Opinion (30/11/2020): If You Can’t Do The Time – By Wale Bakare

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The story goes that a thief was being chased down the street after stealing a transistor radio in Oyingbo market. The crowd was in hot pursuit and cries of “Ole! Ole! Thief!” filled the air. Suddenly, a tyre rim whistled past his ear, narrowly missing his head by inches. He stopped dead in his tracks. He looked at the rim and he looked at the radio in his hands. He then turned towards the crowd incredulously, as he placed the radio on the ground: “Kini a gbe, kini e ju (what did I steal, what are you throwing)? Just because of this small transistor radio, you people are throwing tyre rims at me. What if it had been a television? You would have thrown a car, abi? You should be ashamed of yourselves, wicked people”
The above anecdote captures the outcry that followed the Lagos State Government’s auctioning of the forfeited vehicles of some offenders who broke the State Traffic laws on driving against the flow of traffic, or as is more commonly known, ‘driving one way’. The consensus is that the punishment was excessive. The fact though is that they are just like the thief in the story above who could only see the magnitude of his offence from the narrow perspective of ‘a small transistor radio’. He could not see the bigger picture. He was unable to understand that by stealing the radio, he was depriving the whole of that section of the market access to information and entertainment. He could not see that lack of access to information could result in life-threatening situations for the market people, and even their customers. Depriving them of the opportunity to listen to the soothing music of Ayinla Omowura could heighten stress levels with its attendant consequences. All he cared about was the N500 he was going to get from selling the radio. Very much like our political leaders who steal the commonwealth without a thought for the dire consequences to the entire Local Government, State, or Country.
Those condemning the action of the government for carrying out the sanctions according to the law do not understand (or they deliberately ignore) the full implications of the possible consequences of the offence. This brings to mind the loss of a wonderful aburo in 1995. Bayo was a perfect gentleman. Gentle, polite, and hardworking, he was the first son of his widowed mother and a beacon of hope for his siblings. He had recently graduated from the University of Lagos with a degree in Mathematics, a subject he taught in one of the secondary schools around Akoka. As he walked home from work that fateful late afternoon, he was probably contemplating the lesson he was going to take during Bible study that evening as he was also a devout Christian. Whatever he might have had on his mind, he never knew what hit him. He never heard the ‘danfo’ bearing down the wrong side of the road until it hit him from behind. The impact killed him almost immediately. The driver, a drugged-out juvenile, attempted to escape but he was caught and almost lynched.
I can understand the offenders and uninformed commentators looking at the sanction only from the point of view of the offenders. After all, nobody ever thinks that they are going to kill somebody just because they drove on the wrong side of the road or ran traffic lights to save time. What is the worst that could happen? Well, maybe they will cause the traffic situation to worsen a little, but that is the problem of those coming behind, isn’t it? It is almost impossible to think that your one singular wrong decision could lead to a gridlock that could paralyze the entire State for hours. We never think of the long game when we do these things. The person that adulterates drugs or fakes electric cables does not think of the lives that could be lost through his actions. He is only trying to make money. He never planned to kill anyone. The fact that the victim of his drug-adulterating business could be his relative or that it could be his brother’s house that gets set on fire through his fake electrical wire is blocked out of his consciousness. The political leader who embezzles money meant for roads does not think he will suffer the consequences of the bad road. He has his big Jeep and lives on ‘the Island’. The day his son goes to ‘the Mainland’ for a party and runs into a pothole that causes an accident which leads to his death, the man starts lamenting that the enemies have done their worst.
Apparently, some of the offenders had tried to get their vehicles back by bidding for them when they were being auctioned but were unsuccessful. I read the lamentations of one offender that every time he put up a bid, someone outbid him by N100,000.00. His car was eventually sold off for N1.2m to a stranger. This action by the State government led to quite strident cries on social media with most people condemning the government and prescribing what, in their opinions, would have been more appropriate punishment. While most of the commentators had never seen the traffic law and could not be bothered to read it, some felt the punishment was imposed on the whims of the Magistrate. No, it was not. The law has been in existence since 2018: driving against traffic in Lagos attracts forfeiture of your vehicle. Check Part (III) item 27 of the ‘Lagos State Transport Sector Reform Law of 2018.´
As usual, those who will always believe it can’t happen in ‘the abroad’ have showed up to ask if this was the way things are done in ‘saner climes’ and wondered if this was ‘global best practice’! They are not concerned that it is not ‘global best practice’ to drive against the flow of traffic. The unfortunate soul that killed Bayo, plunging his family into mourning and depriving the nation of his brilliance did not care about ‘global best practice’. When it comes to government applying sanctions prescribed in the law, we begin playing to the gallery and appealing to sentiments. Talking about ‘global best practice’, in England, your car can get impounded for a traffic offence and in their own case, they will not auction it off. They would instead put it in a crusher and turn it to scrap metal. You are welcome to sit and watch but remember to bring your own popcorn. And by the way, when China executes people for corruption, is that ‘global best practice’? When Malaysia hangs people for smuggling drugs into their country, is that ‘global best practice’? In Saudi Arabia, when they whip people for drinking alcohol or cut off a man’s hand for stealing, is that ‘global best practice’? What is global in all these is that these are the laws of the land and offenders know what to expect when they commit the offence. Like the saying goes, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”!
We need to go beyond our narrow understanding of what the rule of law means. As Nigerians, we ought to understand that the societies we admire and so desperately want Nigeria to be like were not made by leaders alone. The citizens had a big part to play in shaping those countries. Our leaders emerge from amongst us, the people. Why do we expect that politicians who are products of lawbreaking environments, steeped in disobedience of the law, should suddenly become law-abiding just because we have made them Lawmakers? It does not work that way. It has been said that one of the fundamental differences between the way we do things and the way things are done in most other countries is that when a law is passed in these other places, the citizens look at the law or rule and try to understand how it affects them and what changes they will need to make to ensure they comply and not run afoul of the law. The average Lagosian looks at the same law, studies it to understand how best to amend his ways so he can break the law without getting caught. He then calculates what percentage of the fine he will need to part with in ‘settlement’ if he is unlucky enough to get caught. It never crosses his mind that he could ever have to face the full consequences of his actions. That is not an option his brain has the capability to process. It is not unusual to hear ‘responsible’ members of the society saying the reason why someone is facing the consequences of his actions is because “he didn’t settle”. That is why the forfeiture of the vehicles is raising so much dust. Things are never expected to get to that stage. When they do, you then hear: “Kini a gbe, kini e ju”!

– Bakare is a public commentator and analyst

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