We keep repeating that Nigeria suffers a 17-million units housing deficit. That is simply untrue. The guys who push that rhetoric probably know what they are doing because the figure alarms every government and pushes them into certain suboptimal decisions. The simple way to look at it is that in Nigeria up to 10 human beings (old and young) can live in a house; even in a three bedroom flat, and they’ll not be said to be ‘homeless’. We are not yet that kind of society where a man and woman live with only their children, even though we are getting there.
So, 17 million units of houses could easily translate to us housing a fresh 170 million people, which is our entire population. Are we then saying all Nigerians are presently homeless? Some people have even taken potshots at our population figures and other statistics. Seems like we may not be as many as we say we are. Politics got the better of us as we inflated away in order to get a bigger share of the national cake. Late Professor Ali Mazrui once mocked us for not being able to count ourselves despite being the ‘Giant of Africa’.
And so, in response to this alarming housing deficit, government is pushed into embarking on different schemes on a yearly basis, just as they try and support some builders. The Federal Mortgage Bank has supported many housing schemes around the country. But the reality is that Nigeria has been taking all the wrong decisions and the efforts so far have not had any salutary effect on society. We have been providing what our people don’t need and what they cannot afford. To that extent, in every state capital in Nigeria today are many housing units which are unoccupied, with no hope in sight that they will be any time soon. Yet the housing deficit, which we may now review downwards drastically, remains alarming.
What countries do is to be honest with themselves in things like this. The housing needs of a country are tied to its education system, it’s pace of development and its culture at large. Countries think of when young children will become adults and start to cater for themselves. They then channel efforts into providing tiny little accommodations that fit the needs of these youngsters who their parents usually show the way out when they are around 18 years old. The general reality is that nations will continue to urbanise as they develop. In many countries around the world, it is not a big deal to attend universities, and youngsters usually become useful to society by learning a trade, skill or craft right after secondary school. Therefore, a youth attending some technical school or training should be able to rent or start the process of owning a tiny studio house. Later on, that same youth may come into his own and decide to get married or just get something bigger and better. Then he wants to move into a one-bedroom or two-bedroom house. And it goes on like that. At the tail end, old people move into smaller units and leave the big duplexes for those in their prime.
Also, rural homes are kept for as long as they can be. Many rural homes have been standing for 300 years, but that is because they were properly constructed and they are not fundamentally compromised. Basic hygiene factors have been reckoned into their construction, such that today they remain functional and help to reduce the housing deficit. Some have even become tourist attractions, earning money for the country.
In Nigeria the system is broken.
Not only do we now all want to attend universities – except in some parts where millions of little children are not even encouraged to attend anything at all (which is a terrible problem when looked at from the perspective above, because unschooled children with no skills are not provided for anywhere in the world). As we crowd into universities, no one gets the much-needed skills around which society revolves. We therefore import plumbers, bricklayers and whatnots from Togo, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, where they have been properly trained. Add to this, the great problem of corruption which ensures that our national financial capital is grossly and shamelessly misappropriated and ends up in the hands of an insanely greedy few, instead of being invested in the people as they do elsewhere, and we are set up for a big disaster in the near future.
Rural homes? Sorry. Most of them are falling where they stand today, having been almost totally eroded and corroded over time. There were no standards set when these houses were being built – mostly around the early 20th Century and in response to the stimulus of the colonial influence. The trend of building houses with bad ventilation and, of course, no provision for hygiene issues, has continued till date in the rural areas. These are houses that easily succumb to the element – thunder strikes (they will say it’s their enemies), heavy downpours and floods, as well as simple erosion. Could the government have helped standardise the mud houses to make them more durable? Yes they could. But they didn’t. So instead of having tourist centres, we have building collapse to deal with. It’s not as if we understand the value of these things. The old Brazilian House in the Tinubu area of Lagos Island was recently demolished to make way for a shopping plaza. Who cares?
Navigating the Psychology
Let us also look at our psychology as a people. As folks who expect magic in everything, we no longer do things gradually. There’s npw nothing like climbing the step rung by rung – from a studio apartment to one bedroom house to two, three and then if lucky, a duplex. We believe God has ordained for us to ‘dominate’ the world, and so, from squatting with people, we want to build our own house. Our culture also holds that anyone who cannot boast of a house of his own is a failure. We also believe the bigger your house, the bigger your success. Many Nigerians live for the image they portray outside.
At least I know a bit about a place like the UK and also Singapore. In the UK, you get registered with your local council and apply for a place to live in. They have several arrangements where you can get a fairly easy rent as you wait for your own allocation. Everybody is eventually on a mortgage, so you are not expected to pay fully for a house, where you are lucky to get one. A five percent or 10 percent down payment is enough and the rest is spread over 25 or so years. In Singapore, the challenge they had was with space. And so they knew that they had to develop vertically. Almost every Singaporean today lives in those skyscrapers and nobody feels like a failure for living among other people in housing provided by the government or private developers.
The Core Issues
One, the private developers in Nigeria, and even the government, have tried to focus on mortgage lately. Sorry, ko le werk. We have not organised ourselves for the mortgage idea. Too many people are out of work and the educational system has been deliberately broken by you-know-whom. Too many are eking a living by being street-traders, ‘hustling’ or owning some small business with irregular cash flow. We have no pool of artisans and ‘handwork’ is seen as failure! No deliberate policy has been targeted at actively reorganising society in this regard. So how do we support a mortgage system when people have no steady salary? Mortgage is based on predictability. Our lack of organisation is also the reason why a secondary market for housing – or anything else – is hardly existent, compared with, say, in the UK, where Capital Gains Tax on properties sold yearly for profit, nets at least 5 billion pounds sterling (N2.5trillion), mostly from London. When you gross it up (since CGT is around 28 percent in the UK), that means over 25 billion pounds sterling worth of property is sold yearly in the UK. That is like $33 billion or twice Nigeria’s annual budget.
