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Anger as LASTMA officials clamp down on motorists with trumped-up charges



LASTMA ENTRANCE

DAYO OYEWO, who visited the headquarters of LASTMA in Oshodi, Lagos, writes about the plight of motorists, who are arrested on trumped-up charges by officials of the agency

A distraught-looking Moses Salami was seen limping and pacing along the corridor of the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority around 2:55pm under the scorching sun on Friday, September 2, 2022.

The 72-year-old commercial bus driver needed someone who would either help him add N3,500 to the N11,500 with him so he could retrieve his bus or assist in talking to one of the LASTMA officials who had arrested him, impounded his vehicle and asked him to pay a sum of N15,000.

Having watched him roam helplessly while his bus conductor trailed after him for close to thirty minutes, our correspondent decided to approach him. Salami, who saw this as an opportunity he had been waiting for, did not waste time as he started narrating his ordeals.

Moses, who plies Idumota to Oshodi, said the officials stopped him and claimed to have snapped him at Ojuelegba bus stop for violating traffic rules. Although shocked by the allegation, Salami said he demanded for the picture but his request was rebuffed.

“I was coming from Ikorodu and when I got to Anthony, this man called Yemi stopped me and put the iron across the road. I asked what my offence was but he did not answer me. He just said I should come down. That was when the other officer called Fashola dragged me out of the bus. I know them. Look at me, I am an old man and I have been on this road for 22 years. I cannot tell a lie. So, I came down, and then Yemi asked them to tow my vehicle to Oshodi. That was when he said they snapped my picture when I stopped at Ojuelegba, which was untrue.

“Before God and man, I loaded at Idumota and my first stop was Onipanu. Whenever we load at Idumota, we tell Ojuelegba, barracks and Agip passengers not to board the bus. So, Fadeyi had always been our first bus stop, even on the said day, I did not stop at Fadeyi but at Onipanu. And after Onipanu, I stopped at Palmgrove, then Anthony, where they arrested me. And when I asked them to show me the picture, they did not show me.’’

When asked if he was booked for an offence, Moses said he was not booked, adding that proof of his offence was also not shown to him. He said, They did not give me any ticket. They just asked me to go and bring N15,000 and I only had N11,500 with me. What they are doing is illegal work I know them very well. Yemi, who they call Yemiton has one star and one eagle. If you can assist me, I will appreciate it. If I don’t bring my bus out today, the next opportunity will be on Monday. I don’t know what to do and my wife is in the village asking me to send money to her.’’

Much as our correspondent did not want to disclose his identity, all efforts to intervene on the driver’s behalf proved abortive. One of the officers who arrested him was also seen to have changed from his uniform to a mufti and perhaps was ready to go home but had to wait for Moses to pay the money. “How far, you don bring am?” he asked Moses, who led our correspondent discreetly to where his bus was parked since people were not allowed to go into the yard where the impounded vehicles were parked.

While looking around to help Moses, our correspondent stumbled on Godfrey, another bus driver who was arrested for the same offence. The fair-looking middle-aged man was similarly pleading with the officer who arrested him. When asked what led to his arrest, Godfrey, who plies Yaba to Oshodi and was arrested at Anthony bus stop, said he was told that he committed a traffic offence a few days back, with a picture of his bus taken in the process.

Godfrey said, “I asked them what my offence was, but they did not tell me. One of them later said I committed a traffic offence some days ago and they took a picture of my bus. When I asked them to show me the picture, they started to scroll through their phones but they still failed to show me. This got my passengers, most of whom are students angry as they joined me in demanding that they provided the picture. One of the students started to record the officers and this got them angry and they insisted on bringing my bus to Oshodi. When I got here, they still did not show me any record or photo of my offence when I asked, but since my bus has been impounded, there was no point claiming any right again other than to look for the money. I am a widower and I have children to fend for.”

It was not too long after that the officer, Akiode S. who arrested him showed up and they began another round of negotiation after insisting on collecting N20,000.

While Moses eventually paid N13,000, Godfrey paid N15,000.

LASTMA rules, background

The agency, which was established on the 15th of July, 2000, operates under the Ministry of Transportation to transform the state transportation system, ensure free flow of traffic in the state and also reduce road accidents.

With a city growing and expanding by the day, the agency has contributed in no small way in decongesting traffic in most parts of the state.

However, the high handedness of some of these officials when dealing with motorists has become a major source of concern.

Lagos residents and motorists have accused some of them of unprofessional conduct and being unruly, especially for deliberately arresting motorists without providing evidence of wrongdoing or infraction.

This has fuelled the allegation that the officers deliberately set traps for unsuspecting motorists so as to arrest them.

Our reporter visited the yard three times. The first visit was on September 2, then on October 3 and lastly on November 3, to monitor the activities of the officials. This reporter also pretended to be an arrested driver to enable him relate closely with other victims and observe proceedings.

