By NBF News

Osita Chidoka
When the late President Musa Yar'Adua confirmed him as the Corps Marshal and Chief Executive of the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC, in 2007, Osita Chidoka was just 36. Although the Obosi, Anambra State-born FRSC helmsman came into office with intimidating credentials and solid work experiences in both private and public sectors of the economy, some conservative elements still cried wolf about his relatively young age as if such appointments were done by gerontocracy.

But Chidoka, who, among others, holds a master degree in Transport Policy and Logistics from the George Masons University, United States, allowed the criticisms to bounce off his back the way water rolls off the back of a duck. He paid no heed to the critics who demonstrated such brazen ignorance about the act setting up the FRSC. Rather, he quickly settled down and drew up a work agenda aimed at enhancing the operational and rescue capabilities of the commission, and generally transforming it to a process-driven, world-class organisation.

Within a very short spate of time, Chidoka, who also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, had convinced even his most virulent detractor that he meant business. He re-organised the commission's processes and sharpened its tools for better service delivery. He established call/data centres; created more accident clinics/help areas across major highways in the country, and embarked on an aggressive capacity-building programme for his staff members, both locally and abroad. These are in addition to the promotion of drivers' training initiatives through standardisation of programmes of driving schools and renewal of the Highway Code.

He didn't stop there. He developed a new database for driver's licences to conform to international standards, and upgraded all categories of licences issued by authorities across the country. The database is primarily aimed at restoring the integrity of the Nigerian driver's licence and wipe out the surfeit of counterfeits in circulation. Which was why it was not so difficult for President Goodluck Jonathan to approve another four-year term for him mid-this year.

In this interview, conducted in his Abuja residence, Chidoka, a former senior advisor, Government and Business Relations, at Mobil Producing Nigeria, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corporation, shares his dream for the safety of Nigerian road users during this year's yuletide and at all times.

Maybe we should start on the question of the proliferation of fake licences. Why is it so easy to fake the Nigerian driver's licence despite the infrastructure the FRSC put in place to capture biometrics and all that?

It was basically a process problem because once the decision was taken to decentralise the printing of the driver's licence to make it more customer-friendly, it created a problem. With a growing population, a decentralised system and a country where people easily will like to cut corners, we had a very serious problem of control, because you had 109 points where you could print the licence from and there was no immediate database to verify that the person who collected now is not the same person coming back the following day. So, what then happened was that people could get multiple licences because there was no back-up infrastructure harmonising, to actually make sure that it is not dual licences.

On top of that is the fact of the integrity of individuals. It lends itself to weaknesses because the system already allowed for a lot of discretion and once there is discretion, people can use it one way or the other. When I came on board, the first thing we did was to do a diagnostic review of the system. We also found that the problem was not peculiar to Nigeria. The United States had the same problem. Many other countries had the same problem, and what they did was to move away from the decentralised printing to centralised printing and what is called the gated issuance. That means that anybody that wants to get any form of identity must pass through a gate and that gate means that your information must be verified against the database before you can proceed to print.

For the US, the major reason they went into that was 9/11. All the terrorists that boarded the planes used driver's licence as their form of identity and those driver's licence were issued by one state, the state of Virginia, because different states have different rules on how to issue driver's licence. And it was quite easy in Virginia. So, they all went and got driver's licence in Virginia and used it to board those planes on 9/11. Because the states produced driver's licence, the Federal Government had to come up with a new act called the Real ID Act that requires that states must go through certain processes and must conform with federal regulations before they can issue driver's licence. And if that driver's licence is not issued in conformity with those federal rules, such licence will not be accepted for any form of federal activity, including banking, boarding an aircraft, and entering federal buildings. Of course, all the states in the US complied after some resistance.

You want to tell us some of these abuses?
The abuse is that you can get multiple licences. And what I am trying to do is to explain the structural problem. If you solve the structural problem, the individual problem will go. It is a basic faulty structure that brought the weaknesses that pervaded the system and made it possible for the FRSC staff, the VIO in the state, and the board of internal revenue to cave to pressure because there is always pressure from Nigerians.

A big man wants a licence, he doesn't want to come to the centre, so they will take his passport photograph, scan it and they will get him a licence. But with the new system, that is not possible. That is why the president had to come to the FRSC to do his licensing. Ordinarily, it would have been taken to the Villa but we couldn't because the network that is supporting the driver's licence is a private network, a VPN. And any licence that doesn't come from the VPN will not enter into our database. So, if we had gone to the Villa and tried to use their Internet network to upload it, it would not go.

What are the distinguishing features of the new driver's licence?

The basic difference is that first of all, it's an on-line, real time biometric data capturing process. Once your 10 fingerprints are captured, it is transferred immediately to the central server to run a biometric check. That is why we give you a temporary licence. For now, it's almost like two hours to verify because there are not many people in the system. It is just piling up. By the time you get to one million or two million and above, you may have to verify all through the night, which is why we give 30 days or 60 days difference.

