Hamzat: Supreme Court will Resolve VAT Issue Based on Our Constitution

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The Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Dr. Obafemi Hamzat has been quietly providing formidable support for his principal, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to implement six priority areas of the administration. Hamzat spoke to journalists a fortnight ago on the ongoing road projects across the state, resolve to enforce anti-open grazing law, legal fireworks over collection of value-added tax (VAT) and policing constraints in the state. Gboyega Akinsanmi was there

Traffic congestion is worsening in Lagos metropolis. This has been traced to the deplorable state of roads, which is costing motorists a lot. What is the state government doing about this situation?

We have done quite a lot. We are still doing a lot to resolve all these challenges. However, I have listened to a statement that a road is a death trap. People use that statement to describe a deplorable road. If you look at it critically, it is not bad roads that kill. I read reports of Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) every quarter. Based on FRSC reports, 67 per cent of deaths on roads is due to drunkenness, while driving. If you go to any part of the world, especially New York, New Jersey and other states in the US, they do auction of cars involved in accident every week. Their roads are good. So, the question is our driving habit and the way people drink cause death. If you are going to Abuja through the airport, you will always see scenes of accidents.

Can you give an update of what the administration of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has been doing in terms of road infrastructure?

In terms of road infrastructure, we decided to concentrate on high-traffic moving areas and opening new roads. For example, we are expanding Lekki-Epe expressway from Eleko junction to Epe. That is about 21 kilometres. Currently, it is a one-lane road, though it is actually two lanes in some areas. But we are expanding it to a six-lane highway with about three or four bridges. So, the essence is that we must start to move traffic away from the highway. We are also expecting Dangote Refinery on that corridor. We must make sure we expand that road. That is a concrete road, and we are expanding it to six lanes. It is a money gusher. It is expensive, but it has to be done. Like you said, our city is growing heavily. Therefore, we have to focus on the main load-carrying capacity roads so that we can distribute traffic effectively along the corridor. We have awarded the regional road. We need to do it because Fourth Mainland Bridge will be in that area.

Since 1999, nearly all administrations have been working on the Fourth Mainland Bridge. Yet, the project has not come to fruition. Now that the state government has resolved to concession it, when will the project come on stream?

The Fourth Mainland Bridge is important to us as a state. It is parallel to the Lekki-Epe expressway I just mentioned. There is a reason it has not been built. It is not viable for the public-private partnership project. Generally, investors are looking for what is viable. They are not going to bring their money to just build roads for us. They will build with a projection to get something at the end of the project. If it is a public-private partnership project, what is in there for them? The Lekki-Epe is a Grade-7 road. What it means is that the road can take maximum number of vehicles it can take. But that does not mean other vehicles are not coming.

If we build Fourth Mainland Bridge that takes traffic from it and also brings traffic from Ikorodu back to it, you are populating that road. Therefore, there will be gridlocks at both ends if we are not careful. And as such, we need to build another road that is a bit parallel and that will take off vehicles to other places. That is why we are embarking on regional road. It is massive. It is about 10 or 11 kilometres. It allows us to take traffic from the Lekki-Epe expressway and make Fourth Mainland Bridge very viable. Already, we are rounding the process of concessioning the bridge. We have three concessionaires shortlisted for the project. They are all international companies. Very soon, we will make our decision on the Fourth Mainland Bridge public.

Can you provide more details about the concessioning of the Fourth Mainland Bridge project? Can you tell us more about the concessionaires? When will the project finally commence?

There are processes for project concessioning. First, the process is not 100 per cent in the hands of public servants. They are not the only set of people handling it. There are experts working on it. So, Fourth Mainland Bridge may cost as much as $2 billion. It is not a project that I can say I know enough. We brought in experts from different parts of the world to come and manage it. However, the experts brief us once in a while. It is not a process that is 100 per cent with Lagos. We are working with our consultants to make sure that the project succeeds. Initially, there were about six international companies that expressed interest in the project. Currently, the number has come down to three or four companies. So, it is difficult for me to tell a specific company. Even now, the companies are coming together to handle the project. There is a Portuguese company. There is a Chinese company. I think Julius Berger is also part of them. But now the companies are coming together. I do not know what it will come to be eventually. But I assure you that we will make everything public by the time final concession is done. Let us wait for the outcome of the process.

In specific terms, what other areas in the state is the state government focusing on in terms of road development?

We are focusing on roads in other areas. For example, the road that comes from Deeper Life to UNILAG is one of such roads. We have a lot of institutions along this corridor. We have UNILAG there. Federal College of Education is there. We have Yabatech there. It allows us to move people from one end to another end. So, we are looking at strategic areas, where we can actually move people in mass. As we award new roads, we are also fixing existing ones. As at June, Public Works Corporation has rehabilitated more than 198 roads apart from those we did at the ward level.

One of the things we did at the ward level was to call all our councilors. We have 377 councilors in Lagos. Since they are the closest to the people, we asked each of the councilors to tell us a specific project he wants in his ward. We asked them to consult with the people. Majority of it turns out to be roads, though some want schools, viewing centres, public healthcare centres. In terms of road, we are doing a lot to make sure we plan the transportation needs of the state. However, we cannot overbuild our city. No society has been able to do that. If you go to London, you notice that the roads are too small. But they are managing it.

In Ajao Estate, restive commercial motor cyclists, better known as Okada operators, killed two senior police officers fortnight ago. Besides activities of Okada operators are a source of concern all over the state. Beyond rhetorics, what is the state government doing about okada operation?

