IT STARTED as a typical inter-state journey in Nigeria would: with street vendors eagerly advertising their products, agberos (area boys) quarrelling over how to split the fare, an overloaded car, and a trip to the filling station. But there was a trait passengers soon discovered about the driver, 58-year-old Funsho Odunayo Lawal, which they found astonishing. He does not bribe policemen as a matter of principle.
It was on the afternoon of Wednesday, January 15, and the passengers had boarded a taxi at Iwo Road, Ibadan, headed for Ijebu-Ode, a town in Ogun State. There are at least eight security checkpoints between the two passenger stations but Funsho did not part with a penny at any of them—unlike what has become customary on the country’s highways.
Despite protests from travellers who thought he was unnecessarily wasting time, his approach was simply to greet the policemen politely at each stop and make awkward attempts at cracking jokes. He also prefers buying gifts, such as telephone cards and drinks, for law enforcement agents as a show of appreciation. In fact, that Wednesday, Funsho had a bag of sachet water in his trunk that he had got for that purpose.
“I am sorry, the water has become hot,” he told one officer on the way with a tone of familiarity. “I will replace the bag with a colder one when I get to Ijebu-Ode and bring it.”
Funsho started working as a taxi driver in 1987, at which time he plied the Ibadan to Akure route. But before then, he was a clearing and forwarding agent at the National Maritime Authority (now Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency) in Lagos. He had to leave as a result of policies regarding ports licence implemented by the Buhari/Idiagbon administration.
After driving his brother’s car for a while, he bought a Hiace commuter bus of his own, whose licence plate number still lingers in his memory: KW2099M. “Ah, I cannot forget,” he chuckled.
In 1998, he became secretary of Agodi Gate’s Ibadan to Akure unit of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), a position he maintained for nine years before joining the Ibadan to Ijebu-Ode park at Iwo Road.
At his new location, he has influenced other drivers to get their driver’s licences and other vital documents in order to avoid being extorted. One of them, Abbey Akanmu, confirmed this to The ICIR. “If you have all those things, even if they harass you, you can defend yourself,” he said. “But if you don’t have them, you will be the first to even offer bribes.”
If you think education is expensive…
Besides always making sure his papers are complete and up-to-date and his driver’s licence is genuine, Funsho also has his upbringing and education to thank for his resilience. When his car is waved down at a checkpoint, he tells the officer his papers are intact and, if they insist on seeing them, he shows them.
“Me I don’t give money; I don’t know about giving bribes,” he said point-blank during an interview with The ICIR.
“Education helps a lot. Whatever anybody does, if you are educated, it will be different from how an illiterate would do it. When I address a policeman in English, if he doesn’t understand, he will tell me to go,” he teased. “And, if he understands, we will interact and he will give me respect. That is one of the dividends of going to school.”
He added that education also enlightens people about their rights.
“If you give complete papers to a driver and he is illiterate, if a policeman challenges him wrongfully, he will confess to a crime he didn’t commit and pay more,” he explained.
“I know my papers are complete and I got them genuinely. My driving license is okay too. Sometimes they say the driving licence is fake, and I would ask them how they came about that conclusion because I got it lawfully. If you think it is fake, no problem, write a statement and I will meet you at your office so that you can investigate properly.
“And if you insist that the probe has to be immediate, no problem, let us evacuate the passengers and head to the station. If they examine the licence and determine it is fake, I am ready to pay the fine. And if they see that I am not easy to manipulate, they will ask me to go. I think that is how it ought to be.”
Despite being a truant as a child, Funsho is the only member of his household who continued studying beyond a secondary school education, which he received at Igbo-Elerin Grammar School, Ibadan. He later got a National Diploma in Yoruba Social Studies at the Ondo State College of Education and even enrolled for a degree programme at Ondo State University, taking advantage of a distance-learning programme. But he had to drop out after a year when the learning centre at Ibadan Boys High School was cancelled.