A large number of the commercial bus drivers at the compound seemed to be familiar with most of the officers.

A commercial bus driver, Qudus Adekunle, said he and some other drivers pay certain dues to the LASTMA officials at Anthony bus-stop to avoid their trouble. He said, “The money we give them is just to delay evil days. They have collected money from me twice this morning and they still arrested me because my door was slightly open.”

It was however a different case with Musa Tajudeen, who was headed to Ikeja from Ojuelegba when a team of LASTMA officials led by one Igbimo accosted him, seized his vehicle and asked him to pay N35,000.

He said, “I was about connecting the service lane from Maryland under bridge when I saw them trying to arrest the vehicle ahead of me. They didn’t successfully get him arrested, and next they approached me and started to ask for my driver’s licence and my LASDRI which I provided and before I knew it, they entered my car and when I demanded to know my offence, their team leader who initially sat in their operational vehicle stepped out and told me that he deliberately wanted to punish me. That was how I found myself here. I brought Quran the following day for him to swear that I indeed committed an offence but he refused to. He insisted I pay 35,000. I eventually paid N20,000 through a third party. The person gave him the money in my presence, and he was even threatening me that my vehicle would have rotten in the yard if I had not paid the money.”

Pattern of arrest

The pattern of arrest by the officials and the double mode of payment by the drivers arrested for traffic offences piqued the curiosity of our correspondent. It was discovered that some of the drivers in the corridor of the LASTMA office were arrested for offences they did not commit, as the officials that arrested them failed to show evidence of their offences or reasons for their arrests. This added fuel to the wide held insinuation that the innocent motorists were arrested for offence spuriously contrived by the traffic officials. This mode of payment further corroborated the scam.

The LENTORLITENEWS learnt that any driver arrested for a traffic offence is meant to be handed a fine equivalent of the offence but it was observed that while those who were genuinely caught and booked for a fine went about processing their payment, those clandestinely arrested were charged any amount from N25,000 naira upward.

Findings at the head office also revealed that once a vehicle is forcefully taken from a motorist for an alleged offence, the LASTMA official drives it down to the yard and will be nowhere to be found, while another official will take over the negotiation process.

Meanwhile, the questionable activities in LASTMA was further highlighted when our correspondent was accosted by one of the police officers attached to the agency who asked him to remove his phone from his shirt pocket and keep it in his trouser pocket. He was repeatedly ordered to do so when he kept returning the phone to its former position. This move must have been to prevent any recording of the happenings in the office.

The “beer parlour” remittance

Motorists have constantly complained about the alleged notoriety of the officials at Anthony bus-stop for a long time. Findings by our correspondent also revealed how the LASTMA officials allegedly use a drinking joint tucked in the taxi park as a point of remittance/collection after arresting motorists.

This became known to this reporter when Eto, a commercial bus driver who was waiting for the release of his vehicle, made a veiled remark about the circumstances that led to his arrest. According to him, a patrolling LASTMA officer had arrested him for failing to remit a sum of N7000 to a “beer parlour” somewhere around Anthony.

He said, “My bus has been here for four days. I was arrested because I did not deliver the money I was asked to take to a beer parlour at Anthony. I drove from Iyana-Ipaja to Yaba and one of the officers, Rasheed, who is always riding their patrol motorcycle, stopped me about two weeks ago and said he was arresting me for illegal parking. I was surprised and before I could say anything, he threatened to impound my bus. It was after I begged that he asked me to take N7,000 to a beer parlour at Anthony. Though I said the money was too much, he insisted. And just because I did not take the money to the place, he trailed me, arrested me and brought my vehicle here.”

Out of curiosity, this reporter tried all he could to get him to mention the specific location of the ‘’beer parlour’’ but he felt did not bulge. He, however, collected Eto’s phone contact in an attempt to further probe his claim. This was after he had also followed the driver to the point where he retrieved his vehicle, without being given a ticket.

A call made to him about a week later confirmed the location of the said “beer parlour.” Our correspondent, who pretended to have found himself in a similar situation, told Eto he needed to locate the spot to pay the money before he gets rearrested. The sympathy for a fellow bus driver made him tell our reporter that the spot was inside the taxi park by Anthony bus-stop. Except for commercial drivers who are familiar with the officers, no one could easily notice the said drinking joint in the park. A visit to the place, however, confirmed Eto’s claim as there were three shops backing the exit inward Oshodi-Apapa Expressway. Although the one in the middle, which Eto specifically mentioned does not have the outlook of a beer parlour, some of the officers were however seen seated around a middle-aged woman who supplied them drinks.

Operation no mercy

The LASTMA patrol officer, Rasheed was not sighted during the period spent at the taxi park. A source within LASTMA later confirmed that he had been moved to the Oshodi axis where he currently patrols.

