Inside LASTMA where trial is formality, guilt certain

Anyone with a basic knowledge of the justice system knows that if one is arrested by a security official, you are considered innocent until proven guilty by a competent court.

But for many officials of the Lagos State Transport Management Agency (LASTMA) and their small claims court magistrates, going to trial is a mere formality as the offender would for certain earn a guilty verdict, no matter how absurd the traffic offence charges are.

Ethan Ikechukwu (not real name), a 39-year-old freelance journalist, learnt this the hard way.

It all started on an afternoon on a street at Egbeda, where he had gone to interview a source for a new report he was writing. Because it was his first time in the area, he was relying on directions from his Google Map app.

As he drove out of the street facing a busy road, known as Bakery Road, he observed that the culvert in the middle of the road was broken to about 20 feet and there were tire marks. Following the arrow on his map, he drove through the culvert to join the road on the other side.

He did not notice a white Toyota Hilux with three LASTMA officials trailing him immediately he joined the road. They cornered him as he stopped to buy corn from a roadside vendor.

Ikechukwu said the officials claimed he had taken a one-way, one of the most grievous traffic offences in the Lagos State traffic rule book.

“Before I knew what happened, one of them had jumped into my car and drove off, while I was left to beg the official driving the Hilux. Eventually, they drove me to their office at Pen Cinema, Agege,” he said.

From traffic transformers to revenue hunters

Established on July 15, 2000 by the Bola Ahmed Tinubu administration, LASTMA has the mandate to transform the Lagos State transportation system to ensure the free flow of traffic in the state and reduce road accidents.

Despite its mega city posturing, Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre has largely depended on an informal mass transportation system dominated mostly by privately owned commercial minibuses, popularly called ‘danfos’, prefabricated coaster buses, taxis of various shapes, tricycles, and motorbikes, also known as okada. In recent times Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) has become a constant feature on Lagos roads and even has a special path dedicated to them.

GlobeScan and MRC McLean, in their latest global research on 25 megacities, including Lagos, found that while transportation exceeds all other urban infrastructure concerns, the level of transport infrastructure in the state remains at levels originally meant to cater to a population of no more than 8 million people 25 years ago. Recent estimates put the population of Lagos at 15.4 million people. Lagos has a bus public transport network density of about 0.4km/1000 population, which the report considers lower than African standards.

It is this informal transport system that LASTMA is supposed to transform. Kayode Ojewale, a LASTMA spokesperson, wrote in a recent article commemorating the agency’s 22 years of existence that there are three Es that guide the operations of the personnel.

These include Traffic Engineering, Traffic Enlightenment and Education, and Traffic Enforcement. Engineering describes how the roads are created and designed, requiring a platform or avenue for traffic flow. Enlightenment refers to the provision of education on the rules that govern how these roads are used.

While the three Es provide a modicum of inspiration, the biggest motivation for many LASTMA officials is revenue, according to several Lagosians that have fallen victims to traffic offences at different times.

LASTMA is an essential contributor to the Lagos State government’s internally generated revenue (IGR). The agency receives a target revenue it is required to generate from the state government. In 2016 and 2017, the revenue target of LASTMA stood at N1.05 billion and N1.3 billion respectively.

The target was reviewed downwards in 2018 and 2019 to N600 million yearly. It was raised to N1.5 billion in 2020. The state government had claimed it increased the revenue target because LASTMA needed more personnel and more equipment.

“The Budget and Economic Planning Ministry now challenged them that if they want the government to give them the things they need, they should be able to perform better in their revenue drive,” Gbenga Akosile, chief press secretary to the governor of Lagos, had said.

The target for traffic offences in 2022 is set at N3.03 billion, according to a first-quarter budget performance review seen by BusinessDay.

Getting arrested by LASTMA

It takes very little effort to be arrested by a LASTMA official. John Omatseye, a 36-year-old driver, said he was arrested by a LASTMA official because he was causing traffic obstruction. The car he was driving had suddenly developed a fault and would not move again in the middle of the road, causing some traffic gridlock.

He had alighted to call for help to push it to the side of the road when this LASTMA official appeared. Although the official helped to drag the car to the side of the road, when Omatseye finally got the car started, the official jumped in and was sitting on the passenger side and directing him to the station. He was being arrested for “obstruction”.

Nosa Godwin, a 42-year-old clergyman, said he was arrested for wrongful overtaking. He was driving his ailing sister to the hospital for a postnatal checkup at the Lagos State Teaching Hospital, when at Agege Bridge a trailer driving beside his car swerved sharply towards his car. In an attempt to avoid a collision, he pressed down on his accelerator and overtook the trailer. Shortly after, LASTMA officials from Zone 6 cornered his car.

