By Dele Sobowale
“The economist, like anyone else, must concern himself with the ultimate aims of man.”
Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924. The father of classical economics.
To Marshall’s observation, another economist had added that anything that does not make economic sense [to most people concerned] has no chance of succeeding. The proposal by the Federal Road Safety Corps, FRSC, to issue new licence plates nationwide at, what most Nigerians consider, unreasonable fees, is a case study in how not to introduce change.
Predictably, it is perhaps a great idea bogged down in politics, legal disputes and arguments about value. The FRSC might not realise it, licence fees represent the prices vehicle owners pay in return for benefits derived and, as such, will always be assessed on the same value scale as other proposals involving money transfers. In the end, the consumer would ask the same question: is it value for money?
Judged strictly on economic terms, the FRSC proposal does not even represent anything close to value for money because it provides no other benefits that are not now being provided by other public sector products and for far less than the price of new licence plates. However, before proceeding to offer the reasons for that verdict, it is necessary to undertake a trip into the history of the Corps.
The idea of an autonomous body regulating traffic, in addition to the Nigeria Police, who are statutorily charged with that responsibility, started from Oyo State, before it was carved into Oyo and Osun states under the government of Chief Bola Ige, who as governor of Oyo State, was sick and tired of the carnage on the old Ibadan-Ife highway – before it was dualised.
In fact, that road ranked first among slaughter houses called trunk roads in those forgotten days; surpassing the Lagos-Ibadan; Kano-Zaria-Kaduna; Onitsha-Owerri-Aba and the Warri-Patani-Port Harcourt roadways which were its closest rivals.
Bola Ige thought something had to be done. But, if the idea was not to degenerate into another opportunity for bribery and corruption, it required somebody with unimpeachable integrity and someone who, once committed to a cause, would always give his 100 per cent.
Fortunately, there was such a man – Professor Wole Soyinka – because above all, Bola Ige wanted a man who could not be intimidated by the “big” people of Nigeria; if arrested. The Nobel Prize Winner in Literature lived up to his billings. He was frequently seen on the roads himself and assisting in making the arrests. Destruction of lives and properties abated very quickly – not only on Ibadan-Ife, but Ibadan-Iwo and Ibadan-Oyo roads.
The change of governors in Oyo State in 1983 resulted in Soyinka leaving and the military coup of December 31, 1983 brought an end to corps activities in Oyo State. Fortunately, the emergence of General Ibrahim Babangida in 1985 provided the opportunity for the nation to revisit the issue of a road safety unit autonomous of the police, who were already corrupt.
Irrespective of individual and collective feelings about Babangida, especially on account of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential elections, his administration attempted the most ambitious and comprehensive transformation of Nigeria in a short time than any – before or after.
Being a military government with no political debts to pay, IBB’s regime was free to select the best and the brightest. Again, at the risk of being accused of belittling the impact of June 12, Babangida’s cast of official characters had been the most qualified of any government since independence. Among them were Professor Tam David West, Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, Dr Kalu Idika Kalu, Professor Jubril Aminu, Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Dr Chu Okongwu, General Akinrinade – just to name a few.
Even today, a better team would be difficult to imagine or assemble. Given the panoramic view of development, transport and the safety of the highways, naturally, formed a part of the national agenda. And so in 1988, by Decree 59, the Federal Road Safety Corps was promulgated into law and, at the time, there was only one candidate for Corps Marshall – Professor Wole Soyinka – because Babangida also wanted a corruption-free institution taking charge of Nigerian roads.
Like most military leaders, IBB could only think of a centralized unit – a split image of the military structure itself. Since then, the nation had undergone a political transformation, while the statutes governing the FRSC – including the Decree 35 of 1992, amending the 1988 law remained unchanged. A clash was inevitable and that is exactly why we are engaged in mind-boggling controversy about the proposal to introduce new plates by the FRSC, as well as the charges attached to each transaction.
The most pertinent question at this point, is: should the statutes establishing the FRSC be retained without amendments or not? One answer which is not useful to us is that of the officials of the FRSC, who, blinded by the transient positions they occupy, cannot imagine a Nigeria without the FRSC statutes as they exist at the moment.
Yet, we should learn from the Chinese, who have conquered the world economically, who hold it as true wisdom that, no matter how long one has travelled down the wrong road, he can and should turn back. It is easily demonstrable that the laws governing the activities of the FRSC, while acceptable in a military regime, are totally unacceptable in a federal republic with three tiers of government – each of which has its own set of roads to provide and maintain.
Road maintenance, anywhere in the world, is an expensive project guzzling large chunks of government’s revenue everywhere. Universally, the predominant source of revenue for governments at all levels remains the issuance of licences – vehicles and drivers.
Nigeria is not the first federating nation and there is no precedent in the United States of America, whose constitution we badly plagiarized, for a central licensing body issuing drivers’ and vehicle licences. In fact, the Congress of the United States of America would never consider any bill which proposes to tax, because that is what it is, the people by a body not elected or directly responsible to them.
What the FRSC wants to do or continue to do amounts to collecting money from vehicle owners from each state without having the responsibility for the maintenance of the roads. Whereas, the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, another centralized agency, which has wisely started to decentralize, collects revenue from users, it also provides the main service directly to those charged – however badly. The FRSC provides very little for the funds it proposes to collect from vehicle owners. So, it fails the first and acid test of value for money.
Even, its claims that the new and exorbitantly priced plates will provide security for vehicle owners can be easily faulted. Lagos State police provided the first refutation of the fallacy that the new plates provide security. Two weeks ago, the force arrested three people caught producing and distributing fake new licence plates, so sophisticated, an expert was required to “spot the difference” (apologies to VANGUAD NEWSPAPERS).
Information available reveals that the fake plates were offered for less than N10,000. It requires no PhD in Economics or Finance and Accounting to infer that the cost of production must be less than N10,000. If small scale manufacturers can turn out plates at less than N10,000, then, given mass production and the economy of scale, the FRSC should do even better –perhaps produce for less than N5,000 per plate.
The next question is so obvious, it requires no sitting of the National Assembly to ask it. What is the cost of production of each plate the FRSC is proposing to hawk as if its existence depends on it? The next questions follow rapidly from the previous one.
What can be regarded as a fair return on investment for the FRSC – assuming it is allowed to go ahead and issue the plates? The third, and most important, is this: was the FRSC established as a profit- making venture? A thorough reading of the Decrees of 1988 and 1992 reveals that no mention is made about the FRSC operating at a profit.