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Sunday, 03 December 2023 06:31

[OPINION] Nigeria’s gale of demolitions: The missing point - Tonnie Iredia

Nyesom Wike, governor of Rivers State (2015-2023) left no one in doubt that he had enormous capacity for project development. No other governor in the history of Nigeria ever evolved his type of schedule for the daily commissioning of projects for several months without stop. His penchant for saying things as they are, no matter who is hurt, may have earned him several political enemies but no one disputes his well-deserved award of ‘Mr Project’ first bestowed on him by former vice president Yemi Osinbajo.

It was against this backdrop that his appointment as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory FCT by president Bola Tinubu provoked great expectations of Abuja almost immediately wearing a new look along with consequential collateral damage of demolitions of buildings erected on illegally acquired land or without approved building plans.

Wike lived up to expectation as his first move revealed his determination to eliminate every distortion to the Abuja master plan and make the city befitting as Nigeria’s capital. At his maiden news conference, he confirmed his readiness to tackle all unplanned structures that can compromise urban development. To all those who have contributed to distorting the master plan he said “be you a Minister of anywhere, be you an ambassador, if you know you have developed where you were not supposed to develop, your house must go down. Those who have taken over the green areas to build, sorry, our parks must come back, the green areas must come back.” A few weeks later, FCT’s Department of Development Controlidentified thousands of illegal buildings for demolition in no less than 30 locations in the territory. 

In fairness to Wike, the policy of demolitions in the FCT was not started by him. Former FCT Minister, Nasir El Rufai had in fact been more identified as the ‘demolition man.’ During his tenure, Nasir according to Mohammed Alkali, the then general counsel of the Federal Capital Territory Authority destroyed over 75,000 houses and other public property. El Rufai himself found time to explain that he had no regrets for doing what he did notwithstanding his stepping on several toes adding that he took the drastic actions to save Abuja from being turned into a slum by influential persons in the corridors of power. According to the former minister, rich and powerful elements in the military and politics had with the connivance of others cornered choice plots in the city through the back door.

If building demolitions were restricted to the FCT one would have attributed the trend to the special nature of the location as the most developed part of Nigeria with huge infrastructural facilities. But then, demolitions were also taking place in other cities. In Kano State, the new administration of governor Abba Yusuf wasted no time in rolling out bulldozers to begin the demolition of private buildings, which he had earlier declared during his campaigns, as illegal structures erected during the tenure of his predecessor, Abdullahi Ganduje. Abba had actually anchored his campaign on a promise of mass demolitions if he got elected as he accused the previous administration of splintering public assets, specifically land, and selling them to its cronies.

In Ogun State, many expect demolitions because the government had earlier marked several houses and directed their owners to remove them. According to Ola Oresanya who had served as Commissioner for Environment, the affected houses were built on drainage channels that were obstructing the flow of water. The government had warned that any owner who waited for official demolition would have to refund to government, tax payers’ monies incurred in removing the buildings. The Ogun State government has indeed, continued to express concerns over the impact of urban flooding in such parts of the state as Ikenne Local Government Area.  Like Ogun, Lagos state which has had a rather large share of demolitions and evictions in Nigeria, insists that structures built on drainage channels would be demolished.

Both the owners of demolished buildings and government spend ample time canvassing each other’s perspective. Here, the government which has organs of mass communication to propagate its viewpoint has expectedly had the upper hand. The major justification which government officials keep making is that the demolitions are usually done in the public interest. Tokunbo Wahab, the Commissioner for Environment and Water Resources, in Lagos State probably beat everybody to it last Wednesday when he shared a photo of a house built on a canal in the state obstructing the free flow of water. But we caution against over blowing the story because not every demolished building was erected on a canal or some sort of drainage channel.

Some 5 months ago, a popular newspaper had used one of its editorials to condemn the immediate past administration in kano state for allegedly carving out plots from the grounds of public schools, hospitals and utilities, and selling or distributing them to government officials and their relatives in the state. Such plots which were reportedly taken out of school football fields, and also in-between classroom blocks, for the construction of shops for commercial activities cannot be justified. It is generally believed that right from the days of the Maroko saga in Lagos state, the motivation for the acquisition of plots and the demolitions of buildings in certain Nigeria cities is obviously not altruistic as government officials would want the public to believe. 

The constant resort by some Nigerians to illegal acquisition of land or the construction of buildings, without appropriate approvals, is unacceptable. But if the people miss that point, a greater miss is the failure of the government to provide shelter for its citizens as seen in the huge figure of housing deficit in the country. In his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, the legendary psychologist, Robert Maslow, had persuasively described shelter as a basic right. Interestingly, the Nigerian government despite Section 43 of our constitution which sees citizens’ shelter as a right, is yet to accept it as its duty to the people. Citizens ought to be motivated rather dissuaded from getting sheltered. Indeed, the sanctity of the subject as clothed in the next Section 44 of the same constitution abhors compulsory acquisition without compensation.

The real missing point in Nigeria’s demolitions is the failure of government to sanction insider abuses. To start with, government at the point of enforcement has a habit of not separating citizens in possession of approvals from those who have none. Once demolition is pronounced by the political head; everyone, the innocent and the guilty suffer same fate. Besides, many approvals which turn out to be phony were the handiwork of public lands and housing officials serving or retired.

Nothing is known to have been done to them. If government was ‘demolishing’ such deviants from work the way they send bulldozers to penalize acclaimed wrong owners, building demolitions would have since been drastically reduced. But it is never so; instead such perverse personnel remain at work and more often than not, advance to the highest grade thereby encouraging the growth of such cabals and perpetuating their misconduct.

If other leaders claim not to know, minister Nyesom Wike cannot because he has made public how such officials had attempted to extort funds from him even as governor of Rivers state. It is therefore obvious that no one can really claim ignorance of the existence of the cabals because their methodologies and operational patterns hardly change. Why for instance is it that buildings get demolished several decades after they had been completed and occupied? Where were those who become super active during demolitions when such buildings were at foundation levels? Is it not an open secret that the real meaning of sign X placed on any building to stop further work is for the owners to visit the enforcement officials for settlement?

Some demolitions may no doubt be inevitable. But in such cases, government must proceed and function with a human face.  All those involved in the breaches necessitating demolitions which should include government officials should be equally sanctioned. Since we are in a democracy, punitive and ‘surprise demolitions’ such as midnight actions should be avoided even where court approvals have been secured. Victims should never be given grounds to imagine any form of discrimination. We all desire beautiful cities, just as we all deserve affordable shelter.

 

 
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