Twenty-five years after the creation of Delta State from the defunct Bendel State, the capital Asaba still houses government offices in rental apartments; many ministries and a lot more parastatals are still in rented apartments. Efforts by previous administrations to build houses for the Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs), resulted in the Old Secretariat along Submit Road, currently houses Ministries of Information and Orientation, Works, Energy, Headquarters of Housing and Establishments and Pensions, as well as the Headquarters of the Fire Service, Post Primary Education Board (PPEB) and Rural Development Agency (RDA).
The Old Secretariat was constructed as stopgaps measure on creation of the State in 1991 to kick start the running of government. Thereafter, the Federal Government constructed office complexes for nine (9) states created in 1991. Delta State being one of the nine benefitted and that is the manifestation of the present New Secretariat complex housing Ministries of Finance, Health, Economic Planning, Basic and Secondary Education, Youth Development, and an annex of Sports Commission.
Only recently, another three floor complex known as the New Secretariat Annex was constructed by the State Government. That complex houses Ministries of Commerce and Industry, Environment, Transport, Science and Technology and Higher Education. That structure brought in some palliatives at least in terms of scare resources for servicing annual rent payment.
However, as things stand today, the Ministries of Justice, Lands, Surveys and Urban development, Women Affairs, Community and Social Development, Water Resources, Local Government Affairs, Urban Renewal, Oil and Gas, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Housing and Energy are in rented apartments. Others also in rented apartment include Civil Service, Local Government Service and House of Assembly Service Commissions, Delta State Independent Electoral Commission (DSIEC), Office of the Auditor-General and many others.
Looking at the parastatals, the situation is worse. Both the Hospitals Management Board and Primary Health Care Development Agency are on rent just as Tourism Board and Council for Arts and Culture, Tractor Hire Agency, Urban and Regional Planning Board, Rural Water Supply Agency, Small Town Water Supply Agency, Pilgrims’ Boards, State Emergency Management Authority, Direct Labour Agency, Waste Management Board, Scholarship Board, Project Monitoring and numerous others.
The state government has put the total cost of paying of rent at about N650 million annually. This was disclosed recently by the Commissioner for Lands, Surveys and Urban Development, during the ministerial press briefing organized by the State Ministry of Information in conjunction with the Delta State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ). However, it has been observed that the payment sometimes does not come as and when due. Only recently when the payment for the rent of the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources was delayed, the owner of the property practically caused an embarrassing stir when he locked the entrance preventing staff entry into their offices. DSIEC also occasionally experience similar embarrassment from it landlord.
Outside the huge cost for rent annually and the embarrassment occasioned by none or delayed payment of rent cause to the image of government, observers say the absence of government offices in a central location makes official dealings scattered and uneconomical.
“Having government offices in rented apartments is not a sustainable way to running government business”, Mr Giovani Emephia, a civil servant, said saying, “The simple dispatch of a letter can take days in moving from one office to another if there is no vehicle or resources to effect the deliver, adding, “These offices that are not in a central secretariat like the New Secretarial are most times run like a one man business, meaning things don’t work well when the political heads are absent, especially in the provision of generator powered electricity. In the views of another respondent, Mr Kotor Conference, “The situation does not tell well of government and the state housing policy if there is any at all, 25 years after the creation of the state. For Mr Kenmary Obieh, the different offices on rent provides their separate power generating plant and manage the cost of running and maintaining the plants separately, explaining that the cost was clearly avoidable if they had all been located centrally.
Mrs Opia on her part accused some top government officials of sabotaging progress in government by promoting the trend of having government offices in rented apartments. According to her, they build their selfish pecuniary interest into the cost of rent payment and instead of planning to build a permanent site, they kept on patronizing private properties. “It is even more disgusting to see these officials writing for capital projects to be done on private properties”, she said.
A very senior official from one of the Ministries, who spoke on ground of anonymity, said some property owners lobby to sustain government offices in their properties. “We were actually given keys to occupy a section of the New Secretariat Annex, the official revealed, adding, “but somewhere along the line, we were asked to return the keys on the ground that the landlord of our premises convinced higher authorities to retain us in his property and that was how we missed out.”
Having government offices in private properties seemed not to be a problem that is prevalent only in Delta State. Lagos State was also reported to have had its fair share of embarrassment for having it offices in rented apartment. It was reported some time in the recent past that the Lagos State Governor, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, gave a seven-day ultimatum to all MDAs occupying rented apartment to vacate such premises and align themselves with those in permanent government premises. It was gathered that the Lagos State Government took the decision to eliminate cost of running the rented apartments which were said to be highly inflated thus leading to waste of scare resources.
That drastic measure by the Lagos State Government is said to have yielded the desired result as the over 20 MDAs hitherto in private properties no longer spend their government’s scares resources on rent but are reported to be consolidating on efforts aimed at relocating to their permanent premises while squatting in a government premises.
Only recently, the Delta State Government, worried by the burden of paying rent on government offices in private premises, entered into a contractual arrangement with a building construction firm to build a central secretariat to accommodate all MDAs that are still on rent. The State Commissioner for Housing, Mr Joseph Ogeh, made this known in Asaba at a ministerial press briefing while intimate the public on the activities in the housing sector since the coming in of the Governor Okowa administration.
Mr ogeh explained that the central secretariat would be built on the expanse of land in-between the New Secretariat and its annex along the Maryam Babangida Way in Asaba, in what he referred to as “A single mega secretariat” saying, “We are going to demolish the makeshift buildings there, relocate the occupants to another place and the three secretariats will just be within the same area for ease of running government business.
According to the Commissioner, the State Government had for the first time since the creation of the State come up with a housing policy, which he said would soon be transmitted as an Executive Bill to the Delta State House of Assembly, adding that when passed into law, would serve to legally regulate both public and private house construction.
For Mr Emmanuel Akpoveta, a lecturer, the mega secretariat initiative was a welcome development that should be pursued to fruition. “I have always called for the construction of a complex that will accommodate all government offices like we have in others states,” he said, imploring the State Government to focus enough resources on the project in order for it to be completed fast. Mr Christopher Okorodudu, described the mega secretariat initiative as a lofty idea worthy of praise. He however was worried that the challenge was translating it to reality, saying it should not end as a plan. Eulogizing the gains of the initiative of the mega secretariat, Mr Kotor Conference said: “The deployment of multiple power generating plants will be reduced and invariably cost of managing them, and also maximize the little land space in Asaba especially if it will be a multiple floor complex.”
Although it is on record that previous administrations built houses for Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs), some observers are of the view that the efforts was not enough, saying that accounted for why many MDAs were still on rent. They described such failure as a huge mistake that had continued to dwarf the status of Asaba among the comity of capital territories.
Nevertheless, there are others who are asking the question, “If mistakes have been made in the past in not planning a befitting central complex for all ministries, is it too late to be corrected?” This group of persons is of the view that the present administration of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, has come to fill the deficit and so should be supported to redeem the sorry status of public housing sub-sector in the state, even as they say If we must go by the saying that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well, then there should not be any room for half measures but a dedicated will to see all public offices out of rented apartments.