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Contractor decries LASG’s refusal to pay 20-year debt

A contractor, Gbenga Asonibare, lamented the alleged refusal of the Lagos State Government to pay over N196m owed his firm.

Asonibare’s company, Efoba Construction, and Engineering Service cleared drainage channels and canals and constructed hydraulic structures to control flood in some parts of Lagos in the 1990s and early 2000s.

However, he was not paid for the jobs, which were executed for the state government.

The 67-year-old said aside from selling off his house to settle accumulated debts, he was dragged to court by the landlord of a house he rented over N15m rent arrears.

The contractor said the loans he took to execute the projects claimed his means of livelihood, adding that his children’s education had also been affected.

The father of four noted that despite a high court judgement mandating the state to pay him the money since May 2018, the government is yet to comply.

Instead, he was told that his file had gone missing.

Asonibare said he was fed up with life as text messages he sent to some government officials, including the current Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, who was a witness to some of the projects, were not responded to.

The Ibadan, Oyo State indigene told newsmen that his company was one of the earliest indigenous drainage firms in Lagos, adding that he worked with former state commissioners for the Environment and Physical Planning and Urban Development, Kayode Anibaba, Tunji Bello and Muiz Banire.

Some of his signature projects, he said, included the construction of the Coker-Ejigbo Road collector drain and dredging of the Potokun River.

He said later, his company was contracted to dredge the Aboru-Command channel.

Asonibare stated, “The community leaders were so impressed that they wrote letters of commendation to the environment commissioner and personnel of the ministry because that project relieved the community of flooding.

“There was also another one at Itire, the constituency of Banire. The flooding was serious and I was called to handle it around 1.30am. That was towards the 2003 general elections. We did the job. Even former governor Bola Tinubu visited the site twice. Despite our sacrifice, we were not paid.”

The contractor explained that the poor financial condition of Lagos at the time made his firm agree to work for the state with the hope of being paid later.

He said Tinubu, on assumption of office in 1999, called indigenous contractors to beg for help regarding the flooding problem.

“He told us that Lagos did not have money, but he would pay us. So, for being humble to explain the situation to us, I was impressed as a Nigerian living in Lagos and I said we would help him,” he added.

Asked of the efforts he had made to get the money back, Asonibare said he sought the help of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who served as the attorney-general and commissioner for justice under Tinubu.

He noted that Tinubu had also mandated the former All Progressives Congress chairman in Lagos, Chief Henry Ajomale, who was the then commissioner for special duties, to take over the issue.

The contractor said nothing came out of the directive.

He noted that he was close to getting paid in 2004 when former governor Akinwunmi Ambode, then the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance, wrote the environment ministry to confirm the state’s indebtedness to Asonibare.

The ministry confirmed the situation and reportedly listed the contractor’s jobs.

Again, the process was stalled.

He stated, “We wrote many letters, especially when my company was put under receivership by a bank. The government had asked us to source funds for projects. So, my company approached the defunct First Marina Bank for loans. I agreed to be paying the bank as the government paid me.

“When Access Bank took over the bank, the story changed. They wanted their money quickly and the company was put under receivership in 2006. It was a big blow to the firm. I had to sell my house on Ogunlana Street, Ikeja, to settle the debt so that the bank would lift the receivership on the company.

“I wrote to the government to let it know my plight. But it did not attend to the issue. That was when I decided to go to court.”

The case, which lasted eight years, could have been ended earlier as the government’s lawyers raised objections that the debts were statute-barred.

The contractor said, “The implication is that if the government owes you and you do not go to court before six years elapse, you don’t have legal rights to demand your money through the court process.

“But what saved me was the letter from the Ministry of Finance to the Environment ministry to confirm if the state owed me, which was confirmed. That letter reactivated the debts. Some of the debts were as old as 1995, others were in 2001 and 2002. So, they could have gone just like that but for the letter. It was about four months remaining for the time to elapse that we went to court.”

The case was eventually determined in Asonibare’s favour.

In the ruling, Justice I. O. Harrison, ordered the government to pay N146,531,421.32 for “various contracts executed by the claimant.”

The court also ruled that 26 per cent interest be paid per annum with an extra N5m for professional fees.

Lamenting that his company was now moribund, the contractor said government workers also destroyed two of his most priced equipment – a swamp buggy and a drilling rig.

He appealed to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to look into the case and ensure that he was paid the judgment sum.

When contacted, the current Commissioner for the Environment and Water Resources, Bello, said he was not aware of the judgment.

“Since it is a court judgment, it is only the Ministry of Justice that can confirm,” he said in a text message.

The Director, Public Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Kayode Oyekanmi, confirmed the case but stated that the state had filed an appeal.

He said, “From my findings, I discovered that we have filed an appeal against the judgment. He (Asonibare) also instituted the order of garnishee, which we have also countered. What he is asking for is not tenable.”

Asonibare, however, insisted that the government did not appeal the judgment, adding that an attempt was made in June 2018, which was abandoned.

His lawyer, Victor Opara, said the government only wanted to frustrate the payment of the judgement sum.

“The Lagos State Government filed a notice of appeal, but it abandoned it. When you file a notice of appeal, you are supposed to do certain things, including transmitting the records to the Court of Appeal, which it did not do. So, there is nothing pending before the Court of Appeal,” he said.

Credit: Punch Newspaper

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