Two, Nigeria has wasted trillions upon trillions on luxury housing, most of which are sitting and collapsing where they stand today. Housing business is sweet. It is great and exhilarating to transform spaces, to transform jungles into neat luxury estates and all that. The problem is that usually developers go for the kill. They price their houses at perhaps five times the cost of putting up their units. That is 400 percent profit. Again, only a few can afford those kinds of houses. Not up to 100,000 are employed in Nigeria’s financial sector, for example (including banks, stockbroking firms, insurance firms, central bank, regulators etc), and the figure is dwindling with all sorts of layoffs these days. Less than half of that is employed in Nigeria’s oil sector – private and public sector. The entire population of middle and upper-classers in Nigeria is not up to 800,000 (including their spouses, children, brothers and sisters). This is 800,000 (a generous figure) out of 170 million or whichever figure we decide to believe in. Only 1 in 20 Nigerians can be said to be truly comfortable, such as to afford a house built by private developers. 1 in 20 could even be too generous.
Even if it is 800,000, these are people that also know there are opportunities for them to buy their own land and build, rather than buy from a expensive developer. Many are not wired to depend on developers at all. This is why there is no traction from that sector on which many developers depended. Many of these middle and upper classers have, however, already bought quite a number of these hyper-expensive properties with the hope of renting (I recall cringing as a pal from the oil sector bought two three-bedroom flats for N55 million each in some obscure place in Abuja about four years ago! I couldn’t convince him otherwise). A downturn in the economy ensured that they are the people sitting on those properties today. Where they get tenants, the hassle of obtaining their yearly rents is another thing. We didn’t learn from the subprime mortgage crash in the USA to know that it is untrue that house prices never fall. They do fall. Though if you refuse to reduce prices because you want to hold on to a myth, the houses just dilapidate in your hands. More than 300,000 housing units lie fallow all over Abuja as I write. Most of them are ‘luxury’. And they are pitiably falling apart. If you see their states today, you will weep.
Three. It is the role of government to take a lead on this. They have to set the direction. They may not be able to influence developers in setting prices, but they should care about prototypes. What types of buildings should we be focusing on? Which demographic do we have a problem with? Over 70 percent of Nigerians presently crawl out of stinky ghettos with zero infrastructure every morning – including those with some sort of corporate jobs. As a people, we haven’t yet set the standards and outlawed some kind of despicable living. Perhaps that is where to start. The last real attempt at mass housing ended with Lateef Jakande in 1983. There is no plan for the lowest among us. If Singapore built up, we also need to determine how we will house our large population. The USA also built the Projects in the 80s. What plans do we have for our youth and not-so-young? Why have we left our poorest to live in conditions that will irritate even the beasts of the wild? The world is watching us, mouth agape. We need to positively outlaw the spread of urban ghetto sprawls.
The Ghetto Squad Have Won
But the truth on ground is that the ghetto squads have won! In a place like Abuja, Mallam El-Rufai, when he was a minister, announced on national TV that anyone earning less than N50,000 monthly should leave Abuja and go back to their villages. That was around 2003. He demolished many shanty houses and rendered 500,000 homeless (according to UN Refugee Commission figures then). His successors, Adamu Aliero and Bala Mohammed also demolished their own tens of thousands. The new gentleman there says he will not demolish though. True, demolition is not the solution, but what plans do we have?
And so we are back to an era where the mentality of our people have solidified. In Abuja, the Federal Capital, just as it is in many other towns across the country, the poor have taken position and are now unshakeable. They have seen it all and are ready to dare the government. They aren’t going anywhere. They continue to buy land from dodgy unofficial quarters and ghetto houses are springing up by the thousands everywhere; badly built, and defacing the layout of the land. The sprawls are expanding. The government is absent. And this is year 2017, where other countries are thinking but Nigeria is asleep.
It occurred to me to write this when I visited an abandoned housing estate around Aleyita in Abuja. Aleyita is one of Abuja’s 100s of ghetto settlements. It must have been demolished a few times. But it stands. And today, it’s thriving. The corporate guys who thought they could use the power of big money to crowd out the ghetto without making any alternative plans for the millions who dwell therein are tired and defeated. It seems they no longer have access to cheap money or cheap loans to continue their luxury estates. And so, the people of Aleyita today freely use the middle of the abandoned, half-complete luxury estate of about 200 duplexes as thoroughfare. All over Abuja, the slums and shanties are growing. From Apo, to Asokoro to Maitama. From Utako, to Jabi, Wuse and all over Garki; not to talk of Mpape, Dawaki, Gwarimpa and into Suleija, Gwagwalada, Nyanya and Mararaba, millions of our people are eking some sort of survival since their country doesn’t give a hoot and their leaders are on vacation. They actually don’t expect anything from their leaders. Ignorance is bliss. Somehow, the super big men who planned Abuja, and who superintend over our other big cities never gave a thought to where those little men who serve them as drivers, cleaners, cooks, chaperons and so on, should live. They just never cared. Yet the true measure of development is to get these less privileged people to live properly and appreciate the good life. It’s pretty basic stuff. Instead we are consolidating the gains of income inequality by expanding luxury estates on one hand, and vast urban slums on the other. We are setting ourselves up for disaster.
Still one day, some crazy minister will embark on new demolitions in Abuja, without alternative plans. On that day, I shudder at what will happen since the people are now totally disconnected and patriotism has since departed from us. All is fair in love and war.