Then, the card itself is one of the highest grades quality cards we have in the world. It's not just a PVC card. All the security features are engraved in the card. They are pre-printed. We just print on top of it. It also has a strong verification database. At the end of the process, banks, embassies etc. can, within the confines of their offices, go into our system and verify your licence. So, when you give your driver's licence to banks, they are required to go into our system, verify it and print out the verification result to put in your file. That is what we have agreed with the Central Bank. So, very soon, all the driver's licences that are to be used for bank accounts have to be re-verified by bringing in the new driver's licences, because that will show who are the real owners of the account.

So, in all fronts, the new driver's licence offers security, offers standard, offers the basic reason for driver's licence, which is competency certificate for driving. It now requires that the VIO must test, and it's only after testing that you can go for data capture. If you are a fresh applicant, you are required to go to driving school, and only the FRSC-approved driving school would be allowed to sponsor you to the VIO for testing. So it's a holistic review of the driver's licence.

In fact, the first word I used when I became the Corps Marshal was to restore the integrity of the Nigerian driver's licence and that restoration has begun to take effect. I think it started from Italy, and Austria has written us a letter, thanking us for this new licence and waiting for the cut-off date because the old Nigerian licence had been a menace to them. They have been arresting Nigerians with all forms of licences. So, they are seriously looking forward to this. We have sent it (the new licence) to all the embassies to say this is the new driver's licence for Nigeria. They are very happy about it. In fact, the US government expressed its support for this by giving us a $300, 000 grant. This is partly because we are using a US technology and partly because they are interested in identity issues.

You said earlier that this process is taking off with Lagos and two other states. What are the issues you are having with them?

There is no major issue. In Lagos, they want 20 sites for the driver's licence because we can't do it from one site. We started with one site per state. We have agreed to do three per state but we started with one. As we speak, there are 50 sites that are up and running, and we have now done five in Lagos. We agreed to start on October 1 with some of the other technical issues being ironed out.

There was a time the Lagos State government said they could issue their own driver's licence and FRSC could issue their own. How were you able to resolve that?

It was resolved because we did sign an MoU with Lagos State in which they agreed to work with the FRSC. Since then, we have been working together. They realised that in a federation, it's about cooperation. You can imagine the confusion if every state should start issuing its own licence. So, reason prevailed at the end of the day.

When you were speaking on the new licence, you said those seeking the new licence have to go through driving school. What about those who already have theirs? Do they have to go through this?

For renewal, they don't have to go through that. There is something interesting that we have done. Before now, when you are arrested for traffic offence, you go to the bank, pay and you come back to register your teller in a register. This was done in every command and they would keep it there. But when I came in, we took those registers and put them in a database.

Now, we have two million people in that database who have committed various offences. What is happening now is that we are merging the records. We are sifting out those who committed certain offences above a certain threshold of points, and we are going to ask the VIO to pay more attention to them. When such people come for renewal, we are going to either make sure they do physical driving test or/and other tests, especially if they are serial offenders.

Other tests like what, like psychiatric test?
No, I mean like giving them written test and then taking them out for a driving test to ensure that they know the highway codes.

At the time you took office, in 2007, you would have listed certain goals that you would like to achieve. Could you tell us the goals?

One, to restore the integrity of the driver's licence; to turn FRSC into a world-class organisation, and to reduce road fatalities by 50 percent in line with the Accra Declaration by 2015. Those are my three major goals. On the first goal, the driver's licence, we have started.

We have gotten to the final point. And for the plate numbers, we are going to have credible database of drivers and vehicles in the next one year. On turning FRSC into a world-class organisation, we did it on three basic planks: people, processes and technology. In the process area, we have adopted the ISO quality management system and we have done our quality manuals. We have documented all our processes and we are now at the verge of final audit to get the ISO90001 certification.

What is the implication of that?
The implication of that is that we are now a process-driven organisation, subject to a third-party audit. The Standards Organisation of Nigeria will periodically audit FRSC to see whether we have internal rules and whether we keep to those rules. So, if we arrest traffic offenders, this is the process he has to go through. Somebody will have to verify that FRSC actually does that. If we say that this is the process we use in doing media report, like now all our communication is done in Comics sans (font or typeface), there is standardisation. There are formats for everything. Every department has a manual now. This is what we do and this is how we do it. And every year, we audit to see if you are doing it.

Again, because we are now following that process, we needed to have technology to back it up. So, we invested massively in our technology platforms. We have connected all our commands by VSAT. We have put computers in all the commands and moved all our activities. There is about 60 percent reduction in our paper usage in FRSC. We have moved all our activities from paper to online reporting systems. Now, I have weekly dashboard that tells me how many crashes occur in Nigeria, from which command, how many offenders, what offences were committed. Every Tuesday, we review this dashboard; we see where the crashes are happening and we try to control those areas. We try to put more men on those commands. So, we have invested in technology.