Even though he understands his rights, Funsho is not brash in defending them. He advised that drivers should develop a habit of saluting police officers and asking about their welfare.
Police extortion more rampant now
According to the middle-aged driver, members of the Nigeria Police have always demanded bribe from drivers, but it was not rampant in the 1980s as it is today. He, however, remembers the administration of IGP Mohammed Dikko Abubakar as a beam of comfort in the force’s long history of rackets.
Abubakar, who was Inspector General of Police between 2012 and 2014, became popular for clearing out over 3,500 police checkpoints and generally improving the welfare of officers. He also launched a code of conduct for policemen and ensured officers were sanctioned for extorting motorists or engaging in other forms of misconduct.
“That’s the only IGP I think who did his job in this country,” Funsho remarked. He recalled that the police monitoring teams were effective during Abubakar’s stint and policemen who were on the road stayed in their patrol vans to keep an eye on the environment.
In the 1980s, when the naira was much more valuable, policemen were delighted to receive 50 kobo from drivers. Funsho remembers partly because of a Rasheed Ayinde concert at Oja-Oba, Ibadan, he had attended alongside his girlfriend.
“We were spraying 50 kobo at the fuji artiste and he was praising us effusively,” he recalled.
“They could not give policemen beyond N1 then. N1 was even too much; when they couldn’t collect 50 kobo. The denominations of money have changed. Then we had sisi, we had toro[penny].”
Also, over three decades ago, Nigerians had more respect for policemen as it was unimaginable that a taxi driver would approach the highway patrol or a group of soldiers and proceed confidently.
Govt, drivers are also to blame
Various reports, including by Transparency International and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), have nailed the Nigeria Police as the most corrupt institution in the country. But Funsho believes that the greasing of palms on Nigerian highways is not the fault of only the officers. Drivers are also part of the problem.
“Once they know they have skeletons in their cupboards, they would be the ones to start preparing money to offer even before getting to the checkpoint, and squeezing cash into their hands,” he explained.
He also said the reason he bothers buying gifts for policemen at all is because of their poor working conditions and widespread hunger. He believes many of them will stop accepting bribes if the government is fair to them and their pay is satisfactory.
According to him, the shortcomings of the government are what led to the emergence of the Police Community Relations Committees (PCRCs), which have assumed the role of providing money to fix patrol vans and renovating police stations.
When the Federal Road Safety Corps was first set up in 1988, he recalls that the corps marshalls proudly did not seek or accept bribes from motorists “—but after they discovered their salaries were insufficient to take care of their expenses, they also started collecting ‘remuneration’ on the road.”
“Any means people have to show appreciation should be exploited because meeting a policeman on the road is better than meeting an armed robber,” he concluded. “Policemen only collect a token; but robbers would collect everything, if not including your life.”
Handling commuter complaints
Many road travellers are understandably used to being driven by drivers who already budget for bribes to be given to police officers. As a result, Funsho has to put up with frequent protests against his approach, which is at times described as selfish and inconsiderate.
When he is faced with such situations, he simply extends his hand to the back of the car and asks displeased passengers for money to give the policemen. “If you have something to give them, I have no problem with that,” he tells them.
“After we load N5,600 here, buy fuel worth N3,000 and pay N1,200 at the park, and then I have about N1400 left with me, you are telling me to be giving free money to the police on the road. If I travel to and fro, what will I tell them at home? That it was the police that collected all my money?
“People are always in haste; but why don’t we budget more time for travelling? If you have something to do in Ijebu-Ode by 12, try to leave Ibadan by 8 or 9 am.”
Today, Funsho may be considered a nonconformist for doing the right thing. But he knows, if the right steps are taken, people like him will eventually not be the odd one out. Ending police extortion on Nigerian roads, however, is not the duty of only the police themselves. He stresses that it is achievable only when the government is fair, drivers are law-abiding and educated, and passengers are supportive.