On January 20th, 2009 I joined billions of people around the world as we watched the inauguration of Barrack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States of America. As he along with members of his family exited the Presidential Limousine nicknamed ‘the Beast’ to walk along Pennsylvania Avenue, I noticed the licence plate on the front of the Car read ‘USA 1’ and to me that depicted clearly that it conveyed the nation’s number one citizen.
So imagine my confusion a few weeks later when I saw pictures of the new President’s convoy – Americans say Motorcade – driving on the streets of the State of Georgia and it had a different license plate “800-002”. It looked curious so I looked it up and discovered American Presidents since the year 2000 have used the District of Columbia (DC) number plates. The White House is in D.C and the license plate is both a way of showing solidarity with the people of D.C and keeping with the rule of law.
This piqued my curiosity and I decided to look up how other Heads of State and Government act in relation to the display of vehicle license plates.
In the United Kingdom, the Queen is exempted from having registration plates on her car, as she is also exempted from having a driver’s license for the simple reason that license plates and driver’s licenses are issued by Her Majesty’s Government under Her Majesty’s (The Queen’s authority). Countries with Sovereigns generally operate under this sort of arrangement with variations as applicable.
In Nigeria, the President and Vice President’s vehicles display the Coat of Arms of the Federal Republic of Nigeria at all times.
Vehicle license plates are typically displayed in the front and rear of a vehicle. They serve as a form of identification and also have a security function. Encoded in the license plate displayed are all the relevant information regarding the ownership/make/model, chassis and engine number of the vehicle (i.e. the particulars).
During my year-end vacation in Ibadan, Oyo State, I noticed a lot of vehicles being driven around without license plates or with dealer numbers displayed – these are numbers allotted to particular car dealers for temporary use.
This is quite dangerous as such cars, if stolen cannot be traced as their details are not available in the Central Motor Registry (CMR) database. This act is also a violation of existing laws in the country.
Section 10(4)(h) of the FRSC (Establishment) Act, 2007 states that it’s an offence to be on the road without a valid vehicle license or identification mark being displayed. Similarly, Section 10(4)(s) of the Act makes failure to display a number plate on vehicles an offence.
The National Road Traffic Regulations (NRTR) 2012 also provides as follows: Section 36 (NRTR) 2012 makes it mandatory for all private and commercial vehicles to have number plates which shall be fixed on them in a manner as not to be easily detachable.
FRSC in a recent press release stated that “apart from identification purposes, vehicle registration number plates are security items that are captured in the National Security Architecture and have been used to assist Security Operatives in tracking some serious national security issues. Removing such identification items from Vehicles plying our roads will not only offend the law, but would further jeopardize national security.
So this brings us to the question of why Nigerians refuse to display their number plates – either by deliberately not attaching them to their vehicles or covering them up (when they are attached).
It is basically a status thing for most Nigerians. If you drive around highbrow areas in any part of Nigeria, a large proportion of the vehicles you see on the roads either do not attach or cover up their licence plates. The more expensive the vehicle is, the less likely it will display a license plate. So Nigerians have come to associate covered up license plates as a sign of wealth, influence and power. So all the supposed ‘big men’ drive around in cars without any visible means of identification and are escorted about by law enforcement agents that should know better and uphold the law.
Convoys of powerful people in Nigeria consist of vehicles without any license plates or some with curious nondescript numbers such as –Pilot 1, Escort 1 and SPY Police numbers which cannot be traced to a particular vehicle as they are easily switched between vehicles.
Another phenomenon you observe in big cities in Nigeria are vehicles driving with only one license plate displayed. This contravenes Section 37(1) of the (NRTR) 2012 which states that the identification number plates carried by a motor vehicle or articulated vehicle shall be displayed on two plates for a motor vehicle and three plates for an articulated vehicle. The number plates shall in respect of a motor vehicle be fixed one on the front of the vehicle and the other at the centre or on the offside of the rear of the vehicle or as may be provided by the manufacturer.
Growing up, the display of vehicle license plates on the front and rear of a vehicle was a normal sight, so you ask where Nigerians acquired this new method. It comes basically from interactions with the United States of America. Unlike Nigeria that has a unified National Road Traffic Regulation, in the U.S, the States determine this so it varies from State to State. Generally, if a State issues two license plates, you are required to mount both of them. If a State issues one license plate, it usually goes on the rear of the vehicle. For those States that require only the rear plate, the stated reasoning is usually cost savings. The State only has to produce one license plate for each car and truck, but they can continue to charge the same price for registration.
The continuous use of SPY Police numbers and other specialised number plates (other than customised number plates which an individual pays for) such as’ Presidency, NASS, NANS, NLC, etc have created a culture of VVIP (these ones transcend regular VIP) that is inimical to security and national cohesion. It creates a class of citizens that law enforcement automatically defers to on sight. You have a very good chance of driving through checkpoints carrying illegal goods without being stopped once your vehicle has any of the VVIP numbers listed earlier.
The use of specialised numbers, emblems, or red beacons on vehicles is a carryover from the colonial era when the colonialists did everything they could to set themselves apart from the general populace.
In India, the government has set machinery in place to have the vehicles of top constitutional authorities such as the President, Vice President, Prime Minister and Governors to display their registration numbers. This move comes as part of efforts to eradicate the VVIP culture in the country.
Laws are only enforceable in the long run when all citizens can be held accountable irrespective of social status. For something as important to national security as vehicle identification is, Nigeria has been very lax in enforcing the provisions of the law without fear or favour.