OPINION: Egunje Spoil Lagos, By Tope Fasua

ambode

In the mid-90s I lived in the same estate in Oke-Afa, Isolo, Lagos with the lewd Fuji exponent, Obesere (Baba-Tosibe), as he reeled out his local sex-themed songs back to back. I never met him but some of his songs were catchy. He belongs to the early genre of musicians who promise heaven and earth with their sexual endowments (always overrated anyway) – something that has now become standard fare among our many youthful musicians (including those ones who attended foreign universities).

Onoshe Nwabukwu wrote in The PUNCH this past weekend about how the word ‘bum-bum’, which was deemed offensive a few years back has now become almost desirable as a song title.

But Obesere sang one song about Lagos. He said ‘Egunje’ (bribery) has spoilt Lagos and everyone who works with government openly demands a bribe from Lagosians (saa ba mmu – just give me). This phrase later metamorphosed into ‘ki lo ba de? – How much comes with it?’ – a question which many civil servants ask whenever a file passes through their desks.

It doesn’t matter how much is involved, Lagos is a desperate place and no one has started the process of its exorcism. It is that desperation you see at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, where people hustle and beg you for money right from drop-off to the point you board. It does not know tribe. Once you are posted to Lagos – at least for civil servants – you develop the spirit of begging.

You must understand and perfect the art of singing praises and corralling gifts. Not even Osinbajo’s executive order about the airports has been able to reduce this level of desperation. And for Lagos police, the nasty experiences with them are still fresh on my mind.

I have three experiences to recall about doing business in Lagos. There was a guy who worked for one of the rich parastatals. He would always call my organisation, demanding for brochures, and quotations. He has been doing that since 2007.

After several years of obliging him with no business coming through to us, he made a mistake one day and called some of my staff to send him copies of our receipts, and also a sample of our training certificates. That was when we knew he had been taking money in our company’s name and only calls to get documentation to regularise this. In another instance, when I was lucky to facilitate a retreat for directors in the then Governor Fashola’s office, I was shocked at how many clerks called or waylaid me because they had seen the file.

They wanted in and would let you know they could ‘miss’ the file if you refused to deal. In yet another instance involving a federal parastatal in Lagos, what I got were anonymous calls trying to find out information, and basically grilling me for information because they wanted to snatch the hard-earned job for another company. Wo, Lagos is desperate. Lagos needs to slow down. For the pursuit of money is breaking people’s necks.

And the guys who get into government are the biggest culprit.

Take Ambode. Soft spoken and outwardly amiable – even though it was rumored that he had issues with Fashola and was laid off from the service – I personally did not give him much of a chance but he soon showed he could shake things up in the old Lagos.

Lagos became cleaner and a bit more orderly. He did little things like lay-bys which no one seemed to have thought about. I even liked the fact that he was dynamic in moving his commissioners around and laying some of them off. Soon, he was receiving ratings better than Fashola’s, and people started to think he was his own man, that Tinubu was not breathing down his neck

Then he showed true colour; once a Lagosian, always a Lagosian.

The missteps of Ambode manifested in several ways:

  • Bringing a British Company (via Dubai) to come clean Lagos: As much as I am big on environmental issues and hailed his Cleaner Lagos Initiative, I don’t believe there is anything about sanitation that we cannot do ourselves. In fact we MUST do it ourselves;
  • Imposition of a stratospheric Land Use Charge, which he has had to reduce due to protests;
  • Imposition of fees on boreholes: Punishing people for a necessity due to government’s failure.
  • Arbitrary jerking up of toll fees – without regard to the fact that the people have not received any increases in salaries or that the business environment is strangulating most SMEs;
  • Increasing by several thousand percents, omotor vehicle registration and renewal fees.

Lagos has put a bad hue to a great environment programme called the Cleaner Lagos Initiative. And this is how it happened: the sharp boys were looking to make money. They weren’t particularly looking to fixing Lagos. Or rather the urge to make money got the best of them. This is why the first thing they did, in their bid to clean Lagos, was to launch a N50 billion naira bond, at 17.5 percent per annum, for five years!
The problem with Lagos – and many places led by smart guys in Nigeria – is that they are experts at giving bad names to otherwise great ideas. I had written about the need for vehicle tax in Nigeria on this page and elsewhere, but there is the issue of timing, as well as optics. A government that will increase vehicle registration fees from N1,000 to N40,000 must really come with clean hands. It must be popular, and must have given a lot to the people in the hope of getting back.

