By Owei Lakemfa
The Berger Roundabout in Abuja is a usual route for me. On this Thursday, July 9, 2020, as usual, an army of Vehicle Inspection Officers, VIOs, had mounted a roadblock. A major cause of traffic jam on Abuja roads are these officers who sometimes can be found in five-minute intervals.
On this morning near the Berger Roundabout where they have seized the public park and dumped two metal containers from which they operate, the officers were 14, blocking the road. I was stopped and the officer made a perfunctory look at my vehicle papers and pronounced them expired. He announced they were due for renewal five months before. I explained the car is my wife’s and expressed shock the papers had expired as she is meticulous on being on the side of the law. The officer entered my car and ordered me to drive into the park. I refused the attempt to seize the car keys and told the officers I wanted to know the penalty. The officers were not interested, but one of them, Mr. Leonard, who appeared friendly said I have to pay both a fine and fees to renew the vehicle particulars. Since I was getting late for my appointment, I paid both and was told to come back later in the day for the new particulars.
As I returned to the highway, I parked off the road and called my wife. How could she allow me drive her car when the particulars had expired? She said the particulars were current and would expire in February 2021 and that I had obviously not gone through the particulars thoroughly. I asked if she had the original and could shoot and send on WhatsApp. She did within minutes and I returned to the VIO office to retrieve my money. I was told the money had been paid into the coffers of the government and the renewed vehicle particulars had been issued. All these within the minutes I left! I told the officers I was impressed with their speed but showed them the evidence that the papers were current.
I asked for my vehicle particulars they had seized and discovered that while the first page was the vehicle particulars which expired in February, 2020, the very next page was the current one with a February 2021 expiry date. So the officer who stopped me had merely looked at the first document, not the others that were current, including insurance cover. I was directed to see ‘Utaz’ who apparently was in charge of the payment section. He said the photocopy has to be verified and asked me to produce the original. I promised to do so the next day.
On Friday, July 10, 2020, I went to the VIO office with the originals. This time, I was told that the sub-office could do nothing to get me a refund. That only the head office in Mabuchi could do so. I was asked to go see Mr. Auwal, Head of Information Technology. On Monday, July 13, 2020, I went to the head office and was directed to Mr. Auwal’s office. After some queue, I saw him and he explained he was Auwal, Head of Licence and directed me to a conference complex where I could find the IT head.
There was darkness on the premises and was told the IT Head had left the office as he could not work without electricity. This was about 11am. I asked to see his deputy, whose name was given as Mr. Emmanuel Ahime. Just like his boss, he had also left the office for the same reason. I insisted on making my complaint to an officer of the department. After being tossed around tables, an impatient and rather rude officer agreed to hear me. He said the IT was not responsible for such complaints and directed me to ‘MLA’ in another building to see Mr. Ajibola Kayode.
Mr. Kayode was apparently livid. He apologised to me for the sloppiness of the officers at the sub-office. He explained that the VIO system is computerised and at the payment point, would have detected that the vehicle particulars had not expired and rejected payment. He said if the officers had ignored this and made a second trial, the system would have again rejected it, and that only the third trial would override its objection. He said it was the business of the sub-office to refund my money. Mr. Kayode said I should go back and insist on seeing the sub-office head called ‘Professor’ and tell him my money should be refunded.
On Tuesday, July 14, 2020, I returned to the Berger Roundabout VIO sub-office and joined the queue of people waiting to see ‘Prof’. He held court under a tree dispensing his brand of ‘justice’. He freed some who had been arrested, and threatened others with prosecution. The slim ‘Prof’ seemed particularly at home with motorists arrested for not using face masks. He told them that the special Magistrate Court trying such offences was not sitting, so only he could free them. He had ‘negotiations’ with such persons while I waited patiently.
Finally, the ‘Prof’ turned to me. I explained how I was wrongly charged, fined and made to pay for new vehicle renewal whereas my papers do not expire until February, 2021, that is seven months away. I told him that Mr. Kayode in the head office had said the sub-office has the responsibility to refund my money. ‘Prof’ said my money had been paid into government coffers and can, therefore, not be refunded. He asked if I have another car which was due for renewal, I answered in the negative. He said if I had, he would have transferred my payment to the other vehicle. I asked him for the solution, he said I should go and look for anybody who wants to renew his car particulars, get him to pay me while my money would be transferred as payment for the person’s car.
A gentleman who listened to our conversation called me aside asked if I was given a receipt for the ’fine’, I said no. He explained that was part of the problem. The VIO had shared the ‘fine’ I paid and do not want to cough it out; that the insurance company had collected part of the vehicle renewal money I paid, and would not want to refund it, while the rest of the money I paid cannot be refunded because it could lead to queries.
At this point, rather than waste more time and fuel being tossed around, I decided to think out how under the Buhari ‘anti-corruption’ government, I can retrieve my money. Please, do you have suggestions.
-Owei Lakemfa, journalist, labour unionist and public affairs analyst writes from Abuja