By EGUFE YAFUGBORHI, PORT HARCOURT
WHEN Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi assumed office as governor of Rivers State, one of the indices that defined the critical insecurity in the state was road users’ unreserved disrespect for traffic codes. From government officials, commercial drivers, criminals on the wheel, cyclists (before they were banned), banks dispatch vans to security patrols, hardly anyone respected decorum on the roads, especially in the capital city of Port Harcourt.
Added to the impunity with which vendors and shop owners overlap trading into major motorways, traffic jams were such a constant feature and made driving on Port Harcourt roads a daily nightmare for motorists and commuters.
To remedy the situation, the state enacted the law establishing TIMARIV, acronym for Rivers State Road Traffic Management Authority. Signed into law by the Governor in December 2009, the authority first evolved with a governing board. Later, he thought it wise to dissolve the board in preference for a team to first set up and run the agency before bringing it on board.
The responsibility to set the foundation team rested on the shoulders of Mr. Nelson Jaja, Executive Director of Monier Construction Company, MCC, who out of his tight business schedule, took on the assignment as Controller General, CG, of TIMARIV. The Mr. Jaja told Vanguard Features, VF, that his steering the ship of an interventionist outfit to ease traffic in Rivers is purely voluntary.
“I have been impressed with the way Governor Amaechi came in to serve his people with a lot of guts. I felt anything I can do to identify with the government was worthwhile. So I was not hesitant to contribute my quota to the success of the government by taking this appointment,” he explained.
Settling down to the mandate
With a structure in place in May 2010, the Nelson Jaja-led team has leaped from a foundation of 300 to a current figure of 756 personnel comprising essentially traffic marshals trained as paramilitary to carry out the authority’s mandate. With a head office at Sani Abacha Road, Port Harcourt, the authority has six zonal offices and several annexes all interacting for enforcement of traffic law in the state.
TIMARIV is empowered to prevent people from committing traffic offences. But when offences are committed, the authority ensures offenders are apprehended and punished within the provision of the law. TIMARIV works round the clock as it patrols, clears all road obstructions, ensures lawful use of bus-stops and terminals as well as safeguards highways from encroachment by hawkers and other petty traders.
Speaking on its operations, the CG said: “We are further empowered to organise enlightenment campaigns, workshops and symposium to educate the public on traffic matters. We are expected to be the first to arrive to give prompt attention to victims in the event of accidents. We ensure that roadside intersections constituting gridlocks are controlled and kept free. Our main target is to ensure that the traffic system in the state is such that commuters get to their destinations on time.”
A no nonsense change agent and its perils
“So far, TIMARIV has impounded over 10,000 vehicles for various offences. Added to improved road infrastructure, we are gradually changing hearts and minds of all road users to imbibe a culture of decency on the road. In the fines served on impounded vehicles, arrest and prosecution of offenders and regular enlightenment, we are making steady progress but disobedience is far from being eradicated.”
Speaking about the effectiveness of the authority, Emmanuel Aruya, a protocol officer with an oil firm and regular traveller on the Port Harcourt intra-city roads said: “TIMARIV’s duty on the roads has significantly improved travel time from point A to point B. Anyone who has been around long enough can attest to this improvement.
People use to break all traffic rules –drive against traffic, do dangerous overtaking; traders taking over major motorways, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, illegal parking which usually lead to gridlocks that last for several hours. Today, there is far more sanity on the roads as the fear of TIMARIV is the beginning of wisdom for motorists.”
However, the acknowledged progress the authority has achieved for traffic management in Port Harcourt is in jeopardy as its personnel have been accused of under hand practices. TIMARIV marshals are often in the news for all the wrong reasons , if not for alleged use of force on offenders, then its for extortion on the roads.
Controller General, Nelson Jaja’s first reaction to these allegations is that TIMARIV officials are the ones who actually suffer attacks. “Everyone acknowledges that it would be near-impossible to drive in Port Harcourt in absence of the authority, but every traffic offender sees TIMARIV officials as enemies.
Death threats, attacks, petitions and abuses are the rewards we get for easing traffic in Port Harcourt. Our Marshals have been killed. They are attacked by individuals, sometimes law enforcement agencies and communities. In one such instance, a man bit off a TIMARIV Marshall’s finger, chewed and swallowed it right to his face. It is such a thankless public service,” Jaja lamented.
The CG noted that all manner of persons who think they are above the law react with unpredictable aggression against men of the authority when found wanting. “Personally as the authority’s head, I have been shot at by security personnel at Garrison area in Port Harcourt, and threatened several times, at other times by self identified militants.” And those who shout extortion, he explained, are no less sincere, terming them as mainly offenders who try to bribe TIMARIV officials to evade payment of fines.
“The policy guiding payment of fines does not encourage extortion. I have repeatedly enlightened the public. When your car is impounded for traffic offence you are served a charge sheet specifying the rate for the offense and a designated bank account where you are expected to pay that fine.
Under no condition should cash be paid to any marshal. The charge sheet further gives the road user the right to refuse fine for option to go to court if he thinks his right is being violated in which case the court determines whether he is guilty and liable to pay the fine or not. There is no room for extortion or aggression as long as people comply with the law.”
Within the limits of human frailty, Jaja noted of the public complaints that “In every 12 there is a Judas, but TIMARIV marshals are highly trained to be disciplined and civil on duty. I can tell you that majority of those who have issues with the authority are traffic offenders who resist punishment apart from some charlatans who pose as TIMARIV officials. However, we take cognisance of the public concerns with intent to improving the quality of our service and performance.”
On the immediate, the authority now captures video evidence of offenders at the point of violating the law to prove beyond doubt that the offence was committed. On the long term, plans are underway to install sophisticated devices in the city with central portal server fitted to monitor traffic activities.
This will make it easy to track violators without recourse to confrontation. The authority also looks forward to a TIMARIV that could track and serve a violator a charge sheet, apprehend or prosecute him days after committing a traffic offence based on the technology installed. Some of these improvements would not be achieved without revisiting the state traffic law.
Jaja also pointed to the challenge of funding. The law provides for funding through grants as may be appropriated by government or well- meaning corporate bodies or individuals. This, he noted, places “the authority begging cap in hand for appropriations that do not come all the time and hardly adequate.
The authority has zero allocation in the current budget, yet we are bound by the law to remit all fines collected into government coffers. We have had the benefit of patronage from some corporate bodies, but the bottom line is fund is never enough. The implication is management has had to contract critical aspects of our operations including biometric, towing, psychiatrics, and vehicles as paying salaries and keeping up with duty becomes a major limitation”.