Chief Meckson Innocent Okoro, Principal Partner, M. I. Okoro and Associates, an estate surveying and valuation firm, is bitter about the current harsh business climate in Nigeria. In this interview with DAYO AYEYEMI, he expresses his displeasure over government’s unfriendly policies, slow pace housing projects and infrastructure development. He also speaks on workers’ minimum wage; mortgage finance and reasons developers are rushing Lekki Free Trade Zone. Excerpts:
What’s your take on the performance of the economy one year after Nigeria came out of recession?
The present business environment is very harsh. We have not witnessed this kind of doldrums in the past 30 years, to the extent that nothing is moving. I am in the real estate industry and I also interact with people in other businesses. Everybody is complaining. In the retail businesses, everybody is also complaining. Nigerians do not deserve this kind of punishment or suffering, and I am thinking that enough is enough. There is no how we can continue like this. If the present harsh economic climate is pushed, I doubt if Nigerians will remain in Nigeria. We are being pushed to the wall. It is really a very bad situation economically, as nothing is moving and there seems to be no remedy. The present government has no clue of what to do to save the sinking ship. The situation is hopeless. If you hold something and you have hope that after sometime this thing will be good or better, there is that feeling that this suffering is just for certain period. But as it is today, the suffering has no limit; there is no hope in place that after the last quarter of the year everything will be all right. I think the present government has no clue on governance.
What are those expectations that are not met by the present government?
It is not a matter of expectation now, but a matter of government doing what it ought to have done. For instance, we really don’t know whether the budget has been implemented or not. A country is supposed to have a budget and if the budget has been implemented, every sector would have been performing. There will trickling down effects. The government is not spending, money for budget to fund projects is not being released on time. So, how can ordinary man on the street or bricklayer get money because they can only get money if I have enough money to do construction. With this, circulation of money will increase, but now there is no money not to talk of circulation.
There is no hope for the trickling down effects because government has not done what it ought to have done. There is no spending; this is not helping business community to energise their business. The economic climate is very tense now. These are bad indicators to the economy. Everything we are hearing is just about corruption and when government recovered money, where has it invested the money so far? There is no sign of investment in the economy. Many people in the country cannot boast of two square meals any more.
Now Christmas is here and there is no sign because people are not even expecting to celebrate due to dead economy. There is different between something being bad and dead. The economy is dead.
Don’t you think some people are not ready to invest or spend their money because of the of the anti-graft war?
Which corruption? Government itself is more corrupt than the people you are talking about.
That is an allegation.
Nobody has money to hide. With what we have seen happening in the economy and the political arena, there is every indicator to show that government is not fighting any corruption. As far as I am concerned, it is a lip service. It is just about inducing unnecessary fear into the minds of the public. But in actual fact, they are not doing anything. It is like a father that instills fear in his children. When they hear their father’s car horn, everybody hides under the bed. You are only instilling fear and that is not disci
pline. So from what government is doing and what we are hearing, I would not say it is fighting corruption. Things have gone worse than before. Hitherto, the only thing is that there is no induced fear on the populace as to say that…if you spend your money, you will go to jail. This is not a socialist’s country, but a capitalist-driven economy. Since the corruption’s fight, how many people have government imprisoned? So who is fooling who?
Minister of Power, Work and Housing, Mr Babatunde Fashola, has listed some of the achievements of the present government in the areas of housing, road and energy. What is your take on these?
Where are they building houses? We have not seen any and nothing is happening on the roads. Apart from Lagos-Ibadan Expressway that government has been working on for almost five years now, I don’t know, which other roads they are working on. If you go from here to the eastern part of the country, the roads are very bad.
Are you saying government has not done anything or you have not taken time out to see them?
They have not done anything. Whatever the minister is saying is just for window decoration. Is just like the way the Minister of Finance came to tell us that Nigeria has come out of recession. From people’s opinion, the nation has not come out of recession. You can only go out of recession when there is food on your table, and not by telling us on the television. When people cannot afford two meals in a day, you cannot say the nation has come out of recession. The economy is not performing and average Nigerians are feeling the pains.
