OsebumereOdia examines the current infrastructure renewal drive across Lagos and recommends aggressive but systematic tax advocacy, among others, as the way to go if the drive is to be sustained

It is pretty obvious now, that there is a deliberate massive infrastructure renewal drive across Lagos. What may not be so obvious are the deeper implications of this drive, which we will try to highlight with a few examples. But more importantly, we will shed some light on the imperative of communicating this infrastructure renewal, in the expectation that adroit communication will lay a foundation for a sustained infrastructure renewal drive well into the future.

There are many people who say they still cannot imagine the scale of work that is currently going on at Oshodi. Oshodi, only a few years ago was best characterised as a traffic bedlam and hotspot for crime, disorder and illicit drugs. For one of the most central locations in Lagos, it was yet another example of how Nigeria tended to underutilize its famed potential. The major highways leading to and out of Oshodi were perpetually congested with vehicular and human traffic. If you veered off the major roads into any of the inner adjoining streets, you would often need to keep your nostrils tightly shut to fight off the stench of urine. You had to constantly guard your pockets and belongings on your person lest they be disappeared. Garbage littered the area. Oshodi was a nightmare. That people managed to operate out of that bedlam and somehow, eke out a living was a miracle.

Today, Oshodi is undergoing an overhaul on a huge scale. It is being turned into a modern transportation hub, defined not only by connectivity but also by convenience. Lagosians needing to be transported to any part of Lagos may simply converge at Oshodi. Because it is a transportation hub, it is innately a centre of trade as well, a commercial melting pot. In addition to the intelligent network of road exchanges that are being constructed with Oshodi as the locus, therefore, high rise structures are also springing up. By the time the developers take their leave, Oshodi would have been linked directly to the Lagos International Airport through the International Airport road, a road which is undergoing its own massive transformation into a 10-lane expressway. The bedlam of old would have been transformed into a modern transport interchange, not unlike Victoria Station in London.

There will be shopping malls, cafés, cinema halls, and lots of other commercial outlets and conveniences. I wouldn’t be surprised if concert halls emerge therefrom as well, providing outlets for the hundreds of thousands of talented youngsters that abound across the state to ventilate their passion for arts and entertainment and keep themselves gainfully engaged. What used to be a dizzyingly complicated bedlam of traffic jams, confusion, crime and disorder is being steadily transformed right before our very eyes.

It is not just that turning Oshodi into a modern traffic interchange will also inject order into the place. Creating order on that axis will enhance the efficiency with which millions of people commute in Lagos. It will therefore impact positively on the efficiency of economic transactions. In addition, the facilities that will spring up in that vicinity on account of the huge traffic of people which Oshodi naturally attracts will create livelihoods for thousands of people and many who may have ordinarily been disposed to crime, will become gainfully employed and kept off the streets. The overall economic multiplier will be significant.

If you live in the Ogba-Agege axis, chances are that you spend an average of 6 to 7 hours in traffic everyday especially if you work on the Lagos Island. The reason is simple. Population growth on that axis has long exploded way beyond what the infrastructure in that neighborhood can cope with. As the population has surged so has the number of motor vehicles and physical structures in that axis. When it rains, for instance, it is increasingly difficult for rain water to find an escape route such that the few available roads quickly become flooded, hampering traffic further. Homes and entire neighborhoods suffer the same fate too. The Agege-Ogba axis is a nightmare to traverse on a typical workday.

Today, a process to redress that problem has started. As was done recently on the Ajah axis and the Abule-Egba axis, respectively, both of which shared similar problems, a flyover is undergoing frenetic construction on the Agege axis of Lagos. When concluded, it will considerably enhance the options available to motorists in that axis, and mitigate the congestion challenges. The experience of residents and road users in the other parts of Lagos (Ajah and Abule-Egba) in which such interventions have been implemented have been similar: marked enhancement of convenience and improvement in travel times and overall transaction efficiency on account of the improvement in accessibility of these parts of the state.

Besides roads, bridges and other physical infrastructure, another area where the state is aggressively working to make a difference is power. The state governor, AkinwunmiAmbode has vowed that round-the-clock electricity availability would be achieved in the state over the next 12 months, via what the state calls the embedded power project. Essentially, it would be distributing independently produced power to residents and businesses within the state.

When this eventually happens, Lagos would have finally fully unlocked the value and potential in the unbundling of NEPA/PHCN that was effected several years ago. To be fair, Lagos has already done this to an extent, in a few circumscribed areas. The Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, the State High Courts and a number of other government-owned offices are reputed to be among establishments that enjoy uninterrupted electricity supply on account of the state’s investment in Independent Power Production. The difference, however, is that with the state’s new initiative, power will become widely accessible across the state. While it is unlikely to become available on a round-the-clock basis, especially given the state of power transmission infrastructure across the state, it will very likely record massive improvement, helping to further unleash the immense entrepreneurial energy of the people. Indeed, it is exciting to merely think of how much, constant power will impact the businesses of artisans and small enterprises including hair/beauty salons, business centers, bakeries, hospitals, supermarkets and dozens more.

Elsewhere, Lagos is making its own investment in security to the extent of the difficulties that are imposed by a federal structure that centralizes policing and internal security. Massive investment in street lighting has helped to enhance security across the state. With many major streets lit at night, some of the commoner crimes like muggings and rape carried out under the cover of darkness are likely to have been considerably reduced. Deaths associated with road traffic accidents occurring on account of poor visibility in the dark are also likely to have been minimized. A Lagos Security Trust Fund has also seen the corporate world contributing funds and equipment towards bolstering government efforts. A neighborhood watch initiative, which is a community policing strategy, was inaugurated not long ago.

