You would usually see them in their yellow and red, under the hot Lagos sun and they are usually full of beef. I am not talking about the popular sausage roll snack known as Gala.
Now I actually have your attention, I was referring to Lastma agents – Lagos’s infamous road and traffic marshals.
They are more feared and hated than parking wardens are in London. Their weapons of choice are the words that no vehicle driver would like to hear “Why you use one-way?” or “Oya, park and open ya door.” And if you are street smart, you would refuse to hand over your driver’s license as it is usually seized by the LASTMA agent and used as a lien until you “settle”.
Where do I start with regarding the various indiscretions of Lastma as they go about inflicting pain and discipline on Lagos’s traffic ridden streets? Everybody agrees that many Lagos drivers should have their brains scanned, because you see different dare-devil stunts every day. Please explain to me why a petrol tanker would swerve unto a “one-way” lane and face on -coming traffic, driving like he had the right of way and abusing other stunned drivers.
I have even seen the driver of a school bus conveying primary school kids, swerving and overtaking smaller cars recklessly as he also chatted on his mobile phone. The kids looked scared to death. One of them was sobbing with his yoghurt spilled all over his uniform, as the driver barked at him to shut up and sit tight.
I have seen a danfo driver get so impatient with the stuttering bus in front of him, that he bumped into the bus and was shoving it forward. It was like being in the GET Arena all over again while playing the Naija hit “Bumper to Bumper” on the car stereo.
When LASTMA was introduced by the Tinubu administration, some road users hailed the initiative. At last some law and order on the roads where N7, 000 and a passport photograph could get you a driver’s license to operate an 18-wheeler truck if you wanted.
I mean, in Benin City some years back, an intra-city bus was involved a serious accident, skidding off the highway as it ran into a ditch. It was discovered that the driver was only a boy of 14 years. When the police asked him why he was driving a bus when he was underage, he opined with a serious face “The motor nor get brake, that na why e get accident.” As if.
In those early days, LASTMA officials were like Judge Dredd, formulating and interpreting the traffic laws and dispensing justice on the spot. If you used a one-way road, your case was summarily forwarded to Yaba psychiatric hospital for psychic evaluation as Lagos State reasoned that the only way one could drive against traffic was if they were insane. P.R.I.C.E.L.E.S.S.
Your car was impounded in LASTMA’s lot, and your 17 inch tires were introduced to a nail. The resident vulcanizer on the LASTMA lot got a lot of referrals as his business was a monopoly in the area. After your evaluation, you paid an amount almost 3times the going rate elsewhere to get your tires pumped up by Rasaki – the only vulcanizer for miles. You also paid a fine to Lagos state and also footed the bill for your mental scan.
It was a beautiful scheme though: The erring driver was humbled, rehabilitated, punished and taught a lesson on the Highway Code and other traffic laws. Hell, the driver even got to find out whether madness was really in his family after-all. Many a driver found out that they were actually related to Clifford Orji and that they really should not be operating a vehicle.
LASTMA were a godsend. Their sparkly yellow shirts and maroon coloured pants made many a Nigerian child want to join the force. Ok I kid, I lie, most kids want to be corrupt politicians not traffic marshals but you get the gist. LASTMA were so efficient that their predecessors the much derided “Yellow Fever” corps were relegated to manning posts at busy road intersections and soliciting for N10 tips from empathic drivers.
Some LASTMA officers even shined their boots for work, and that is saying something.
But something changed and LASTMA agents became tyrants. Sometimes empathy is needed when dealing with members of the public. The following examples may have been real events but are now urban legends:
A girl called Nkem, 25, was driving to a job interview in VI on a Monday morning. She was not sure of the directions to the venue of the interview and ended up mistakenly turning into a one-way street. Before she even realized her mistake, a LASTMA officer had thrown himself in front of her car spitting fire and brimstone, and quoting all the traffic laws she had broken.
She calmly explained that she was on her way to an interview, and that her offence was an honest mistake as she wasn’t familiar with the area. The LASTMA officer had naira signs on the brain and refused to budge, as he pointed a “one-way” sign on the road which was hidden among some thick shrubs inconspicuous to road-users. The only way anyone would have seen that sign was if they were a billy-goat feeding on roadside grass.
Nkem started sobbing because she was already getting late for her interview which was for a bank’s graduate recruitment scheme. The LASTMA guy now seemingly empathized with her and offered to direct her to the venue of her interview. She unlocked the front passenger door to let him in, and he got in and started giving her directions.
After about 5 minutes, she realized that the officer was actually leading her to a major junction where swathes of LASTMA officials usually congregated, a central command if you like. Annoyed, she started abusing the officer who replied with insults himself. He confirmed that he was taking her to his area commander, and told her that her offence was a N50, 000 one. Of course, she was also given the option of a discount if she paid early enough with minimum fuss.
Pissed off, Nkem quickly swerved off the road and parked in front of a nearby bank. She then asked the LASTMA officer to get out of her car, so that she could be on her way to her interview. The agent refused knowing that he had her in a tight corner because of the short time left for her interview.
