By Muyiwa Adetiba
This is the stuff of fiction and I am tempted to start it with ‘once upon a time, there was this powerful king in a village….’ as most story books went in my time as a youngster. However, it is a true account of what went on in one of the biggest and oldest estates in the country. The name of the estate shall not be mentioned because of the several cases in court and because emotions are still very raw.
Corporate and individual names will also not be mentioned for the same reasons. However, the untidiness in the purchase and sale of the estate and the flats therein, the attitude of the managers and the residents, the relationship between them and the general lack of accountability and impunity within the estate itself are so indicative of the happenings in other estates and indeed the larger Nigerian society, that its story will resonate with many of us.
About a decade ago, two major players in the building industry came together to form a partnership that bought the estate from government. They were to renovate and sell off. Their combined brand names were enough to lend credibility to the exercise and the flats became hot cakes after an initial lull. There is no doubt that they made more than a decent profit if we are to judge from the publicised amount of purchase from the Federal Government and the publicised sale price of the flats.
But then in Nigeria, nothing is ever what it seems. And that included the hand-over date which was extended by at least three years, the poor quality of the work done during renovation and the general after sales attitude of the sellers. But because of the brand names of these two big corporate organisations, the buyers were still willing to give them a benefit of the doubt and hope that the management of the estate would be near as good as they promised in their sales pitch. After all, many bought the flats because of their brand names.
But to the chagrin of the flat owners and residents, these big owners divested within a year of managing the evolving estate in a move that was shrouded in secrecy and which was without any regard for the interests of the flat owners and residents who just woke up one morning to read about the divestment in a newspaper advert. It can only happen in a place and a country where people have scant regard for their reputations and for the legal implications of their actions.
The new administration was imperial in its attitude. Its head looked at the estate as his domain. And his actions reminded one of the biblical young king who caused the break-up of Israel. This king, according to the Bible, had been approached at the beginning of his reign by the Israeli elders to reduce the tax burden imposed by his late father. His reply was that instead of scorching them with a whip like his father, he would scorch them with a scorpion. This was almost what happened in the estate.
The residents’ executives had earlier told the previous administration that the electricity tariff was too high and it had promised a review upon an increase in occupancy rate. But instead of a reduction, what the residents got from the new administration was a 50% hike in tariff. The following year, the service charge also got a 50% hike. From then on whatever peace that was in the estate became endangered. The residents’association got mad and demanded a break-down of the running expenses.
It also demanded accountability and got the services of a top accounting firm to audit the books. The firm had to resign after two years when the management refused to co-operate. In the meantime the culture of arbitrariness and impunity heightened with the boss behaving as if he owned the estate. The Facility Management consultants were sacked under the guise of saving money. Nobody was consulted and fees did not reduce. NEPA was at a point, also disconnected and generators ran 24/7. Again, it was not discussed. Residents just found that a new, uniform flat rate had been imposed.
Whatever was commercial and revenue yielding, the management did irrespective of its ambience or convenience to the residents. For the management, it was a game of numbers and the estate has numbers. So came supermarkets, restaurants, banks, pharmacy shop and even a casino. None had the input of the residents. And if you needed a plumbing work or an electrical repair, you not only had to pay for replacement, you had to pay for the service. Yet the artisans were supposed to be covered by your service charge. And if you brought in your artisan, you had to pay a certain amount to management before he could be allowed to work. It was all about revenue for which nobody could be held accountable.
What I have just described happens in almost every estate across the country in varying degrees. A developer develops an estate, sells the houses and refuses to let go. It wants the buyers to be beholden to it for life and brandishes an agreement that has been skewed in his favour and which cannot stand the test of equity and justice as his authority. Some of the developers even strut around as if they still own the estates. The result is that no genuinely retired man can settle in these estates because his pension won’t be able to cope with the arbitrary service charge increases.
Sooner than later, things will get to a head as it did in this estate last month when the residents especially the younger ones, decided they had had enough and forced a change. And so the man who felt he owned the estate, whose word was law until a month ago, suddenly became a persona non grata. It is a lesson in the uses and abuses of power. It is a lesson for our leaders in the country who collect tax payer’s money and feel unaccountable to them. The day of reckoning will come and it can be violent. It is also a lesson that private and peace loving people can react and force a change if they are pushed to the wall.
Meanwhile, the new authority in the estate must remember the story of ‘Animal Farm’ and realise that not all changes end up as success stories. It must work hard at fairness and transparency, the two things that necessitated the change. It must set up bye laws and rules of engagements that will guide and encourage good neighbourliness. The new peace and freedom in the estate must not be endangered.