Michael NnebeSaturday, July 12, 2014
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ometime last year I watched the Chief Marshal of Nigeria's Federal Road Safety Corps on television updating Nigerians on the activities and improvements at FRSC. I encountered him on at least two local television networks; AIT and Channels, where he spoke so enthusiastically and so eloquently about how the FRSC is going about and changing things in Nigeria for good. Although I did not know the Marshal before, I was so happy and proud of what he was doing that when I ran into him at Next Shopping Mall in Abuja the following week along with a mutual friend, I made an effort to give him a handshake with these words, "Keep up the good work bro…" In those TV appearances I saw, especially the one on AIT's "Focus Nigeria" with Gbenga Aruleba, Mr. Osita Chidoka (The Marshal) demonstrated how the FRSC can now monitor any one of the hundreds of FRSC checkpoints across the entire country from their head office in Abuja. They not only have a tracking device but also a live video monitor of all their men's activities along every highway in Nigeria. I was impressed to say the least.

But I have this habit that originated from the exchanges and agreements between Reagan and Gorbachev in the 1980s where Reagan adopted the mantra of "Trust but verify" in all his dealings with the then Soviet Union. Unfortunately I tend to adopt the same mantra when I'm dealing with pronouncements from any Nigerian agency or politician. Mr. Chidoka spoke about how he was building a formidable central database of all driver's licenses in Nigeria. He talked about how this could become the first reliable national biometric database from which Nigeria can easily build upon other things such as the National ID cards, voters' registers, and so forth. But the FRSC Marshal also said something the seriously caught my attention and made me rather uncomfortable for some days. He admitted on national television that upwards of 60% of our current driver's licenses are simply fake, even those that were previously obtained from the legitimate government agencies like various states licensing offices and FRSC offices. I was astonished to hear this from the Oga at the top himself.

Mr Chidoka offered a website where anyone can simply go and log in to check whether their current driver's license is real or fake. He spoke of how Nigeria Driver's License is now acceptable all over the world, and that many agencies in Europe and America have recently been calling his offices to verify some Driver's Licenses carried by Nigerians in those countries. He confessed that he had several times advised those foreign agencies that the license in question was a fake license. I immediately imagined myself driving somewhere in Europe, being pulled over by a traffic police and proudly pulling out my Nigeria Driver's License, only to be accused that my license, which I obtained through a FRSC office was indeed a fake one. Obviously I could not wait to take such chances, so I immediately logged into the FRSC website the next day to see if my own driver's license was real or fake. Well, in spite of the Marshal's optimism on television, I tried repeatedly for more than two months and was unable to log into the FRSC website. It was just too slow to open and even when it opened could not do the search I needed, in the end I gave up my efforts to find out.

The truth is that I was not really surprised. In spite of Mr. Chidoka's lofty dreams for the FRSC, most of our government agencies are not well funded to be able to accomplish their desired goals. Anyway, after trying for a couple of months without success I gave up trying altogether. Then earlier this year I ran into an old friend who unknown to me was working as a senior officer at FRSC. I narrated my plight with his agency's website and what I was trying to find out. He offered to take my driver's license number and look it up for me at his office. I quickly made a copy for him, and he called me the next day to confirm the obvious. I had apparently been driving with a fake driver's license in Nigeria for the past three years. This was a license I obtained directly from the FRSC offices in Enugu. At the time they told me that their "capture" was not working, asked for my passport, and a few days later gave me a driver's license from Rivers State. I protested that I did not apply for a Rivers State Driver's License, and I was assured that all states are under the same FRSC and that I should not worry as long as it identifies me with my Enugu address. After much reassurances from these government officials I assumed that all was well, and even traveled to various countries with this very license.

On a few occasions I had been stopped along various Nigerian roads by FRSC men and women and asked for my driver's license. Each time I proudly pulled out my driver's license, which they examined and handed back to me. One FRSC officer actually took my license to their vehicle to check it against their database, and he equally came back and handed the license to me without any incident. After all these encounters who could blame me for believing that I have the real deal, but of course, all along, I carried a fake Nigeria Driver's License in my back pocket without even knowing it. Well, after this shocking revelations I immediately ran to the FRSC office at New Market in Enugu to apply for a new biometric license, but I was flabbergasted at the huge crowd I saw. I finally found an FRSC officer who agreed to process my papers at his convenience but at a fee. The bottom line is that no matter who or where you process your papers, to get the real biometric license you have to come back in person to do the verification and the capture. After my papers were ready it still took me three frustrated days to finally get my picture taken, and even at that all I got was a temporary license that lasts for only two months.

Although my current license had a two month's lifespan, I have been reliably told that it may take upwards of six months to get the actual license. Unless the big guys at the top are squandering their budget, which is typical in Nigeria, I seriously believe that the FRSC is way underfunded. For example, if you want to get or renew your driver's license here in Enugu, there is only one office you can go to in the entire state. And even when you get there, there is only one verification computer and one capture camera for the entire state. They told me that a few more offices have been opened elsewhere, but as at May this year none of them have the ability to capture your photo for the license. Who knows how many they have at their central processing center in Abuja, perhaps not enough, otherwise it won't be taking six months to a year to process one driver's license. A few days ago, President Jonathan nominated the same Chidoka as a minister to replace Stella Oduah from Anambra State. I have no doubt that he has the zeal and passion to continue the transformation at the aviation ministry if indeed he ends up there. But it takes serious funding to make a difference in these agencies. Oduah was largely successful because of the unprecedented amount of funding, including half a billion dollar loan from China that was used to redesign and refurbish many of these airports.

As for the Nigeria Driver's License, here is my advice to you if you currently have one in your pocket, and especially if you currently live overseas or traveling out there with it. Please be very careful how you brandish it when stopped by traffic police overseas. Unless you have recently obtained a new biometric Nigeria Driver's License, there is a 60% chance that you are currently driving with a fake license out there. The only difference now is that unlike before, any of those foreign agencies can call the FRSC and verify whether your license is real or fake. At the very least it can be very embarrassing, but even more so, these western police are unlikely to believe that you are only a victim of people who work at a Nigerian government agency. There is no need to send you to FRSC website to find out, I'm afraid I might just be sending you to be frustrated as I was for more than two months. If you obtained your license more than two years ago, perhaps you should simply consider going for a new biometric license next time you are in Nigeria. If you insist on driving with your old driver's license overseas, you may well be driving with a fake driver's license and in spite of your innocence I hate to contemplate the consequences that may befall you somewhere in Europe or elsewhere.