By Joseph Mbulu
Nigeria’s rapidly ballooning population has made it increasingly difficult for governments at all levels to meet their social responsibilities to the people. This is evident across all critical areas such as healthcare, power, infrastructure, education and housing. Government’s deficiencies in these areas have necessitated the evolution and involvement of the private sector in areas that were hitherto considered exclusive responsibilities of the government, with attendant positive results to show.
In the educational sector, for instance, involvement of the private sector has raised the bar in terms of quantity and quality, such that today, private institutions outnumber those owned by the federal and state governments, especially at the tertiary level. It is the same story in the health sector, whose potential for investment now beckons on local and foreign investors in a manner never before considered possible.
Perhaps in no other area is the involvement of the private sector more strongly felt than housing. With the government not being able to meet the housing demands of a population that is getting out of control (with a housing deficit that is said to be up to 20 million), the private sector has been the major driver in the delivery of modern and affordable housing infrastructure to a great number of Nigerians, especially in urban and suburban centres across the length and breadth of the country. Credit for this evidently positive development must go to prominent players in that sector such as UPDC, Geradines Homes, Lekki Gardens Estates, Fine County and many others.
Out of this number, however, Lekki Worldwide Estates Limited, promoters of the popular Lekki Gardens, stands out as the one that brought about a paradigm shift by changing the landscape in no small measure. The company’s innovative approach to housing delivery has seen it deliver over 6,000 housing units in 57 estates across the country in four years through a strategy that brings to the doorsteps of even the proverbial common man opportunities to own houses in dream neighbourhoods. It is the reason the company has been able to deliver, from its stable, various types of houses that range from those for the super rich down to one-bedroom flat/apartments for the aspiring class.
For a low income earner who has lived his entire working life in what is popularly known as face-me-I-face-you, the prospect of spending retirement years (inevitably, the last days on earth), in a modern one-bedroom apartment complete with all the facilities that make for comfortable living, and owned by him, is a lifetime opportunity – an opportunity that real estate sector players such as Lekki Gardens bring to the housing mix in the face of government’s inability to meet its obligations to the people.
In Lagos State, for instance, where the company has built about 60 per cent of its houses,  it has provided modern, decent and affordable housing for about 16, 000 persons in about 4,000 housing units, considering that an average household consists of a minimum of four persons, with some having up to seven or more. If one housing provider has relieved a state government of the burden of providing accommodation for 16, 000 persons, then the contribution of that provider in reducing the nation’s housing deficit can only be described as invaluable.
Latest entrants into the real estate sector are believed to have been spurred by the success and, most significantly, huge contributions of Lekki Gardens to the development of the sector. This explains why the sector has acquired the vibrancy that has attracted the interest of local and foreign investors who now see it as an untapped gold mine, with huge potential to contribute significantly to the country’s gross domestic product.
The tragedy that has befallen Lekki Gardens following the recent collapse of one of its structures in the Lekki area of Lagos is an isolated case in its four-year history, one that should not obliterate the gains that have been recorded in the real sector in the last few years. This is more so because in the business of all the major and established players in the industry, no single case of building collapse has been recorded, not one that anybody can remember. Such cases have been limited to structures handled by little known builders with no track record of performance. Otherwise, cases of building collapse have been mostly those involving old and dilapidated structures in such thickly populated areas like Lagos Island. In such cases, buildings have collapsed to the weight of increasing number of occupants and the natural wear and tear on ancient facilities.
There is need for the Lagos state government to handle the Lekki building collapse with absolute care and maturity, in order not to close the door to participation in a sector that holds so much in terms of potential – for investors, the Nigerian people and the government. The directive for evacuation of occupants of structures built by Lekki Gardens in the state for integrity tests and, most importantly, the order that the company caters for the accommodation of such people for the duration of the exercise, is certainly not the best way to manage a crisis that has already hit the industry with all its negativities.
The private sector is a strategic partner in the effort to address the huge housing deficit that stares the country in the face, which government alone cannot handle. The way to go is to tackle the systemic defects that create room for building collapse to occur, not to attempt to throw the baby away with the bathwater, with predictable consequences for housing delivery in particular and the economy in general.
•Mbulu is an expert and social affairs commentator in Lagos.