How about your human resource, your human capital?
Yes, we have also invested in the people. We are now a performance-driven organisation. Consequently, all promotion backlogs, since I came in, have been cleared. All issues of staff welfare have been looked into. We have acquired more houses for staff residency. We turned our cooperative into a micro-finance bank, the Safeline Micro-finance Bank, one of the best-capitalised micro-finance banks in Abuja. It's up and running.

We also have done a housing estate on owner-occupier basis. We did one for junior staff in Masaka. We got them national housing loan to pay for it and, then, deduct from their salaries. The estate was named after Professor Wole Soyinka, and it has been commissioned. Then, we have 345 houses for senior staff in Lokogoma Housing Estate financed by UBA in FCT here. We are hoping that they will be commissioned by then end of this year or early next year.

More importantly, we have put in place a performance-driven organisation. Now, we have ranking of departments and zonal offices. In 2009, the best department was our operations department. As a reward, the head of that department went to Harvard for training. We also gave stipends to all the people in that department. The best zonal commander also went to Harvard for the same training. In 2010, the departments that came first, second and third, the same thing happened. We just came out from the ranking session in Lagos. We were in Golden Tulip Hotel.

We did a ranking of the sector commanders, three of those that scored 'A' are going for the Association of Police Chiefs conference in the US. Those that scored 'C' are going to be dropped as sector commanders. They will not hold command position again until they make amends. So, it is going to be fiercely competitive for people to make sure that whatever result we are set for, we achieve it. That doesn't remove me from the equation, because what happens at the end of the ranking, the total score of the people that directly report to me is calculated and the average score becomes my own score.

You have not talked about what I think should be your most important objective-reduction of road accidents.

Yes, my third objective is reduction of road crashes. In 2008, we had an increase of deaths. I took over in 2007, by 2008 the number went up partly because we had a better reporting system and also maybe the crashes just went up. In 2009, we brought it down by about 14 percent. In 2010, it reduced by about 35 percent. The effect of all these efforts started to bear fruits. In 2011, we set our target to reduce it by 50 percent to beat the 2010 record.

Road traffic crashes reduced but deaths went up by almost 23 percent and we figured out that it happened basically during the election period when there were a lot of movements, convoys, buses, and multiple crashes. Our enforcement also reduced at that time because we didn't want to get involved in political issues. We didn't want parties to say it's PDP sending them after us. So, we kind of mellowed down on our enforcement and we saw an immediate rise in deaths. We have been trying to recover from that since the middle of the year. But as at last week, I still saw that we are not doing well in death reduction although road crashes are consistently going down.

Now that we are in 'ember months', months prone to accidents…

Between now and December, we have mapped out about nine corridors where, if we can get reductions in them, it will bring us back to zero level even if we don't surpass last year's record. That will mean there will be consistent operation in those areas because once we go out for operation, speed reduces, crashes go down. So, we have seen a link between our active presence on the roads and reduction in the crashes.

I may be wrong, but fatalities are usually high during the so-called 'ember months'. Commercial drivers are simply uncontrollable during this period. How do you ensure that there is no carnage on the roads?

Because of the emphasis we placed on the 'ember months', the period is no longer the high point in road crashes. It has turned out to become between May and June when the rains are coming.

Why? What's the correlation?
Tyres are weak, roads are slippery, wipers are not working, and visibility is poor. People buy the wrong tyres in Nigeria, so there is a lot of skidding off the roads. There are lots of buses careening off the road. So many people are losing control while trying to avoid bad portions of the roads, facing on-coming traffic in the process. But we are watching now. But coming back to the issue of speed, part of what will help us solve it is this database on drivers and vehicles because to enforce speed, you need radar and speed cameras. They will only pick the numbers of the vehicles and the speed at which they are moving. So, you need to be able to trace the vehicles later.

If we start running after vehicles to stop them, we will be creating more road crashes. So, we can't run after them. One of our ways of increasing enforcement is this database.

What is your organisation doing about trailers, rickety vehicles and such contraptions like molues and danfos plying our roads and which drivers brazenly violate traffic regulations?

That again is another weakness in the Nigerian system. We have the Vehicle Inspection Officers in the states who issue roadworthiness certificates. So, if you meet all those vehicles you are talking about, they have road vehicles certificates, validly issued by somebody! Commercial vehicles are supposed to get it every six months. And once you stop them, they brandish it.

That job is supposed to be done by the Vehicle Inspection Officers. So, what we have done is how to get the VIOs to improve their own capacity, because it is actually a case of lack of capacity. Some states don't even have enough VIOs. Some are old men that have been working there since 20 or 30 years. I have written all the state governments, advising them to employ new hands and to also bring private sector people to serve at MOT centres. We have designed a modern MOT centre. After we have finished with this driver's licence, and reduced our focus on it, we will come back to the issue.