“Silence is not an option when things are ill-done” – Lord Denning, English lawyer/judge, 1899-1999.
Both the Lagos State House of Assembly, New Towns Development Authority, and two key state Ministries namely: Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Physical Planning & Urban Development have been in the news lately, regrettably for the wrong and embarrassing reasons.
Going by the sequence of the newspaper report, in The Punch edition of February 6, 2020, with the headline: “Lagos grants ‘secret approval’ for estate on flood-prone Magodo greenbelt”, it was suspected that the Lagos Sate Government must have bowed to pressure from some members of the House of Assembly and secretly approved a controversial project.
The controversial project under reference was “the alleged plan by a consortium of land-grabbers, a company, and traditional authorities to convert a flood-prone greenbelt between Magodo Phase I and Phase 2 to a housing estate, which the members of the Gateway Zone Community Development Association in Magodo area of Lagos vehemently protested”.
The CDA was strident against the proposed development in such a delicate environment reserved as “greenbelt” which, by environmental fiat and urban planning regulation, must not be developed or tampered with. The proposed site is an expansive gorge area that plays a very significant/critical role in flood control and abatement during the rainy season by containing all the run-off stormwater within that particular area and its environs. If the greenbelt is developed, there will be no room to contain run-off stormwater because the entire area must have been blocked by the numerous structures built on the wetland, which is an environmental asset useful in controlling the frequency of flood in that axis of the megacity.
The embarrassing aspect of the newspaper report was the unhidden bias displayed by members of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Committee of Lands, led by its Chairman while on inspection of the wetland in December 2019, to confirm if the site being proposed was designated as a greenbelt.
Despite the attestation by the then Acting General Manager of the New Town Development Authority (NTDA), Aderenle Oni, who told members of the state House of Assembly’s Committee on Lands during the site inspection, that “the area was a wetland and that building an estate in the greenbelt would spell danger for the surrounding communities,” he was ignored by the visiting lawmakers. Oni went further to inform the lawmakers that, for the little work that the developer did at the site (before the site was sealed off by officials of the Ministry of Environment), it has caused unprecedented flooding in the area.
Unperturbed by the advice of experts that the wetland should not be developed, the lawmakers seem to support the prospective developer to build a housing estate on a wetland without any superior argument to justify their position. On February 7, 2020, The Punch reported that the officials from the Drainage Enforcement and Compliance of the Lagos State Ministry of Environment visited the designated greenbelt area and served stop-work order on all ongoing housing construction within the setback of the gorge area.
The team leader of the Enforcement and Compliance Unit was quoted as saying that “The whole area was a gorge reserved for heavy down pour…. It is not right for a building to be located here…We have given them a contravention notice before because of the building under construction is on a floodplain and it should not be there.” The Lagos State Commissioner for Environment, Mr. Tunji Bello, while commenting on the issue, made it crystal clear that the Ministry of Environment has zero-tolerance for environmental abuse in all ramifications and it is the responsibility of the ministry to jealously protect all areas delineated as greenbelts from any encroachment whatsoever.
Surprisingly on February 20, 2020, The Punch reported that despite public outcry/vehement opposition and professional advice against the development of the greenbelt, the state House of Assembly, Committee on Lands made a pronouncement that the Committee backed the plans for the housing estate development on the greenbelt.
The Committee claimed its support was based on the reports it got from various government agencies including the New Town Development Authority and The Drainage Service, that the development can be done once the drainage channel is upgraded to accommodate a larger volume of water flow.
All of this said, it is instructive to ask the following apposite questions, to wit:
Who gave planning approval to the developer to start building on a flood plain?
What is the position of the Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development in the Magodo greenbelt saga?
Commissioner for Environment, Tunji Bello, had publicly made a pronouncement that the environment ministry has zero-tolerance for environmental abuse. He also reiterated that “the government would NOT ALLOW (my emphasis) such developments as (in this case) and would protect the green belt areas!”
Why is it that his counterpart, Commissioner for Physical Planning and Urban Development, Idris Salako, kept mute on a matter about land use/physical planning, which is directly under the purview of the ministry he superintends?
Who are the officials at the Drainage Service and the NTDA who (ill)-advised the lawmakers that development can be done around the axis of the greenbelt?
Was the advice made under duress, out of fear, undue pressure or compromise?
Can the lawmakers recommend to the Commissioner for Environment to back down and allow the development of Magodo greenbelt despite the dire consequences inherent in such a fallible recommendation?
The statement credited to the Chairman, Committee on Lands, Kasunmu that “the final decision is based on the resolution of the Speaker and the House of 40,…the resolution of the House determines final answer,” is unfortunate, boastful and baseless.
The development of a pristine greenbelt meant purposely to control and abate flood for the public good everywhere such nature preserve is designated within the state is condemnable. The lawmakers must not aid and abet law-breaking, illegality and criminality. The developer is using the lawmakers to commit a crime punishable under environmental/planning laws of Lagos State.
It is clearly stated in a recent Lagos State Government publication titled Lagos Resilience Strategy that “Floods are particularly problematic in Lagos as the city is low-lying, with most of its land elevated less than 15 metres above sea level” (page 102). Therefore, the Lagos government, as part of its community participatory flood management initiatives, has enlisted the participation of flood-prone communities throughout the state by strengthening their capacities in the production of and use of flood hazard maps, so that they are better educated and informed about flood occurrences.
Government ought to be commended for working relentlessly to prevent flood through the preservation of the Magodo green belt as a basin and an environmental asset for flood control. The effort of the community residents who stood in strong opposition to the encroachment of the green belt by the capitalist developer is also very courageous. It will be counter-productive on the part of the lawmakers to dabble into a matter which they have very limited knowledge. They are only relying on the advice of lily-livered experts who were intimidated to succumb to the whims and caprices of the lawmakers.
Urban planning and environmental management are under the purview of the executive arm of government, not a legislative matter. Therefore, the presumption of the lawmakers that the House of Assembly has the final say on such matters is a fallacy. Law-making cannot be tantamount to urban planning.
If the Lagos State Government allows the greenbelt to be developed, it will be setting a precedent to which the consequences are better imagined. It would boomerang. The Ministries of Environment, and Physical Planning & Urban Development will be inundated with applications from greedy developers seeking to deplete other pristine areas in Lagos using the Magodo greenbelt as a reference point. Be warned!
Let me offer my unsolicited advice to the affected community (Gateway Zone CDA). The residents have two options to stall the developer from continuing to work at the site with the behind-the-scene support of the Lagos State House of Assembly. First, the CDA should urgently go to court and file an interlocutory injunction against the developer to stop work pending when the CDA and the developer will have their day in court.
The second option for the CDA is to send a petition to the Chairman, Lagos State Physical Planning and Building Control Appeals Committee, Block 15, Secretariat, Alausa, Ikeja, for a public hearing and proper adjudication.
The Appeals Committee is the new institution of the Lagos State Government set up to investigate public petitions/complaints relating to the granting of Physical Planning Permit, the decisions concerning approval among its other mandates.
The Magodo green belt development will be a litmus case for the Appeals Committee to decide in the public interest.
Yacoob Abiodun, an Urban Planner and Planning Advocate, writes from Parkview Estate, Ikoyi, Lagos