Wednesday, September 22, 2021

    Senator Orji Kalu bought Radio Nigeria building worth billion Naira for N100m — Investigation

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    Naija247news Editorial Team
    Naija247news is an investigative news platform that tracks news on Nigerian Economy, Business, Politics, Financial and Africa and Global Economy.

    The six-storey building at 45, Martins Street, Lagos, flaunts a rich history. The Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) acquired the property after the country’s Independence in 1960 and structured it into a broadcasting station.

    The first Frequency Modulated (FM) station in the country, Radio Nigeria 2 (RN2) began broadcasting from there, infusing entertainment into radio broadcast, a role it admiringly played for many years, spewing sonorous music, and producing exciting plays and short stories.

    That exemplary narration has, however, changed. The building housing Radio Nigeria 2 (RN2), as the station was widely known, is today a burnt edifice enmeshed in sale and management controversy. Invariably, the property was sold without the owner (FRCN) knowing about it. What is even more curious is that it was sold over 10 years ago with no one coming forward to claim ownership – until recently.

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    But that is not the only curious thing about the sale of the property. Investigations by The ICIR shows that the building was sold (in actual fact, leased for 99 years) in 2010 by the Presidential Implementation on the Sale of Government Property to Seamen Traders Nigeria Limited without the knowledge of FRCN.

    Further investigations revealed that Seamen Traders was issued a Certificate of Occupancy by the Federal government on May 17, 2010. A search at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) showed that Seamen Traders is owned by Orji Uzor Kalu, businessman, newspaper publisher and senator representing Abia North. The company, which was incorporated in February 1988, has Christiana Orji and Obinna Moore as the other directors.

    Also curious is the fact that the property was sold for N100 million, whereas independent evaluation puts its worth at least one billion naira. What is more, there is no evidence that the pittance for which it was sold was ever paid into government coffers.

    Property’s chequered history
    On November 6, 2019, fire razed the imposing building, which Adebowale Stores Limited (ASL) had managed as lessee for some 19 years on behalf of the FRCN. That would be the second major fire damage to the building.

    ASL had been a tenant in the building for about 20 years when fire first gutted the building on November 15, 1997, wreaking extensive damage. As the property remained unrepaired two years after the fire incident, the founder and chairman of ASL, Hamza Beyioku Adebowale, wrote to the FRCN in December 1999, indicating his company’s desire to repair the uninsured building and acquire a leasehold on it. The FRCN management agreed and, on May 29, 2000, both parties signed a five-year lease agreement.

    FRCN building at No 5, Martins Street, Lagos
    FRCN building at No 5, Martins Street, Lagos
    FRCN kept us in the dark on sale – Adebowale
    ASL had since then been the manager of the property until the 2019 fire tragedy and, as the company’s Head, Corporate Services/Company Secretary, Yishau Habeeb, put it, was hoping its long tenancy and lease relationship with the FRCN would put it in a position of advantage if and when the federal government eventually decided to sell it. That hope would turn out forlorn, for, as the ASL just recently discovered, the building had actually been sold in 2010 for N100 million.

    A quantity surveyor, Olamide Martins, described the sale sum as “a pittance” and estimated the cost of the property, even as far as back as 2010 and in its burnt shape, at “not less than N1 billion.” Another estimate put the worth of the building at N1.5bn.

    The ICIR checks revealed that the sale might well be one of those a House of Representatives committee constituted by the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, is probing over allegations of sleaze.

    ASL, which claimed that it had spent huge sums of money on the building to put it in good shape while managing it, is accusing the FRCN management of hiding the fact that it had been sold while maintaining the leasehold arrangement with it right up till the 2019 fire incident.

    But the Director-General of the FRCN, Mansur Liman, in an interview with The ICIR, washed the corporation’s hands off the transaction, saying that it was not in any way involved and was, in fact, oblivious of the transaction until this year when a letter from the ASL indicated the property had truly been sold.

    Habeeb argued that the building could well have collapsed after it suffered the first fire shock in 1997 “when the FRCN neglected it but the ASL intervened with the leasehold idea and effected extensive repairs and renovation on it.”

