By Muyiwa Adetiba
The second day of the second week of December found me in the Land Use Tribunal office of Lagos State. It was to honour an invitation—or a summons—sent to me. The office is on the fourth or fifth floor with no lift.
Why the Tribunal chose an office like that knowing many traditional property owners in Lagos are old and infirm beats me.
The only consolation I found was that chairs were put on every floor for the retirees to rest their weary and ancient bones. That said, the officials were polite and warm. They did a very difficult job with a requisite charm that went against the usual profile of an average civil servant.
When the 2018 Land Use charge came early in the year, I thought it was a joke, albeit an insensitive one. The furore that greeted it confirmed that it was badly received across board. After a lot of grandstanding, the government appeared to back down with what looked like a downward review. I looked at what this review translated to in my case.
It was still high and in my opinion, unfeeling and unpayable because it was roughly ten times what we had been paying. The property in question was where I had used to publish my magazines and newspapers. All of them defunct now, thanks to socio/economic factors including an evolving technology that is threatening the future of print journalism generally. I had done the next practical thing by leasing parts out to pay bank loans and sundry debts.
We had a large crop of foreigners at the beginning which was okay in the sense that they fulfilled their contractual obligations as at when due. But they left as the economy continued to nose –dive. What it meant is that some parts are now empty, while some parts are leased by Nigerians. We all know the attitude of many Nigerians when it comes to fulfilling financial obligations at the best of times. And this is not the best of times in Nigeria.
Many companies are struggling, really struggling, to keep their heads above water and this reflects on how they fulfil their rental obligations. It is in this harsh economic environment that Lagos State decided to review its Land Use rates so astronomically.
Because I found the general review unsatisfactory, and because I still wanted to fulfil my civic obligations, I decided on a personal visit to the Land Use office in Alausa. The young man I saw appeared polite and sympathetic. He was either a good actor, or he was not on the same page with whoever mapped out the increments.
He explained to me that he had an aged father too who relied almost exclusively on his rental income. And that for years, he had been paying the Land Use charge for his father to relieve him of the financial burden. So he could see where I was coming from and where a lot of retirees in a country where there is no safety net whatsoever for old age, are coming from.
He promised to do something as he saw me, again politely, to the door. He did. But what he came up with was still a far cry from where we were paying, or more poignantly, from what I expected. Then came the Tribunal’s summons….
It is tough to be old in Nigeria, especially in Lagos, and in cities where the cost of living is so high. Pensions take care of just a small percentage of the populace. Even then, they are hardly paid, and whenever paid, are out of tune with the day to day financial reality. Gratuities disappear almost as soon as they are paid, filling many gaping financial holes.
Shares have seized to be a dependable pillar of support. Children no longer play the supportive roles we once played for our parents. There is no welfare package of any sort; social, financial or medical, in the state or Federal governments, for the aged in Nigeria. Medical bills soar for these aged and infirm retirees and they have to find the resources to pay them.
No wonder life expectancy is so low in the country. The aged are like an orange that has been squeezed out of its sap and sweetness and cast out into the refuse heap. Even properties that used to be such a succour to old age have fallen short of recent because of low patronage. It is in this harsh economic environment that Lagos State decided to review its Land Use charge so astronomically.
For the records, I am not against taxes or their periodic reviews. They are the oxygen, the life blood of governments. But I am against a review that is insensitive to the economic situation of the people. We are in a recession for crying out loud. People are falling into poverty in multiples of tens every second. But the opulent lifestyle of politicians makes them oblivious to the stark realities on the ground. The State needs money and the hapless people must cough it out irrespective of their challenges. Yet the State is not accountable to the people.
I am not talking about the Land Use charge alone. I am talking about sundry taxes—some people once came to my office to ask about a radio tax. And I am not talking about Lagos State alone—all the states are guilty. I am talking about multiple taxation—you need to see what a one-man business owner goes through. I am talking about value for money—projects cost far more in Nigeria than they do elsewhere. I am talking about basic infrastructure—the road to my premises has not been surfaced once in twenty-five years!
This can be used to represent thousands of inner roads across the country. I am talking about ease of doing business—simple permits take forever in the ministries. I am talking about access to funds—no country that is serious about setting up businesses for its people will condone a cost of funds in the double digits. All these stifle the growth of the people and make a descent into poverty almost inevitable. And the taxes give the poor labourers in the States’ vineyards extra burdens to bear.
Is it possible for political leaders to look inwards and cut ‘administrative and political’ costs before instituting more ‘revenue review’? Can they learn to do more with less? As it is, the led can hardly see what they are having to pay more for except the lavish lifestyle of political leaders. As it is, the only viable business in town is politics. And if this disconnect continues, then, confrontations at some stage with the downtrodden will be inevitable.