A GENERAL’S PASSION FOR SLUM DWELLERS

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BABATUNDE REIS

Unlike many Nigerians, he has no village to return to. Most of his kith and kin live on this small island between Isale Eko, Ikoyi and Victoria Island. As a child, he observed how the quality of housing affected every area of their life. People in poor accommodation were vulnerable and burdened with physical and social ailments like teenage pregnancy and all manner of things. But Babatunde Reis, a retired Brigadier General, is determined to change the equation. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports

Growing up in Isale Eko, the core homestead of Lagosians (the Islanders), in the 1960s, certain unsavoury images from the housing condition of those days stuck to his mind. Till today, many of his cousins still live in that neighbourhood with open gutters running through their living quarters. On the flip side are relatives who pulled themselves out of the disgusting condition and now reside in what may be considered the privileged part of town – Ikoyi, Victoria Island. Right before his eyes, he witnessed how types of shelter define one’s development. This became the single major influence that shaped his life.

Assumedly, Babatunde Reis distanced himself from squalor in his teenage. He was commissioned into the Nigerian Army at 19 when he was yet an undergraduate of the University of Lagos, studying Architecture. Even though he tried to explain his preference for a course in building design as a means of escape from engineering which appeared to require more school time, the underlining persuasion from his childhood was apparent. True, he had a natural flair for drawing – Technical Drawing. This ability to sketch developed at a very early age-about the same time he learnt to read and write. Therefore, Architecture was a course that naturally played to his strength.

As the journalists wanted to know his preferred seat before they took theirs, he waved them to feel at home. A huge painting from the Oshogbo Art School hung on the wall of his living room and this triggered a question on the kind of portrayal that he was versed in. Distancing himself completely from Fine Arts, he even refused to be linked to design architecture. He is not one of those with the ability to fuse arts and architecture. For him, Architecture is a means to solving problems. Being able to build some aesthetic value into that solution, may be a plus (for those who can), but Reis is happy to have his works geared towards efficiency.

Somewhere along the line, Reis adopted one of the principles which has effectively anchored his childhood dream. He believes that every man is born to solve a problem in his environment. And for him, the biggest dilemma before Africa is the housing crisis – from Isale Eko to Porto Novo; from Morocco to Idi Iroko, Africans have not been able to show that they are capable of creating a controlled environment that is conducive for work and leisure. This is the one difficulty that overwhelmed him as a child and even as he triumphed over the daunting circumstance, he resolved to dedicate his entire life to untie knotty issues in housing.

Conditioned by his exposure in life and by his innate abilities, Reis rose to the challenge and lent himself to become part of the people and resources to resolve problems facing his environment. Unlike many other citizens of Nigeria, he has no village to return to. Most of his kith and kin are clustered on this small island between Isale Eko, Ikoyi and Victoria Island, enabling him to see the range of houses inhabited by different members of the family. From the most successful ones who live in Ikoyi and Victoria Island to the least successful ones who live in Popo Aguda in Isale Eko, the quality of housing made a difference to their lifes, to their health, to their wealth, to their future.

Their housing condition affected everything. The people who had poor accommodation were burdened with all sorts of physical and social ailments like teenage pregnancy and all manner of things. As a result of this, they were very vulnerable. But once problem was removed, the equation changed.

The Igbos say that when a man says yes, his Chi (personal god) will be in agreement, so without scheming, some of the biggest privileges to contribute to landmark housing policies in Nigeria have dropped on his lap. And even when he could not immediately understand where it was leading to, his Chi had it all worked out. In the particular case of the Oko Baba resttlement, what started like a play would later become a grandiose project, with Reis in charge.

By chance, his room and course mate at the University of Lagos who now lives in the United States of America was visiting at the time of this interview. Although the visitor did not intrude into our conversation, but Reis sought his concurrence many times; to which he simply nodded. One of his current projects, the Oko Baba Project was originally a term project at the University of Lagos; today it is a major urban regeneration effort of the Lagos state government.

“It was our group work to relocate those saw-millers at Oko Baba. We were to resettle them and redevelop that area. It stuck in my head that we could actualise it. When you are on the Third Mainland Bridge, you see logs floating on the water. It is quite an eyesore. The environment is degraded. This was in 1979 that we did this project in school. I was 19. When I left school and I started to interact with the Lagos State Government, I wrote a proposal offering to build a facility for the Saw-millers in return for the land. They invited us to a meeting and I found that a bank was also interested in the same development.

“The government then said ‘why don’t you work together, since the bank has money, you are a developer and you have the technical skill?. They twined us and we formed a joint venture. Unfortunately the banking reforms came and banks could no longer get involved in that kind of thing. The government called us to indicate their interest to continue the project, but said we should separate the relocation from the redevelopment of Oko Baba. We were given a contract since we already had a Bill of Quantity and scope of work. Government awarded us a contract to build that facility in Agbowa to relocate the Saw-millers. After that, we would negotiate the redevelopment of Oko Baba.

“We are currently building 250 sheds at Agbowa in Epe with modern facilities for the Saw-millers. The government has spent a lot of money there. We prefer to go into partnership. My idea is to turn that place to a middle-income housing complex like a 24-hour city, a bit like mid-towns that you have in America. Literarily, Oko Baba, Ebute Metta is the middle of the town. It is accessible to Ikeja and the Island. We wanted to build a mid-town comprising high-rise that would screen off the old Ebute Metta. When you are on the bridge, all you will see is the façade of high-rise development.”

