Raheem Akingbolu writes on the likely impact the federal government's proposed road concession and Lagos State alleged regulatory discrimination could have on outdoor advertising fortune in the years ahead
Since the year 2006, in the twilight of the Senator Bola Tinubu's administration in Lagos State, when the government established the Lagos State Signage and Advertisement Agency (LASAA) to regulate outdoor businesses, the outdoor industry has been jumping from one controversy to the other.
Perhaps because of the mutual suspicion that existed between the pioneer Managing Director of the agency, Makanjuola Alabi and the leadership of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Nigeria (OAAN), the foundation was laid on mistrust, highhandedness, accusations and counter accusations. The fact that Alabi was also a struggling practitioner before he was appointed, made stakeholders in the industry saw his appointment as unhealthy.
As a result of this, LASAA has always been viewed as one agency of government that was created to frustrate advertising practitioners in the out-of-home sub sector of the industry. Thus, there hasn't been a mutual relationship between the successive managing directors of LASAA and the leadership of OAAN.
After the Lagos experience, which was believed to have jacked up the state's revenue base, other states had quickly readjusted and established state outdoor agencies to share regulatory functions with the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON). The consequence of this is that operators have continued to contend with multiple regulations local governments, states and APCON waylay agency owners for charges.
Between LASAA and LOATSAD...
Unlike previous MDs of LASAA, Adedamola Docemo, the new helmsman, enjoyed a few months of honeymoon before controversy set in. Few weeks ago, the news had filtered in that Docemo might lose the plum job over his unilateral decision to employ 92 workers without the consent of the state governor.
While his spin doctors were working to dispel what they described as 'mere allegation', some outdoor practitioners cried out that Docemo and his team were not providing a level playing field for Lagos practitioners. According to fresh findings, LASAA is believed to be shielding and protecting the business interest of a new agency, LOATSAD Promomedia Lmited. Aside from having exclusivity right on some major roads in Lagos, the agency, which was recently established by Mr. Seyi Tinubu, son of a former governor of the state, was said to enjoy unbridled freedom and exception.
As at the time of filing in this report, the MD of LOATSAD, Mr. Adenrele Olusoga, neither picked calls nor replied to the messages sent to his MTN line.
Today, stakeholders in the entire marketing communications landscape are back to the drawing board to save the multibillion naira businesses in the outdoor sub-sector of the industry. According to a source within LASAA, the routes that have been monopolised by LOATSAD include; Lekki -Epe Road, the newly-built Murtala Muhammed Airport Road, the Badagry Road and others.
But according to a senior practitioner, who spoke to THISDAY in confidence, the sites on these roads were said to have been allocated to the new agency with little or no regard to other operators to participate in the bidding process.
"LOATSAD has simply taken over the entire outdoor Ad space, in Lagos, with alleged full support of the state, through its outdoor regulatory agency, the Lagos State Signage and Advertisement Agency (LASAA)," the practitioner alleged.
According to the practitioner, many choice areas, in the state, such as Lekki -Epe Road, the newly-built Murtala Muhammed Airport Road, the Badagry Road and others, had been allocated to this agency, while other operators were not given the opportunity to even participate, at the bidding process.
More worrisome to stakeholders, according to the outdoor practitioner is the fact that there seems to be no criteria employed by the state's outdoor regulatory agency, at arriving at the choice of the young outdoor advertising firm that is connected to a big man in politics.
"Not that we are against concessioning, but we believe it should not be done at the expense of standards. We believe all the cards must be put on the table. There should be a level-playing field. We should not just wake up and realize that a part of the metropolis has been concessioned, without any call for bidding.
"For instance, nobody knows the criteria being used to arrive at the choice of this particular agency as beneficiary of such concessions, and many others," stated the practitioner, who would want to remain anonymous now.
The practitioner also alleged that LASAA had not been giving practitioners a level-playing field to operate. "You will agree with me that when you give such juicy parts of the state to just one firm, and others are left to struggle with the 'bones', I think there is an issue," he added.
According to him, despite the fact that the young agency owes the state's regulatory agency a humongous amount of money, the outdoor firm is usually exempted when enforcements are being done.
"They are usually exempted when enforcements are being carried out, just because of their strong connections to those in the corridors of power. Unfortunately, when you give such indulgence, and pursue those with milder debts with a sledge hammer, I think there is a problem here," he added.
Reacting to the issue, the Head of Communications at LASAA, Mr. Temitope Akande, dismissed the various claims made against the new advertising firm, arguing that the practitioners were only looking for ways to blackmail the government agency.