    The lease agreement gave the ASL, which was itself a tenant there occupying two big shops, the approval to “reinforce the structure of the (burnt) building and undertake renovation of the second floor damaged as a result of the fire incident, including replacement of the floor and ceiling; restoring the walls, and doing plumbing and electrical works, and repairing the elevator house; and effecting a facelift of the whole building, including interior and exterior to the satisfaction/approval of the Lessor or his authorized consultant as contained in the Works specification in Schedule ‘A’.”

    Habeeb estimated the renovation job as costing the company a sum of N30m. He said Adebowale, who died in December 2008, was willing to expend such a huge amount on the building’s renovation because he envisioned the federal government, through the FRCN, could put up the building for sale any time and his company would be accorded the right of first refusal to buy it.

    The business relationship between lessor and lessee continued after the formal agreement expired, with the FRCN granting ASL another one-year agreement to keep managing the property on its behalf, including collecting rent from the tenants, ensuring the structure was spick and span, and be responsible for electricity bills payment.

    Whereas the first five-year lease agreement entailed the lessee paying the FRCN the sum of N3.5m annually, the new agreement jacked the payment up to N13m. Although there was no formal agreement after that, the business relationship between the two parties continued along the same terms and with another N2m added to the remittance sum, until the November 2019 fire incident rocked the boat.

    Habeeb disclosed that the annual rent on the estimated 100 shops in the property ranged from N200,000 to N300,000 per shop, but lamented that the cost of maintaining it, including buying a transformer to ensure power supply solely for the use of the tenants, was astronomical and always ate into whatever profit the company made from the lease. Moreover, the lessee explained, it could not utilize the three top floors of the building as potential tenants were unwilling to accept them because the massive structure had no lift that could ease mobility to the top floors.

    To indicate the lease agreement between the two parties was still subsisting, even if informally, Radio Nigeria Investments Limited (RNIL), the business entity directly relating with the ASL on the lease agreement, conveyed its intention in 2019 to increase the annual remittance by ASL to N25m, from N15m. But the ASL management pleaded, in a correspondence dated February 26, 2019, with the lessor that the increase be deferred for economic reasons, including “the fact that some tenants go for months on end without paying rents.”

    The Director, RNIL, Mike Yahweh, wrote on March 19, 2019 to Aribike Arigbabu, the ASL Managing Director and daughter of the late owner, a letter titled, ‘Re: Increase In Rent On Lease Of 45, Martins Street, Lagos’, stating that after reviewing the reasons adduced by the ASL on why the increase should be deferred, Radio Nigeria had decided to increase the rent to N20m per annum, with effect from March 3, 2020. The letter advised ASL to strive and utilize the vacant three top floors of the building to enable it recoup its investment.

    Nine days after the second fire incident in 2019, the ASL wrote to RNIL seeking approval for the company to conduct an integrity test on the burnt building “without further delay.”

    Habeeb pointed out that the test had “become imperative in the light of similar tests carried out by the relevant Lagos State building department and to further highlight our belief that the stability of the building has not been tainted/compromised by the loss of some columns and the after-effect of the inferno.”

    As Habeeb feared, the Lagos State government conducted its integrity test on the building shortly after ASL’s letter to RNIL. On November 19, 2019, the state Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development, through M. A. Balogun, Head of its Technical Services Department, informed the ASL, whom it described as “the owner/developer” that its test and investigation showed that “the strength of majority of the structural elements has been jeopardised and the building is no longer fit for habitation and constitutes a threat to lives and properties.”

    The ministry then directed the “owner/developer” to “re-engineer the building under the supervision of a qualified engineer immediately to save lives and properties.”

    The ASL management forwarded the original copy of the ministry’s letter to Yahweh on December 11, 2019, emphasising the re-engineering recommendation. Radio Nigeria’s response to the sale rumour was to commence running a jingle on all its stations in Nigeria warning the public that the building was not for sale.

    The jingle, issued as a “PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT”, informed the “general public that the six-storey building known as RN2 situated at No. 45, Martins Street, Lagos, belongs solely to the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria.” The announcement emphasised that the said property was not for sale and had not been sold to anybody, and that “Radio Nigeria, being the bona fide owner of the said house, is not contemplating selling it now, or in the near future.”

