... a controversy that refuses to go away
Life at the Lagos International Trade Fair Complex has since returned to normal. The controversy over planned concession of the complex by the Federal Government has faded. And the picture of what really transpired has become a lot clearer.
When on March 18, news broke that gates to the Trade Fair Complex were locked, and traders denied access to the building, it quickly took ethnic colouration and spread fast. It was initially alleged that the Lagos State Government was attempting to take over the place. But it was false alarm.
It is important to clarify that neither the Federal Government nor the State government had any hand in the decision to lock the complex’s gate. The whole controversy, it was revealed, was stage managed by leaders of market unions, notably Chief Daniel Offorkansi, President of Auto Spare Parts and Machinery Dealers Association (ASPAMDA), to deter the federal government from proceeding with the planned concession
“Those union chairmen simply connived with the director of the complex and decided to lock the gate,” one trader, Sam, explained. “They never called any meeting to discuss it. They simply took the decision to see if they can cow the Federal Government and prevent them from concessioning the place because they have sold the lands.”
How it all began.
Politics of The Trade Fair Complex is in itself complex. The place, as is common knowledge, is dominated by traders of South East origin. But while friction behind its walls is often viewed from the outside in the context Igbo versus Yoruba, there is more pronounced interstate rivalry among the Igbo themselves, especially over who gets to lead which union. People of Anambra origin, sources say, are having the upper hand. They currently head most the unions in the complex. In a sense, they see themselves as superior.
“They (Anambra people) often insist on appropriating most leadership positions, and on being at the forefront of everything. Otherwise, they fight you,” Sam noted.
It had been against the run of play when in 2007, the complex was concessioned to Aulic Nigeria Limited by the then People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government. Aulic happened to be a company promoted by Professor Nick Eze, from Enugu State. He had out-bid several other bidders at N40 billion in 30 years for all 322 hectares of the complex. Having won the bid, Aulic paid N200 million stipulated fees and the concession contract was signed by the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE), the Lagos Trade Fair Management Board (LTFMB) and Aulic.
But the idea of an ‘Enugu man’ being the concessionaire didn’t sit well with those who felt they should have been the right people to own the place. Besides, Eze was a member of ASPAMDA and had served as its assistant secretary when the union traders were in Idumota.
“Because they know him,” one of the unionists who gave his name as Mayor said, “they were upset that the government gave him the right to manage the Trade Fair.”
The concession never really took off. In 2000, the Olusegun Obasanjo government entered into a lease agreement with the various trade unions, including ASPMDA, Association of Progressive Traders (APT), Balogun Business Association (BBA), C-tempo Group, Mandilas United, Association of Nigerian Tyre Marketers (ANTM), Lagos International Trade Fair Plaza Owner’s Association, Tools & Hardware Dealers Association and Mike Express Company Limited … all of which make up Trade Fair Stakeholders Forum (TFSF), in addition to the Catholic Church, which was duly gazetted. The lease agreement is for 50 and is renewable for 49 years, which will bring it to 99 years on total.
Under the arrangement, the LTFMB managed the areas housing these unions. The traders paid ground rate to government through the board. The concession to Aulic therefore, meant that the agreement had been broken. The company was now going to manage the entire complex.
The traders and leaders of the various unions, many of who, incidentally, had also bid for the concession themselves, but lost out to Aulic, protested to the government, in part because they could not secure the concession themselves. The government eventually carved out the affected areas and returned them to the Trade Fair Management Board to Manage, while the traders paid ground rates as normal. Aulic was therefore left with undeveloped areas.
In 2015, there was change of guard in Abuja. The All Progressives Congress (APC) government of President Muhammadu Buhari came on board. Aulic had gotten the concession under the PDP government. Ezeh had been a member of the PDP. The APC government said the concession was illegally done and accused Aulic of not remitting any money to the federal government.
In 2017, Senate ad-hoc committee probing alleged misuse of revenue, under remittance, and other illegal activities in the accounting, remittance and expenditure of Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), chaired by Senator Solomon Adeola, accused the company of failing to remit N6.5billion accruing to the Federal Government under the contract it signed with PBE in 2007.
Aulic however dismissed the claims as untrue, maintaining that it had not earned the money since it had been stripped of the right to manage the portion of the complex where traders are. In the end, the government scrapped the concession agreement and handed over the entire complex to the Management Board now headed by Mrs. Lucy Omosefe-Ajayi as Executive Director.
While it was in charge of the undeveloped parts of the complex, Aulic did not sell off landed properties. However, that changed with the return of the complex to the LTFMB and the consequent appointment of Mrs. Omosefe-Ajayi as Executive Director.
She was said to have sold the undeveloped lands to leaders of the said market unions, who in turn resold them often at exorbitant prices.
“The woman sold to them extension of land different from the one government originally gave (ones covered by the lease agreement),” a member of one of the union who craved anonymity said.
“She sold the extension to some presidents. In turn, they were selling it at high price. Some were selling N20million, others N25million for small spaces. And the money they were selling those spaces was bigger than the entire money we are paying for the whole place in one year under the existing lease agreement.
