By Chuks Ehirim
This week, between today, Monday, and Wednesday precisely, Nigerians may witness yet another rowdy sessions at both chambers of the National Assembly. Except wise counsel prevails, there may be another round of combustive public hearing on the controversial issue of the design , production and marketing of Vehicle Plate Numbers, by the Federal Road Safety Commission [FRSC], in the country.
A few weeks back, both Chambers in the Federal legislature, had kicked off this brewing controversy, when they barred the leadership of the FRSC from further production of the said vehicle number plates.
Harping on cheap sentiment and populist appeal, the law makers said their action was informed by the economic hardship the new price regime of the vehicle number plates had imposed on the ordinary Nigerian. I n fairness to them, the price had actually had a quantum leap, from something less than N10,000, to as much as N45,000 for some category of vehicles in some states of the Federation.
The decision by the law makers to stop further production, and the media blitz that followed it, had delighted, not a few Nigerians. Long before the action of the legislature, there had been an orchestrated media attacks on the leadership of the FRSC, either by editorial commentaries or opinion articles. In some of these media works, the Nigerian reading public was deliberately misinformed about the statutory roles of the Commission.
While some had, ignorantly, argued that it is not the function of the FRSC to go into the business of producing Vehicle number plates, others postulated that by so doing, the commission had snatched the revenue yielding ventures of some other government agencies. Yet others, in an effort to maximize mischief making, claimed that the commission had abandoned its primary assignment of keeping accidents off our roads, to becoming a revenue generating organization.
It will therefore, not be an over statement to posit here that some of these misinformed opinions canvassed in the media recently, may have been the tonic needed by the National Assembly members to bring down the sledge hammer on the FRSC,-a decision some have equally argued, is both illegal and irrational.
To put this claim to test, it may be necessary to take a look at the Act that spells out the duties or functions of the commission, a law made by the same National Assembly. That piece of legislation, made in 2007, is known as Federal Road Safety Commission [Establishment ] ACT, 2007.
Part 11, Section 10 of it talks about the Establishment, Functions and Rank of Members of Road Safety Corps. Part 3[d]of this Section says that the commission has the responsibility for:”designing and producing the driver’s licence to be used by various categories of vehicle operators”.
The next, part 3[e], emphatically says that the FRSC is also charged with the responsibility for “determining, from time to time, the requirements to be satisfied by an applicant for a driver’s licence”.
[f] also says that the commission equally has the responsibility for “DESIGNING AND PRODUCING VEHICLE NUMBER PLATES”.
There are other responsibilities the ACT conferred on the FRSC, about 22 of them in all, including [o],which has to do with, “making regulations in pursuance of any of the functions assigned to the corps by or under this ACT”
The essence of reproducing these various provisions of the ACT that established the Corps, becomes necessary, at least, to clear the lingering doubt in some quarters , as to who has the powers to what. What this means is that the Federal Road Safety Commission is the only body legally authorized to design and produce vehicle number plates in Nigeria. And this did not start today.
It was gathered that even before it came into being as a properly constituted government agency and before the current technological advancement that the World, including Nigeria, has witnessed, Vehicle number plates were produced through the issuance of numbers to individuals who went to sign writers nearest to them to get such allocated numbers embossed on plates.
In the past, there was no uniformity. Neither could anybody trace any other person possessing any vehicle number plates. The danger then was that it was possible for two or more persons to be driving vehicles bearing the same number plates.
The next argument happens to be the cost of these Vehicle number plates produced by the Road Safety. In a motion he moved on Wednesday, February 29, 2012, titled “Hardship Occasioned by the New Number Plates and Driver’s Licence Scheme of the Federal Road Safety Commission, Senator Dahiru Awaisu [Niger-East], posited, among other things, that “Senate observes also that the new driver’s licence which the commission launched in 2011,is now issued for six thousand Naira, from the former three thousand Naira while the new number plates has suddenly jumped from its original five thousand Naira, to an astronomical fifteen thousand Naira, with those of trucks and other categories of vehicles put at between twenty and forty thousand Naira, and that the commission will ultimately be generating a whooping two billion Naira annually, as its own share of the new scheme”.
The Senator alleged also, that the Senate was worried that “the exorbitant cost of the driver’s licences and vehicle number plates, have incurred outrage and rejection by the majority of Nigerians because they are financially impoverished and therefore find the amount exploitative, prohibitive and insensitive, for a population that is already facing the challenges of hash economic condition”.
He added also that the Senate, ”worried also that the August 31, 2012 dateline issued by the commission, for the enforcement of the new scheme, is not feasible because the current demand for vehicle licence, surpasses supply and there subjecting applicants to wait for as long as three months after payment, before receiving number plates”.
As a result of these point s he raised, Senator Awaisu urged his fellow senators to ”condemn”, what he called the “price regime of the new scheme of drivers’ licence and Vehicle number plates , by the Federal Road Safety Commission [FRSC] in 2011”.
He also urged his colleague s to prevail on the commission, ”to suspend forthwith the implementation of the new drivers’ licence and vehicle number plates”.
It was thus this motion that spurred the Senators into taking the decision that has so far stalled the production of the new vehicle number plates. In as much as one agrees with the fact that the Senators have the constitutional protection to engage in this type of oversight function, Nigerians who have knowledge of what is going on, have not failed to blame them for acting in manner that appear to be based on falsehood.
The basic argument of some of those who volunteered to speak on this issue of price regime, is that the Senators shot wide off mark and had succeeded to misinform Nigerians. According to a top civil servant in Abuja who spoke with this reporter on the burning issue, the FRSC in not the institution to blame for the hardship visited on Nigerians as a result of the hike in the price of the vehicle number plates.
The man who gave his name as Emmanuel Edirin, pointed out that the commission , in agreement with the decision of the Joint Tax Board[JTB], issues out the number plats at N15,000, to those states that apply for them. In turn ,the states, through their boards of internal revenue, fix the prices at which the number plates could be obtained .He said that rather than make a scape goat of the management of FRSC, the law makers ought to hold the states responsible for the hike in price.
Speaking on the same issue in a radio programme last Friday in Abuja,Paul Momoh, a legal practitioner, said the research he carried out on the matter, showed that it is the state governments who actions cause the price hike. He stated that his findings were that FRSC supplies the vehicle number plates to the states at the officially approved price of N15,000 but the states push up the price to as much as N45,000.
Momoh also slammed the law makers for ordering the stoppage of production of the number plates, adding that the decision was not taken in public interest. He however blamed the commission, for not making information available to the general public, on the processes that are undertaken before the product gets to the end user.
The Chief Executive of the FRSC, or the Corps Marshall, as he is usually addressed, Chief Osita Chidoka, was not available for comments last Friday when this reporter called at his office and staffers of the commission, hiding under the civil service rule, refused to talk. However, a few days back, Chido who was on an interview programme on a television station[ CHANNELS], had blamed the activities of touts in some states for the hike in the price of vehicle number plates.
As both the Senate and House of Representative committees in this regard commence their public hearing on this matter this week, not a few Nigerians hope that the real issues will be addressed rather than what usually appear as muscle-flexing on the part of the legislatures. It is expected that they will also tell the Nigerian public the truth about the constitutional rights of the FRSC, with regards to its functions and duties instead making the public go with the wrong impression that the commission engages in the usurpation of duties of other institutions of government, as some media commentaries had tried to paint it in recent times. The law makers will also be doing those who sent them to the National Assembly some good, if they could probe why in some states, the statutory body, such as the Board of Internal Revenue, which function it to organize the sale of vehicle number plates or driver’s licence , are not allowed to do so.
By Chuks Ehirim