Anxiety over unoccupied houses and ICPC’s threat

Until the anti-corruption agencies walk the talk with regard to taking over unoccupied houses in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and other major cities across the country, Nigerians say they take the recent threat by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Commission (ICPC) over such unoccupied houses with a pinch of salt. ELEOJO IDACHABA writes.

If the threat by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) that it would probe unoccupied buildings across the nation’s capital in particular and other major cities in the country is anything to go by, it means that soon owners of such structures may forfeit them to government or such properties would out-rightly be sold at cheaper rates to prospective occupiers.

The anti-corruption agency had in the second week of January 2020 stated that it “will soon commence investigations into the ownership of unoccupied houses in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT),” adding that the move “is as a result of the increase in the number of expensive and unoccupied houses in the territory where the housing deficit for the nation’s capital is in the neighbourhood of 1.7 million.”

It noted that about 600 abandoned buildings had been identified with most of them located in Gwarimpa, Wuse, Garki, Maitama, Asokoro, and Apo, all in Abuja apart from such houses in other parts of the country.

Some of those buildings, according to investigation, are waY above the reach of most civil servants who have no choice but resort to seeking alternative and affordable accommodation elsewhere thereby leaving many of those properties in the city unoccupied for years.

Irked by this, Blueprint Weekend gathered that the director, Department of FCT Development Control, Malam Muktar Galadima, said the agency is making plans to take over some of those properties anywhere they are located.

According to him, “We are proposing to the Federal Executive Council to come in and acquire some of these properties maybe as a way of solving the housing deficit of the country and giving them out to staff and other Nigerians to occupy because investigation shows that the source of some of those buildings are questionable.”

Many Nigerians are, however, doubtful about the ability of the anti-corruption agency to carry out its threat judging by the fact that this is not the first time that such threats had been issued, but shortly thereafter, either it is dropped or the administration changes and because in Nigeria there seems to be lack of continuity in administration such that there is usually no follow up; therefore such threats gather dusts or are thrown into the dustbin.

For example, the Seventh Senate under the leadership of Senator David Mark had threatened to invoke the relevant section of the constitution to compel owners of properties in Abuja to reduce their cost or have such properties forfeited to the government. However, following the election that produced Saraki as president of the 8th Senate in 2015, the matter died a natural death.

Also, in 2017, the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property set up by President Muhammadu Buhari under the chairmanship of Obono Obla, his special assistant on prosecution while submitting its report to the government threatened that government would soon take over Abuja empty houses and sell them to prospective buyers at cheaper prices. He said that there was need for the government to collaborate with civil society groups in order to search out properties of looters of national treasury.

“I want the houses taken over; that is where the CSOs would have to work together with us. We have to take over those buildings and sell them and maybe put the money into education for our children.

“I was appointed to work to galvanise the anti-corruption war. This assignment is a very important one and I will do it well,” he once said. However, almost three years after, it seems the presidency is yet to go through that report and no one has heard anything about Obla’s threat. Today, he is no longer in office. That is why no one seems to take the recent threat by the ICPC seriously until concrete steps are taken to ensure that such property are made affordable to the low income earners to afford.

Empty threat

A cross section of Abuja residents who spoke with Blueprint Weekend said it’s all about seeking relevance otherwise how would the ICPC come up with such threat, wondering why it would probe unoccupied houses.

Idoko Mathew, a security operative, said, “Except the ICPC can verify that such houses were bought with stolen money, it is not possible to probe and take over them from their owners who bought them legally. How would they even go about it in the first place?”

An estate agent, Obinna Eze, simply said, “No one should lose any sleep over the threat because the business environment in the country gives room for anyone to do legitimate business except they ICPC can prove that some houses were acquired from looted funds, in that case, they can probe and take them back otherwise, it’s an empty threat.”

Nigeria’s housing needs, problems

Investigation reveals that Nigeria’s housing need at the moment is in the neighbourhood of between 17 and 20 million housing units at a growth rate of 900,000 units per annum. This is why, according to analysts, private institutions need to step up in order to make modern housing units available in a way that buyers would not go through any stress. It is also to eliminate the stress of bureaucracies involved in land acquisition and perfection of titles which is usually a difficult process hindering effective housing delivery for individual owners.

