“Although Nigeria has recorded some milestones in her democratic experience since 1999, providing affordable housing for the teeming population has continued to be a major challenge. In this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, the former Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing, Femi Okunnu, gives an insight into on how the country can mitigate her housing challenge. He also dismisses the choice of May 29 as Democracy Day, insisting that October 1, 1960 remains “an important date in the nation’s history.” Excerpts:
Nigerians recently marked the Democracy Day on May 29 amid several challenges, how do you rate our experience so far?
The so-called democracy day is nothing to me. The important date in our history is the day Nigeria gained her independence from the British and that was October 1, 1960. That is what we should be celebrating every year. Should we be celebrating democracy day because former president Obasanjo became president on May 29, which was when the last military rule was terminated? That was not democracy day. Democracy does not exist in its true meaning. It is an ongoing process in governance.
Two years ago, you were quoted as saying, “Buhari’s government should be given two years before assessing its impact on the people.” Do you still hold on to this statement?
You are correct that I said that about two years ago during a Town Hall meeting at City Hall. I did say that we should give Buhari’s administration two years before we start judging his performance. The first year was just like tidying up and getting prepared to run his programmes. The second year, he should have started doing some things he promised the country. I did say so but the concept of democracy is what I am challenging.
Two years after, how has the administration fared?
In some ways, yes! One, there were three planks which President Buhari promised to tackle when he resumed office; namely security, corruption and the economy. These were the three principal issues, he said, he will tackle.
Take security for instance, the unrest in the North-eastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram insurgency. They engaged in warfare against Nigeria for many years. Previous administration did practically nothing. I advised one of the aides of former President Jonathan about 2-3 years before the end of his presidency, judging from my own experience as Nigeria’s chief negotiator during the civil war. I suggested to one of his aides that he should suggest to the president that he should be on friendly terms with presidents of Chad and Niger, which were two countries that are in the throes of Boko Haram insurgency, but I don’t think that the advice was followed.
There were no serious attempts, in fact the government was not on good terms with Cameroon until France and some western European countries tried to build up a common front, made up of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin.
Since Buhari came on board in the last two years, Boko haram has been driven out of Sambisa forest largely. The forest, which they occupied during the Jonathan presidency and the girls abducted from the Chibok School, half of them have been returned. That is fulfilling his objective but don’t get me wrong, the civil war launched by Boko haram will continue, it is hit and run not confined to one place but the war is gradually turning to guerrilla warfare.
You cannot really do it in two years but he is doing a good job. Take corruption, he is tackling corruption. There maybe pitfalls, there maybe mistakes, there may be bad investigations because he does not have the staff to do proper investigations, they have gone to courts, they have lost a few cases and they have won a few cases too. The measure of corruption in this country is staggering, very staggering. One could not believe that senior army officers will be standing trials for stealing billions of naira. But I cannot comment on this because their cases are still on-going but I can say that the mere effort of investigating and taking people to court, high-flying officers of armed forces, the secretary of the government of the federation is also being investigated is instructive. What else will you expect of a man, who puts corruption as one of the tasks he must tackle? So to me, he is doing fine in the fight against corruption.
The third area is the economy. You cannot tackle that in two years, unfortunately the economy has been battered. You are talking about corruption; people had stolen money, which should have been used to make progress in governance. So that is the dent in the economy. The money is not there. Two, we are still suffering from the fall-out of insurgency in the oil rich areas that is the South-South region. Sabotage and militancy are still a problem. Now with regard to militancy, which is causing the country to cut output in oil, we have not really tackled it. To my mind, the solution to the problem is resource control. The answer to insurgency is not taking some militants to China or other parts of the world for training. Other insurgents will also surface and want to be taken to China to be educated in western ways. That is not the answer. The answer is not in appeasing the warlords. The answer to my mind, and I have been of this view for many years is to redress the imbalance in revenue allocation. These people are asking for resource control. They are entitled to the resources in their area. Those days, the formula was 50 per cent in respect of tax derived from areas where the minerals were found or where agricultural products emanated. We cannot give 50 per cent now but 13 per cent is small, it is an illusion. It should be increased.
How do you rate the nation’s housing sector in the last two years?
To judge housing in two years as a social service in the country is very short. To decide which housing scheme you want to put in place will take time unless you have all the plans before the government was formed. Before you can judge Buhari’s government truthfully and sensibly in two years, you must note that housing is a state matter.
Building of houses is not the business of the Federal Government; it is the state government that should tackle it because housing is not on the exclusive legislative list. Any function of government that is not in exclusive legislative list is on the concurrent or residual list. So in the present constitution, you cannot find housing on the exclusive list. The area in which Federal Government can perform is in housing finance. When I was in government, I had to tinker with the housing schemes and that time the country was under a state of emergency where a certain part of the constitution was suspended. So the Federal Government has powers to venture into areas reserved for states but I pulled back. I concentrated on housing finance. I founded the Federal Mortgage Bank. It is one of the areas, I felt so proud of. So I have not seen much from governments on housing as a national programme.
