- Water transport operator alleges govt officials are persecuting his business for no just cause
By Job Osazuwa
FOR over three decades, he has been at the forefront of promoting water transportation business in Lagos. But these are not the best of times for Mr. Tarzan Ganiyu Balogun, Chief Executive Officer of Tarzan Marine Enterprises. He’s also the national president of Association of Tourist Boat Operators and Water Transporters of Nigeria (ATBOWATON).
He’s crying out to the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, and other top government officials to help save his business from being rudely snatched from him.
He said the passionate appeal became urgent, following a notice served on him by the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA), ordering him to vacate his jetties in the state with immediate effect.
But the state authorities early in the week evicted Tarzan Boats and repossessed the jetties in Ijede, Badore, Oke-Ira Nla and Ibeshe. In solidarity with Tarzan Boats, other operators pulled their boats from the waters, leaving thousands of commuters stranded.
Investigation revealed that Balogun’s rent remains valid till 2031. But the state government insists he must have connived with some past government officials to manipulate the payment receipts to suit his business.
In a letter dated May 16, 2016, signed by LASWA’s Managing Director, Anisola Kamson, the agency directed him to vacate the premises immediately.
The letter read in part: “The eviction letter is to notify you of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos’ directives that the purported 25 years lease granted to your company on Lagos-owned jetties (Badore East, Ijede, Oke-Ira Nla and Ibeshe) remains invalidated and no new lease agreement has been signed.
“In this regard, you are hereby informed to immediately vacate the fore-mentioned jetties and desist from any and all claims of ownership or concession to these jetties.
“In addition, any utilisation of these jetties is subject to approval and the payment of all applicable jetty landing fees to LASWA.”
Balogun said in Lagos that he openly and duly secured the said jetties from the former Governor Ahmed Tinubu’s administration and had paid all his taxes till date.
He said the letter of eviction came to him as a surprise, coming from a government that is currently preaching public-private partnership initiative. He described the latest government’s action as an act of victimisation and intimidation.
According to Balogun, he took it upon himself to invest huge sums of money in those jetties when nobody, including the state government, was willing to do so.
Said he: “I was in my office in 2004 when the former governor of the state, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, through the then Commissioner of Transport, Muiz Banire, sent a letter to all boat operators for a meeting at the Government House, Ikeja. At the meeting, he told us that government was interested in making the waterways an avenue to decongest heavy traffic on the road.
“He appealed to us to assist the government in the area by providing more boats and other logistics to make life better for those that needed the service. Before then, I was already operating on the Island and providing free ride to students to and fro school. That was my corporate responsibility to the community. And the government pleaded with us to expand to other areas of the state. They promised to provide us with the needed infrastructure.
“Government said it would appeal to banks to give us loans for the project. But, no bank agreed to give out any money. They said it right in the presence of the former General Manager of Lagos State Ferry Service Corporation, one Captain Taiwo, that there was no business on the waterways, hence, there wasn’t the possibility that we would pay back the loan.
“A month later, Captain Taiwo came to my office, that the commissioner instructed him to meet me. He said since I had some boats, I could render the service to the people. I agreed and thereafter, three committees were set up, which also involved the then Chairman of Etiosa Local Government Area. I gave my boats for free to the committees for over two months, plying the waterways to identify where the jetties could be built.
“Nobody was interested in investing there because the boat couldn’t get to the Ijede and Badore jetties that the government built. I told the committees that I was going to spend a lot of money there if I had to commence operation at the jetties. They asked me to go ahead without paying government any amount. I objected to the free offer and told them that if l didn’t pay, anything could happen in the future and my investment there would be gone.
“After much negotiation, we agreed on N150, 000 yearly lease to be paid to government. Everything was documented and the receipts for payment are still with me till date.”
Balogun explained further that he initially paid N1.5 million for ten years, but due to the massive work that needed to be done at the jetties, he, again, applied to government for the lease to be extended to 50 years. He said 25 years was approved, and he said he subsequently paid all the fees.
“The state literally encouraged and begged me to help revive these places and give the rural people, who travel over six hours by road to get to Victoria Island and other parts of the city, a window of movement to civilisation without stress. As a patriotic Lagosian and lover of development, I welcomed the idea,” he said.
However, ten years down the line, it is now a different ball game. Balogun said three years ago, he was investigated based on some purported grey areas on the lease of agreement.
Hear him: “In fact, the directive of the then Governor Babatunde Fashola was to investigate me, and if found guilty, that the state should prosecute me for using state infrastructure without payment. They showed me a receipt where I paid N2.1 million but it was altered to N1.8 million. I showed them mine, and it was the same serial number with the one they had. Somebody frankly said that it was a shady business inside the ministry and that it had nothing to do with me.
“After the investigation, I was not found guilty and wasn’t prosecuted. But apparently, my name was never cleared from the whole rubbish generated by this issue. I continued doing my business in peace,” he said.
He noted that when Governor Ambode came on board, a new MD was appointed to pilot the affairs of LASWA and the case was reopened. In fact, he said trouble started again when his company’s operations manager confronted an official of LASWA for attempting to enter the jetty without wearing a life jacket and it led to an exchange of words.
Balogun recalled: “Two days after the incident, the MD Of LASWA called me to her office for a meeting. She asked me what right I had to stop a government staff from entering the jetty. I explained to her that our action was for safety purposes for the man, who didn’t wear a life jacket. I think that is the offence I committed – not allowing a government official to enter the jetty without a life jacket.”
He said he was in Italy to learn modern techniques in waterways management when he got the eviction letter from LASWA. He said all attempts to plead for some weeks for him to return and for both parties to iron out the grey areas fell on deaf ears.
“The same place we are talking about is also on the right of way of the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA). I quickly informed NIWA. I paid to the Federal Government in 2004 and what I paid will expire in 2019. I always comply with government’s directives in doing my business.
“When I returned from Italy, the NIWA Area Manager and I went to see Kamson and explained everything about the controversial lease agreement to her. She told us that the governor had directed that I should be evicted. She said the order was for us to evacuate the place immediately and reapply if I wanted to continue using the place, and that after then she would tell us her conditions. I asked her about the money I paid that had not expired; she said it had become invalid. That is where I stopped talking to her. If she maintains that my payment receipts are invalid, it means the administration of former Governor Tinubu is invalid,” he stated.
He said his passion for the business has kept him on all these years. He told Daily Sun that he had invested over N5 billion to upgrade the infrastructure to make the jetties very standard. He said he would not fold his arms and allow his efforts and years of investment go down the drain overnight.
He said he was prepared to seek legal redress. But he would not blame the government for his ordeal. The problems, he said, were caused by certain individuals, who were privileged to occupy government positions.
Would he still be investing in the water transportation business in future?
“If this can be happening to me, what will be the fate of other boat operators, who have just one or two boats? We regret to announce that this eviction notice is a strong sign that Lagos State government has no regard for its claim as an investment destination.”