New driver’s licence: Reprieve for vehicle owners

Osita Chidoka

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Osita Chidoka

The Federal Road Safety Commission suspends the enforcement of the enhanced motor vehicle number plate and driver’s license scheme sequel to two separate court judgments which ruled that the scheme was illegal.

By Chris Ajaero

There was a reprieve for vehicle owners in Nigeria who have been struggling to beat the June 30, 2014 deadline earlier given by the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) for a change to the enhanced motor vehicle number plate and driver’s license as the corps has suspended the enforcement of the new scheme.

The suspension of the enforcement of the new scheme was sequel to two separate court judgments in Lagos and Abuja which ruled that the scheme was illegal. A statement by Jonas Agwu, the Commission’s Commander, Corps Public Education, explained that the suspension of enforcement on the scheme was in line with decisions taken by the Joint Tax Board at its 129th meeting held on April 23 and 24, 2014, at the Headquarters of Edo State Internal Revenue Service in Benin City. “In the light of the court judgement against the FRSC, the board decided to suspend the June 30, 2014 deadline earlier announced for a change to enhanced Motor Vehicle Number Plate and the Driver’s License pending the outcome of the appeal by the FRSC,” Agwu stated.

The Corps, however, directed its commanding officers nationwide to commence robust nationwide public awareness on the new initiative for motor vehicle administration in the country, emphasising on the benefits of the new scheme and the need for buy-in from all Nigerians. It also enjoined the Board of Internal Revenue Service in the states, the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) and the Vehicle Inspection Offices (VIOs) to put all necessary logistics in place to improve Motor Vehicle registration and issuance of driver’s license in order to build a comprehensive database.

The twist in   enforcement of the new number plates, being foisted on Nigerian vehicle owners by the FRSC emerged on Wednesday, March 26, 2014 when a Federal High Court in Lagos presided over by Justice James Tsoho   declared unconstitutional the redesigning of the existing number plates as it was not backed by law.  Justice Tsoho averred that the commission had no power to impose the redesigned number plates on vehicle owners.   He held that it would be illegal and unconstitutional for the FRSC to impound vehicles without the redesigned number plates because such an action would amount to an arbitrary exercise of power.

The judgement was given in a suit filed against the FRSC by Mr. Emmanuel Ofoegbu, a lawyer. The plaintiff had contended in his suit that there was no law validly made in accordance with the Constitution prohibiting the use of the number plates the FRSC wanted to replace.

In a similar judgement, a Federal High Court in Abuja presided over by Justice Ademola Adeniyi recently declared as unconstitutional the threat by the commission to start arresting car owners who had not obtained the new driver’s licence even when their present licence are still valid. The court further held that the commission had no power to invalidate a driver’s or vehicle’s licence before the expiring date and therefore declared that the pronouncement by the commission to do so as ultra vires, null and void. The court gave a mandatory order stopping the commission from putting to effect its threat to start arresting car owners until the expiration of the extant licences. The court also said the commission lacked the power to amend the existing law of the National Assembly or promulgate another one and described the action of the FRSC officials as executive recklessness.

The judgment of the court was sequel to a suit filed by John Musa, an Abuja-based lawyer, challenging the threats by the commission to forcibly make every car owner to obtain a new driver’s and vehicle licence even when the present one was still valid. The plaintiff had joined the commission and Osita Chidoka, the Corps Marshal and Chief Executive, as first and second defendants respectively.

Some of the argument being touted   by the FRSC as the reasons for redesigning  the  number  plates and introducing new driver’s licence are that it  will make it possible to track down road traffic offenders as well as help security agencies in crime preventions.  According to Chidoka, the scheme would present data that “can be shared with other security agencies for crime prevention and promotion of national security.”  However, since the new scheme was introduced the FRSC has been fighting a running battle with the Nigerian public due to the manner the commission whimsically reduced the validity period of drivers’ licences and decreed that the number plates of vehicles be replaced at prohibitive costs.

The grouse of the vehicle owners is that even the process of obtaining the new driver’s licence is shoddy and FRSC officials cash in on this to extort bribes from many hapless applicants. The FRSC officials claim that the licence should not cost more than N6,350 made up of application charges, transaction charges and service charges. But many applicants end up parting with between N15, 000 to N20, 000 in the process of procuring the licence. After the first stage of processing the licence, the applicant will wait for about six months before going for capturing. When he is through with capturing, there will be another period of waiting for about five months before the licence will be printed for the applicant to collect. From all indications, the FRSC does not have the capacity to handle the new Unified Driver’s Licensing Scheme (UDLS) in a manner that will enable applicants obtain the licence without much pains and endless waiting. All these factors have made many Nigerians to perceive both the enhanced motor vehicle number plate and driver’s license as avenues for extorting money from drivers and vehicle owners.

FRSC initially fixed September 30, 2013 as deadline for owners of different categories of vehicles to acquire the new number plates.   Widespread criticism and indignation forced it to shift the date to June 30, 2014 after which vehicles without the new number plates are to be hounded off the road.  However, the recent court judgements compelled the commission to suspend the enforcement of the new scheme pending the outcome of its appeal.

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