The FCT minister needs to be more temperate in his utterances, writes Bolaji Adebiyi

Last Tuesday, Nyesom Wike, minister of Federal Capital Territory, was at it again. At a meeting with stakeholders of the FCT Mass Housing Scheme, he spoke about what appears to be a review of the scheme’s policy guidelines with respect to the issuance of Certificate of Occupancy to subscribers.

According to the official report issued by Anthony Ogunleye, director of press in the minister’s office, Wike told stakeholders of the need to shore up the internally generated revenue of the FCT due to dwindling allocation and release from the Federation Account, saying one of the ways to do that is a new charge of five million naira for CoO per unit of house in the scheme. The charge would have to be paid within three months.

Upon appeal for a reduction and graduation of the charge as well extension of time from three to 12 months, the minister declined the request for a discount but agreed to consider the graduation of the rate while extending the deadline for payment to four months and no more.

A reliable unofficial report corroborated the substance of the official narrative but complained that it was not as nice as the director of press presented it. The minister, it said, was at his combative best, talking down on the stakeholders. They either took the fresh guideline as dictated or they could go to court to challenge it, he said, warning that he was battle-ready as he had engaged 28 senior advocates of Nigeria to tackle any litigation on land matters.

From his utterances since his appointment, there is no doubt that the minister is determined and eager to succeed. But he needs to tone down his utterances and combative approach to policy pronouncements otherwise, his good intentions might be misunderstood due to his intemperance. He came into office threatening violators of the FCT Masterplan with fire and brimstone even when he had not sat down to review the state of the plan. Months after, he appeared to have been sobered by the grim reality of the situation on the ground.

The emerging review of the policy on CoO for the mass housing scheme ought to be a popular one but for its stringent conditions. In the main, it would free the subscribers from the exploitative stranglehold of developers who have taken undue advantage of the duplicity of government officials charged with the responsibility of overseeing the implementation of the laudable policy.

Introduced in 2000, the policy aimed at providing adequate and affordable housing for the residents of the fast-developing federal capital city. It was meant to fill the housing deficit gap brought about by the inability of the federal government to adequately finance its mass housing programme. The Olusegun Obasanjo administration then devised it as a public-private initiative whereby the government would provide the land and primary infrastructure, including access roads, while the private sector developer would build and provide secondary infrastructure within the estate. The developer is to recoup its investment by selling the houses and at the end of the sales submit the list of subscribers to the Mass Housing Department for the issuance of CoO to the house owners.

As is the culture in this clime, implementation became a problem. In fact, it took the whole of nine years before the Federal Executive Council could approve the policy guidelines on 14th October 2009 and was eventually gazetted on 21st October 2009. In spite of that, between the supervisory agencies, the Department of Mass Housing and the Department of Development Control, oversight of implementation became a huge task that led to the large-scale violation of the policy and its objectives.

Unable to access the financing needed to develop allotted land, most of the developers devised an ingenuous partnership strategy in which rather than build and sell housing units, the subscribers pay for the land and build specified prototypes. The result was that the objective of providing affordable housing for the low- and medium-income earners became comprehensively defeated as only the rich had access to the scheme. More frustrating was the abject failure of the developers to provide infrastructure within the estates after collecting huge sums for that purpose from the subscribers.

As relevant government officials looked the other way, subscribers had to form resident associations to develop their estates, providing basic infrastructures, including roads, electricity, and water. Despite this resort to self-help the developers not only attempted to retain control of the estate facilities they did not provide but also refused to implement the guideline which requires them to submit the list of subscribers to the Department of Mass Housing for the issuance of individual CoO.

It is against this background that Wike’s intervention would have been a relief for the house owners, who had been agitating for the government’s intervention. But as it is the familiar ways of Wike, he has a bad way of making a good case. Imposing a five-million-naira fee to be paid within a four-month time frame in the harsh economic environment of today can under no circumstances be regarded as the positive intervention the subscribers had hoped for. Of course, the take-it-or-leave attitude is a no-no. So, the minister must come to some important realisations.

Although, as he rightly said, obtaining the CoO is in the interest of the house owners as it grants them legal cover and makes their property bankable, removing it from the list of dead capital, the subscriber still has a choice on whether or not he wants to perfect his title, and whenever he wants to do so. The minister’s directive appears to make the acquisition of CoO compulsory. This is likely to attract serial litigations that will require more than his 28 SANs to defend.

Secondly, the review the minister seeks cannot be done unilaterally by him. Being a policy of the Federal Executive Council, he will have to revert to that body for approval. Except he threads softly, he would have a Herculean task pushing the review through that body as the council is not likely to close its eyes to the rising citizens’ opposition to the revision in its present state. If the minister has any doubt about the potency of Abuja residents’ lobby and capacity for resistance, what happened to the attempt of the FCT administration to impose a roadside parking fee and tenement rates in the capital city should clear that doubt.

Tired of the harassment by the FCTA officials over the arbitrary parking fee and exorbitant tenement rates, citizens first resorted to internecine civil disobedience and eventually approached the courts. They won as the courts ruled one case after the other that the administration could not impose those levies arbitrarily.

Going forward, therefore, the minister needs to return to the table and hold fresh conversations that will get the buy-in of the stakeholders. It is not everyone that needs the CoO, and those that need it should not be made to pay through their nose. Certainly, force will not work because its cost is going to be heavy.

Adebiyi, executive editor of Western Post, is a member of the Editorial Board of THISDAY Newspapers

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