One of Kingsley Idoko Ilonah’s companies is Lona Media. The name should ring a bell. It is a world-class outdoor advertising firm blazing the trail in the sector. As you move around Abuja, you would notice most of the billboards bear the Lona imprint. Lona Media, a wholly indigenous company, introduced LED digital billboards into the country in 2016, built the biggest billboards in Nigeria 2010 (one of which is by Transcorp Hilton Junction) and the biggest billboard in Africa (located along the Abuja International Airport Road by Lugbe Junction) in 2015.
In 2016, the company made waves with its plan to get Nigeria into the Guinness Book of Record with the world’s biggest LED billboard. But three years later, that dream has not materialised. What happened to the much-vaunted world’s biggest LED billboard?
The project was stillborn, he told TIMEOUT in a recent encounter.
Now in 2019, he is trying to untangle the web of intrigue, toxic politics and a crippling powerplay that has encumbered the achievement of the project that would have put Nigeria on the world map of advertising.
“We applied and got approval. We paid all the necessary payments, got the relevant documentation. It took us almost a year to build the board,” he lamented, “Now I have an EFCC case and two banks breathing down my neck.”
How did a good story turn sour? In a snap narration, a few minutes before boarding his flights at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, he poured out his angst and frustration as he painted a portrait of a bizarre case that smacks of double standard and misplaced vindictiveness.
Making of the biggest billboard in the world
Dubai once owned the Guinness World record for the largest billboard (4, 560 square metres) located along the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road. In the meantime, after Lona’s initiative was halted, a company in Spain broke the Dubai record, with a 5, 265 square metres Ford billboard in Madrid. Dubai would not take that lying low. They extended the billboard (6,260 square metres) to break the Madrid record and regain the world record. Yet, neither the Dubai billboard nor the one in Madrid is close to the Abuja billboard, built by Nivafer, one of the biggest and best steel construction companies in Nigeria.
The foundation was the last thing we are supposed to do. The idea was once we finished construction of the board it will be brought to the site–to transport the board from Lagos to Abuja cost us approximately 34 million naira and 68 trucks to get it done––and offloaded with a crane and installed straight away. Therefore, we started our foundation three months to the completion of the board. The foundation would take a month, it would be allowed to set for two months before installation. After we had sunk in 17 million naira––completed excavation, did the blinding and ready to start the foundation––we were stopped on the basis that that was the location for the New City gate. After over two months of going back and forth, we were relocated, the new location, a buffer between the New City gate and the Centenary City project. We went there and started work only to have soldiers storm the site and arrest our staff, accusing them of trespassing on the land of the Centenary City. We showed the approval issued to us by the management that clearly indicated that the location was on a buffer. We also asked OOAN, our regulatory authority, to write to them and they even sent their staff with documents to confirm that they gave us the approval to be where we are now. Our staff was released, but the antagonists wrote a letter to the FCT minister complaining that the billboard will block the view of the surrounding rock. Our board is 35 metres high while the average height of the rock is 150 metres. How would the board block the rock?
The FCT authority insisted it will not allow the board because it could cause accidents. And I wonder how? We have done a lot of research across the world. Billboards do not cause accidents. As we speak, we have a clearance from FRSC that the board cannot cause an accident. Moreover, before they gave us the second approval, the executive secretary of the FCT set up a committee comprising five powerful departments, including Engineering, Urban and Regional Planning, Public Building, Development Control and OOAN. Now, the span of Abuja International Airport Road is 10 lanes of five on either side––three lanes and two service lanes. We were instructed to allow a 30-metre setback on the kerb of the service lane.
This we are ready to comply with. The service lane is not meant for speeding, it is for cars diverting. So,the billboard will be quite a distance away from the main expressway. The question is, how then can a billboard distract the road user? In Lagos, there are LED billboards along the Airport Road, and you could see such boards spanning the road and on both sides in the city. There has never been an incident of an accident because of that. We were stopped on March 29, 2017. Two years that the project has been put on hold––for no just reason. The FCT authority further notified us of the suspension of the approval given us for the consultation.
Trying to break the impasse
On the two occasions I met with the promoter of Centenary City, he was categorical that he will never allow me to put the board there. When I complained that we have spent over 700 million naira on the project, he said he and his foreign partners had spent over 90 million dollars on the Centenary City project and since this government (APC) came, they paused his project (he being PDP); so, why am I complaining?
We have met the vice president. We have written to him. We have met different people to appeal to them. We have even written an open letter to Mr President. But unfortunately, it was published during the election period. We do not want to activate the legal option. We are practitioners and we practice in Abuja, Nigeria. We believe in Mr President as a fair and just person. That is why we are still trying to bring the issue to his notice.
Counting the losses
The way we are treated run contrary to the ethos and policy of ease of doing business being touted by the government. I am a Nigerian. I am a young man. It is an unfair situation and it doesn’t encourage the youth. How would a foreign investor be encouraged to come into the country if a citizen is being treated this way?
This project is largely facilitated by banks. We have spent over 787 million naira, where will I get this sum of money? It is from banks we got the money. To get the money was a herculean task. Currently, we are facing one EFCC case and two court suits. If Lona Media secured loan based on our pedigree, and we are facing this problem, won’t banks be afraid to give money to new or less buoyant companies? This kind of situation will discourage financial institutions from supporting fledgeling businesses––and we talk about funding startups.
Had it been allowed, the board would have been completed by now with over 37 people employed to work at the site. That kind of board needs electrician; there is going to be a garden around it and some people would have to be employed to work there, moreover, revenue will also accrue to the government.
Last word: An appeal
Ours is a world record-breaking project; I believe what has happened so far is just a delay; they cannot stop the project from coming up. That is why we are counting on the sense of fairness of the relevant authorities and the intervention of Mr President.