For thousands of traders operating at the Lagos International Trade Fair Complex (LITFC), situated along Lagos-Badagry expressway, the unresolved concession power play that has dogged the complex for many years is now threatening their means of livelihood.
Reputed as one of the biggest trading centres in West Africa, the LITFC is one of the many investments of the Federal Government in Lagos, Nigeria's former Federal Capital Territory and commercial nerve centre.
Business observers are quick to recall that the trading complex ran into its first major crisis when it was listed among the Federal Government's investments earmarked for privatization.
At the dawn of the fourth republic, the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo felt there were a number of Federal Government's investments that were not being run in accordance with modern and acceptable best practices, hence the decision of the then administration to privatise, while in some cases commercialise or concession some of these establishments with the hope of relieving government of the burden of running them while at the same time, making them viable.
And through the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) some of these investments, alongside their assets and liabilities were handed to private sector operators. Issues surrounding the LITFC could not be completely resolved by the Obasanjo administration before it vacated office in 2007. It was the administration of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, that in 2008 concessioned the complex to Aulic Nigeria Limited. But the crisis of ownership and control was to rear its head immediately Aulic Nigeria Limited took over. And it has been a long-drawn battle between it and different trading groups and associations operating within different sections of the complex.
As the battle raged on in the court and other frontiers, critical sections, due for rehabilitation and reconstruction in the sprawling complex suffered. And after about 10 years in the custody of Aulic Nigeria Limited, the Muhammadu Buhari administration through the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) being chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, revoked the concessionary agreement in 2017.
The Federal Government subsequently put in place a new management team headed by Chief Lucy Ajayi as the Executive Director. But barely two-years in the saddle, the management team is about to be put aside and a new concessionary arrangement allegedly being spearheaded by the Minister of Trade and Investment, Okechukwu Enelameh is about to take charge.
For the traders, the struggle to resist the concession is a familiar one and it took them few days to return to the trenches. On March 18, 2019, the traders mobilized across different sections of the trading complex and staged a protest rally, denouncing the planned concession while at the same time vowing not to cede an inch of what they considered to have been legally awarded to them by the past government.
With placards with inscriptions such as, 'FG, don't turn us to beggars', 'BPE stay off the trading complex', 'We are in Court; why not wait for legal decisions?' among others, the aggrieved traders demonstrated at the entrance before holding a procession to the popular Auto Spare Parts and Machinery Dealers' Association (ASPMDA) section.
The president of ASPMDA, Chief Daniel Oforkansi, who addressed journalists at the rally said the protest had become expedient to draw "global and national attention to what he called "surreptitious moves" aimed at re-concessioning the complex by agents of the Federal Government.
Similarly, the ASPAMDA pioneer President, Ages Okeke, said the traders were into a two-type lease agreement with the government, totaling 99 years. He noted that the first part is 50 years in the first instance and 49 years thereafter. But he lamented that the traders have barely spent 20 years within the first allotted 50 years.
But barely 24-hour after the protest, the BPE discountenanced the claim that there is a move to sell the sprawling trade complex but will rather concession it. In the statement signed by the bureau's spokesperson, Amina Othman, the Federal Government insisted that there is no-going back on the concession plan and the process would be transparent and competitive.
According to the BPE, it has actually published a caveat emptor in some national newspapers on August 23, 2017, warning that the lease agreement that was hitherto executed by the Federal Government in favour of Aulic Nigeria Limited had been validly terminated and possession reverted to the Federal Government with effect from August 23, 2017. The bureau further warned that any "purported allotment, buying, selling, letting, leasing, charging, and subdivision, construction upon or dealings in connection with the said property and parcels of land in any other manner howsoever without the written permission of the FGN represented by the BPE is unlawful, illegal, fraudulent and amounts to trespass."
"Any persons interfering with the said parcels of land stand to lose their money as the Federal Government, through the BPE, will neither honour agreements, contracts or arrangements entered into with persons purporting to have authority to transact the property and or parcels of land whether in the manner described or in any other manner whatsoever nor will it reimburse any monies paid in respect of such transaction," the statement added.
The divergences by the parties notwithstanding, business and economic experts are suing for amicable resolution, bearing in mind the implication from both ends if the situation if not properly handled.
Obadiah Mailafia, an economist and former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria said whereas he does not have details of what all the details are, yet, it would be in the interest of both parties if they can secure the service of an impartial arbitrator. He noted that the expertise of an arbitrator is the most suitable to resolve contestation of this nature.
"Both parties should bring in an impartial arbitrator who will look into different sides of arguments and subsisting agreements, documents and facts. We must not forget that the Federal Government has the power to take over any property which it can situate within public interest as the motivation. But with an impartial arbitrator in place, both parties can present their positions and amicable resolution, favouring both sides can be arrived at," Mailafia who was also the presidential candidate of African Democratic Congress (ADC) in the just-concluded general elections, said.
Just like Mailafia, Dr Humphrey Akanazo, the Country Manager, Rome Business School in Nigeria, called on the traders to initiate a negotiation with the Federal Government. He said events over the years have shown that there is power in negotiation and no policy position is cast in stone and cannot be reviewed. He added that if both parties dialogue, there could be a way out.