By TESSY IGOMU
“We can’t continue like this in this country. How can I pay as much as N27, 000 for a new plate number? This new one is no different from the old one? This is painful,” were the exasperated outcry of Samuel Ojo, a civil servant, after going through the hurdle of changing his number plate to the newly enhanced one.
He is not alone in this predicament; his outcry is widespread. Presently, many Nigerians are yet to understand the rationale behind the gradual phasing out of the old number plates and the introduction of new ones by the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC). They are also apprehensive of what motorists would undergo in the hands of security officials when the deadline expires.
The anger and criticism are directed at both the introduction of the new number plates and prices. Many have described the initiative as undemocratic and the cost of replacement, as an exploitative move aimed at enriching few individuals.
Though motorists have lamented not being able to acquire the documents based on the unavailability claim by those in charge, the issuing authorities – the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) and the Vehicle Inspection Office (VIO) insist on the deadline for all motorists to acquire valid particulars.
Part of the defences put up by the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) for the enhanced number plates was that the spate of insecurity in the country was becoming worrisome and that the old one was being faked. One way of tackling the problem, the commission emphasized, was through the initiative, saying it would help to provide necessary information for security agencies to track criminals and improve safety of road users across the country. The agency also reiterated the ability of the initiative to help in tracking traffic offenders.
But this has been faulted by critics who maintained that Nigeria lacks the structure to implement it, noting that there are no demographic records or centralized data system in place to make the venture effective. They have also argued that Nigeria has changed vehicle numbers system three times without any adjustment to the state structure and without any meaningful impact on the welfare or security situation in Nigeria.
“There are no accurate data that captures true identity of Nigerians; what they do, gender and where they live,” opined Uzochi Osondu, a lawyer and social critic.
Tope Alabi, a lawyer with a Lagos-based legal firm, who sued the FRSC over the new driver’s licence and number plates, maintained that FRSC’s claim of the old number plates being faked is baseless. He noted that recently, some fraudsters were caught with a large number of the fake new number plates and driver’s licence.
From time, vehicles are registered with their allotted number plates. And when such vehicles are later sold, they still retain the same number and all the new owner need do is to effect a change of ownership. But with this new initiative which is a departure from the norm, the newly introduced plate number is personalized and allotted to an individual and not to a vehicle. Hence, before selling an old car, the owner must first remove the personalized plate number, while the new owner applies for and attaches his own. With the initiative, the person in whose name the plate is registered can be traced and is culpable when the vehicle is used to perpetrate any crime.
Presently, many vehicles are already spotting the newly enhanced number plates which obvious features are the Nigerian map, centrally placed and green boarder on the lower part.
Complaining about the difficulty they experience getting the new number plates, most motorists have accused licensing officials of deliberately inflating the official cost, and at the same time frustrating those who insist on paying official rates.
According to Osita Okwudili, a businessman who has been trying for weeks to revalidate his vehicle particulars, despite getting to the VIO office early on several days, he is yet to obtain the documents.
“Each time I get here, I am told that they have not been provided with documents. This is all because I don’t want to go through a middleman but through the normal process by paying the official rate. This is an issue that should be of concern to not just vehicle owners but all Nigerians. This is a country where anything goes. Our federal lawmakers that initially kicked against it are all silent now. We have all been left to our fate,” he lamented.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Vehicle Inspection Officer (VIO), attributed the delay often experienced in acquiring the number plates to intermittent breakdown of FRSC plants which provide the data-capture facility for biometrics of applicants.
This, he said, is why the Directorate of Road Traffic Services and the Motor Licensing office are unable to meet the ever-increasing requests for the number plates and national driver’s licence.
Initially, following the criticism that trailed the creation of the enhanced vehicle number plates in 2011, the Senate ordered the FRSC to stop the issuance of new vehicle number plates as well as the new driver’s licence.
The order followed the adoption of a motion on the new number plates and driver’s licence sponsored by Senator Dahiru Kuta of Niger State and 19 others.
The senators had described the initiative as illegal, noting that the commission was not established principally as a revenue generating agency for the states or the Federal Government. According to Senator Kuta, the new driver’s licence, launched in 2011, “is now issued for N6, 000 as against the N3, 000 while the new number plates have suddenly jumped from N5, 000 to an astronomical N15, 000.”
Adding his voice to the argument, Senator Smart Adeyemi from Kogi State, said the cost of the new number plates is too exorbitant for motorists and is illegal.
“FRSC has abandoned its mandate,” said the Senator. “It was established to ensure safety on highways, but what the FRSC is trying to do now is to render other government agencies redundant.”
And, adding his voice, the Senate President, Senator David Mark asserted: “Let them not impose additional expenditure on the people and their primary objective was not to generate revenue.”
