By Dan Amor
In what appears to be one of the most salutary pronouncements by a functionary of the administration of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2009, the then Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Michael Aondoakaa (SAN), challenged the Body of Attorney Generals of Nigeria, to initiate laws in their respective states to criminalise the demand for advance rent payments by landlords and landladies across the country. Aondoakaa who said this in a keynote address he presented at the opening of the Second Body of Attorney Generals Conference in Makurdi, Benue state, attributed the rising incidence of corruption in the country to the demand of between one and five year advance rent payment from tenants by greedy Nigerian landlords and landladies.
Similarly, the current Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Malam Muhammad Musa Bello, recently frowned at the high cost of accommodation in Abuja and promised to urgently address the ugly situation. Indeed, a situation in which a 2-bedroom flat, even on the outskirts of Abuja metropolis goes for at least N500,000 per annum and the tenant is expected to renew the rent at the same rate annually, is unacceptable. Where will he or she get the money from? If a man who has three or more children in school should pay N500,000 yearly as rent in addition to other variable costs, how much is his annual salary or income? Like Aondoakaa rightly pointed out, if in countries like Ghana, Gambia and Benin Republic, rents are paid on monthly basis, why should Nigeria be an exception?
Despite its inelegant implications such as corruption or outright stealing, harassment, psychological torture and such other vice crimes as murder and prostitution, this evil practice, which is the highest form of feudalism, is thriving in Nigeria because of the high degree of insensitivity of government towards the plight of the suffering masses. These landlords or landladies work in connivance with those who call themselves estate agents and some dubious lawyers to manipulate the law and hoodwink unsuspecting and hapless tenants using some local customary courts presided by local criminals who are not even lawyers. You would rent an apartment for, say N700,000 per annum probably with a loan secured from your organisation or through savings. At the end of the year, that is, when it expires and you don’t have money to renew the rent immediately with another N700,000, you are given a quit notice in which you are expected to park out of the apartment within a stipulated period of one week (seven days). At the end of the seven day notice, thugs ostensibly from a court invade your home with a fake warrant to forcefully eject you.
This magnitude of barbarity happens with ubiquity and constancy everyday in Abuja, Lagos and other major cities in Nigeria. And it is blatantly in defiance of Section 14 of the Nigerian Tenancy Law which states that a yearly tenant is entitled to at least six(6) months advance notice and a half yearly tenant three(3) months before leaving his place of abode for the owner. Even at the expiration of the first notice, if he still cannot find an alternative, the tenant is entitled to more time until he finds another place. Over time, government has abdicated its responsibility of making shelter accessible to the mass of the people. With the geometric progression in the population growth rates of the country, government has ironically left the issue of providing housing for the people at the hands of private investors who see it as an opportunity to exploit the poor who cannot afford to own houses due to escalating cost of building materials.
In fact, studies have shown that housing demands in Nigeria have scandalously outstripped supply even though in places like Abuja more than 80 per cent of the houses are not occupied by people due to the equally scandalous and unaffordable charges by landlords and estate managers. There is indeed a quantitative and qualitative shortfall in housing delivery across the country. It could be recalled with nostalgia that during the glorious First Republic, regional governments did put in place housing programmes that attempted to meet the people’s housing needs. With the coming of the military and the politics of bitterness of the ill-fated Second Republic, housing schemes became successively frustrated by corruption, bad planning and unhealthy politicking. Yet the United Nations has affirmed the position that housing delivery is a moral question. Which is why the average Briton of 18 years and above owns his living home thereby becoming a stakeholder in the system. Also, home ownership is part of the total essence of the American Dream.
Following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 by the United Nations, the right to adequate housing has become universally accepted as one of man’s inalienable rights. This right has been reinforced by many international conventions, especially Article ||| (1) of the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which states inter alia, that: “The states parties to the present covenant recognize the right of anyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” To buttress its more than passing interest in housing matters, the United Nations has of recent been devoting a lot of attention to it. Among conferences held on shelter-related matters were: the 1976 Vancouver Habitat Summit; the 1988 Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000; the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and the Habitat || Summit held in Istanbul, Turkey in 1996.
All of these conferences were meant to increase the world’s awareness of the problems and potentials of human settlements. Nigeria responded to this worldwide interest in housing matters by putting together a comprehensive housing scheme. That scheme was encapsulated in the 1991 National Housing Policy aimed at providing 700,000 housing units annually, leading to a target of 8,000,000 housing units by the dawn of this century. Unfortunately, since the formulation of the National Housing Policy by the military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida, the housing situation in Nigeria has become more precarious. Even housing estates built by some state governments are allowed to be covered by weeds and rot because the poor and downtrodden cannot afford them. While admitting that government may not be able to provide all the housing needs of the people, it can create the enabling atmosphere that will make the cost of building houses cheap and affordable for Nigerians.
It is against this backdrop that this column sees the pronouncements of the former AGF, Aondoakaa and the hardworking and ebullient FCT Minister, Malam Musa Bello, as a laudable idea whose time has come. Not only does advance payment of rent encourage corruption and stealing, it is also at the root of the rising poverty and tension in the land. You will recall that the last military administrator of Lagos State, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Buba Marwa sought to extirpate this obnoxious attitude of landlords and landladies in the state. He wanted to peg down accommodation rates and duration of payment through the Lagos Housing Edict of 1998, if not for the transition to civil rule after the death of Gen. Sani Abacha which halted its implementation. All over the world, rent is paid weekly or, at most, monthly. It is only lease which largely involves companies that requires annual payments. In Great Britain, more than 45 per cent of rent is still weekly.
What even makes the Nigerian situation more agonizing and disturbing is the astronomical rent charges which are far above the gross earnings of ordinary Nigerians. The FCT Minister should be commended for identifying the precarious accommodation crisis Abuja residents are going through. Government should embark on a thorough census of all the houses in Abuja and other big cities in Nigeria, find out their owners and force down the cost of housing to affordable limits of the average Nigerian. Government should also monitor and deal decisively with recalcitrant landlords and dubious agents who are making life unbearable for Nigerians. If only the Buhari administration will do this for poor and downtrodden Nigerians, the people will remember him as the one who salvaged them from the hands of wicked house owners and modern day slavery. This country must be made governable by law.