It was a showdown grimly portended and long brewed. The battle line was between enforcement potency of state power on one hand, and moral hubris of mass following in the civil populace on the other. The public keenly watched at the sidelines, and was served a cynical invitation some days ahead to come witness the “demolition show.” Then the blowout occurred at dawn early last week.
By the time the iron fist, represented by demolition cranes and an accompaniment of soldiers that the Oyo State government deployed pulled back from the battle ground, The Music House owned by popular artiste, Yinka Ayefele – the word ‘Ayefele’ being a Yoruba axiom translating in English as ‘This world is fragile,’ and with implied admonition to tread gingerly – lay in partial ruins.
The Oyo government moved against Ayefele’s property on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway end of Ring Road bypass, in the state capital, for alleged contravention of physical planning laws of the state. Before last week’s demolition, that property housed the broadcasting studios of popular Fresh FM radio station as well as a music recording studio. Besides the wide listenership that the radio station commands, its proprietor, Ayefele, is a popular musician with a huge fan base. He is particularly iconic because he defied disability constraints to attain personal stardom and the renown of his media enterprise.
Fresh FM and by extension its proprietor, Yinka Ayefele, have over the years established a reputation for being critical of the Abiola Ajimobi government in Oyo State. Many people would vouch, however, that this disposition isn’t motivated by partisanship; rather, it is a product of uncommon forthrightness in analyzing topical issues, and as well a rare courage in speaking the truth to power. This trait has resonated with many listeners, hence the wide following enjoyed by the radio station.
But there has been no love lost, expectedly, between the state government and the broadcast outfit housed in the controversial property. Only early last month, the government served the station with a notice of libel in a programme aired on 30th June, where it was alleged that the governor has an economic stake in a private company that executed the recently commissioned ultra-modern abattoir in the state.
And so, when the demolition squad pulled down a section of The Music House last week, Ayefele’s camp and a sympathetic public readily suspected witchunt and a reckless use of state power to crack down on dissent. The state government, however, denied the demolition was politically motivated, arguing rather that the action was necessitated by a contravention of physical planning laws that the organisation allegedly refused to remedy despite several prompts from government to so do.
There has been a firefight of counter-narratives by both sides since the demolition notice was served penultimate week. And apparently because the 2019 general election is on hand, a few political actors have rushed in to milk partisan capital from the urban development row. But we must strain to hear out the basic claims to get a sense of what was at issue.
Highlights of the government’s narrative include that it requested planning approvals covering some properties in the state since May 2017. The Music House reportedly wasn’t the only organisation affected, but also the University of Ibadan, the University College Hospital (UCH), Kola Daisi University and 22 other radio stations in the state, among others. Unlike other organisations, however, The Music House allegedly failed to honour the said request despite several reminders by the government, until one year on – June 2018 – when an approved plan tendered by the station revealed that the site was to be an office complex and not a broadcast outfit.
Physical inspection of the property on 25th June, according to Oyo government, showed up further infractions. These include that the span of the building on ground far outstrips what was indicated on the survey / building plan; that structures like a staff canteen, power house, toilets and a store attached to the fence were not in the approved plan; neither were a broadcasting mast and spiral staircase found on site. Also, the basement of the property indicated to be a car garage in the plan has been converted to an event centre. The government said it wrote the organisation soon after that inspection to come regularise its plan, but the outfit allegedly failed to respond. Hence, it issued the demolition notice penultimate week that required the proprietor to remove the building within three days or be assisted with the grim task – a threat that state agents apparently carried through at dawn early last week.
For its part, Ayefele’s camp insisted the demolition was all things political and nothing regulatory. The camp said the property was approved in June 2008 as a business premise, and the organisation passed all tests required for its construction. It argued therefore that the building was targeted because of some programmes aired by Fresh FM that were considered anti-government. “We followed due process in the construction of the building and got relevant approvals from state departments and agencies associated with lands and buildings…(Information, Culture and Tourism Commissioner Toye Arulogun) has tried in the past to influence a change in our programmes, saying some of our analysts should be replaced. It is (also) not news that the governor himself said some politicians came to him to demolish The Music House complex because Ayefele is not in their camp and he also sang against them,” the proprietor said in a statement.
The camp further argued that it got its building approval in June 2008, and then survived a threat in October 2012 when the state government proposed to demolish the structure so as to pave way for Ring Road dualisation. “The engineers came and they demolished a part of the fence, but not the building,” spokesman of the organisation, David Ajiboye, said in a statement. He wondered why the government had been collecting statutory fees on the premises if indeed it contravened any law, saying inter alia: “If they knew the building was not properly situated, why have they been collecting premises permit from us monthly? Why have they been taking the tenement rate?”
It is doubtful that the arguments canvassed by Ayefele’s camp answered specific questions of distortions in physical development raised against the controversial property by the Oyo government. But the government was as well stuck with the suspicion of having resorted to vindictive self help, having carried out the demolition without a prior court order as would have vindicated its motive under the political circumstance.
Besides, Ayefele’s lawyers had obtained an ex parte injunction restraining the government from proceeding with its intended action pending a court hearing scheduled for that very morning of the demolition. Whether the injunction was duly served on the government is presently in case before the court. But there is no question there was much awareness of that injunction in the public domain, and it bears asking: If the contraventions had existed since 2008, what was the rush that the government couldn’t wait just a few hours more for the court’s doors to open that Monday morning, but rather deployed its demolition squad in preemptive strike against the allegedly offending structure?
In any event, infractions in physical development of approved plans is so pervasive a challenge that only he without any sin should in good conscience cast the first stone. It isn’t unlikely at all that if the original plan were scrutinised, later developments at the Governor’s Office premises in Ibadan would be found to have violated the approved layout.
And so, it is good that both parties are back where they should have started out – at the negotiation table. Reports at the weekend said Governor Ajimobi and Ynka Ayefele met on Thursday following interventions by eminent personalities in the state, among them the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi. That, by all means, is the way to go. What to watch out for is whether Fresh FM will not come out effectively tamed by the whole encounter, in which event media independence and freedom of speech as guaranteed by our national constitution would have suffered a gross and fatal underhand.
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