 Housing problems in Nigeria, according to Festus Ibimilua and Amos Ibitoye, both of the Department of Geography and Planning Science, Ekiti State University, is double-fold. They said, “Housing problems abound in Nigeria both in rural areas and urban centres. The problem in the rural areas has to do with qualitative housing while the problem in the urban centre is quantitative in nature. Housing problems in the rural areas are connected with qualitative deficiencies like place, degree of goodness and the value of the house. High rate of urbanisation, ever-increasing population of urban dwellers in conjunction with the increasing social expectations of the people are all responsible for housing problems in Nigeria.”

Generally, they admitted that housing in Nigeria is beset with problems like poverty, discrimination against the use of indigenous materials, ineffective housing finance, inadequate financial instrument for mobilisation of funds, high cost of building materials, shortage of infrastructural facilities as well as the bureaucracies in land acquisition and processing of certificate of occupancy.

Overcoming the problems

To solve this problem, analysts are of the view that a deliberate and comprehensive land policy should be vigorously pursued by the government in order to make affordable houses easier for low-income earners. According to Temi Oni-Jimoh, “The provision of sustainable affordable housing would include effective planning of development activities. Embarking on an effective land policy would go a long way in reducing slum and squatter settlements. For instance, effective land use plan, zoning regulation and a reduction in land cost would promote easy accessibility to land by low income urban dwellers.” However, but how far can this go?

Stakeholders bemoan situation

Lamenting the situation, the convener, Abuja Housing Show, Festus Adebayo, had in a response noted that many vacant houses seen all over the places are a result of corruption.

According to him, “The vacant houses are caused by corruption. Few Nigerians have cornered the commonwealth of this country and what are we doing about it? When, for instance, you enter to Abuja for the first time, you would see people living in some remote villages that one cannot even pronounce their names properly. Every morning, one sees heavy traffic along those suburbs because everybody has to enter the city in order to earn their daily bread while those who work in offices do so thereby compounding the volume of traffic every day.”

Also speaking, a property and investment strategist, Godwin Okri, lamented the plight of ordinary Nigerians whose right to own a descent accommodation “is serially thwarted by lopsided government policies.”

He said, “Let the government build low cost houses for Nigerians and make them to buy through rent to own basis. Once they are working and you can deduct the money from their monthly pay through mortgage arrangement, and at the completion of payment for the houses, they become the owners of the houses. This is what happens in other countries. Let Nigeria look at what other countries are doing to address their housing challenges and do same.”

Speaking further, he said, “There are two approaches to bridging the country’s housing gap. One approach is to rectify our mortgage system, because of the 13 million transactions in the property market; five per cent of it is mortgage. This is very low. “The commercial banks are not giving mortgages in Nigeria, and this is killing the first time buyers. First time buyers who want to buy property cannot buy since they cannot get mortgages. “So, to bridge that gap, is to address the mortgage system in Nigeria, and this is a major issue.”

‘Housing programmes only for the rich’

In Nigeria, it appears housing provision is in favour of the middle-and high-income section of the populace that can either pay cash or access mortgage finance from the banks. For the fact that the long-term finance for housing development is not available, this compels manufacturers of housing to recover their funds within the shortest possible time. It is for this reason that many low income earners find it difficult to own houses in the country.

According to Victor Egungu, a real estate agent, low-income earners are not the target of most developers especially in a city like Abuja. This, he said, is because the city still remains a retirement abode for all shades of aristocrats who can afford the luxuries of the city.

“Palm Estate, for instance, located along Katampe road is not planned for salary earners. Only individuals with deep pocket can afford that. That is why some of those houses remain unoccupied except in few cases. I however expect that the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria through the National Housing Fund should make it possible for low income earners to key into possessing houses. That way, the rich and low income earners can co-habit without any problem, but presently, I have not seen any housing policy that favours low income earners,” he said.

Mrs. Victoria Amana, a civil servant, said the problem with housing is that there is little information out there about opportunities in the sector for all shades of workers by the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, adding that that is why only the rich buys houses in the city.

“Not many people know that the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria is set up to mitigate the housing needs of the people. And that is largely because information about housing opportunities from the bank is sketchy. May be that is where the bank itself needs to share in the blame. As we talk, I am aware that there are some housing estates being constructed in major cities across the country that not many people are aware of except few privileged individuals; that is why it seems only the same people benefit from such programmes each time they are initiated. Relying on the private developers to possess a house in a city like Abuja may be a far dream from being realised by low income earners,” she told this reporter on phone.

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