The above and more are some of the elements that have long helped to set Lagos far apart from its contemporaries. This is one state with an eye for the future. For this reason, its leadership is typically futuristic a trait that its governor, AkinwunmiAmbode eloquently exemplifies.

But Lagos has not attained its current status by accident. We can argue that it is a direct beneficiary of its position as a one-time capital of Nigeria. But so was Lokoja. And so was Calabar. The truth is that Lagos has been peerless at creating a welcoming environment to all and sundry. It is the one state in Nigeria that millions of Nigerians confidently call home. Secondly, the state has been more adept than anyone else at generating revenue internally for itself.

The recent infographic report by BudgIT the civil society watchdog regarding the capacity of states to meet recurrent expenditure obligations on the basis of their internally generated revenue is an eye-opener. Of Nigeria’s 36 states, Lagos was at the head of only 4 states which generate enough revenue internally to fund their recurrent expenditure obligations.

The reliance on internally generated revenue has not come about by accident. It has arisen from a systematic determination to make a difference in Lagos despite the odds.

In a clime in which citizen documentation is at best rudimentary, it is easy to see that processes like taxation will encounter considerable challenges. It is therefore, not a surprise when government functionaries moan as MudashiruObasa, Speaker of the Lagos House of Assembly did a few weeks ago for instance, that only 300,000 properties of the more than 2 million taxable properties in Lagos, actually pay Land Use Charge in the state. Poor taxation efficiency has meant that despite the successes over the years, only a small fraction of taxable adults and businesses in Lagos actually shoulder the entire tax burden of the state.

In contending with the challenge of better efficiency in its taxation regime, Lagos must embrace more creativity. It must strive to be more aggressive and painstaking in its enumeration of taxable citizens, businesses and properties. It must seek every practical means to bring taxable individuals and businesses under the tax net. In so doing, it needs to avidly deploy technology. Modern GPS systems can assist with property identification and enumeration for instance. Software also exists that can enable government become far more efficient with assuring that deductions that are made for transactions are actually routed to government.

Government also needs to more aggressively communicate it successes to enable citizens better appreciate the connection between these successes and the taxes which they are required to pay. In so doing, government has a duty to engage citizens who are legitimately irked by the fact that while they pay their taxes and levies promptly, on the micro level, development does not appear to get to them as rapidly as it ought to. There are many especially in the more remote parts of Lagos who lament that despite paying their taxes, they are still required to pay such levies as “transformer levies” for new transformers or repair of damaged transformers in their neighborhoods. Others complain that they are still required to pay levies before their earth roads are graded, while others still complain about lack or scarcity of social services in their neighborhoods including health centers, and even police posts.

In times past, Lagos would display conspicuous outdoor hoardings beside road construction works, for instance, proclaiming that “tax payers’ money” was “in action”. This was good and a strong symbolic show of the essence of taxation. We recommend that the state commences it again. Citizens must be increasingly prodded to see the impact of their taxes, if not directly on the streets in which they live, then at least in the major access roads that connect their neighborhoods.

Beyond this, there is nothing wrong with showing citizens pictorial visualizations of completed projects. For instance, huge outdoor visualizations of the completed Lagos Airport Road project and the Oshodi renewal project could considerably assuage not only the inconvenience associated with the ongoing roadwork and construction, it will significantly whittle away at the resistance people may have to paying taxes.

Lagos must also ceaselessly engage all of its stakeholders on the strategic importance of taxation and the pivotal role it plays in delivering for the state a truly desirable quality of life. What this means, therefore, is that government has a duty to consistently educate citizens on the essence of taxation and imperative of discharging their civic responsibilities.

Doing so, needs not follow the route of threatening citizens with imprisonment as appears to be so common in advertisements in recent time. It needs not imply that majority of citizens are dubious because they declare and pay far less to the state in taxes, than they ought to.

Rather, communicating the essence of taxation should entail a combination of the following: First, government must ensure that taxation is equitable. The resident in Ayobo who has access to fewer government amenities should not be expected to pay the same as his counterpart in Ikoyi or even Surulere. Secondly, government also needs to become more efficient in its taxation drive by among others deploying modern technology. In doing all of these, government needs to consistently engage the public positively with the rationale for taxation and very importantly by way of its performance, showcase to the citizens in an empirical fashion, the essence of taxation. It is easier for citizens to relate with taxation where, as Lagos has shown, there is palpable evidence of the impact of taxes collected. It is clearly more effective asking citizens to dip their hands into their earning to make payments where a strong connection continues to be established between these payments and the infrastructure changes they witness around them.

Paradoxically, despite the Herculean efforts to restore or renew public infrastructure, it must be glaring to all that Lagos still has a huge unmet need in the area of public infrastructure. Huge investments are still required in such areas as roads, bridges, schools, healthcare, public transportation, security and many more.

Hopefully, with an adroit, aggressive and impactful taxation regime, government will increasingly redress these areas where it has over the years, under-invested. In so doing, Lagos should continue to serve as a beacon and inspiration to other states in the Federation.

– Odia Economist and technopreneur, wrote from Lagos