Demolition at Midnight

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Raheem Akingbolu

Setting up a business enterprise in a state should, normally, be a laudable achievement for a businessperson and more importantly, a source of pride to the state where the venture is domiciled. After all, governments all over the world are in business to protect lives and properties and improve the welfare of their citizens. It is also the government’s responsibility to encourage investment in their territory and protect already established businesses, by ensuring there is a considerable ease of doing business.For an entrepreneur, his joy knows no bounds when he secures land and capital, two very important requirements needed in setting up a business venture. These two components, when obtained, set the wheel in motion for other essential factors of production.

 However, despite embarking on an aggressive campaign to position itself as the leading state for investment in the country backed by its old famed description as the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria, the Lagos state government is treading a different path in recent weeks.

Recently, it embarked on a demolition spree of citizens’ places of business, in areas such as Isolo, Mile 2, and Iponri, all in the name of restoring sanity to the state’s physical environment and securing the lives of Lagosians. While the state might justify its actions with cogent reasons, carrying out such activity with dreadful impunity, destroying people’s livelihood without recourse to the plight of the victims, especially during this period of economic recession, depicts how the state government indeed caters for the wellbeing of its citizens, the same people who elected them into power.

 The Lagos state government bulldozer was, unfortunately, in action yet again on Friday, February 3, 2017, as it demolished a gas station, Olupese Oil, situated in the Oshodi area of the state.

 Like a thief in the middle of the night, the government’s demolition machine moved to the petrol station just after 11 pm on that fateful day, flattening the entire place to rubbles. Properties destroyed include five dispensing pumps, four generating sets, and the freshly installed canopies. Aside the destruction, the station’s supermarket was looted by touts, its underground safe was broken and emptied, while its fifth generator, which could not be moved, was completely stripped.

 In addition, all major documents, computers, and other electronic devices belonging to the oil company were buried in the debris.

Speaking on the incident, Administrator, Olupese Oil, Chief Abdul Abayomi, questioned how the government could embark on such a disastrous exercise, despite a court order restraining the state government from conducting any demolition activity.

A visibly distraught Chief Abayomi said the land had been in existence since 1979 and was allocated to Meshack Babatunde Adeyemi, a retired personnel of the Nigerian Army by the Federal Military government at that time.

According to Abayomi, the initial titleholder of the land got the relevant approval from the Ministry of Works to build a petrol station on that land in 1992, which was in existence even before the construction of the Agege Motor Road, and also got a Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) licence.

After the death of Adeyemi five years ago, the children of the late soldier leased the land to Abayomi to ensure continuity of the business. Upon completing all agreement formalities, Abayomi subsequently refurbished the station and remodeled it to a modern gas station.

However, despite the petrol station being in existence for over three decades, the Akinwumni Ambode-led government since its inception in 2015, had insisted that the petrol station must give way for unspecified reasons. Empowered by the Land Use Act of 1978 (as amended), which vested ownership of all lands in a state in the state governor (except lands already occupied and reserved for the federal government), and the Urban and Regional Planning and Development Law of Lagos state, which was enacted in 2010, the state government ordered management of the petrol station and occupants of other buildings on the land to vacate the area and threatened to demolish the buildings.

 Other occupants of the land, including a bank, had a nasty experience last year, when they received a seven-day notice from the state government to vacate the land. The state government consequently demolished the structure on a particular night without prior warning.

 The petrol station, perhaps, thought that they had finally been spared with their structure still standing. But alas, they got a notice from the government informing them that they were coming back for the station’s demolition.

 Aware of the imminent danger posed by the demolition threat, Abayomi, through his lawyers, M.O. Obiora and Associates, had approached the State High Court seeking an injunction to halt the planned demolition by the state government. Fortunately for him, his prayer was granted by the court, who issued an order restraining the state government and their agencies from carrying out any demolition activity on the station.

Nevertheless, despite the case filed (including a suit filed by the lawyer of the Adeyemi family in another court) and a court injunction issued, the Lagos state government decided to go on with the demolition.

Narrating the circumstance of the demolition, Abayomi said; “They were there after 11 pm in the night, the people had closed and the information we got was that after they got there, they broke the door and allowed touts to go in. They looted everything there, including the supermarket, they broke the underground safe and carried all the money.

