How FCT minister, agencies, ‘frustrated’ installation of world’s biggest billboard in Abuja

FCT Minister, Mohammed Bello
FCT Minister, Mohammed Bello

Conflicting directives from Abuja municipal agencies and an unyielding minister may have cost Nigeria an opportunity to set a global record with the construction of what would have been the world’s biggest billboard in the country’s capital, Abuja.

The shoddy handling of the approval for the construction of the billboard by Abuja city officials has also cost Lona Global Resources Limited, an indigenous outdoor advertising company building the billboard, at least N800 million in wasted investment and a debt lawsuit to boot.

In 2017, when Idoko Ilonah, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Lona Global Resources, broached the idea of erecting the biggest billboard in the world, he was trying to outdo his other records in the outdoor advertising business.

In 2011, his company built the biggest billboard (20mx40m) in Nigeria – an LED digital billboard installed at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. Similarly, in 2016, it made another record by installing the biggest billboard in Africa (20mx80m) at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Road by Lugbe Interchange, Abuja.

Running into Troubled Waters

Banking on how hitch-free the process of the installations of its two previous recording-setting billboards was, the company had already concluded an arrangement with the management of Guinness World Records and had made the necessary financial commitment for the endorsement of the planned world’s biggest billboard.

“We opted for the location to complement the aesthetic ambience and beauty of the proposed New City Gate, and for technical feasibility and projected profitability,” the company said.

When on April 24, 2017, Lona Global Resources got approval from the Department of Outdoor Advertising and Signage (DOAS) to install the billboard near the New City Gate along Airport Road, Mr Ilonah thought nothing was going to stop his company.

But he should not have been too optimistic.

Trouble started three days later when the executive secretary of the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA), Umar Jibrin, visited the site proposed for the installation of the billboard and faulted DOAS decision to allocate the plot for the installation of the billboard.

Mr Jibrin said the plot was within the area marked for the new Abuja City Gate and he ordered a review of the approval for the location. He also set up an interdepartmental committee comprising the directors of DOAS, departments of urban and regional planning, engineering services, public building, Abuja Metropolitan Management Council (AMMC), among others.

Recommendation of a New Site

The committee, during its meeting of June 6, 2017, recommended a new plot along the Airport Expressway/Wawa (Centenary) district.

After its meeting, via a memo addressed to the FCDA executive secretary, and dated June 19, 2017, the Director of Engineering Services, M.S. Audu, an engineer, informed of the interdepartmental committee’s new location suggested for the billboard construction.

The memo read in part; “The recommended adjustment is to restrict the billboard within the airport expressway/Wawa (Centenary) district/New City Gate plot buffer, thereby eliminating the likelihood of encroachment into private committed plots within Wawa (Centenary) district. The Department of Public Building has been duly consulted in arriving at the above proposed mega billboard centre line alignment adjusted coordinates.”

The GPS coordinates for the location of the billboard it gave was 310413.213E/989441.997N and 310322.213E/989314.997N.

In a similar development, the Director of the Urban and Regional Planning Department, Zaliha’u Ahmed, in another memo addressed to the FCDA executive secretary, confirmed that the new site provided was arrived at after inputs from other relevant departments.

The memo read in part, “It was determined that the site (new site) is unencumbered and located about 150m away from the new city gate within the 60m wide buffer of the Musa Yar’Adua Airport Expressway.

“The proposed billboard does not encumber the adjacent Wawa District design. The site is expected to cover not more than 5,000m square bordering the present centenary city project.

“The proposed site is oriented ‘linear wise’. Site terrain has been established as suitable for locating the billboard structure.

“No obstruction posed by the erection of the billboard on site as there are no front-facing developments earmarked on the adjoining area. The hill and open space/green area behind the billboard will still be visible as a background.”

Centenary City Plc Kicks

Mr Ilonah said after securing the new approval, work on installing the billboard commenced almost immediately. He said his company spent N800 million on the design and fabrication of steel and other items. He said he was, however, shocked when the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Muhammad Bello, ordered the work to stop.

The order was informed by a letter of complaint to the minister from the management of Centenary City Plc, promoters of the Centenary City project, objecting to the new location of the billboard.

The company argued that the erection of the billboard would obstruct the view of the city.

The letter, which was signed by the company’s managing director, Odenigwe Michaels, sought the minister’s intervention, suggesting the approval for the billboard’s location must have been given in error.

“The Honourable Minister may wish to recall that the Centenary City Project is an investment-driven project. As a result, an act that creates panic in the minds of the investors will not be good for the project. Let me also note that the claim that the location of the massive billboard is on a ‘Wayleave’ is not founded as wayleave is not intended for activities that will affect the adjoining developments,” he wrote.

Mr Ilonah told PREMIUM TIMES that his company wrote a series of letters to the minister explaining its position and predicament. He said his company was not even interested in insisting on its rights only appealed for understanding from stakeholders on why the installation of the billboard should not be stopped.

He said he even promised to remove the billboard whenever the government was ready to construct the new city gate. He said none of the stakeholders responded to his pleas.

“We took N300 million loan from a financial institution at five per cent interest rate and had already secured advertorial from the Globalcom Communications running to about N300 million as the first user of the board when completed,” he said.

Company Writes Vice President

After hitting a brick wall with the minister and other stakeholders, Lona Global Resources took its case to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who was the acting president at the time.

In a letter to Mr Osinbajo, in August 2017, the company argued that Mr Bello’s order stopping the installation of the billboard was not in consonant with the government’s avowed policy to better the ease of doing business and support for local content in public procurement.

The vice president, through a letter signed by the deputy chief of staff at the presidency, Ade Ipaye, wrote Lona Global Resources Limited, notifying it that Lona’s complaints had been forwarded to the minister concerned for “review and necessary action.”

PREMIUM TIMES cannot confirm if the minister responded to the letter from the acting president or not. But when reached for comment, Mr Osinbajo’s spokesperson, Laolu Akande, replied with a terse SMS: “Please ask the Minister.”

The company wrote another letter of appeal to the president in November 2018, but it seemed to have encountered a similar fate as that written to the acting president in 2017.

More than four months after the letter was successfully received, which was signed for by one M. Saminu on November 27, 2018, the president has failed to either acknowledge the letter or take any action.

When reached for comment, the president’s media aide, Garba Shehu, said enquiries on the matter should be directed to the FCT minister.

The FCT minister did not respond to multiple calls and SMS sent to his mobile phone requesting comment.

However, the minister’s media aide, at a meeting with Lona’s management on February 12, said the minister must be acting on the advice of relevant government departments including the security agencies. He added that the FCT administration was only concerned about the safety of the capital city and the protection of its laid down rules and regulations.

“The truth is that we are partners in progress because if investors are not in the FCT and Nigeria by extension, what would the government achieve? But while we are partnering, we need to recognise the fact that the Minister is only an appointee of the President and the security operatives usually give advice based on their observations on major developments including a project as big as this,” he said.

When reached for comment, Mr Odenigwe said the DOAS erred in approving the installation of the billboard at the location.

“No development on a road Wayleave should ever negatively affect the development adjacent to it. So the Department of Outdoor Advertising and Signage (DOAS) is not allowed to indiscriminately allocate sites without consideration of the effects on adjacent developments! That is due process.”

Debt Lawsuit

Meanwhile, Lona Global Resources said due to the failure to install the billboard, it has been unable to meet its financial obligations to the financial institution that loaned it N300 million. Also, the company is in trouble with Globacom over its failure to deliver services paid for.

“We, therefore, appeal to Nigerians to help us beg the FCT authorities before our business investments are finally ruined,” Mr Ilonah, the firm’s CEO, said.

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