“At the LASTMA station, I knelt down in my condition and in tears begging the zonal head to allow my brother take me to the hospital because I was scheduled for a fibroid operation that morning; the woman official said I should instead hail an Uber, that I wasn’t the only one with a health condition,” Godwin’s sister narrated. She was later rushed to the hospital in an Uber when she started palpitating.

Akingbola Oyeleye, a 62-year-old pensioner, said he was dodging a BRT vehicle from hitting his car, hence he had to speed up and overtake the BRT. He was arrested for wrongful overtaking.

“I asked the officials if I should have allowed the BRT to crush me,” Oyeleye said.

Wilson Onurue, a 35-year-old Uber driver, said he was arrested for “wilful obstruction.” He had just crossed a traffic light, only for LASTMA officials to block him. Onurue said the entire episode left him bemused.

“I couldn’t understand how I caused ‘wilful obstruction’; behind me were vehicles moving freely, and I never packed or stopped my car as soon as the light turned green. I had my seat belt on and everything was in order,” Onurue said.

When they threatened to tow his vehicle, he insisted on driving it to their station.

Read also: Stemming the tide of incessant attacks on LASTMA personnel

LASTMA mobile court

For an alleged traffic offender to qualify to face the court, he or she must be served a ticket or referral. Once a ticket or referral is issued to the alleged offender, it is almost impossible to overturn the fine.

“To do that, you have to have the number of the governor. It is only him that tells LASTMA to let you go,” said a LASTMA official who pleaded anonymity.

When a LASTMA official arrests a driver, the first thing he is expected to do is collect evidence, usually a video recording of the offending car in the action.

“We will not show you the evidence; it is only in court that we will show the magistrate,” Onifade Ademola, a LASTMA official, told Ikechukwu.

A mobile court refers to a formal court that conducts proceedings at locations other than their home offices. This explains why the traffic mobile court is held at LASTMA headquarters along Oshodi Expressway. It only sits twice in a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Usually, offenders are given appointments to appear before the court as early as 10am, but proceedings hardly commences until 3:30pm.

Ethan Ikechukwu did not know there was going to be a long delay on the Tuesday he was asked to appear in court. He left his home at 7am and got to the LASTMA office at Oshodi at 9:30am.

“The court did not seat until 3:30pm,” he said.

Inside the court

According to a magistrate who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Lagos State magistrates don’t have particular courts where they conduct proceedings. They have to be assigned to different magistrate courts across the state.

“So cases pertaining to LASTMA may often be scheduled for the afternoon after the magistrate has attended to other matters in the morning,” he said.

For some unknown reason, this is never communicated to those appearing in the mobile court.

According to Kingsley Ubong, a trader who was arrested on a two count charge of obstructing traffic and resisting arrest, the officials in the legal department will only tell you the magistrate is not around.

“At 3pm, they finally came to tell us that they had to plead with a magistrate to come and handle the cases; hence there will be no time for those who came with lawyers to present their cases. We were secured to plead guilty, so the magistrate can give us expedited convictions, otherwise a ‘Not Guilty’ plea will attract case adjournment,” Ubong said. He would face a N70,000 fine if he pleads guilty.

A standard adjournment takes about one to two weeks. However, some magistrates, according to some officials, can push for three weeks to one month adjournment. The challenge with that is the longer an accused person’s vehicle stays within LASTMA compound, the higher the amount of demurrage. The demurrage starts to count from the first day the vehicle is moved into the compound and each day is N1,000. Hence, accused persons facing these realities often believe they have little choice but to plead guilty.

The court session

A court session takes seven cases at once. Before the session begins, the court clerk will ask the accused persons about their English proficiency and read out the allegations from a charge sheet. When he is done reading, the accused is asked to enter a plea.

“You can never escape the fine,” said a legal officer in the Lagos State Ministry of Justice.

The Lagos State Ministry of Justice often carries out a review of the performance of the magistrate, and one of the criteria for salary review and promotion is how many cases a magistrate is able to give a verdict and those with records of low fines are frowned upon, BusinessDay learnt.

“They can delay your promotion for not fining offenders enough money,” the legal officer said.

Ikechukwu’s sentence for one-way offence was forfeiture of vehicle. However, he has the option to convert the sentence into a payment of N200,000.

For accused persons who don’t want the drama and delays that come with going to court and still end up paying the same fine, there are two options. The first option is to offer to “settle” the officials before they take the vehicle into their compound. The second is a request to pay the fine and waive your right to court. The requirement for this often includes a written letter to waive the right to court.

“The zonal head of the LASTMA office told me that it is always best to ask questions when driving on the Mainland and not rely totally on Google Map for directions,” Ikechukwu said.

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