They were arguing at the top of their voices, causing a scene, when one of the soldiers who was attached to the bank came and asked what was happening there. Apparently he had escorted a bullion van to the bank and had been waiting for the van to be loaded.
After hearing both sides, he asked the LASTMA officer to get down from the Nkem’s car as she was already late for the interview. He also asked Nkem to apologize for shouting and abusing the agent which she did. But the LASTMA chap refused to get down from the car. The now irate traffic man was insisting that Nkem follow him to his central command where he would hand over to his superiors.
At this point the soldier got annoyed because the LASTMA man was aggravating the situation, which was attracting passer-bys to the front of the bank, which itself was a security risk. Even passer-bys were imploring the stubborn LASTMA chap to get down and forget about the incident since the girl had an interview.
The soldier then ordered the LASTMA man to get down from the car, to which the latter blatantly refused. Not good – that was an order not a request, and soldiers don’t like when people do not follow orders.
The soldier suddenly swung his fire-arm and dazed the LASTMA official on the head with the butt. Bleeding, the LASTMA chap got down from the car clutching his forehead and started crying and bellowing, as the happy public clapped with joy.
Nkem got into her car, started the engine and drove off, leaving a very dazed LASTMA officer behind humiliated and sobbing.
The soldier shouldn’t have struck the traffic officer, but whatever happened to showing empathy and using your discretion in dealing with traffic law defaulters. Surely, there is room for flexibility. The LASTMA man wanted a 47k bribe but instead got an AK-47 whack on the head.
I remember going to drop my mother at MM2 airport on Boxing Day last year because she had a 7am flight to catch. I was with my sister and my girl, and we dropped off my mum, and were on Mobolaji Bank-Anthony Road just after the airport when we noticed a batch of policemen and LASTMA officers flagging us down. The car ahead of us stopped, so I pulled up as well asking what the matter was. As soon as I parked, the policeman opened my car door and asked me to get down.
Apparently Boxing Day which fell on a Saturday was an environmental day!! Can you just imagine how a public holiday on a day just after Xmas could be declared a day for the monthly environmental clean-up exercise. I got down to explain to one of the officers that I had no idea about the clean-up exercise, and was just coming from the airport. I even offered to drive back to the airport to wait till the end of the exercise as the time was just a few minutes past 7am.
I looked at the road and saw commuters driving, and it seemed obvious that very few people knew about the environmental sanitation exercise. The policeman refused to listen, and before I knew it, the LASTMA man jumped into my car and sped off with him sister and girl inside the car! He didn’t even tell me or them when he was driving off or where he was going.
My sister later told me that he nearly spoilt the car, trying to change gear on an automatic car! I had to call my girl on her phone to get a description of where the LASTMA chap had taken them to – their area command off Oba Akinjobi Road.
I got there very upset but in time to prevent them from deflating my tires. Their resident vulcanizer didn’t look too pleased at the loss of business for him. I raked, I pleaded, I hassled, I used ogboju, I negotiated, I argued, I insulted…
I finally got everything sorted and drove off eventually but that’s all beside the point.
I hated the red and yellow corps for a while after that.
A guy once drove past a traffic light just as it turned from yellow to red, around the 1004 Estate intersection on Ozumba Mbadiwe Road. He sped up the road and ran into a bit of traffic just before Mobil filling station. As he slowed down, an okada rider carrying a LASTMA officer pulled up to his side, and without saying a word, opened the passenger door and got in. The officer then accused him of running past a red light, and told him to drive down to the Lekki Phase One junction where LASTMA had a batch of officers waiting. The guy refused, so he and the LASTMA guys started struggling for the car steering wheel, and the vehicle was swerving from side to side, meandering dangerously and nearly colliding with passing vehicles!
I was driving behind the car, listening to my Eedris Abdulkareem CD, and nearly ran into the swerving car! I shook my fist at the LASTMA officer who by this time, was holding the steering with one hand and trying to call his officers for back-up on his mobile phone with the other hand.
Do these officers know when to back down – especially when an arrest or apprehension would cause a danger to other road-users or greatly inconvenience the general public? Or are they instructed to infuse the Naija X factor in confronting defaulters with aggression and cunning? I mean, why should a traffic officer hold up early morning traffic because he is trying to force his way into a car whose driver was chatting on his phone?
I have seen those Local Government officers in green and white uniform, yank out an okada rider’s key from the ignition, to prevent the okada rider from evading capture for payment of a local government tax!
I have even seen officers throw a metal device with spikes on the road to catch escaping bike men who were riding without helmets or in restricted zones. Surely that is barbaric, as no traffic law is worth a man’s life. In a country where people still, kill and destroy but get away with it, it beggars belief that breaking some obscure traffic law could get you into a dangerous high speed chase or a deadly game of hide and seek with over-zealous marshals in mustard coloured shirts.
I never thought I would ever say this, being a health buff and all, but I really prefer Yellow fever.
So I…pull over to the side of the road/
I heard “Son do you know why I’m stopping you for?”/
..Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don’t know/
Jay Z (99 Problems, 2003)