The high-handed and overzealous approach of state governors to instilling order has in recent times led to the arbitrary demolition of buildings, exposing the long-established imperial attitude to governance by Nigeria’s political elite.
It is regrettable that government officials continue to perpetrate injustice across the country. Such penchant for governance beyond the law was on display recently when the Kaduna State Urban Planning and Development Authority, acting under the instruction of Governor Nasir el-Rufai, without issuing a prior notice or allowing the occupants opportunity to salvage anything, hurriedly demolished the Asher Lounge Bar in the Kaduna South Local Government Area. Ostensibly, the action was taken to punish the owner of the restaurant for allegedly attempting to allow a customer to host a nude party, which the government claimed would corrupt the minds of the youth. But the organisers of the purported party had earlier told the media that it was a mere prank advertised without the knowledge of the owner of the lounge.
Respect for human rights compels adherence to the law, tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity in all government activities. Bizarrely, KASUPDA, which was established to enforce regional and urban planning laws, turned itself into a moral police, pontificating about how the proposed party negates socio-cultural, religious and traditional values. Worthy of note also is that the building was brought down even before the police had concluded their investigation.
Confronted with the illegality of its action, and how it violates Section 79 of the Kaduna State Urban and Regional Planning Law, 2018, KASUPDA made a U-turn, claiming that it demolished the building because it had no permit. This is indeed an afterthought, but not a first. In 2017, the home of the Chairman, All Progressives Congress, North-West Zone, Inuwa Abdulkadir, was demolished during a publicised feud with the governor despite a pending court case.
Similarly, KASUPDA in 2018 demolished a building belonging to a political opponent of the governor, Suleiman Hunkuyi (a senator), on 11b Sambo Road shortly after he had converted the building to a factional headquarters of the APC. Shamefully, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), in a viral video, hailed el-Rufai for the demolition a week after, calling the governor, ‘the bulldozer operator’ at a party meeting in Abuja.
El-Rufai’s warped crusade of building demolitions not only relegates the judiciary, but is capable of scaring away investors from a state that raises less than N50 billion annually as Internally Generated Revenue and has been desperately trying to attract Foreign Direct Investment through its yearly KADINVEST programme.
But el-Rufai is just one among many governors who embark on extrajudicial demolition of buildings under the guise of maintaining law and order. A few months ago, Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, who is a lawyer, supervised the tearing down of Edemete Hotel and Prodest Hotel for allegedly flouting the COVID-19 lockdown imposed by the state government. Even though the operator of one of the hotels denied the allegation, Wike, acting as the prosecutor, the witness, the judge and the enforcer, still went ahead to pull down the building. In 2018, the Oyo State Government under the late Abiola Ajimobi, demolished a section of a radio station and music studio owned by Gospel musician, Yinka Ayefele, said to be worth about N800 million. Although the structure was rebuilt by the state government, taxpayers’ funds would have been saved if due process had been followed.
In 2013, Upper Class Hotel, Anambra State, was hurriedly demolished by then governor, Peter Obi, after the police allegedly recovered human heads and guns from the property. The building was destroyed even before the police could conclude their investigation and while still designated as a crime scene. Besides, the owner of the property was never charged.
The Lagos State Government, which is the nation’s commercial capital, is not left out in this illegality. Former Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s government demolished the homes of 4,700 people in the fishing community of Otodo-Gbame despite a subsisting Lagos State High Court order stopping the government from doing such. Local government authorities also engage in building demolitions in flagrant disregard of court orders.
Human rights advocate, Femi Falana (SAN), argues that disregard for court orders and due process can scare away foreign investors. Uncertainty and arbitrary application of the law are inimical to business, including the haphazard demolition of buildings. Nigeria is still designated as ‘medium’ and ranks at 131 out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index partly due to such practices. This is too low for Africa’s largest economy.
There is also a need for institutions to be strengthened and insulated from political interference. Institutions must focus on minimising the sufferings of the masses, especially at a time of economic crunch. Regulatory agencies must focus more on preventing the illegal construction of buildings, checkmating the use of substandard materials and the activities of quacks, which have largely been responsible for frequent building collapse. Owners of buildings marked for demolition must be given a fair hearing and all legal processes followed.
The judiciary must ensure that cases regarding proposed demolition of buildings are swiftly dispensed with for the purpose of public safety and fairness. It must ensure, as an independent arm of government, that disobedience of court orders is met with hefty fines regardless of who is involved. Laws empowering governors to order arbitrary demolition of buildings must be challenged in court since the constitution is clear that the judiciary’s job is to interpret the law.
A key difference between advanced democracies and developing nations is due process, which is a requirement that matters be resolved according to established rules and principles and in a fair manner. Demolishing buildings without regard for due process is not only illegal, it is also cruel and inimical to advancing the rule of law.