    The public announcement, which was aired up till March 2021, would seem to give the ASL some confidence that the building had not been sold and the FRCN management had, indeed, not put it up for sale.

    ASL officials would, however, be shocked on Sunday March 1, 2020 when they observed that a developer had encroached on the property and barricaded it with aluminum sheets, as well as invited armed policemen to guard the premises.

    When the ASL security personnel at the site interrogated the developer, he calmly responded that the 45, Martins Street, Lagos property had been sold to his client.

    The FRCN management, however, restored hope to ASL by debunking the sale claim and drafting policemen to the premises to douse the tension and anxiety that had gripped the lessee and traders.

    Assured by the denial, Habeeb, on March 3, 2020, wrote to the FRCN DG through the then Director, Lagos Operations, Mr Adeyinka Amosu, appealing that the management and board of the corporation expedite action on effecting restoration works on the building.

    The ASL was not the only worried stakeholder. On March 17, 2020, a body calling itself ‘Traders Association of 45, Martins Street, Lagos Island’ sent an appeal to the FRCN DG, through Mrs Arigbabu, “for the urgent restoration of 45, Martins Street, Lagos.”

    In the letter, the traders, represented by their chairman, Lateef Omitunde and secretary, Kehinde Ajikanle, lamented that their businesses had suffered colossal losses since the fire incident: “In fact, most of us can barely take care of our families and pressing necessities of life as our daily bread is tied to the various businesses we carry out at the above-subject property.”

    The traders expressed disappointment with the FRCN board members for allegedly failing to fulfill the promise they were said to have made on quickly restoring the property when they visited the burnt building on inspection last year so the traders could resume business.

    “Regrettably, however, nothing has happened following the visit and we are still unable to conduct business on the property,” the traders stated.

    Omitunde, who, along with his wife, had two shops in the burnt building, told ICIR that he lost N30m worth of goods in the inferno. He added he had been reduced to a roadside trader in the area, hoping for a miracle.

    Also, Ajikanle now displays whatever is left of his wares by the Martins Street roadside after he lost goods he estimated at N50m to the fire. The association’s secretary, an importer of shoes and clothing materials from China and Dubai, lost four shops in the building.

    “Life has never been the same since we lost everything to the inferno. We thought the FRCN Board will come to our rescue when they visited the property last year only for us to hear that the property has been sold. Life has been difficult,” he said.

    Ajikanle was amazed that even the FRCN board, under the leadership of Mallam Aliyu Hayatu, that visited them last year at the burnt premises and assured them of quick repair of the building would claim ignorance of its sale. Our reporter learnt that a bureau de change operator with an office in the building, identified as Alhaj Abdulmalik, collapsed and died after losing lots of foreign currencies in the fire tragedy.

    The ASL reinforced the association’s position with its own letter signed by Habeeb and dated March 18, 2020 to the FRCN DG highlighting the heavy toll the permanent closure of the building had had on the company’s business and those of the tenants.

    It stressed that the building’s dilapidated state underscored the urgency for its reengineering as “the Lagos State Physical Planning Department was waiting, in any eventuality, to repossess it.”

    The ASL got agitated once again when it observed the activities of “unknown people armed with dangerous weapons” on the premises. Habeeb, in a letter dated November 17, 2020, reminded Dr Liman that in an earlier missive, he had informed him that the invaders claimed they were there because their principal had bought the property. He added that the “hoodlums completely vandalized the building by removing and carting away steel doors of all the shops and window frames.”

    What the ASL management found confusing was that, as Habeeb pointed out in his letter, the FRCN had on November 26, 2020 erected a signpost at the site affirming that the building remained the corporation’s property and warned of any trespassing.

    The ASL appealed to the FRCN boss “for the umpteenth time” to “in the light of the above, carry out the rehabilitation of this property.” The company offered its willingness to do the “complete reengineering and rehabilitation of the property as prescribed by the Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development” if approved by the FRCN management.”

    In April this year, what seems to be the truth about the 45, Martins Street, Lagos Island property unequivocally emerged. On Monday 26, 2020, ASL personnel once again saw some men at the site who declared, when confronted, that they were representatives of the buyer and had come to start rehabilitation works.

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