tests and I think this is a critical area for government to set standards and ensure only mentally, physically fit people with acceptable competencies drive on the road. I believe that plans are afoot for this incredibly important issue. The same applies to traffic signs which there is already the first step of new street signs implemented. In the meantime we need to avert the everyday carnage that occurs because the worst excesses of road users are not curtailed. Instead of using this Public notice as a basis for hyperventilating the Assizes firm and similar newspaper pundits should spearhead education about the dangers of certain behaviours in the public space. We are all partners and benefactors in a better public space. Now that would be newsworthy. The elite truly involved in transformative activities that matters rather than being armchair criticism. That will be without doubt a turn for the books worth

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