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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Letting Loose From The Law

By Banji Adisa

THE report was not supposed to amuse anybody, but that is what it instinctively did. Osun lawmakers had just passed a bill prohibiting smoking in public places - to protect non-smokers from the dangers of smoking. In fact the idea is not novel, neither is it exclusive to the state government because a similar legislation is gathering dust in the archives elsewhere. Looking at the workability of the Osun law, however, the story was unambiguous that the effectiveness of the law is in doubt as the government had not established a mechanism to ensure compliance. That is the crux of the matter, as well intentioned as the law may be.

Taking a cue from global experiences, local environmental rights activists have long engaged the tobacco companies operating in the country in a serious battle aimed at the firms' taking responsibility for health hazards they may bring to bear, directly or indirectly, on the citizens. That at least shows the great danger smokers expose themselves to, more importantly the risk passive or non-smokers face in an uncontrolled smoking environment. (Remember the case of the late legal icon, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, whose terminal illness was linked to inhaling excessive smoke during his confinement in prison in the heady days of his struggles for justice and social order? He never smoked, but the advocate of the masses had to contend with a fatal lung ailment).

Against this background, the action of the lawmakers was perfectly in order. But who will obey this law, or rather who will enforce it, considering the capacity of the average Nigerian to resist change - someone says it is natural - or to break such laws that seemingly curtail freedom, with impunity. So, who shall we send to bring the intended sanity to our society, not only on smoking but on other equally important social disorders this piece will soon touch.

Nigerians are an enterprising lot, they travel a lot; they can be found in almost every corner of the globe. It is curious that while they disregard such protective laws here, as soon as they step out of the country's shores, they obey without complaints similar legislations in foreign lands.

I recognize that any adult above 18 years is free in most countries to buy and smoke cigarettes, of course with health warnings clearly marked on the packs. There are also designated spots within cities, outside of one's home environment that is, where smokers are allowed to do their thing. That was my experience in Japan last year. The rule is simple: just move into the cubicle out there and satisfy yourself in the midst of fellow smokers). This is sensible enough, I think.

Here, the norm is that every inch of space in a public place is available to puff the choking smoke even if it is discomforting to other people. But because of non-compliance with set rules, the only option open to non-smokers is to walk away with style even though you have every right to be there like your tormentor. A smoker with a poor orientation hardly takes to correction no matter how polite. You would only be lucky if he doesn't pick a quarrel on account of his correction.

Smoking is not the only area an average Nigerian is guilty of anti-social behaviour. There is a ban on the use of siren in the traffic except by ambulances, security patrols in emergencies and certain categories of public officials. That is as far as it goes; nobody listens. Bullion vans, pilot vehicles of 'big men', private individuals and commercial motorcyclists (okada riders) are unrepentant culprits. Surprisingly, road safety escort vehicles are not exempted as witnessed on the Apapa-Oshodi expressway this Monday evening (the mad rush along that axis is always en route the airport to catch a flight). But then which ordinary law enforcement agent will stop the mad fleet of vehicles in the traffic with armed escorts in tow? This society is sick.

There was a sigh of relief the other day the FRSC banned riding on a motorcycle by the driver or the passenger without a safety helmet. Not only that, it became an offence to carry more than one passenger. My people, oh my people! They needed only a few weeks of compliance with the traffic law. Now, it's back to business with two passengers and without the protective helmets, done even with the encouragement or active connivance of passengers themselves. You then begin to wonder whether the people have any sense of value for their own safety.

Of course it is more money for the okada man and the ubiquitous uniformed men in black (did you get my drift) and certain touts from the local councils who present as law enforcement agents? The longer an okada man stays on the roads after the allowed limit of 10 p.m - for security reasons - the more cash for the uniformed men at the toll points. That is another example of a brazen breach of the law. The okada man is ready to take the risk to breach the law to charge a higher fee, assured that workers would always be stranded for lack of functional transport system. Among other dysfunctions, that is a legacy of men of the past, leaders without vision who cared less about the people they govern. Who shall we send then to effect the change we don't believe in?

It is easier for residents of a city to dump refuse right under a signpost indicating 'don't dump refuse here' and even attack sanitation officials in spite of possible sanctions. Vehicles can be parked illegally against designated points. In Abuja, the Directorate of Road Traffic services arrests an average of 140 vehicles weekly for illegal parking, in spite of road signs indicating otherwise.

For as long as anybody could remember, police Inspectors-General have been mouthing 'no more checkpoints' seen by the public as toll collection centres by officers and men. The IG emphasises motorized patrols. That is not a law in the real sense but the rule has variously been abused over time. Only a fool would think that senior officers at the desks are unaware of the deployment of their men on any particular day?

Our children are supposed to be protected to a great extent under the Child Rights Abuse laws. But this has been so ineffectual in as many states that have passed them, including at the federal level. Whether it's ignorance by parents or guardians, have the laws stopped an army of children hawking on the streets, being offered for prostitution or being subjected to physical abuse by wicked guardians? Has the abuse stopped marrying out children in some parts of the country through some funny cultures?

Prostitution is supposed to be an outlawed trade among women. Are the makers of our laws immune to patronage of the ladies of the night? The women feel so secure paying dues to some law enforcement agents in return for protection. Some officers might even be patrons of the women of easy virtues. Regrettably, the country's prostrate economy has not made matters any better for women, including female students who have been accused by the professionals of taking a good chunk of their means of livelihood.

In public hospitals in Lagos where the government has done a lot to assist patients believed to be resident tax payers, it is against the law to charge illegal fees. But a friend whose wife was in labour at a General Hospital in Isolo area narrated an ugly experience of having to pay for mundane items like detergents, gloves and what have you to get attention from the medical personnel. What a load of rubbish is this? Well, he had no choice in a matter of life and death, where some people think they hold the ace.

A lecturer in the university who charges illegally for handouts or forces students to pay for a book he managed to piece together as a survival instinct is not doing the society and the struggling parents (or students) any good. So it is for a traffic officer who extorts money from offending commercial drivers to escape the law. The list is endless.

Corruption is the bane of this society. It is hard to divorce the habit of breaking laws from corruptive tendencies of law enforcement agencies. The day that is taken care of, there is a likelihood the society would get better. It would require a lot of re-orientation though, preceded by a reordering of societal values. The awareness has to be there. But who shall we send, as we are all guilty one way or the other as law breakers?