This is not the case in Lagos presently. I just viewed a short clip where Ambode explained – amid much applause – that the State is increasing its fees because it had created more infrastructure. Most of the developments in Lagos in the past two decades are concentrated on the Island and Lekki area. Also people can claim double-taxation if within the period of ‘rapid infrastructural development’, they’ve been paying their normal taxes.

The timing is also wrong because we missed it from the very top. After three years of the All Progressives Congress’ unmitigated disaster, the people will surely resist anything that will take so much out of their pockets.

To make matters worse, we saw the news of a spike in motor vehicle license fees, just a day after a scandal broke that the former director-general of the vehicle licensing agency, Folly Coker – who has now been elevated to a national position as director-general of Tourism Development – allegedly bled that agency alongside his wife, for as much as N3 billion. How can you increase fees in an agency mired in fraud?

Then the issue of Land Use Charges. The handling showed that those in government have taken their own brand of desperation to even higher levels, or have now started to believe their own propaganda. We saw the valuation of a nondescript house in Omole, Ikeja, upon which the government put a value of N600 – N900 million and therefore a yearly Land Use Charge of N4.5 million!

If a simple four bedroom house should be worth that much in Omole – or indeed anywhere in Lagos – the government should be very worried, because 80 percent of Lagosians live in poverty. The beauty of a city is when an increasing number of people can afford the luxuries it throws up. There is a reason why thousands of high-end buildings are unoccupied in Lagos presently.

Those in government should not delude themselves just because they have access to money. Matter of fact, Bill Gates and some respected economists are predicting another global economic meltdown. Nigeria must begin to listen to these trends at some point. We cannot just sit here and wait for every crisis to hit us.

Let us settle on the matter of environmental sanitation. There is great prospect here. I wrote as much in my last book Change Is Going To Come. I was just pouring my heart out then, but I was pleasantly surprised when Professor Pat Utomi, at the recent DAAR Communications Awards, talked about provisional employment for our undertrained youth and it dovetailed with what I had in mind.

I had recommended that Nigeria does something about its millions of unemployed youth and that a good way to start was to launch a programme called “Cleanest, Safest and Most-Organised Country in Africa”, where we could key in our youth and offer them three to four hours work daily. It was meant to be a behavioural change programme. Of course APC passed up on it and headed into the jungle. Now only ANRP can give effect to such.

Lagos has put a bad hue to a great environment programme called the Cleaner Lagos Initiative.

And this is how it happened: the sharp boys were looking to make money. They weren’t particularly looking to fixing Lagos. Or rather the urge to make money got the best of them. This is why the first thing they did, in their bid to clean Lagos, was to launch a N50 billion naira bond, at 17.5 percent per annum, for five years!

The arrangers of the bond made almost N1 billion from the deal (and of course a chunk of that will head back to the big boys). The bond locks Lagos State into a ten years bondage which has already commenced, even though Lagos has never been dirtier.

That they had to go to the UK to bring a company to help process our waste is spiritually, morally and economically wrong. The entire approach leaps over the people. Our smart boys make a classic mistake; they always think they have arrived.

They forget that there is no way a nation can develop if its people do not develop. That is the problem with Lagos today, and indeed the other flashes in the pan that we commend around Nigeria. That is the same way Osun was put into debt by the smart chaps Aregbe hired.

This same environmental approach was used to transform India. Only that they involved their people. India’s Narendra Modi had a mind to clean up India and launched the Swacch Barat (Clean up India) project. He targeted the stoppage of open defecation and has convinced a broad swathe of India’s 1.3 billion population to build toilets in their backyards, even if they have to sell their jewelry.

The project has seen the construction of 75 million toilets in the rural areas. Imagine the amount of small construction, and the productivity it has unleashed among masons, plumbers and the rest? No wonder the Indian economy is growing in leaps. The project has been so successful that the richest man in the world, Bill Gates had to visit India and wrote an article about it.

 

But in Lagos, as in most of Nigeria, our pretend leaders would rather rush into the capital market or bring fake investors because they are interested only in making money; money that they can’t even spend. That the Lagos government is totally deluded can be found in the fact that they included the name of a company, Alpha Beta Consulting, which is allegedly owned by the master of Lagos, Bola Tinubu, in a law, for the collection of land fees!