Reis has always been ambitious. Nowhere is this determination better expressed as in his business name. With a name like First World Communities Limited, he is set to conjure certain liberties unknown to this clime. To him, life can only make a meaning when one creates a legacy that outlives him. To pepertrate his memory, he created First World Communities as a special vehicle and a means to an end. Majorly, the business of First World is to create wealth by providing habitable houses. Each house owner is made to feel like he owns a piece of the national wealth. And with iths comes a sense of of belonging.

The company was incorporated in 2008. Before then it existed in different forms, it started as Cooperative Villas. It metamorphosed into Urban Housing Cooperative that was used to develop Cooperative Villas. Through every cycle, the enduring vision was maintained. Only the vehicle for delivery changed, depending on the circumstance. The overriding objective has always been to provide housing similar to what is obtained in the first world countries, with well laid out streets.

“On the estates that we build, there is order. If you go home, you can rest. If you are working, you can work properly. The environment is conducive. We hope that through this company, we can build lots of estates that can trigger development of First World communities.”

Reis lives in Cooperative Villa, a First World Communities Limited estate at Badore, Lagos with over 600 families. An intensely private person who enjoys the company of his wife, Yinka, a Pharmacist and their children, he limits interaction with residents to occasional meetings with executive members of the residents association on key issues.

“The home is the base for family development. For a child to do well in school, he needs a good home setting where he can sleep, do his homework and go back to school the next day fully refreshed. For the parents, they need a place of rest so that they can go back to work the next day fully refreshed. The home is at the heart of growing a society and national development. You can’t expect much from a nation where much of her citizens do not have what you can call decent homes. The housing situation in Nigeria is so bad that we do not even understand the dimension.”

In conjunction with the Lagos State Government, First World Communities has introduced Easy Home Ownership. The government provides land. Through this, FWCL allows people to acquire homes at 60 per cent of the cost as the remaining 40 per cent is owned by the state government through the land they have provided for the scheme.

Subscribers can get a mortgage ranging between 10 per cent and 50 per cent of the value of the property which makes it affordable. There is another product called Lease to Own where a subscriber puts down a five per cent deposit and over a three to five year period, he is expected to transit to own a shared equity scheme. These products are unique to FWCL.

Reis is excited that these two schemes may provide a lasting solution to the housing problem in Nigeria, while opening doors to other industries. “Housing has so many socio-economic benefits. People will start making doors and windows. If you are building a lot of houses you will require more furniture, paint and so on. Housing delivery is about job creation.”

While still in the Architecture School, he was commissioned by the Nigerian Army. He immediately looked at the housing problem of the Nigerian Army. What he was confronted with is a situation where many of the barracks took their design from colonial days when the officers were almost entirely colonialists and the other ranks were the natives. At the time Reis joined the army, some of those designs were still retained. They were not edifying. He became involved in making them better, more humane and more attuned to our culture. He is very proud of this achievement.

The shopping space in many barracks, popularly known as Mammy Market, was not often a pretty sight. They were haphazardly done and derogatory. Because these markets did not have any purpose made design, they grew organically. Before graduation, he designed a prototype Mammy Market at Ikeja Cantonment. From what used to be an unsightly activity, Reis transformed Mammy Market into a context of how we like to live. The concept of a modern Mammy Market has since been improved further to include retail stores, commerce and entertainment.

Another initiative that he talks about proudly is the Nigerian Army Housing Scheme for those who retired from service. “You could live in the barracks for 35 years of your career and when it is time to go, they just shake your hands and away you go.”
Reis also had the privilege of functioning as Chair of the technical committee that reviewed the planning laws for Lagos State in 2008. That led to the promulgation of the Town Planning Act of 2010.
Contrary to the notion in some quarters that strict adherence to hierarchy stifles initiative in regimented institutions like the Nigerian Army, Reis made a shocking disclosure. “I spent 32 years in the Nigerian Army. There are many processes in the system that are enduring, that give room for, far more self-expression than I have found in the other open institutions. I had the privilege of heading a federal parastatal. I found more freedom in the Army than I found there. There was more freedom of speech and expression in the Army than I found in the civilian institutions.

“I worked with Lagos State while I was in the technical committee. The level of expression in the military is far better. Things were regimented, but we also had platforms to express ourselves. That makes a very big difference. And the military is also a very close institution.”
Vowing to keep his distance from partisan politics, Reis was the only political appointee from the military (other than the ADC to the President) to serve in a civilian administration as Executive Chairman, Federal Housing Authority (FHA) during the former President Obasanjo era.

Seldom would one find a public servant of his stature who was not enmeshed in one allegation of corrupt enrichment or another, but Reis retired as a Brigadier General after 32 years of meritorious service without blemish. He kept afloat by observing a simple law of nature his mother taught him: We become what we practice.

“From when I was in school, I always looked for ways of making an extra income. We were doing variety shows. We brought Fela to UNILAG. We sold Jollof Rice just to make extra money. We were entrepreneurship-minded from a very early age. We were showing movies when we were in A-levels. We knew how to look for ways of improving our income, not to take from the system. Sometimes, we could give to the system. That is what we have continued to practice.

“From the first day I arrived the FHA, I told them I was not going to sign any cheque. I also said I was not going to allocate any land. My job was to restructure. I did not expose myself to whatever was going on. There is no joy for people like us in winning lottery. The real joy comes from planning an event, even when we were very young and seeing the event succeed. If I make N1,000 from planning that event, I love that.

“Planning a residential estate demands bringing into existence structures that were not there before. One has to get the land clear it, build and start selling the houses or the land and we make some money from it. That is the kind of opportunity I am looking for to express my innate abilities and if I am lucky to make money from it, so be it. For all of the hard work we did for Lagos State and even for FHA, I did not get paid.”