Between Ambode and Lagos Landlords


Following public outcry over provisions of the 2018 Land Use Charge (LUC) in Lagos State, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode last week announced a downward review of the charges. While it is good that the government would respond to public opinion and make concessions, there are also those who argue that the state needs to address several other concerns which may necessitate repealing the law in its entirety. Incidentally, I foresaw this problem about 17 years ago but it would appear that the current administration in the state has refused to learn any lessons from the past.

In December 2001 when the law was first promulgated, my column on this page was titled “Tinubu Can’t Be Serious”. Then, like now, it was as if the people don’t matter, even though Governor Bola Tinubu eventually had to listen to voices of reason before reaching a compromise with critical stakeholders. I am reproducing that particular piece to remind Ambode of how the problem started, before I draw my conclusion.

About four weeks ago, three Lagos State Commissioners (Rauf Aregbesola, Oladele Alake and Olawale Edun) visited our Apapa office and they wasted no time before telling us their mission. First, the Information and Strategy Commissioner, Alake, went into a laborious explanation on how Lagos has become a mega city and the problems associated with over population. He was supported by his Works counterpart, Aregbesola before Edun, the Finance Commissioner, brought in one ‘Oyinbo’ consultant to give us a lecture with a projector.

However, even before they told us where they were headed, I knew what brought them: Lagos State wanted to introduce some levies again and they needed media support. Government officials are always very zealous when it comes to money matter so at the end, the long and short of their visit was a planned introduction of charges on property in Lagos. They said the bill had already been passed into law by the State House of Assembly in which case all they came to do was to merely inform us.

Since none of the editors owns any property in Lagos, the visiting commissioners knew we would not be much problem. Even at that, many of us were actually receptive to the idea because members of the elite in Nigeria do not like paying taxes. So if the property owner class would be taxed to develop the state, it was not a bad move. The snag though is that in enacting such a law, the people should be adequately informed while the levies should be reasonable. Unfortunately, that is not what has transpired on this matter.

In a letter dated 10th September 2001, addressed to many landlords in Victoria Island, outrageous amounts of money were charged. A copy of one of such letters sent to a property owner on Oyin Jolayemi Street (who shared it with me in confidence) reads: “Notice is hereby given in respect of the land and buildings situated at the following location… The land and buildings have been assessed in accordance with the Land Use Charges Law, 2001 and have been found to have an assessed value as noted below: N180, 981, 000. 00. The Land and buildings are being used for commercial purposes and are therefore subject to Land Use Charges of 2.50% of the assessed value. The following Land Use Charges are payable: Land Use Charges set for the year 2001—N4, 524, 525.00.”

As if the letter was written by one of those lawyers who worked under the late General Sani Abacha, it continued: “The Lagos State Land Use Charges Law, 2001 provides for penalties for delayed payment and these are fully enforceable (and will be enforced) under the law. The amount, including the penalties which will be payable in the event of payment delayed after the 15-day grace period following the due date above, is as follows: For payment between Oct. 25, 2001 and Nov. 9, 2001—N5, 655, 656. 25; For payment made between Nov. 10, 2001 and Dec 2001—N6, 786, 787.50; For payment made between Dec 10, 2001 and Jan. 8, 2002—N9, 049, 050.00.”

Now the clincher: “If payment in accordance with the foregoing is not received on or before Jan., 8, 2002, the property to which this notice relates shall be liable to receivership by the State or its appointed agent until all outstanding taxes, payments, penalties and administrative charges are paid under the law.”

While I commend Tinubu’s efforts in developing Lagos and one cannot fault his revenue generation drive, his latest decision makes no sense and he cannot win the support of the people on a patently flawed process. One, a ‘law’ that was just passed is now given retroactive powers as if we are under military regime. Two, even if a property is worth N181 million must a landlord pay N4.5 million in a year as charges when the rent on the property might just be only slightly above that? Three, is it sensible to base an annual assessment for the purpose of administering charges on the value rather than on the rent accruable on a property? Four, do the property owners not deserve to be consulted before this arbitrary law was enacted?

Even as a lay man in economic matters, I am fully aware that one of the cardinal principles of taxation is that it must be reasonable. Why is it that the authorities in Lagos want residents to pay some ridiculous annual charges that would further hike the already high rent on property in the state? Besides, when the Lagos State Government started this property assessment campaign, what they told us at the time was that it would only be for planning and not for taxes; does it mean they were deceiving the people?

It would appear that a common feature of governance in Lagos now is arbitrary regime of levies—from the council to the state. But Edun and his men in the Lagos State Finance Ministry had better put on their thinking caps and come up with a more realistic formula on their new ‘law’ otherwise Lagos property owners might be compelled to simply ignore them. Then we will see how many houses they will put under receivership in a democratic government. Even Abacha, as brutal as he was, would find it impossible implementing the ‘law’ Tinubu now wants to foist on Lagos property owners…

The foregoing, as I said, was written 17 years ago and it is unfortunate that Ambode would follow the same old route of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ that engendered a serious friction in the past. Besides, feigning ignorance on the fact that these same charges have been reviewed three times since 2001, as prescribed in the law, is, to put it mildly, rather shameful. If the governor had consulted widely, as he ought to, especially on a sensitive issue such as this, he would not run into the kind of problem he has now found himself.

In many ways, there is an underlying subterfuge and insincerity in the repeated use of ‘law’ to legitimize extortion as taxation in many states across the country today and Lagos is becoming the most notorious in this regard. Yet, hiding under law to foist on the people unpopular policies is counter-productive. In history, some of the greatest outrages against humanity have been committed under ‘laws’ passed by manipulated parliaments. But history is also replete with empires that crumbled under the weight of their own contradictions.

