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FRSC: SQUABBLING OVER NEW DRIVERS', VEHICLE LICENCES

By NBF News

Until last Wednesday, the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) under the leadership of its Corps Marshal, Mr. Osita Chidoka has been putting almost every foot right. The commission has had a high public approval rating. The consensus is that, compared to previous leaderships, the present FRSC has been discharging its statutory duties as it should be. Maybe, not anymore.

This is because one the commission's major plans to give Nigerians a brand new face of driver's licence and number plate ran into a stormy tempest in both chambers of the National Assembly. The roughest ride came in the senate where the new FRSC scheme received a hammering, and consequently, a sudden death. The result was the suspension of the new drivers' and vehicle licences.

This was sequel to a motion in the floor of the senate sponsored by Dahiru Kuta (PDP, Niger State) and supported by 19 other senators. Prior to the debate on the motion, the same matter was splitting hairs in the lower chamber, the House of Representative.

There, the Chairman of its Rules and Business, Rep. Sam Tsokwa had laid down the coffin of the new FRSC scheme when he claimed that an investigation by the House has uncovered a syndicate that specialized in making fake vehicle number plate and flooding them into the country. He did not name the syndicate nor the Modus operadi of its operation business.

However, Tsokwa claimed that checks at the Vehicle Inspection office (VIO) of FRSC showed that there was no official records of the new number plates already issued by FRSC. This suggests that the commission might be complicit in the fraud, or at best, has been deceiving the Nigerian public. That provided the ammunition for the senate to hit hard at the scheme. The lawmakers feasted on the allegation, with a fusillade of attacks on the scheme.

They described the new number plate as illegal, and the fees charged by FRSC as rather too high. There have been allegations that the commission has been collecting as much as N15,000 (fifteen thousand naira) for a new vehicle number plate and about N5000 (five thousand naira) for a new driver's licence. The senators also alleged that nothing in the 2007 Act that set up the commission gave it powers to issue vehicle number plates. They maintained that the primary duty of the commission was to ensure safety on Nigerian roads. And by extending its function beyond that statutory boundary, the commission has turned itself into an illegal revenue - generating agency.

The issue of where the revenues collected are going has been another sore point in the squabble. It was clear as the debate on the motion went on, that the new scheme might have suffered an irreversible death sentence. It did. The senate president, David Mark, announced the 'death sentence' on the new scheme when he ruled that the new driver's and number plate 'is hereby suspended and FRSC should stop its implementation immediately'. The senate president stated that the action of the FRSC amounted an imposition of additional expenditure on Nigerians.' Consequently, the senate advised the FRSC to seek better security innovation to track down criminals.

Corps Marchal of the FRSC, Mr. Osita Chidoka was shell-shocked. He denied the allegations on fees by the commission, including insinuation that the revenue collected so far from the scheme went directly to the commission's coffers. Instead, he said the revenue was in the vaults of the respective state governments where the licences were issued.

There is no doubt that the new drivers' and vehicle number plate were destined to be controversial, right from the outset, the importance of the scheme, notwithstanding. The dust it generated in the senate is not all that surprising. Some innovations are hard to accept, especially in a country like Nigeria where people are used to doing things and getting them the easy way, and sometimes through the backdoor. However, does that justify throwing away the baby with the bathwater? When the scheme was launched last year with fanfare, by President Goodluck Jonathan the FRSC stated that the idea was to conform with road management techniques necessary to restore integrity and reliability to drivers' license and number plates which have been grossly abused.

The FRSC boss also claimed that before now, license racketeers were ripping off the country of N15 bn every year, a situation he said, would stop with the introduction of the scheme by ensuring that all applicants pass through the normal procedures in the procurement of licences. Also, of serious concern is the security benefit, particularly at this time when terrorists are feasting on all conceivable lapses in the country to perpetrate crimes. That much has been in evidence in the country lately, as the radical Islamic sect, Boko Haram has been causing serious security concern.

There have been mixed reactions since the suspension order. Some agree that the fact that the scheme could help check the criminal tendencies supercede other things else. The FRSC said soon after the senate decision that it is yet to be communicated on the full implication of the suspension of the order. According to Chidoka once that was made, government would respond appropriately. He maintains that the scheme will unify existing modes of licensing and registration nationwide, reiterating a recent test - run of the new system which he claimed has enabled the commission to identify vehicles used for the bombings last year near Eagles Square in Abuja, during the Independence anniversary celebrations.

But, the real issue in the stoppage of the scheme might not have had anything to do with the benefits of the scheme. It is the cost implication and the multiplier effect on the average vehicle owner. The fees for procuring the licences considered too exorbitant. That seems to have given the FRSC a bad name as using the scheme as a an avenue to rake in money, albeit, illegally.

There is no doubt that the scheme is a noble idea. It is also not out of place to input prejudice in the decision of the lawmakers. However, shooting it down as both houses have done appears rather too hasty, perhaps, in bad faith. All things considered, despite the burden that the new scheme places on vehicle owners in the country, the question remains: wouldn't it have been better to ask the FRSC to put its house in order and thereafter proceed with the scheme?