As we all know, the law is there. But that law must be enforced with the support of security officers, especially the police and the rest. One of the things we must do is to make sure we get every person involved in terms of enforcement. Honestly, the killing of senior police officers at Ajao Estate was quite unfortunate. The day after, it was in national dailies that 60 suspects were arrested. That process is ongoing. The suspects will be taking to court. Even at a point when we were enforcing the laws, people were saying Lagos State was clamping down on okada. As you know, the law was passed long ago. As a government, what we intend to do is to keep enforcing the law. In order to do that, we have security meeting, including the military and police officers. One of the reports we got was that some law enforcement officers owned some of the motorcycles being used for okada operations. We had internal discussion with the law enforcement officers. We told them the need to enforce the law without bias or prejudice. This is the law, and it must be enforced with the support of security officers. That is ongoing as well. Very soon, you will see that the presentation will get better. We cannot allow lawlessness.

Lagos State has completed the process of enacting anti-open grazing law. Now that the law is in place, when is the state starting enforcement?

Yes, the anti-open grazing is passed. It has also been signed into law. Interestingly, people ask these questions from time to time. The fact that we have been doing something in a specific way does not mean we will continue to do it. I will give you an example. My own maternal grandfather went to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and spent 11 years there. At that time, they trekked to Saudi Arabia for Hajj. Or some went on horse. The man spent 11 good years. People thought the man had died. It was 37 of them that left Lagos for Saudi Arabia. Only about four came back. Some died on their way. Some decided to stay there. Some decided to stay in Libya. That is the reality. So, why are people now going by plane? Things have changed. And things are getting better.

The question is: Is it good to migrate cows for 100 kilometres? In other jurisdiction, it is animal abuse. People go to jail for such an offence. There is a young boy that follows the herd all through the way. Where does he sleep? Where does he eat? Where does he go to school? As a people, we must ask this question: Why do we treat ourselves this way? Something is wrong. Unfortunately, we weaponise issues in our society. We do not even look at issues rationally anymore. If you milk a typical cow in Nigeria, it is about two litres per day. If you milk a typical cow in The Netherland, it is almost 18 litres. The meat is tender. They are big, massive. We can see ranches all over the world. So, we should do better for the animals and the people doing that business. Let us just do the right thing as a people and forget about fighting.

Lagos State subscribed to Western Nigeria Security Network (WNSN), codenamed ‘Operation Amotekun’. But Lagos State is the only state that has not set up its own Amotekun corp. What is delaying it?

If you notice, the Amotekun Laws in other states took its roots from Lagos State. You can call it any name. The law itself is an offshoot of Lagos State Neighbourhood Safety Corps Law. The law is working very well. It is almost the same as Amotekun law. The essence is: What do they do? They collaborate within the region. As long as that is being done, we are satisfied.

Currently, the dispute about VAT is now at the Supreme Court. The 1999 Constitution is very clear about which government can collect VAT. With the politicisation of VAT dispute, what are the options before Lagos if the matter turns otherwise?

We all signed up for constitutional democracy. In this context, the court will interpret our constitution and adjudicate on the matter. It is all about our constitution, which we all agree to abide by. When the court finally decides, everybody will abide the judgment. If the court rules in our favour, we abide by it. If the court rejects our plea, what can we do? But note, it is purely about the interpretation of the constitution. Let the court interpret. We must have this type of discussion in our country. It might be tough. But we need to have it. I do not see any problem at all. Let the court decide and then we move on as a people.

During the #EndSARS protest, a lot of public assets, especially high occupancy vehicles (HOVs) and courts. One year after, the assets have not been refurbished. What is the government doing about it?

I will tell you about the histories of other democracies. In the South of the United States, you notice that there are no public transport buses. It was during the riot of the south that those buses were burnt. The governments decided that if people did not want buses, they should all drive. That money does not expand. It means you must take that money to somewhere else because it is the same purse. If something has been built, how do governments get funds? Governments get funds from taxation, borrowing or whatever it is. If you borrow, you tie it to borrow in some cases.

So, I cannot change it because the basis of borrowing that money is the project. That is why we have a committee saddled with the task of designing a plan to rebuild those projects. In terms of functionality, for instance, all our high courts are operational, though not in the same place. For example, you know Osborne. There are about four courts in that axis as we speak. There are courts in so many areas like Osborne. It is not the building that is important. It is material and records. They are gone. But we are working with lawyers to retrieve some of these documents back. It is not about the building. We can rebuild the courts. But how can we retrieve the records? Like I said, the judges are working elsewhere.

With the aftermath of #EndSARS protest, morale of the police has really gone down. This is a real challenge for security of lives and property in the state. How is the state government addressing this challenge?

Police are human beings. A great philosopher once said the moment you fight your law enforcement officers, ensure you make deal with the criminals. You see what is happening in the United Kingdom now. People are protesting some police officers committed crime, even murder. Does it mean the UK will now decimate that institution? We went to Ajeromi-Ifelodun Local Government Area. There is a small police barrack. Women came out from the police barrack. Some of them lost their husbands during the #EndSARS protest. Some of their husbands were maimed. Police too are human beings. So, it is not just a question of what we are going to do about it when some people just lost their lives. If a journalist lost his life on duty, you know what it means.

The challenge is: In a democracy, how do you voice your anger? As a people, first of all, we must understand that we are not under colonial rule when you are a hero if you fight against colonial government. I think we still have that mentality. If you are a prince for example and the seat of king is vacant, people fight for it. Does it mean you should kill each other? The moment you do not get, you calm down. The same is the case in a democratic dispensation. You see what is happening in the United States within the same Democratic Party. It is not to go to war. We must sit on the round table and discuss about the challenges. With due respect to the police, it is part of why we said we should restructure.

The state governments do not decide the number of police deployed to Lagos, Oyo, Sokoto or any state in the federation. As we said, we support the police, the army and other security agencies to make our state safe. Despite our support for the Nigeria Police, we must understand that policing is not within the control of the state government because we do not employ police officers. This is part of the challenges of our federation that we have to look at.