By Muyiwa Adetiba
Speaking of vision, a thick, black smoke enveloped the air in the afternoon of last week Wednesday reducing visibility and making it almost ‘dark at noon.’ I was scared as thicker and darker smoke billowed. It seemed so close to home that I thought one of the factories next to ours had caught fire. I felt I needed to do something in case of eventualities but the sheer magnitude of the smoke made me feel helpless. So there was I, petrified and fidgety, until a worker told me it was not as near as I thought and was sure the authorities would have been aware because of the scale of the fire. It turned out to be true, but it was cold comfort at the time. Olusosun, one of the dumpsites of the Lagos State Government was on fire. On a good day, this site is less than five minute drive from my office in Oregun and just a few hundred meters by air. My worries were therefore not entirely unfounded.
Olusosun was a disaster foretold. But like many things in Nigeria, a prediction ignored. Apart from what one had read in the papers and on the social media by environmentalists, and the PSP contractors who use the place, about the various dangers waiting to happen, and the need to do something urgently to avert them, even laymen and passers-by knew something unpleasant was simmering underground. It was not unusual to have one’s vision impaired by different colours of smog—sometimes lightly, sometimes heavily—in the course of the year as one walked or drove pass the site. Just as it was not unusual to actually feel the polluted and toxic air pass through one’s system anytime one found himself around the area. But prevention is not our forte in Nigeria. And the country’s richest economy is not an exception. I wonder if anybody would quantify the loss of last Wednesday’s ‘preventable accident.’ I wonder if anybody would compensate the victims who suffered trauma as well as economic losses directly because indirectly, all of us who were unfortunate to be in that area on that fateful day and had to contend with a nightmarish traffic, impaired vision and toxins were also victims.
But the fire incident is merely the latest in the current saga of a clean Lagos tussle. For about two years now, the contractors, called PSP Operators, who were hitherto saddled with the task of cleaning Lagos had been at loggerheads with Lagos State, their employer. It started with a delay in contractual payment to actual stoppage of work. Lagos State, under the Cleaner Lagos Initiative, had employed the services of Visionscape ostensibly to take Lagos to a greater, more modern height in terms of waste management. But the operators cried foul. Depending on who you are listening to, Visionscape is a scam. The allegations are that it was hurriedly set up in Dubai with no previous experience of waste management in any country. It is, according to allegations, currently draining the tax payers of 750 million naira monthly while unsuccessfully grappling with the enormous waste generated by Lagosians. The other side opines that Visionscape is an international company which has raised 50billion naira to do business in Lagos. And that what we are currently witnessing are teething problems which would soon be resolved. The equipment they claim are slow in moving to site because of the peculiarities of our ports. (I am not sure I have heard any rebuttal or defence of the 750million naira monthly ‘stipend’).
What Lagosians want is a clean Lagos. What they really want is to have their refuse cleared at a relatively cheap rate irrespective of who is doing the evacuating. However, the fact on the ground is that Lagos is presently very dirty with garbage heaps all over the place. It hasn’t been this dirty since the early days of Tinubu’s administration and we are talking of about 15 years ago. The private/public partnership which Tinubu put in place and which Fashola improved upon seemed effective in evacuating the tons of garbage being generated every day. What was needed was the will on the part of government to upgrade the dumpsites and turn waste into energy as is being done in other countries. They say ‘if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it.’ PSP was working. The people of Lagos had come to terms with it. There was no need for an overhaul. The Government could maybe fine tune and possibly upgrade but it did not have to throw the baby out with the bath water. Besides, what manner of government would take business from his people and give it to foreigners? You could hire foreigners as consultants to improve the system. Or better still, you could send your people abroad for training in newer, more modern ways of doing things. You could urge them to upgrade. But to hand over a business that has created hundreds of entrepreneurs and commendable local knowhow to a single foreign concern under the guise of doing it better does not seem visionary to me. It also sounds callous and uncaring.
People have, in the past 15 years, invested heavily in the waste management business and have earned a decent living off it. I could have been one of them. Some ten years ago, a Relationship Officer at one of my banks recommended me for a meeting with top LAWMA officials. The meeting was to discuss medical waste. It seemed a win/win situation for me. The bank would finance the equipment and LAWMA would take care of the rest. Besides, a couple of my friends had earlier invested in trucks for LAWMA and seemed to be doing well. I hesitated only because I already had a loan from another bank that was choking me and this seemed a whole new terrain for me. Besides, I am not much of a businessman much less an intuitive one. Had I taken that offer, I would have re-invested and re-capitalised in line with business demands only to be thrown out at the deep end at the end of the day like other investors before and after me, by ‘an Egyptian King who does not know the Jews.’ I believe Lagos State Government has betrayed the trust and endangered the livelihood of those who bailed Lagos out of its waste problem by investing in waste management. It has also sent a dangerous signal to all those involved in Public/Private partnerships in various sectors of the economy. And if it is true that Visionscape is causing the tax payers more money than PSP, then where is the sense? Where is the vision? More poignantly, whose interest is being served here?