As a real estate practitioner, what is happening in the nation’s mortgage sector?
Is there any mortgage? We have not seen effects of government’s reforms on the sector. There are dreams like the House for all in 2000 and the rest. These are unrealized dreams. There are some dreams that can never be realized. Don’t worry about what government is saying, but worry about what is on ground. As far as I am concerned, there is no mortgage arrangement in Nigeria. When I will know there is mortgage is when you can go to any Primary Mortgage Bank or FMBN and secure a loan to be able to own your property. Anything short of that, for me, it is just television’s talk.
Major projects that could have energized the Nigerian economy and create jobs in the real estate sector are currently stalled. Examples are FESTAC phase 11 in Amuwo Lagos and Abuja Centenary city projects. Are you not worried?
I am involved in FESTAC Phase 11 project; I think government had finished what it is supposed to do by concessioning it to FESTAC Phase11 Limited. I think they have small hiccups, either in being able to raise enough fund and being able to settle the people who claimed to be original owners of the land. You see, there is a mix up there, works begin as soon as they are able to sort out that problem and start sand filling to recover the land. As at my last interaction with the developer, he told me that the company is almost ready to do that. Once this is done, the place will be ready for marketing and for people to buy. Again, the problem is about people’s low purchasing power even when the project is ready. Where is the purchasing power? How many people can afford to buy the land if the project is ready today? There is no money in circulation, banks are not giving out loans, government is not spending and people are not getting money. In this situation, where do you get money to spend there? So that is a problem.
But the project cannot wait there till eternity….
Yes. Once the operators are able to sort out the challenge, the project will commence. The Vice Chairman of Festac Phase 11 Limited told us that they are on the verge of settling with the villagers and then move to site to begin sand filling. Once that is done, it means people now regain confidence in the project and those who have money would start buying. My fear is that even if they achieve this feat tomorrow, under this economic climate, will people have money to invest?
Don’t you think is high time government increases minimum wage for workers to enhance housing affordability?
Minimum wage of N30,000 cannot help workers to access housing. I am not sure they are directing it to people who are potential house buyers. With minimum wage of N30,000, do you know how many years you will save if you depend on your income to buy a house/property?
So I am not sure if the minimum wage is referring to people who are warming up to own a house, but again, it is good. People are afraid that it would create inflation, the question to ask is that for how much? N30,000 minimum wage cannot create inflation. So if people are paid N30,000 minimum wage and there is inflation, they will go back to status quo. Government needs to energise the economy and ensure that N30,000 minimum wage does not generate unnecessary inflation. That will be wonderful.
Let us look at real estate sector generally, what is your take?
Nothing is going on in real estate sector now including the rental market. People are not renting, people are not buying houses and people already housed are finding it difficult to pay rent. Nowadays, you call people owing you money to pay; most times they would not pick your calls. At times, they will answer and ask if you don’t know what the economy is saying. They would ask where you expect them to get the money to pay rent. These are the stories we are contending with.
How have professionals been coping in this situation?
We have to cope, that is part of the challenges we are facing. If all were well, people owing rents would have been able to pay. And if they pay, professionals will be happy because it is only when tenants pay that landlords would be able to pay yours’.
Many developers are rushing to Leeki Free Trade Zone axis despite the economic hardship. What is happening there?
The fact that people who have investable income are investing, you cannot say that the economy is doing well. If you come to a population of 100 per cent and less than 10 per cent have income to spend, you cannot say that the economy is doing well. There is nowhere in the system that everybody will be reduced to the same level. People are moving to Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, due to speculation. The fact that they are building do not mean they have the market, they are believing that latest by May 2019 government will change hands or at least Nigerians will know where they are politically. So people cannot fold their arms and say they won’t do anything. Of course, they have to be taking stand, but that does not mean that if they develop houses they will get buyer now.
What are the attracting forces?
What is attracting people to Ibeju-Lekki axis mainly is because of government’s presence in the location? We learnt that dry port, deep sea port, airport, Dangote Refinery and so many other things attracting people towards that direction. Of course, good entrepreneurs will take a postion. When most of these things come up, there would be demand for houses.
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