While I remain an admirer of the Lagos model of political succession that has engendered a measure of incremental development and I endorse taxation as a public policy, I am also aware that the arrogance of power that made the defunct National Republic Convention (NRC) to defeat the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the dramatic 4th December 1991 gubernatorial election in Lagos State may not be too far away, if care is not taken. The glaring abuse of the legislative process (with names of private companies even being written into laws) in a revenue-generating gambit that fails to take into account the prevailing economic situation in the country can only lead to one inevitable conclusion: Hubris!

Of Police and Dapchi

In what has become a familiar trick, the Inspector-General of Police, Mr Ibrahim Idris, on Monday ordered the withdrawal of all his officers and men attached to private individuals and companies. Not surprisingly, the directive was received with derision by most Nigerians who remembered that practically all his predecessors made similar pronouncement to no effect. Sadly, that in itself speaks to the rot in the police, a law enforcement institution that cannot enforce its own order!

While some ‘Nollywood Senators’ would want to retain their undue privileges, I subscribe to the idea that, in the light of the frequent invasion, by Boko Haram, of schools in the North-east to carry away female students, those policemen should be deployed to provide security. But my main concern is that Nigerian VIPs would not release the police personnel serving them, most of who have become embedded in their politics and businesses, while IGP Idris who is huffing and puffing in the media will do nothing.

It is noteworthy that on 21 August 2015, it was announced that President Muhammadu Buhari had directed the then Inspector General of Police, Mr Sunday Arase to withdraw the over 130, 000 police personnel attached to unauthorized persons and VIPs in the country so they could be deployed to confront the serious security challenges afflicting the nation. Four days later, Chairman of the Police Service Commission (PSC), Sir Mike Okiro, (himself a retired IGP) said a team had been constituted to enforce the presidential directive. “The monitoring team will have the powers to stop VIPs on the highways, airports etc, for confirmation of their status and that of the policemen attached to them” said Okiro who warned that “any erring VIP or policeman caught in such unauthorized beat, will be prosecuted”. He also said most memorably, “We cannot afford to have more than half of the population of the police in private hands.”

Three years down the line, Okiro is still singing from the same hymn book as he again lamented last month: “We cannot afford to have more than half of the population of the police in private hands”. Even a parrot cannot do better, although Okiro also explained by way of excuse: “We could not sustain the enforcement of the order on the withdrawal of policemen attached to unqualified persons in the country because of lack of fund.”

At an interactive session with Police Inspectors and other rank and file personnel selected from commands nationwide at the Force Headquarters in Abuja on 21 May 2015, then IGP, Solomon Arase spoke to the abuse of police personnel by the VIPs to which many of them are attached. “Those of you who are posted to VIPs, on no account should you carry their bags and on no account should you act as domestic servants to them. Your uniform must be respected. Anybody who wants to hire a domestic help should not use our policemen who are sent to protect them as domestic help” Arase warned but the misconduct continues without anybody ever brought to book.

In the light of the current precarious security situation in the country, it is no longer tenable that our policemen are only good at carrying handbags for spouses and concubines of ‘Big Men’ while our children are left at the mercy of sundry criminal cartels on their school campuses. Therefore, Idris must understand that it is not only his credibility that is on the line but also that of the president whose name he is invoking on the latest directive. To borrow the words of Okiro, “we cannot afford to have more than half the population of the police in private hands.”


The Amber Light is On…2

That brinksmanship is the name of the game in Nigeria today can be glimpsed from the giant billboards that now dot strategic places in Abuja with banner headlines: ‘Red Alert’. For those who pay attention, the message, targeted at the National Assembly by one Aminu Balel Kurfi (Dan Arewa), proclaims: “Frustrating the President will no longer be tolerated by the masses.”

Although the main concern of the Dan Arewa do-gooder is the delay in the passage of the 2018 budget, the underlying tension between the lawmakers and the presidency over the order of election and the orgy of killings which many politicians, across ethnic and religious divides, are capitalising upon, compound the situation as we inch gradually to another crucial general election. When you add into the mix a growing capacity of Boko Haram to cart away (and later return some) innocent school girls almost unchallenged, you get the picture of a nation under siege.

Meanwhile, as I said, squabbles over the Electoral Act are nothing new, only that we have never witnessed this sort of desperation and long-drawn power struggle. For instance, on 6th December 2001, then President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote the National Assembly, declining assent to the Electoral Bill sent to him the previous day because “…for the stability of the polity and the survival of our nascent democracy, it is imperative that only serious and creditable political parties should be allowed to participate in general elections…”

Following my intervention on this page at that period, I got a mail from Mr Sam Omatseye, the current Chairman of the editorial board of The Nation newspaper who was then a university lecturer in the United States. Reading Omatseye’s mail again yesterday, I find it amazing how not much has changed and I leave readers with his words: “I just read your column on the Electoral Act, which indicates that the political brew is beginning to take on the taste of old. Not that it didn’t before, only that its flavour lay hidden in synthetic garnishes. The frail ends are beginning to show but what I see is a sore that has encroached upon the bone. The marrow is next, and when that happens we may be faced with a Bosnia-like scenario of independent warlords. I am worried because what seems to hold the nation together is not law. Nigeria has never had respect for law, but for symbols, whether they represented absolute power or flattered an ethnic sentiment, or promised an illusory dawn. As Henry David Thoreau himself wrote, ‘The law never made anyone a whit more just’…”

NOTE: This series shall be long. Just look out for the continuation.

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