“So, when we got there, all the pumps; about five service pumps that we used for dispensing, the generators; two of them being used by the supermarket, two being used for the station, four of them were carted away, the fifth one which they couldn’t carry, they stripped it down. That is how to tell you how wicked these people can be.”

Stating that the state government was aware of the litigation, Chief Abayomi wondered why a lawfully elected government would flout court orders and act with such impunity, despite being custodians of the law. He also questioned whether a law can retroactively decide a case that has been on for over three decades before its enactment.

“They said there was a suit whereby the Lagos state government sued the Federal government that any unused land from what they gave to them from the federal roads should be reverted to them. They won that case in 2010. Meanwhile, don’t forget that this one has been on since 1979, 1992, 1998, long before the current dispensation. Do you make a law retroactive?”, he queried.

“We appealed so that they won’t take advantage and go and demolished. They were served the papers by our lawyers and it was not only given to the ministry of justice, it was served to the Commissioner of Physical Planning, Abiola Anifowoshe. He was served and a copy was given to us and they said they should not do anything to jeopardise the process. But what did we see?”

 Quantifying the economic impact of the station’s demolition, Chief Abayomi disclosed that the equipment destroyed were worth several millions of naira and that it would be extremely difficult to purchase such items back, considering the volatile foreign exchange rate as all the products were imported.

In his words; “TheTo erect the destroyed canopies, you will probably need about N6million, because it is very expensive. Now, look at the pumps; they are double-sized pumps, they are about N3.5-N4 million each. Look at the generators. So, you know how everything has skyrocketed in terms of prices. The asset loss in total is about N100 million, in addition to the supermarket there, even the buildings and other facilities and equipment, it would be hard to quantify them. I am not even talking about business, what we have lost in terms of revenue. It’s so expensive to set up a station now. That place, we set it up almost anew over four years ago.”

He also wondered how the employees of the station, over a dozen plus people, will fare, especially in this period of recession, taking into consideration that their livelihood had been snatched from them in a heart-wrenching manner.

Chief Abayomi berated the Lagos State Commissioner of Physical Planning, Abiola Anifowoshe, over the demolition of the station, claiming that he ignored relevant documents backing up the establishment of the station on the land. He also questioned the motives of the commissioner and the state government for the destruction of a property that was approved over 30 years ago.

“Even if you have anything to do, all you need to tell is ‘okay, come and update certain documents.’ I carried all the relevant documents to the Commissioner of Physical Planning, he said he’s not interested, we are demolishing. We now went to court, knowing fully well that they would do everything with impunity”, he said.

Probing further, Abayomi asked; “Can you see it disturbing anything? That land was up to the middle of the road. It was the road that came to meet the land in development, it was the road that shoved part of the land. The question here is; did this station constitute a danger to the public? And the federal government had done something in the past years, must you now destroy it for a law that you enacted in 2010? Does it mean that every building that was in place before that time must be demolished because the Lagos State government has now been given the right over the land?”

Efforts to get the commissioners response to the issue were not successful.  But giiving his views on the issue, a lawyer, Barrister Kabiru Akingbolu, said the state government can take possession of any land in the state, regardless of the time-frame of the enactment of a law.  He, however, stated that if a property was demolished without prior notice from the state government and a subsisting court order issued by a competent court of jurisdiction, halting the demolition process is in place and  served on the respondents (state government), then such action is “illegal.”

“Government can take over a land at any time, it does not matter when the law comes into enforcement”, he said. “The law can take its course at any given time and the matter in question, if it has to do with road expansion, a market, or a school, the government can repossess a land, so far it would be used for public good and not for a private venture.

 “But if there is a subsisting court order, then it is illegal what the government has done and the court will declare it as so. If the victims challenge the action of the state government in court, the court will issue a contempt of court order to the Lagos sSate government and the particular ministry involved. The court can also issue an order to restrain the government from taking further action on the property until the case is concluded.”

 Barrister Akingbolu also stated that the state government could have lots of questions to answer if the victims have not been adequately compensated.  He said; “In terms of reclaiming the land, the government has done nothing wrong, but the question is: has the government compensated the people whom they have asked to vacate the land or demolished their property. And if they were compensated, were they adequately compensated? Those are some of the questions the government will need to provide answer to.”

 For now, the legal battle continues in the courts, while the livelihood of several persons and the prosperity and legacy of a business from which the state government received taxes from had been severely affected.