What do you consider as the best approach in mitigating the nation’s housing deficits?
Like I said, federal government is absolved in the construction of housing units and affordable housing. It is the state governments that should check the deficits. The Federal Government’s role is to help in bringing them together, have a common front not policy but a common front to tackle the housing deficits. One would expect the state governments to see the huge problems in the shortage of houses all over the country, come forward and share experiences among themselves and see if they can work out some common programmes that will address housing problems in the country. The state governments are responsible for lack of progress in tackling housing deficits in the country. In my time, I started the conference of housing commissioners, I organised about three or four of such conferences, where we sat down together to see how we could tackle housing problems in the country. We shared common solutions to the problem. Each state government should work out its housing programmes to address the shortages in the country.
Governments would have to spend their resources to finance housing for the poor because they cannot afford housing for themselves.
In advanced countries, take Great Britain for example, the Labour government, after the second world war built castles and flats for those who cannot afford to build or buy houses. In Nigeria, the estates, you see in Surulere was as a result of movement of people from their previous homes. They resettled them when lands were acquired to give room for bridges like the carter bridge. No government has seriously tackled the issue of housing. Alhaji Lateef Jakande tried but his method was wrong. What he built for lower / medium class, it is the executives in private sectors who can afford it, he built them in swamps, the houses started having cracks. His successor, Governor Gbolahan Mudasiru had to solicit the support of Nigeria Society of Engineers to rescue the situation. He sand-filled the swamps but they were not allowed to settle. Generally, we are not serious about housing the poor.
Building collapse has continued to claim lives and properties across the country, how best could this be addressed?
Building control is not effective. A good number of contractors do not have proper permits. Most of the time, they submit their plans for approvals but the approvals must be tied to areas. It is not just permit to build from the authority; inspection is key because contractors may want to make more profits. Builders must pay attentions to the normal mixture of sand and cement. Inspection by the authorities is also very important to ensure that adequate measures are taken during construction. The mixture of cement and sand must be clinically followed during construction. The architect himself must ensure that contractors follow the plans as approved.
Building control is an important unit of the ministry of physical planning and urban development. They must also do random inspection, inspection by the authority and architects of the project. We also need honesty from the contractor to ensure that building rules and plans are followed. These are some of the factors responsible for building collapse.
Do you think the present administration’s policy can bring about solution to homelessness in the country?
When you are talking about this administration, you are talking about the Federal Government. The Federal Government cannot solve the problem of homelessness because the federal government does not have land. The state governments can build houses for the people. Homelessness is not the duty of the federal government.
In which areas would you want to see improvement?
In terms of housing, it is a challenge to state governments. The governor of every state should bring out a programme of how many housing units they wants to build per annum. That will be a good starting point. The governors should come out and say in the next 12 months, my government will build so and so housing units. Every governor should come out and state how many houses he wants to build not for the upper class or the middle class.
In what ways can we address our infrastructural deficit?
It is for the states not the Federal Government. The Federal Government should concentrate on federal roads. Again, it is sad that most of the roads built in 1974; over the years successive governments have neglected repairing or reconstructing the roads, that is what is happening at Apapa now. Access to the ports through Western Avenue, Apapa Road or Wharf Road or Oshodi –Apapa, Otto Bridge has been hampered. State governments also had responsibility of reconstructing or building state roads. People need roads to get to their houses. There is also no use building your house without water and electricity.The Federal Government is responsible for constructing federal roads and state governments for state roads. But in terms of housing, the responsibility lies with state governments
How do you assess the mortgage sub-sector under this administration? And how can the sub-sector perform better amid economic recession the country is passing through?
Since the establishment of Federal Mortgage Bank, there has been involvement of private sectors. It is still growing but I will rather like the Federal Government to set out rules for them. I have not seen or heard of any rule, which the Federal Government is trying to set for them. Apart from the CBN rules which the mortgage banks and mortgage companies are following. It is still a growing sector.
The Land Use Act has been undergoing amendment and seems stalled. How do prospective homeowners have access to land?
This depends on the state governments. The state governments should try to simplify the process for people who are applying for land to ensure that the purpose of allocation of land is not to raise funds as such. To raise funds, in a way but that should not be the main objective. The process of obtaining Certificate of Occupancies (C-of-Os) is too long. It is still full of corruption. Some state governments have promised to release it in two to three months, it does not happen. So governments should look at those areas to see how it can fast-track the process of getting land.
The shortage throughout the country does not affect the super rich; they take care of themselves; the middle class are not also affected by the housing shortage. In fact, the private sectors have been concentrating largely on meeting the needs of the middle class. All these high-rise block of flats are not for the flotsam and jetsam of the society. That is the area where governments have failed all over the years.”
Source: The Guardian