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We were asleep while they built

By Josef Omorotionmwan

HOUSING administration has always been a major problem in Nigeria. It was in 1984. I had just been appointed Chairman, Board of Directors, Bendel Development and Property Authority (BDPA). The books were in bad shape and there were many defaulters around. Many who bought the Authority’s houses were heavily in default in their repayment.

Worst hit was the mortgage loan department where government was taken for Father Christmas and loans granted public officials to build personal houses were simply not being repaid.

People were perhaps not properly informed that the facilities they were enjoying came from borrowed money. The Authority had gone to the Capital Market to borrow money partly for on-lending and partly for the execution of the Bendel State Housing Stock. Amortisation of the capital market loan was around the corner.

My board had a duty to perform. If we were to succeed, government business must be taken as somebody’s business. We first issued threat notices of our intention to go public on defaulters who remained adamant after a given date. Some didn’t believe us.

At the expiration of the notices, we went public. The Nigerian Observer and the Daily Times were quite handy. The publication of the list of defaulters was accompanied with dates when we would meet all those who still remained adamant in court for forfeiture proceedings.

There was a pathetic case of this humble Professor. He was one of the beneficiaries of the Authority’s housing loan. Ten years earlier, he had borrowed about N20,000. He invested part of the amount in the acquisition of land and the balance was used to commence development. In fact, the house had reached roofing level when he went there one Monday morning to find that it had been pulled down because he was said to have bought the land from a wrong owner.

The Shylocks destroyed Professor’s structure and started building on the land, day and night. The place was fortified with fierce-looking thugs and military hirelings.

Bala Mohammed
Bala Mohammed

At the time of our publication, Prof’s loan balance had risen to N35,000. He had no house; no land; and he was threatened with forfeiture, even where there was nothing to forfeit at that time. Our court case was still hanging over his head, hence he wept profusely when he appeared in my office.

In land development in most major cities, community youths have virtually taken over the functions of the Town Planning Authorities. While the youths are very active, town planners have gone to sleep. If you want to try your luck, just start building without paying the fees of the area boys. They will find you out in less than six hours. Besides seizing your men and materials, which would be released only after you have paid the last kobo; most times, they would give you the beating of your life time.

Clearly, the Federal Government has a lot to learn from the area boys. In the dominion of the area boys, no house can be built without their knowledge.

But in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), anybody can begin to build while officials are asleep. They may wake up years later and roll in the bulldozers.

This first came to the fore during the era of Mallam el-Rufai as Minister of the FCT. Years after people had completed their houses and moved into them, the Minister moved in the bulldozers and pulled down the buildings, describing them as illegal structures.
We see aspects of sadism to all this. Otherwise, the best time to check a trespass or non-compliance is when it is just occurring, not years after it has occurred. It smacks of insensitivity to begin to pull down completed buildings. Apparently, you were asleep while they built.

Did the allottees of those wrong plots allocate the plots to themselves? Somebody somewhere was derelict in the performance of his functions. How many such officials have been beheaded or brought to book in any form?

Still, things are getting incrementally worse. On Tuesday, 4 December 2012, the current FCT Minister, Senator Bala Mohammed, while defending the FCT budget estimates for 2013 with the Senate Committee stated that authorities of the FCT were set to demolish 31 illegal estates.

Hear Bala Mohammed: “The FCT Administration is empowered by relevant laws to carry out demolition of illegal structures in any part of the territory… There is a lot of impunity in Abuja and we have evidence where we tell developers not to go on with building without master plan but they will not heed.”

In the kingdom of the area boys, they would constructively stop any developer from developing rather than allow him develop for later destruction. The FCT Administration that is empowered to demolish cannot say it had no power of enforcement to stop development at an early stage.

Meanwhile, the Senate Committee is asking the wrong questions. Why are they begging the Minister not to demolish the estates instead of asking him to account for the administration’s dereliction of duty? Do houses sprout up overnight? For all we know, houses are like farms – you cannot hide them.

The FCT Administration that I know has a large body of town planners, enforcers and inspectors of all shades. Apparently, they went to sleep while developers went to work.  Who pays for their slumber? That’s the question.

An essay of this nature should end with a prediction: Sometime someday, somebody somewhere will seize part of the Eagle Square, Abuja or even the Aso Rock Villa while FCT officials will be asleep and before they wake up, a magnificent personal mansion will be standing there! When they wake up years later, they will only reach out for the bulldozers. Before the bulldozers go to work, there will be the rude awakening that the land on which the mansion stands had been used as collateral for some oil subsidy transactions! It sounds incredible but that is a clear direction for our future!


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