OBT is an acronym for “Obtaining By Trickery”. For those not very familiar with the vocabulary of our police officers, when you are arrested and charged for OBT, it means that you are being accused of having used deception to receive money or property from someone or an organisation to achieve aims that are in variance with what you claimed while making the request or what the giver understood before letting go of the money or property. In simple terms, OBT is trickery and it has such synonyms as wayo, chancing, jobbing, 419 etc in our street lingo.
In a city like Lagos, you naturally expect that there is a lot of OBT going on. Indeed living in Lagos seems to be a study in OBTing as millions of the residents go about hustling daily for a living. From the bus conductor who charges higher than the regular rate and who intentionally doesn’t give you back your change before you alight, the estate agent who takes money from multiple prospective tenants for a property he is not even in charge of, to even the pastor who digs into your bank account, promising a utopia that never comes, OBT is a common daily occurrence and one the Nigerian police (themselves, great culprits of OBT) have a field day dealing with.
It becomes different when the government, the state government in this case, is culpable for OBT by creating an atmosphere that makes OBT by her agents an alternate revenue stream, under the guise of collecting supposedly legal charges, fees and taxes. That is exactly what has been happening in Lagos State.
It is not news that since the return to democracy, Lagos State has continued to grow its IGR through a renewed focus on taxation. These funds, the government says, is necessary for the much desired infrastructural development necessary for making Lagos stand shoulder to shoulder with other top cities of the world as a mega city.
The jury is still out as to how far or how well this funds are being utilised for the purpose the government claims, but one thing is certain, Lagosians and their businesses are groaning seriously under the weight of multi-taxation, tolls and ever increasing taxes. The latest is the Lagos merriment tax which hopefully shall be a topic for another day.
My concern today however is how agents of the government have successfully made a trade of defrauding individuals and businesses, abusing the free hand they enjoy under the ‘taxation regime” and employing intimidation and force to legitimise their actions. This is becoming pretty sickening.
The main preoccupation of Lagos State House lawmakers seems to be the creation of agencies and departments. There are today, a myriad handling all sorts of stuff; many simply a duplication of duties already being handled by an existing one. And all of them, including the multiple Local Development Councils, are tax collectors. Well, there is the LIRS that claims the statutory taxes, but all the others, starting from the most popular guys, LASTMA and the many other ‘LA’ acronymic bodies are basically tax collectors.
To achieve their objectives, these agencies set up task forces or what some others refer to as “enforcement teams”, a body usually made up of staff of the agency, local touts and armed mobile police men. Wearing coloured aprons, these teams comb Lagos helping government claim what they say belongs to government. And because of the limitless powers they have accorded themselves, these gangs of obtainers go about constituting a nuisance with very little regards to the law. Indeed they are the law. They have become so ubiquitous that one does not now know when they are out on sanctioned assignments or when they are just carrying out OBT for their private pockets.
It is not unusual for a task force team (without any authorisation from their mother agency) to storm a particular premises and begin to raise all sorts of issues – supposed laws that have been broken, for which payments have to be made or else, they will lock up and seal the place. These payments are often a negotiated settlement and usually not receipted.
I encountered one such team recently who stormed a business premises in Victoria Island. The team was a KAI team led by one Mr Femi Ajayi who claimed to be Acting Area Commander (though he wouldn’t show an ID card), alongside about a dozen police men. The offence as alleged was that the owners of the premises had failed to cut the grass in front of their premises and the penalty charge for the offence was five hundred thousand naira (N500,000.00).
Firstly, it was quite shocking that a Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) official should be busying himself on a matter that concerns the environment which one will think should be the headache of Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) or even the Lagos Waste Management Agency (LAWMA). Secondly, the amount of money claimed as penalty was outrageous. And he kept insisting that failing to pay, he would seal the premises and they would have to pay five million naira instead to unseal it.
Quite a scene was created with the staff of the business going from questioning the authority of the team to finally negotiating. The wisdom in their compromise (which is what makes this style of OBT so easy for the perpetrators) is that should the premises be sealed, the business losses good money due to the disruption and the team would get back to Alausa (or wherever their office is quartered) and write a dubious claim, totally different from what had transpired leaving the business running around in a cycle. And because it is such a lawless society, the business (even when it has a good case of unlawful intrusion) will never get redress or compensation.
After so much grandstanding, Mr Ajayi and his team pocketed fifty thousand naira and left with the cops in the weather-beaten danfo they came in. Off to the next maga. You might wish to imagine how much they would have made by the time they are done combing various parts of Victoria Island raising spurious claims and intimidating tax paying citizens (and businesses). Worse, even though the criminality is perpetuated under the canopy of government, not a dime gets to her coffers at the end.
That is what happens when you create an atmosphere that allows for a free for all, where touts are the law, where all kinds of task forces have sweeping powers to seal premises without any court order. Many Lagos residents have their tales of same or similar occurrences. We make all sorts of illegal payments to supposed agents of government because the alternative is a long route that might never lead to justice. Only a few, the likes of Mr Jonathan Odutola, who took LASTMA to court has been able to go down that path and get justice. It’s now an increasingly difficult and unpopular task, encouraging citizens to stand for their right. The lawlessness and impunity is simply overwhelming.
This message must be heard loud and clear in Alausa that the streets of mega cities around the world are not populated by thugs and miscreants working as part of their law enforcement agents, misbehaving in official capacity. That modern cities are not built by scorching businesses to death with all sorts of levies and taxes. That a government that indiscriminately creates task forces must equally be responsible for their actions and in actions. This government sanctioned OBT has gone on for long enough and we cannot survive their being unchecked. For one day soon, people may be forced to take laws into their hands in self-defence.
First Published in TelegrapgNG