Following the resolve, FRSC ordered the stoppage on the issuance of the new number plates. Later, it was resolved in another motion that the Committee on Road Safety should carry out an investigation into the introduction of the new number plates. The essence of the investigative hearing was to avail Nigerians and stakeholders the opportunity to air their views on the new number plates and for the FRSC to explain its importance and timing.
According to reports from the presentations by some of the stakeholders at the public hearing, most people were in agreement with the FRSC on the new number plates, based on the perceived benefits inherent for individuals and the country as a whole.
The Director General of the Federal Inland Revenue Service, who is also Chairman, Joint Tax Board, Mrs. Josephine Omogui-Ifueko, noted that the scheme will among other things, reduce the problem of racketeering and loss of revenue as well as enhance revenue accruable to state governments.
Following the public hearing, the Joint Tax Board (JTB), whose duty it is to fix the prices for the number plates and driver’s licence, said it had carried out a downward review of the prices and has pegged the official rate for the new Standard Motor Vehicle number plate at N15,000, while replacement attracts N10,000. The new driver’s licence is to be obtained for N6, 000 while that of motorcycle operators is N3, 000. Articulated vehicles are expected to pay N20, 000, Out of Series, N40, 000, Fancy plates, N15, 000 and Dealer for N30, 000.
But reverse is the order of the day at the issuing centres as people are forced to cough out almost twice the official price.
But according to Osita Chidioka, Corps Marshal of FRSC, why the registration can cost as much as N25, 000 or more is because registering a car includes other costs, not just for number plates. He explained that people just hold on to what they heard about number plates costing N10,000 or N15,000, but they forget that registering a car requires one having a road worthiness certificate, licensing fees and all other necessary documents.
“So if you put all that together, it takes you to about N25, 000 or N30, 000 in some states to register it or less depending on the state you registered it. So there should be a distinction between the cost of a plate number and the cost of registering a car: These are two distinct things.”
Speaking on the challenges encountered by applicants trying to acquire the new number plates, the Public Education Officer of the FRSC, Mr. Jonas Agwu, disclosed that contrary to speculations about hitches arising from their end, the three plants established for the production of number plates in Abuja, Awka and Lagos are functioning well without any problem. He however, admitted that there were initial technical challenges.
He said the agency is aware of complaints made in respect to issuance, adding that those that relates to technical challenges, among others, have already been addressed.
He reiterated that FRSC, as the agency that designed the enhanced number plates and new driver’s licence, was not responsible for the challenges, but had been trying to ensure motorists get the worth of their money. Agwu also assured of the FRSC commitment to ensure that the processes are fast tracked.
“We try to ensure that the driver’s licence applicant is not delayed unnecessarily by ensuring that an applicant doesn’t go through rigours before getting his licence. We are working with various state governments who are partners and stakeholders,” he said.
Defending the enhanced vehicle plate numbers, Osita Chidoka, Corps Marshal of the FRSC, explained that both the number plates and drivers’ licence have additional security features that will help in checking the spate of road accidents and deaths caused by untrained drivers. He said that about 5,000 deaths are recorded on a daily basis and that the facilities available at the commission, including central database, are obsolete, cumbersome, fraught with irregularities, chaotic and portend risks to national security. He also explained that there was no formal standard for production of number plates in the past.
His words: “The commission had produced 231,876 new number plates as at 1 March, 2011, and so far discovered that 47 per cent of drivers’ licences renewed were fake. Also, 154 individuals attempted but failed to obtain licences with multiple identities. We accredited 214 driving schools nationwide and commenced medical certification of commercial drivers.”
He further explained that the new number plates and drivers’ licence scheme was introduced to harmonise, standardise and unify all existing modes of licensing of drivers and vehicles so as to evolve a better road culture and efficient data management.
He stressed that with the new driver’s licence and plate numbers, there is now “one driver, one record.” This, he said, would aid the agency to track and match records of a driver with his driver’s licence, vehicle number plate, insurance and traffic offences in a single view. He emphasized that this can be shared with other security agencies for crime prevention and the promotion of national security.”
He noted that there was no database of issued licences across the country, adding that there was no existence of a comprehensive database, which makes crimes committed with vehicles difficult to track.
Chidioka noted that between 2011, when the scheme commenced, till date, there is now a structured vehicle data base arising from the new number plate and a biometric-based driver’s licence.
“As at today, due to the features introduced in the upgraded licensing scheme, Nigeria secured reciprocity with six European countries and the State of Maryland in the USA whereby holders of the new Nigeria driver’s licence can replace same with the drivers’ licences of these six European countries and the State of Maryland.”
Due to the outcry over the procurement of relevant documents by motorists, the Federal Road Safety Commission has extended the deadline for the enforcement of new driver’s licence and number plates to the middle of next year.
But despite this latest development, Nigerians are of the opinion that the prices should be reviewed, even as many insist that motorists should be made to pay little or nothing for the enhanced plate numbers.