New Sub-urbanist: Why a Nigerian editor loves the DMV in America

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Emeka Izeze was sharing highlights about his time as a visiting scholar at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University as we drove along Highway 1 in Southern California on our way to a non-profit board meeting.

“I obtained my driver’s license in Cambridge,” said Izeze, the former editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper in Lagos, Nigeria. “And I have to tell you what was extremely impressive: the Department of Motor Vehicles!”

The comment was so stunning I had to record a podcast with Izeze to more fully understand why he was a fan of an institution so universally loathed by Americans. Our shared misery in getting a driver’s license at the DMV form a staple of comedy in the United States. For example, comedian Dane Cook once quipped, “I had to go to the DMV. Or as I like to call it, “Satan’s A–hole.” Other comedians such as T.J. Miller, Brian Regan and Natasha Leggero have joked about the DMV. “The only thing worse than waiting in line at the DMV is finding out you have AIDs,” Leggero once said.

So, at first I thought Izeze was also joking. But no. He was serious. And I had to know why he felt so positive about that government agency we find so repulsive, bureaucratic, inefficient and anal-retentive. Was this the equivalent of hearing French historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s impressions of America in the 19th century, except we are hearing from a Nigerian man about his impressions in 21st century America? And does it offer any lessons for retaining rule of law and good governance as we rethink policing and racial inequality in America?

“I was surprised that everybody [in America] complained about the licenses,” he said, during our podcast interview. He said he liked the institution because “I just found that there was a system, and I knew that the system exists. You either prepare to meet up with the system or the system catches up with you. I really liked it.”

The first time Izeze visited the DMV in Cambridge, Mass., he forgot to bring all his documents. So he had to return a second time. He had to pass an eye test, then a road test. “Oh! I did very well!” he said. “I mean, if you are being tested, you have to be at your very best.”

He was shocked he was allowed to pay for his license on the spot.

“I was thrilled that right there at the vehicle license office, I was directed to a computer to just key in your name,” he said. “As I did that, I found all my details, the date of arrival, where I am staying, when I’m leaving, all of that in the system.”

He observed that rich and poor must bring documents, come to an office, do an eye test and follow the rules. By contrast, in Nigeria, he said people create shortcuts and don’t find clear rules the way they do when obtaining a license in Massachusetts. He noted that some officials expect small bribes or tips for them to fetch your driver’s license.

So Izeze was shocked when the DMV staff said his driver’s license would be mailed to him and four days later it arrived.

“This is something else that doesn’t happen at home,” he said. “Back home, you have to return to the DMV, wait from one office to the other.”

Izeze said the process of getting a driver’s license reflects on overall rule of law and orderliness in a society. He said if he cannot trust that a driver’s license is obtained legitimately, how can he believe that drivers are safe on the roads or that roadways are safe?

“For me, societies that work are societies where little things work,” he said. “Little things like knowing a process for getting a driver’s license, having to go through the process to drive legitimately in such a society.”

He said he yearns for Africa to learn from the DMV about how to do things in an orderly, predictable manner. “Africans should begin to look at little, little things,” he said. “Let’s begin to reform our processes.”

Izeze said the failure of good governance also relates to the religious character of African countries. Many Africans are devout in their faith, whether Christian, Muslim or other. “You don’t see righteousness being reflected,” he said. So a challenge for ministers and religious leaders in Africa is to be champions for justice, for rule of law and for orderliness.

Izeze thinks the African churches have a huge opportunity and role to play in developing good citizens and good governance.

“What they ought to do is preach and persuade the people to behave well,” he said, noting that people are apt to listen to a religious leader and “employ that message, internalize it and then allow the message to regulate and condition their conduct.”

Izeze said his driver’s license is good for five years or so. He visits America regularly and enjoys taking road trips. They provide him time to think and reflect about the United States and his own country.

“Why am I making so much fuss about it?” he asked. “If you follow the process, if you have good government operating, the society will be better… Taking a road trip here is always a pleasure because the roads here are good.”

Paul Glader is executive editor of ReligionUnplugged.com, an award-winning, non-profit news outlet that covers religion in public life. Glader is an associate professor in journalism at The King’s College in NYC. He is a former staff writer at The Wall Street Journal. Glader is on Twitter @PaulGlader.

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