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Drama at Assembly public hearing, as Lagosians reaffirm opposition to new Land Use Charge law

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By Bankole Shakirudeen Adeshina

It was a lot of drama Tuesday at the Lagos State House of Assembly as residents and stakeholders engaged government officials in war of words over the latter’s insistence on implementing the controversial new Land Use Charge, with a total of 50 per cent relief.

Speaking at a Special Public and Stakeholders Hearing on the new modification to the law, residents and stakeholders who came from across the I-B-I-L-E geopolitical bloc of the state, emphasised their rejection of the new charges, saying the reduction was a Greek gift because it is not reflected in the substantive law, nor does the calculation of the value of the properties upon which the new rate was based accurate and honest.

They equally challenged the government over its refusal to make public details of its financial dealings, saying that alone diminished the government’s credibility in whatever other areas it is excelling.

Lagos State Commissioner for Finance, Mr. Akinyemi Ashade, said given a lot of petitions and wide range consultations done after the initial publication of the law, government has now introduced an additional 10 per cent discount, making a total of 50 per cent relief as incentives for the payment of the property tax.

He said: “Our gathering here today is in response to the demands of the people because we are a listening government. We also have an Executive Memorandum to make here today and that is because we have heard the demands of the people of the state. After wide consultations and intakes of petitions, the government has now further reduced the relief on the new Land Use Charge, especially of Residential Properties from 00.75% now to 00.50%, thereby expanding the relief from 40 per cent to a total of 50%.”

But his submission didn’t sway the public who were armed with documents to prove the government’s inaccuracy on the matter.

Abdufatar Omolola flashed documents of the Lagos State Government, which approved N750,000 as payment of Land Use Charge for his property as of last year, noting its astronomical increment to N14million under this new law.

“The fact remains that your amendment today still leaves Alfa Beta Company at that building (as the collector of the charge. Alfa Beta is a company owned by former Governor of Lagos State, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu)).

“Another issue of concern is that I think there should be some punitive punishment  for officers who go around to apportion outrageous  values on houses.  Maybe they expect people to give them bribe. Otherwise, how can a house that was evaluated  and approved for confirmation by a commissioner just last year with the payment of N750k now have to pay N14m under this new law? This is the document here. See!!”.

Chukwuka Igwuazor, Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Lagos Branch, and his counterpart at the Institute for Estate Surveyors and  Valuers in Lagos, said they do not understand the rationale behind the hastiness of the government in both the signing of the law and enforcement of it.

“To be honest, we need more time to study this law and give a helpful position that would be acceptable to all. For instance, I got in touch with the Attorney General and he gave me some documents, which we were supposed to go and study before making any meaningful contribution.  But there is no time to do that. It would have been better if we had a better time to prepare for this public hearing.  And also, in my opinion, I believe that those regulations that made possible the relief should also be adopted as amendment into the extant law itself,” Igwuazor said.

Prof Olumide Ajose, Chairman of Lekki Phase One, who led a coalition of the Lekki Estate Residents and Stakeholders Association, explicitly rejected the government’s “beautification of the exploitative” new land use charge, saying existing taxes are already strangulating and not commensurate with the services rendered by the state.

“We have done some detailed analysis on the law, which we wish to draw your attention to.  We have not come here to scream, but to make input to help you.  Check your records. We were paying regularly our land use charges even before you come with your new law, even though we have been neglected for so long. But this new land use charge is just too arbitrary.

“Let me tell you, on the Lekki axis and the environs, we feel forgotten, looked down upon, let down and it’s as if we are the cash cow for the government. And we have come here to demand that you should treat us like true, law-abiding and tax-paying Lagosians that we are.

“Just imagine, for good 14 years, you have been building a road less down one kilometre between Abraham Adesanya and Lekki without completion. Where is the value for our money? And why should we be forced to pay more?”

A representative of the Association of General Medical Practitioners of Nigeria said it was important for the government to be factual in its dealings, especially as it relates to public finance.

“There is difference between taxation and charges,’’ he said. ‘’ Charges are for services rendered. And I believe there was no valuation done in most cases, hence the discrepancy. For instance, in my own case,  the rate increased from N13m to N100m and nobody came to me.  And I will like to correct the impression that houses were last evaluated in 2001, no. We have our properties valued one year ago by this same government and the record is there.”

The representative of the Organised Private Sector insisted that part of the objectionable areas of the law was its “sanction and punishment  section, the provisions are a bit harsh because it is certain that people will default the payment of this rate.  And if they do, the awaiting punishment in the law is that such property would be confiscated and the owner will end up losing it. That is not fair.

“We want to say that on the assessment and evaluation of properties, the service of professional body should engaged.  This will reduce the margin of inaccurate recording and ascribing of values. And the vacant land should be exempted  from the levy.

“Lagos State should return to the status quo, that is the rate we were paying before this new one.  The problem you said you had was that out of the 22million taxable properties, less down 300,000 were paying.  Therefore, you should expand your coverage on collection and  you will make more than to strangulate the people with burdensome taxation.”

Mr Tope Alabi, a lawyer and Mr. Richard Arowolo, a property consultant, disclosed that the public hearing should be declared null and void, as the law being debated is not constitutional in the first place. noting that if allowed, such would amount to supporting the state government for usurping the constitutional power of the local government to collect the said charges in the first place.

“I want everybody in this house to consider the constitutionality of this law in the first place,’’Alabi said.  ‘’The constitution is clear on whose duty it is to collect all tenement charges, including Land Use Charge. And since it is not the constitutional power of the state, we can’t recognise this exercise. Instead, what we should do is to return the law to the local government where it belongs for proper action.”

Mr. Oladipo Onabanjo said no matter how transparent the government may claim, the fact that “the law was passed in January and took effect on February is a clear evidence for suspicion, as I think in democracy,  there is no room for retrospect law. And as a tax payers, I believe the government owes me some services and this should be commensurate to the values of what i have given to the government.”

In defence of the state government, Chairman of Conference of LGs and LCDAs in the State, Omolola Essien, said everything done on the proposition and collection of the land use charge by the state government was consistent with the law, as it has sought and got the permission of the local councils.

“I want to say that we are in support of the Lagos State government. And we have given the state our consent to collect the land use charge on behalf of the local government,” she said.

Her contribution attracted hostile reaction and people started shouting “you were not elected. You are a government appointee. You are only doing the bidding of your boss.”

The high point of the hearing was the confrontation between the Speaker, Mudashiru Obasa and an elderly man, Apostle Tunde Oyemade, for allegedly demonstrating unnecessary aggression while addressing the audience earlier.

“You guys need to be patient because nothing in this world is permanent.  The way you were responding to us, Mr.  Speaker, was not polite and fair enough.  You need to be patient and civil.  Remember,  you are the representing  us in here and election is coming, some of you should not price yourselves out of the electoral market because of arrogance,’’ Oyemade said.

“It is painful enough that we can’t attend your politicians’ meetings and express what is in our minds. This is because you all have planted thugs everywhere to deal with whoever do that. So, let me be heard today”.