"If indeed some practitioners alleged that LASAA is shielding LOATSAD, then they are not sincere. As I speak, hardly there is any outdoor agency in Lagos that does not owe LASAA but because the agency is keen about protecting businesses, various payment plans were agreed upon. The firm in question is not only meeting its financial obligation, it also follows the rules of the business to the latter. It is also not true that LOATSAD has moved beyond the Lekki axis corridor in its businesses. We haven't concessioned any other roads to the firm, apart from the previous arrangements, and any one with contrary evidence can come up with that. I think it is wrong for anybody to make claims that cannot be substantiated," Akande stated.
Akande also described as untrue, the allegation that the outdoor firm was always shielded by the regulatory agency, anytime it went out for enforcement. He also bluntly declared that most agencies in Lagos are indebted to LASAA.
"What we have done is to allow them to have a payment plan. We only go after those that failed to honour such plans. So if the agency is not going after LOATSAD, what it simply means is that the firm is keeping to its payment plans," he added.
Speaking on the current development, a former Deputy Provost at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Dr. Jide Johnson, cautioned the state government from embarking on any retrogressive practice that could hamper the growth of the industry.
"To grow the industry, outdoor business in Lagos must not be monopolised. The process of site allocation must be democratized. For instance, opening up the Airport route to many practitioners will deepen creativity and allow Nigeria to showcase her best," he stated.
FG's proposed concession of highways
The task before the industry has moved from the states to national level. To this end, major operators have started expressing fears over the plan by the federal government to concession twelve major roads in the country. The Federal Ministry of Works and Housing (FMW&H) announced last month that it would concession 12 major roads in the country, under the Highway Development and Management Initiative (HDMI).
In the briefing guide, obtained by THISDAY from the Federal Ministry of Works, which addressed frequently asked questions on the proposed project, advertising is prominently identified as one of the revenue generating assets after the exercise. However, it was not stated if the existing agency would be on priority list to protect businesses and prevent multiple job loss.
The briefing guide also explained that there will be advertising income and Street lighting opportunities in the highway economy value chain, pointing out that the objective is to develop an eco-system along the federal highway network by bringing multi-dimensional resources of skills, manpower, finance, technology, and efficiency into the National Highway governance.
According to the guide the affected roads are; Benin-Asaba, Abuja-Lokoja, Kano-Katsina, Onitsha-Owerri, Shagamu-Benin and Abuja-Keffi-Akwanga. Others are, Kano- Shuari, Potiskum- Damaturu, Lokoja Benin and Enugu-Port Harcourt
Though the statement speaks glowingly on using the policy to boost the economy, the NIJ Mass Communication lecturer, pointed out that past experience had shown that road concession hardly considers the business interest of the existing outdoor practitioners.
"Over the years, outdoor business has suffered setbacks because of unfair regulation and lopsided policies on road management. At the beginning, the outdoor practitioners were at the mercy of the local government and APCON before some states established regulatory agencies. Now the Federal Government is introducing the Highway Development and Management Initiative (HDMI) that may soon become another regulator and advertising site allocator. We were all here during the concession of Lagos-Ibadan highway to the Bi-Courtney Limited and witnessed how the firm first descended on outdoor practitioners operating on the road by taking over the sites," he stated.
Speaking further, Johnson advocated for transparency in the allocation process as well as protection of local businesses.
Another practitioner, expressed concerns that the recent announcement by the federal ministry would result in many practitioners being at the receiving end.
"I remember the first step Bi-Courtney Limited took when it got the Lagos-Ibadan highway was to remove all the billboards on that corridor, and begin to erect personalised ones. Instead of facing road construction, outdoor ad practice was the first thing the company delved into, immediately it got there. A lot of practitioners, in that corridor, lost huge amounts of money. So how are we sure the new arrangement by FMWH would be different?" he asked.
The stakeholder believes indiscriminate concessioning and unfair regulations might further sink the fortunes of this gravely-troubled multi-billion naira sector.
"Not that concessioning is out of place, but you have to take into consideration our peculiar situation. The country is going through a lot, and no industry is immune. And when you concession a huge stretch of land to just one outdoor firm, not because it is better than the others, but just because of its strong connection, you are gradually killing the practice.
"For instance, we have over 150 outdoor ad firms in the country, and each of these firms employs at least ten people directly. And as a government, if you really want the economy to grow, your concerns should be how to ensure about 15,000 workers directly engaged by these firms don't lose their jobs. And the only way you can do that is to ensure such 'commonwealth' go round, and not just monopolized in the name of concessioning," he stated.