On the Abuja Centenary Legacy City Project
by Daily Post
It is the season of daily media reports about shocking frauds, financial scams and massive corruption in Nigeria, uncovered since the change of government in May. Last week, the public was jolted by a claim from a Mr. Cairo Ojougboh, a little known public figure, though the former chairman of the Nigerian (Free) Export Processing Zone Authority (NEPZA), that due process was not followed by the Centenary City PLC in acquiring a large chunk of land for developing its proposed Legacy Centenary City project in Abuja.
Specifically, he named the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senator Pius Anyim, as being behind the project and claimed that he had abused his office as the SGF in improperly securing the land for the project, as well as in getting the approval of the authorities of the FCT (Federal Capital Territory) for the entire project estimated to cost over US$18 billion. In response, the sponsors of the project claimed that it is a PPP project, and that it is being funded by contributions from 15 developers from the USA, the UAE, and some Nigerians. So far, none of the shareholders has been publicly named or identified either by Mr. Ojougboh, or the Centenary City PLC.
I was, at first, quite sceptical of Mr. Ojougboh’s allegations against Senator Anyim on this matter. I just could not believe it is possible, even with our famed public corruption that such a heist as the Legacy City Project could be pulled off by a public officer, no matter how powerful he is. But now, I have just read an advertorial placed on page 44 of this paper on Monday, August 24, by the management of Centenary City PLC, the sponsors of the so-called Abuja City Centenary Legacy Project. It was their first public attempt to fully refute any allegations of wrongdoing by either the Centenary City PLC, or by Senator Anyim, as claimed by Mr. Ojougboh over the project. I should say I was almost persuaded by the strong case made in its own defence and of the project by the management of the Centenary City PLC. Their defence basically is that this is a public and private sector project, that due process was followed in acquiring the land from the FCT, that no public funds were involved in any way in the project, and that it was in the public interest. But, even if these claims by the sponsors are true, there are a lot of ethical and moral issues raised by the manner in which the project was conceived. These moral issues are quite disturbing and require further reflections on the whole matter.
Is it morally justified that such a large chunk of valuable land in Abuja, the nation’s capital, should have been handed over, for whatever reasons, to so-called private developers? Can this be validly held to be in the national interest? Is this not a case, again, of the rich, whether Nigerians, or foreigners, grabbing potentially valuable land from the poor for the benefit of the rich, a regrettable and disturbing trend that is growing in our country, and that should be of public concern?
I had, last year, written extensively in my column in this paper criticising the idea of an elaborate celebration of the centenary, an event in Nigeria’s history that is best forgotten. If the Federal Government decided, despite strong and widespread public criticism, on marking the centenary of Lugard’s amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, why was the idea of the so-called Legacy City preferred to other options that could have been more beneficial to the nation? Even if it is a private sector initiative, are there not many other sectors of the economy, particularly energy and public transportation, crying for investment that would have been more beneficial to the public? Was the idea of an Abuja Legacy City, with its planned huge financial investments, not preferred to others because it offered people in power, such as Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, the former SGF, who claims to have coordinated the celebrations, ample opportunity for graft? Who were those behind the decision to build the Legacy City? And why should such a large chunk of land in Abuja, a national asset, be handed over to a so-called private company for the development of an exclusive city, the social benefit of which is not so apparent? And who are the shadowy members of the Board of this secretive company? Why can’t the sponsors of the project reveal their identities? It is a matter of public interest. The public is entitled to know who are behind it all. We need to know those who made the cash calls from which N1.2 billion was allegedly raised to compensate the original owners of the land, as well as the US$18 billion proposed for the project. And was the compensation offered to the indigenous owners of the land in question reasonable, prompt and adequate? How much was paid to the FCT for the land in question? These are legitimate questions begging for
We are reminded of a similar land grab by Jonathan, the former President, near the airports in Abuja that was originally intended for the development of the aviation industry in Abuja. Is this not a replication of the failure of judgment by Jonathan in the land grab that caused such a public furore in the country? And did Jonathan not feel obliged to turn a blind eye to the deal because of his own Abuja land grab? The fact of the matter is that such a land grab of a valuable national asset in the nation’s capital, or anywhere else for that matter, is outrageous and should, in no circumstances, be tolerated or accepted by the public. I find it morally repugnant as it is not in the public interest. Even if it is fully and finally developed, which I doubt in present circumstances, it is bound to be socially divisive as questions will continue to be asked in future about its ethical and moral perspectives. If the sponsors of the project decide not to go ahead with it for financial and other reasons, who takes over their assets including the Abuja land? Your guess is as good as mine.
Secondly, the man at the centre of the project, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, admits that he coordinated activities marking the centenary celebrations, including the Legacy City Project. Why should he have been given such wide powers by the Jonathan PDP federal government? Was he solely in charge of the Legacy Project, or were other ministers involved in the transactions? Were the federal Attorney-General, Finance Minister and the Minister of Trade and Investments asked for advice on such a massive project? If they were not, then there is something fundamentally remiss about the manner in which the project was conceived and executed. In fact, in view of its national importance and possible negative physical effect on Abuja, such a project should not have been conceived and approved without a referendum, as would have been the case in other civilised climes. Abuja is our collective national patrimony. Any departure from its original master plan should be thoroughly debated first before any alteration to it. The big, rich land grabbers have already succeeded in distorting and changing the Abuja master plan. It is now over built and no longer the beautiful city it was supposed to be. Clusters of slums are now growing around Abuja. Those who support Anyim in this matter will argue that he acted in good faith even if his judgment and his role in the sordid matter can be called into question. But this can only be established by a thorough investigation into the manner such a vast track of land was acquired by private individuals in our capital city where there will soon be an acute shortage of land.
The Eko Atlantic City in Lagos with which it is being wrongly compared by its sponsors is totally different from the Abuja Legacy City. First, most of the land in respect of the Atlantic City is land reclaimed by its sponsors from the sea. A lot of investment went into that venture. What investment have the sponsors of the Abuja Legacy City made in the Abuja land they have grabbed? Besides, unlike the Eko City project, the Abuja land grabbed for the proposed Legacy City is a national asset. This and Jonathan’s land grab in Abuja should be thoroughly investigated and the land grabbed should be revoked and recovered from them. We cannot afford to have people placed in a position of trust and responsibility, such as the SGF, grabbing public land, or aiding other private individuals to do so. It is clearly an abuse of trust and power about which President Buhari should do something.
Over the years, the position of the SGF has become too powerful. That was not the case when civil servants, with all their faults, held the post which, for a long time, was held along with the post of Head of the Federal Civil Service. For all practical purposes, the SGF is now like an unelected prime minister, more powerful than the ministers. It is he who coordinates the activities of all the ministers, many of whom are denied direct access to the President, as all important official documents pass through him. I believe it is time to review the position and powers of the SGF so as to avoid its abuse as in this land grab case. As is becoming clearer with recent revelations, ex-President Jonathan did not really know much about what was happening in his government. He only saw and heard what his ministers and the SGF wanted him to know. This does not exonerate him from ultimate responsibility for the chaotic financial situation he left behind in the country. But he was not really on top of his government the way Obasanjo would have been. Despite his many faults, President Obasanjo would almost certainly not have endorsed the idea of a Legacy City of the kind planned for Abuja.