I was driving in my private car along Nnebisi Road, Asaba and got to the Federal Medical Centre Roundabout where there was the ubiquitous police checkpoint in those dark old days.
It seems now like such a long time ago. The gun-toting policeman stood at the centre of the road and ordered me out of my car. “Your particulars!” he barked at me.
I calmly presented him my vehicle license and insurance certificate. “Wetin dey your booth?” he thundered again, in what was probably his most intimidating voice. “Nothing,” I replied, meaning that I had nothing in the booth that could be of any interest to him even though I had no idea what, precisely, he was looking for. Anyway, he ordered me to open the booth of my car which I did and he took interest in the only package inside.
It was actually the old car battery which I had changed and had forgotten to drop at home. It was left in the carton with which the new battery was packaged. I explained this to him.
He then asked me for the purchase receipt and I was really getting exasperated but I managed to remain calm. Another car pulled by and the driver came out and rushed to me. “Honourable, what is the matter?” He asked, and before I could respond, another car had pulled by again to ask the same question.
Sensing that he might have picked on the ‘wrong’ person, the policeman asked me to go. As I drove off, I mused that this is what ordinary citizens go through on a daily basis. At that time, I was a serving Commissioner in the State and had chosen deliberately to run an errand in my private car rather than use my official car with the green license plate that would have provided me express passage through all police checkpoints.
For me, it was a way of reminding myself that one day, I would no longer be a commissioner or public officer for that matter and would have to deal with this situation. It was some kind of psychological therapy against being carried away by the privileges of high office.
Beyond this my personal odyssey, I was also concerned about why things had to be that way. I discussed this with several friends in government and realised that I was not alone in my fears. Indeed, several of them would not venture out of town without a car that carried green number plates for fear of police harassment. It also accounted for the apparent desperation to remain in public office at any cost.
Many of my friends would not mind any particular public office as long as it came with a green vehicle license plate. That was how much the police harassment was dreaded.
Over time, I also came to realise that my public office carried some other enormous privileges that would seem incomprehensible to people in better organised societies. I recall, one particular occasion, as I was sitting in my office in Abuja, my phone rang and it was an old university classmate.
He had just been held at a notorious police checkpoint near Warri over some inane vehicle particulars different from the usual vehicle license and motor insurance which they called ECMR. Apparently completely flustered as he had an appointment to keep in Port Harcourt, he remembered that he had a friend in Delta State Government and placed the call to me.
Unknown to him, I was no longer in the Delta State Government but at the Presidency which appeared even better. After explaining his situation, I asked him to pass the phone to the police officer who was gracious enough to agree to speak to me. I introduced myself as the Senior Special Assistant to the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and asked what the problem was.
Suffice it to say that my classmate was promptly let off without further ado and he called back to express his gratitude.
When I reflect back on this episode and similar such episodes now, I am thoroughly bemused. In the first instance, the policeman had no way of knowing who was at the other end of the line.
More importantly, what had my position in government to do with his holding my friend if it was for a genuine offence?
Yet, he responded to the apparent authority from the other end of the line and let him go. I could very well have been a confidence trickster in that particular encounter and the result would have been no different.
I know a lot of friends who had to put up all kinds of stickers on their car windscreens in order to achieve free passage through Nigerian roads. NUJ, Police, the Armed Forces, Police Community Relations Committee, PCRC, were especially popular, whether the car had anything to do with these entities or not was immaterial.
The point was that each person had to design all sorts of subterfuge to get by and they simply continued to adapt. People learnt to tell lies to stay out of police trouble even when they were ordinarily innocent.
It took an act of courage and vision of one man to bring all this to an end. The Acting Inspector General of Police, Mohammed D. Abubakar, a thorough-bred police officer saw clearly the damage that the police operations at the checkpoints were doing to the fabric of our national life and morality and with a flourish brought it all to an end.
If this revolution which he has started is sustained, I daresay that many public officers would no longer desperately cling to public office for fear of losing their cherished green motor vehicle license plates.
This also buttresses the fact that one right policy at the appropriate time can have an immense transformation of how society functions. It is therefore necessary that we re-examine our existing practices, laws and systems as some of them unnecessarily criminalise us.
Indeed, it is the societal response to some of these laws and practices that manifests to a very large extent, as endemic corruption in our country today.
Clement Ofuani, wrote from Asaba, Delta State.