 

Imagine trying to cement a private company into a public law!! That was enough for Ambode and his cohorts to resign. The delusion is further manifested in the type of ‘stakeholders’ that Lagos State invites to justify its new trips. Jim Ovia – perhaps Nigeria’s richest man in cash terms – was the one justifying the increases on behalf of the government, while promising to double his contributions to the security fund. Jim? That guy doesn’t represent 0.01 percent of Nigerians. He’s in a world of his own. Fantastically loaded! He can say anything he wants.
As for the filthy environment, I know that all over the world, those who engage in environmental services are a mafia but Ambode played into their hands. He must back down immediately and consult his conscience. And Lagos will need a massive programme of exorcism from the spirit of money-grabbing and desperate corruption.

Let me close out by looking at a BusinessDay article which captures what really went on with this Visionscape environmental deal. It is just pathetic.

“In an unprecedented move the State Executive Council at a meeting held on March 21, 2017 passed a resolution to secure the financing structure adopted by the Consortium to raise funds for the project via issuance of an Irrevocable Standing Payment Order (ISPO) as a charge on the State Internally Generated Revenue account/ Environmental Trust Fund…. This meant the Lagos State Government was basically agreeing to be on the hook in case of default for a N50 billion bond programme the Visionscape Group through its SPV was set to issue… (A letter was issued conveying a monthly) remittance of the gross sum of Seven Hundred and Thirteen Million, Seven Hundred Thousand Naira Only (NGN713,700,000) as a first line charge from the revenue account of Lagos State Government which is to commence in June 2017 and terminate in June 2027… The consequence of this is that in a 1 year period the state would spend N8.56 billion as guarantees for the bond and be on the hook for about N85 billion over the 10 year timeline on just this one transaction… Armed with the letter, the Visionscape Group now began to market the first tranche of its proposed bond issuance, a N27 billion, 17.5 percent, fixed rate 5 year bond due 2022, to high net worth individuals. Ratings agency Agusto & co rated the debt offer from the relatively unknown SPV an A+ largely on the back of the Lagos State guarantee.”

 

Well, everyone got in on the action. Note that Visionscape the ‘foreign investor’, just like Etisalat, raised money in Nigeria. They didn’t bring in a dime. And LASG guaranteed the borrowing, so it is Nigerians vs Nigerians. ‘High networth’ individuals bought into this under the table. The focus was not on how to better the lives of Lagosians and make us attain a higher level of humanity.

It was all about the money – the egunje that spoils Lagos. It is also part of a desperation to cover up grounds over past borrowings. The concept of leading a country via massive foreign borrowing may yet be the death of Nigeria. Lagos owes more than many sovereign countries around the world.

Yet the money did not pass through the hands of majority of the people, who still live in want, penury, filth and stench. The best development approach in my view, is people-based, like what the Indians have done. They didn’t rush to the capital markets in India. They rushed into the minds and brains of their people and got them working, thinking and producing differently. Shame on Nigeria’s leaders.

BusinessDay reported further;

““Lagos has gotten progressively less transparent today, they don’t even bother,” said Tunde Leye, Consulting Partner at SBM Intelligence. “Under the previous Governor Fashola for example, even though the budget was not detailed, you could find procurement information on the LASG website (that’s how we knew how much he spent on the website or boreholes for example). We know exactly the cost of building the Lekki Ikoyi Bridge. Compare to Ambode where we do not know how much he spent to build the Ajah flyover or anything else. Civil society has tried to invoke the freedom of information (FOI) act repeatedly but they have either been ignored or blown off. Lagos is very opaque.””

So there you have it. Lagos State government is embracing more and more darkness and opacity in an age of technology and total transparency. They should go to South Africa and see the level of transparency in government. Ambode has presently lost perspective if he ever had any. All these observed lapses in an age where everyone has become a reporter, makes Lagos look very bad.

As for the filthy environment, I know that all over the world, those who engage in environmental services are a mafia but Ambode played into their hands. He must back down immediately and consult his conscience. And Lagos will need a massive programme of exorcism from the spirit of money-grabbing and desperate corruption.

Tope Fasua, is a Policy Analyst