On the alleged raid by the officials, the source said there used to be a special operation being carried out by the officials. This is a covert operation codenamed – Operation No Mercy. According to him, the officials set out on a day like this to arrest motorists whether they commit an offence or not.

He said, “On days like these, we set out to meet targets, and we have a certain number of vehicles we must arrest. We don’t care whether they commit an offence or not. Once we enter your vehicle, we would give you reasons why you cannot hesitate to have your car impounded. For those of us who have friends among the commercial bus drivers, we try as much to notify them when embarking on the exercise. We understand that people are becoming more conscious about traffic offences, and if we don’t arrest traffic offenders, how do we meet our targets?

A chubby-looking senior LASTMA official at the Lagos State Driver’s Institute, whose job is to retrain traffic offenders, corroborated the claims of the source. Our reporter, who sauntered into the institute on the last day of his visit, saw the officer who identified himself simply as “Eja” engaging in a shouting match with a new set of arrested motorists. The motorists, who demanded the evidence of their arrest, alleged that the officers who arrested them did not provide evidence of their offence. When asked if LASTMA officials embark on raiding, he said it is called a special operation.

He said, “It is called a special operation, they just call it raiding. It is during special operations that they really go after commercial buses.’’

Our correspondent also observed the urge of motorists to pay and get their car out of the yard, as attempts to challenge the veracity of their claims are often frustrated by the officers. A random engagement shows how motorist pay.

Stephen Ikide, who appeared exhausted while processing the release of his vehicle said, “All that I am after now is to get my car out of this place. I am told to be attending training, where do I have all the time?’’

Disciplinary actions

The agency had over time taken disciplinary actions against erring officials. Meanwhile, there have been reservations about the defensive position of the leadership of the agency regarding the complaints of motorists about the activities of its officials.

This was a similar instance in an investigation carried out by this reporter on July 7, 2022, in a report titled, “Traffic light: How policemen, LASTMA officers extort motorists in Lagos community,” where a group of police officers and LASTMA officials were caught in an extortion scheme. While the police commenced an investigation of its officers, the leadership of LASTMA stood in defence of its officials despite the photo evidence in the report.

Expert opinion

A legal expert, Yemi Omodele, said the government should give the officials orientation about the advantages and disadvantages of collecting bribes, and also train and retrain them as a way of correct the impression people have about them.

He said: ‘’For instance somebody who comes from maybe Ogun State or Ondo State for the first time, immediately LASTMA officials discover the plate number is not that of Lagos, they wave him down. Sometimes, they would say, he beats traffic light, some they will say he was making phone calls. That are the allegations they always give. From there, they threaten to impound the vehicle. One of the officers will come to the front, tell him to move forward and find somewhere to park. They will intimidate him and at the end of the day they will collect money. They will even go to the extent of telling the person to go and pay three years tax to the Lagos State government. But at the end of the day, their major target is to collect money. It happened in all parts of Lagos State. The law I know is that LASTMA is to correct motorists whenever they commit a traffic offence, but the reverse is the case in Lagos State.

“Aside from that, when a motorist sees that a LASTMA official is about to extort them, bring out a phone and record them and upload it online. In a situation that the motorists succumb out of fear and give them money, that is uncalled for. This is what encourages those LATSMA officials to be involved in such acts.

LASTMA reacts

However, the spokesman of LASTMA, Taofeek Adebayo, said no official of traffic agency negotiates with any motorists to release a vehicle in exchange for money. He also said every vehicle taken into the yard has documentation.

He said, “None of our officials bring any motorist to our head office in Oshodi and started to negotiate money with them. Whenever any vehicle is impounded for any infraction or traffic offences, they issue a referral to appear in court. So, the video and picture evidence that they have is to present to the magistrate to convince them that the motorists really committed the offence so that it will not look like we are the judge in our own case. The magistrate looks at the evidence we present and the position of the violator and the judge compares the two and comes up with the position of the law. The referral motive also has a serial number. Any vehicle brought into our yard must have proper documentation.  We have the records.

“These recordings are being carried out by the cameras provided by the Lagos State Government to LATMA officials. The essence of the cameras is to reduce physical contact with traffic violators. So that when you have videos and pictures taken from a far distance, then you issue a referral and take it to the court. Commercial bus operators are being charged to mobile court. We also have to be careful of LASTMA impersonators. Any violators being apprehended should demand referral from them and not to give them money.

“We only have an enforcement unit and not special operations. They go out to enforce traffic rules as regulation and it is a routine thing. There is nothing like a special operation. For example, like Eko Bridge that was partially closed by the Fderal Government, last Tuesday, the enforcement operation of LASTMA went there to make sure it does not impede free flow of traffic within Apogbon, Idumota and Nnamdi Azikwe. That is a special one and it has a purpose.”

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