23 November 2012

Nigeria: Controversy Over Minister's Role in Stalled Malaysian Gardens

A controversy is brewing over a petition by the Malaysian High Commission to President Jonathan in which it accused the FCT Minister of demanding 80 percent of the lands for a mass housing project their country is helping to build before he approves any building plans.

The 14,000 housing units project, known as Malaysian Gardens, was launched by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2006 and is located on about 500 hectares in Saraji District of Abuja.

Outgoing Malaysian High Commissioner Dato Nik Mustafa Kamal Nik Ahmad alleged in a letter to Jonathan dated June 14, that FCT minister Bala Mohammed is demanding for 400 hectares of lands which amounts to 80 percent of the total land area allocated for the housing project.

He also said the minister demanded that the Nigerian partner be changed with someone of his choice as part of the conditions for the approval of the building plans which have been pending before the FCT authorities for eight years now.

Ahmad's letter was published as an advertorial in the Daily Trust newspaper last week. The letter was written to Jonathan as a follow up to discussions with the outgoing envoy during his farewell visit on June 7. He said his only regret during his tenure was on the stalled Malaysian Gardens project.

"The minister on 21 February 2011 had threatened to take back the land unless the developer agrees to give as much as 400 hectares to him which is 80 per cent of the total area of land of the project which will effectively kill the mass housing project," Ahmad said in the letter.

"The minister even hinted the possibility of using EFCC and the Police against the developer if his demands are not met. All efforts to find amicable solutions failed. Senator Bala Mohammed has refused to approve all the engineering drawings or even to register the housing project," he added.

The FCT minister's spokesperson Jamila Tangaza when asked for comments last week said that the authenticity of the published letter was being investigated by the FCTA and they will soon react to it.

When Daily Trust sought to know yesterday whether the letter has been verified, Tangaza sent the following text message: "We are preparing an official response which we will put out in the papers. But as you know this involves our Foreign Affairs, so we need their official position based on their findings. No matter how long it takes we will get to the bottom of the allegations. You will certainly hear from us. Thanks for your patience."

In his reaction, spokesman for President Jonathan, Reuben Abati, said he was not aware of the situation.

"I am not I aware of this but I think the FCT people are the ones to respond to this," he told Daily Trust.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Mr. Ogbole Odeh told Daily Trust last week that his office was not aware of any such correspondence from the Malaysian mission.

The Malaysian envoy, in his letter to Jonathan, also named former FCT minister Dr. Aliyu Modibbo Umar as being among officials who erected bureaucratic bottlenecks against the housing project during his tenure.

"The developer was taken to court by the then FCT minister, Mr. Aliyu Modibbo Umar, having accounts frozen and being investigated by the EFCC and numerous bureaucratic obstacles," Ahmad said in his petition.

But Umar denied this, saying in an emailed response to enquiries by Daily Trust that the High Commissioner's letter was an unusual breach of diplomatic protocols.

"By the time I was appointed the Minister of the FCT, the Malaysian Garden project had already commenced under the tenure of my predecessor," he said.

"That the company executing the Malaysian Garden Project was allocated 500 hectares of land which is the size of an entire district like Maitama or Asokoro to develop.

"That the allocation in itself was without precedence in the history of the FCT whereby a public land of that size would be allocated to a private enterprise more so a foreign one at that.

"I recalled on my assumption as the Minister of the FCT, the owners approached me for my support and approval for a waiver for importation of virtually all building materials needed by them for the project ranging from iron rods, long-span aluminium etc etc. I objected to this unusual request and set up a committee instead to ascertain the need for the waiver being sought by the company which has already been allocated a whole district pro bono.

"The outcome of the report was that there was no need for any waiver of any kind to the developer. On the other issue raised by the developer that the building plan of the project was delayed by the office of the minister was erroneous and mischievous. As is the practice the world over, approval of building plans rests squarely on the Director for Development Control and not the office of the Minister.

"On the claim that my administration took the developers to EFCC and Abuja High court. My investigation with officials that were in charge of such issues during my tenure revealed that nothing of that nature took place. I pray that the current FCT Administration will set the record straight on this matter."

Also the Nigerian partner in the Malaysian Gardens project, Global Formwork Ltd, has gone to court to compel the FCT to issue certificate of occupancy for the lands involved, but has now opted for arbitration which the Chief Judge of the FCT High has accepted. No date has been set for the sessions.

In his letter to Jonathan, the Malaysian High Commissioner also said it was sad that the project is still uncompleted after 6 years despite the best efforts of the developer. He added that the 600milion dollars housing project was in response to former President Olusegun Obasanjo's initiative to welcome Malaysian investors to Nigeria in the real estate sector to address the housing deficit in the capital city.

He said the demands by FCT Minister Bala Mohammed put "the developer in a dilemma. The developer cannot proceed with this project at all. If the developer hands over the 1, 800 units which are nearing completion, the buyers will not be able to occupy or sell the houses due to the lack of certificates of occupancy."

Mustapha Suleiman, Adelanwa Bamgboye, John Chuks Azu and Austine Odoh

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