Rule of Law on Trial as Lagos Agency Flexes Muscle

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The illegal demolition of an event centre/green house along the Lekki Phase 1 road setback belonging to an APC chieftain, Kayode Otitoju, is set to put to test Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s avowed commitment to rule of law. Samuel Ajayi reports

When Julius Kayode Otitoju conceived the idea of an event centre and green house at the road setback adjacent Cable Point Estate at Lekki Peninsula Phase 1, a highbrow part of Lagos, little did he know the business idea would not mature for him to reap benefits from his investment. Reason being that on Monday May 9, this year, officials of the Lagos State Physical Planning Department led by one Oyeniyi Adebambo, came down and descended on the edifice which was almost completed. They did not come alone. They came with caterpillars and other earth moving equipment. Complementing the team was a detachment of men of the Nigeria Police Mobile Force. By the time they were done, they had reduced the edifice, which has cost over N22m to rubbles.

Otitoju’s grouse was not the demolition per se, but flagrant disregard for rule of law as the land has been subject of litigation at a Lagos High Court with Suit Number LD/2625LMW/16. Ironically, the case was to be heard on May 19th. But those who, according to sources, have unfettered access to Lagos State seat of power, deployed such powers and Otitoju event centre and green house was reduced to rubbles.

The land in question is a road set back of 55 metres. Otitoju had approached the New Town Development Authority, NTDA, for leasing of the land via a letter with reference number NTD/PPD/002/Vol.II/88 dated 16th February, 2000. While the lease was granted for 15 years, he was, however, told that there should not be physical structure on the land.

 “That was why we did not build any permanent structure on it,” Otitoju told THISDAY during the week during an interview. “Even the event centre was not a permanent structure as you can see. It was a kind of structure that we used iron pillars and rafters and corrugated aluminum roofing sheets and of course, aluminum and glass windows.”

Little had the project started that Murhi International Nigeria Limited, owners of the land after the road-set back kicked against the construction of the event centre/green house. Their claim was that since they owned the land immediately after their own, which was the set-back, should automatically belong to them. This was despite the fact that there was an existing lease for Otitoju’s company, Jukot Nigeria Limited, on the setback.

Apparently relying on his influence within government agencies in charge of building and construction in Lagos State, Murhi International Nigeria Limited owner, Kunle Gbadeyanka, was said to have brought Lagos State government officials to serve stop work order papers on Otitoju. The first to come was NTDA, which originally gave the lease of the Setback to Otitoju in the first place, and Physical Planning Department. To come last was the Building Control Department. While the NTDA said the Setback belonged to Murhi International Group, Physical Planning Department said it was a buffer zone between the main road and the land overseeing Cable Point Estate. The three government agencies had same message: Otitoju must stop work even if the three agencies described the land under discussion differently.

On January 18th this year, the Lagos State Building Control Agency, LASBCA, wrote a letter with reference number LASBCA/IK-VI/PET/CN054 and addressed to Otitoju’s company, Jukot, inviting him to a meeting on Friday 5th February. The letter also requested him to come with relevant programmes that showed that he was the true owner of the land. Otitoju went to the meeting with the letter of NTDA allocating the land to him in 2000. He also attached the letter of allocation from Lands Bureau with reference number LB/314/5.17/37 dated 9th August, 2001. There was also the Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning development permit with reference number OPP/LUM/539/28 dated 24th July, 2003.

However, Otitoju smelt rat when the minutes of the meeting, which was chaired by the head of department of Inspectorate and Quality Control, was sent to him. In the letter, Otitoju was said to have agreed to the demolition of the structure. He was shocked and he knew there was obvious connivance between Murhi International Nigerian Limited and officials of the Building Control Agency. Apart from that, his name was even mispelt as ‘Otitoloju’ instead of ‘Otitoju’.

“I had to write a strongly-worded letter to the Building Control Agency and I highlighted everything that was discussed at the meeting and I let them know that there was no time he agreed that the structure be demolished. I also copied the state Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, the commissioner for physical planning as well as executive secretary of Lands Bureau.”

Not relying on the letter alone, Otitoju had also approached prominent citizens including a former president who was said to have got in touch with Ambode and the governor was said to have promised to look into the matter. It remains to be seen, however, if the governor remembered to do that. Otitoju now decided to approach the courts to stop the demolition plan since it had been his words against theirs as the minutes of the meeting, obviously doctored, had ‘agreed’ that the structure be demolished.

“What shocked me was that they discountenanced all the documents, which they themselves asked for, proving that the setback in question was actually leased to me by the government. Rather, they said I agreed that the structure be demolished. How could I have done that.” Otitoju explained.

In suit No LD/2625LMW/16 filed and pending in the High court of Lagos state, in the Lagos Judicial Division filed on March 11th, 2016, Otitoju had, through his company, Jukot Ventures Nigeria Limited, joined Murhi International Nigeria Limited as well as the Lagos State government as respondents. While the suit was still pending and hearing fixed for May 19th, officials of the Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning came to the structure on Monday May 9th and effected the demolition.

Otitoju, through his lawyers, had filed another motion against Murhi International Nigeria Limited as well as the Lagos State government under Justice (Mrs) Obadina. The motion read inter alia: “notice brought pursuant Orders 38, Rule and 39, Rule 1 of the High Court of Lagos State (Civil Procedure Rules 2012) Section 6(6) of the 1999 Constitution and under the inherent jurisdiction of the honourable court Suit Number LD2625LMW/16.”

The motion also seeks an order of “mandatory injunction compelling the defendant to re-erect and/or rebuild the claimant/applicant green house/events centre hitherto standing on the claimant’s portion/parcel of land situate, lying and being at Plot 2 and 2A of the green area air-marked for horticultural purposes in Lekki Peninsula Scheme 1 demolished by the defendants on 9th May, 2016 during the pendency of the claimant’s suit and motion for injunction.”

Otitoju, himself a chieftain of the ruling All Progressive Congress, APC, told THISDAY that he was shocked that a government agency could still act the way the Physical Planning ministry acted when a valid court order was served it and it acknowledged same. When asked if he was sure those who came for the demolition were actually from the ministry, Otitoju, who was one time governorship aspirant in his native Ekiti State, was sure.

“The policemen that came with them were from Alausa and they did not just commence the demolition straightaway. They went to the Lekki police station and incidented the action with the divisional police officer in charge. While it was an illegal exercise going by the pending court case, they were actually from the ministry.”

It remains to be seen how Governor Ambode will handle the case; especially going by the governor’s determination to ensure that all agencies under his government play by the rule book. But for now, Otitoju is counting his loss while return on investment has been put on hold. At least, for now.