“The presidents of the unions would bargain with the board and pay for instance, N100 million into TSA for a space, then they will begin to divide the space into quarter plots and sell them for between N20 million and N25 million. Thus, they could make up to N400m from the place they bought for N100m. Other people became upset about the business and began to expose them.”
The source explained that the funds being realised by the presidents from the land sales became another source of rift.
“Those who had served as presidents in the past but didn’t have that opportunity became angry. Some started going to court to challenge the illegal transaction.”
According to him, that was when the government got a wind of what was going on and decided to concession the place.
Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, Minister of Trade, Commerce and Investment, the Ministry in charge of the complex, was said to have written to the unions through the BPE, giving them hint that government was interested in concessioning the complex.
Officials of the BPE, at the behest of the Minister was said to have held a meeting with the unions, during which they were advised to pull resources together to put up a strong bid for the concession to avoid a scenario where another group or persons from outside would secure the concession and take over management of the infrastructure they had built.
“Representatives of government advised us that since the place has been built, we the unions should organise to bid because others will still bid and if outsiders win the bid, they will manage us,” the source said.
“The meeting was a fruitful one, but later the union presidents started playing their own tricks. They wanted to use the trade union to cow the government to forget the idea of concessioning.” This, he said, was why the presidents decided to lock the complex’s gate.
Union Presidents’ headache
The challenge is that over 75 percent of the complex had been bought up through the Board and union presidents’ arrangement and structures, including complexes and warehouses have been built. Concession means that these structures built would be managed by a concessionaire.
This is why ASPMDA, President, Chief Offorkansi, ANTM President, Alhaji Isah Mohammed, among others, are kicking against the move.
Offorkansi is insisting that the government should not concession the places that has been bought and built up.
“Between year 2000 and now, TFSF members have invested trillions of naira and built hundreds of modern shopping plazas,” Offorkansi said at a press conference organised by the TFSF recently.
“We have developed all the portions given to us, which are about 75 percent of the entire complex and we are ready to take up even the remaining 25 percent.”
He wondered who told the federal government that the complex was not developed, maintaining that “we are at peace with our landlord, the Trade Fair Management Board.”
Alhaji Mohammed, had also in an interview, said the government should encourage private investors who have shown resilience rather than coming up with counter development policies that tend to cause problems.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Omosefe-Ajayi who had few months ago, announced that the Board had realised over N500 million from the complex, maintains that all the money she realised from the land sale, she paid it into government’s TSA
On the other hand, the government has inferred that she was not empowered to sell such lands and that whatever transaction she had was not binding on it.
The BPE, in a statement by its head of public communications, Amina Othman, after the protests at the Trade Fair Complex few weeks ago, suggested that it was not party to such land sales.
“The attention of BPE has been drawn to the alleged closure of the Lagos International Trade Fair Complex by the Traders Associations operating in the complex and the protest by the said association over the purported sale of the complex.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the bureau states that the Federal Government of Nigeria through the BPE does not intend to sell the complex, rather the facility would be concessioned through a competitive transaction process.
“It is for this reason that the government has procured the services of Messrs Feedback Infrastructure Services (FIS) to advice on the way forward for the proposed concession. It is apt to inform the public that the bureau on Friday, March 1, 2019, met with the entire Traders’ Associations to explain the essence of the planned concession,” the BPE said.
“The bureau had on August 23, 2017, placed a caveat emptor in some national newspapers in the country wherein it stated that the lease agreement that was hitherto executed by the FGN in favour of Aulic Nigeria Limited had been validly terminated and possession reverted to the FGN with effect from 23rd day of August 2017.”
While some of the presidents tend to be particular about properties covered by the old lease agreement, a source from FIS the company hired by the government to oversee the concessioning, assured that the government had already given it documents covering Balogun, ATP, C-tempo and other structures covered by existing lease agreement, but that any other space apart from those will be concessioned.
At the moment, the union presidents are said to have begun to plot bids for the concession, having realised that government appears to be determined.
Enter Lagos State Government.
While the government of Lagos State is not involved in the ensuing concession controversy, it had made attempts of its own to take control of the Trade Fair Complex.
During the electioneering campaigns of 2015, officials of the state government visited the complex and saw massive developments already taking place and began to move to get tax revenue.
“They hadn’t known that the place was already developed,” explained Mr. Victor Onyishi, a member of ASPMDA. “So, when they came inside, they saw gigantic buildings already sited inside the Trade Fair. Then, they started saying that they were not getting revenue from the place, which is true.
“They insisted and we went to court to say that we can’t have two landlords; that the place is under federal government and federal government is being paid ground rate. So, we couldn’t be paying federal government ground rate and state government lock up fee, because that would be double taxation.”
The state government later sent another group to say that each shop will be paying tax. The traders once again, disagreed, accepting to pay only income tax.
“We refused and only pay income tax. We told them that we cannot pay tax per shop because one person can have more than four or five shops, with some being packing store,” Onyishi said.
“They set up an office and began to collect income tax, ranging from N2500 to N5000. But later they left because people were no longer complying. Again, they later went to court asking the federal government to hand over Trade Fair Management Board to them. They said that when the place was given to Federal Government, the idea was to use the place for trade fair, but now it has been converted to market.
“The president then didn’t follow up the matter. Court granted them the request. Later, when they served it, the market union went to appeal, and the case is still in court.”