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By NBF News

Development generally is meant to make life easy and possibly empower the citizenry economically. But development, in the like of the Lekki-Epe Expressway expansion and toll plaza has turned a sour grape, with its tinge of controversies threatening to disrupt the peace and serenity pervading the area.

The Lagos State government, had in April 2006, through the Public Private Partnership (PPP), engaged the Lekki Concession Company (LCC), to upgrade and expand the 49.5 kilometre road in a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model. The contract stipulates that LCC will operate and maintain the road for 30 years before transferring it to the state government.

But rather than bring joy, the expansion has pitched about 50 communities, bordering the stretch of the expressway in the Eti-Osa local government area, against the state government and LCC.

Members of the community are kicking against the construction of three tollgates, meant to help the company recoup its investment for 30 years at Maroko, Sangotedo and Epe. They are also up in arms against an alleged attempt to fence them in.

Members of the community are angry that two out of the three proposed tollgates would be located within Eti-Osa, claiming that it would subject them to unfair financial burden.

Stakeholders in the affected communities are alleging that the construction company has refused to dialogue with them since the expansion project started.

According to the President of Eti-Osa Heritage Group, Mr. Sanni Adewale, a lawyer, the collection of toll and fencing would further pauperize the people of Eti-Osa, as well as those living and conducting businesses in the axis.

The construction of the Lekki-Epe express road, he explained, was initiated by the Lateef Jakande administration and completed by Mudashiru Lawal and Mike Akhigbe administration in 1987. This, he noted, opened up the area for rapid development and also led to an unprecedented urban growth.

'They constructed this road for us because they are good leaders.

They didn't plan for a toll gate on it. So, the state government can't force the decision to pay tolls down our throats. Let me make it clear that anyone who intends to erect tollgates on that road in exchange for its expansion is making an economic misadventure. No doubt, we want the road, but to ask us to pay toll is impossible. Moreover, the government is supposed to provide road at no cost to the people. Visitors, business owners, workers as well as indigenes of Eti-Osa can't afford to bear the cost of the tolls,' he stated.

He stressed that though the project was laudable, the communities, he alleged were left in the dark and wondered why projects initiated by the government in the Lekki corridor should be geared towards making profits to the detriment of the people.

'We are opposed to tolls and we won't allow them to fence us in. The state government generates enough resources from infrastructural development charges, levies and taxes from the area to sustain the project. This, to us is an extreme form of multiple taxation. The people of these communities have not enjoyed any dividend of democracy. We don't have any health centre, market or even public cemetery,' he lamented.

Adewale maintained that it is pointless talking about how much would be charged as tolls, 'because we shall not pay to enter our land.

'They failed to speak to any member of the community on what they are doing or how they would be affected. They never raised the issue of the tollgates with us until we learnt that we have to pay to go into our homes. The fencing of the road is meant to maximize the concessionaire's profit without consideration for the socio-cultural or economic implications on us. I believe the fence is meant to tactically force people into using the toll gate,' Adewale insisted.

He told Daily Sun that the affected communities have staged protests to the Lagos State House of Assembly and the government house, but their fears and demands were not addressed. He further alleged that LCC reneged on its promise that it won't infringe on rights of way of properties in the area.

'We have protested, basically against the likely negative effects of tolling and fencing off the expressway. We believe the government conceded too much to the company in the concession agreement, to our disadvantage and we think this should be redressed.

The fencing of the road is another sign of insensitivity on the part of government and the concessionaire. When women protested during the construction of the second toll gate, fully armed policemen were deployed the next day to the site. If what they are doing is right, why then are they using armed men?' he queried.

The lawyer also alleged that the company is planning to commence toll collection on the 49.5 kilometre road, when only two kilometres have been constructed.

'The road is bursting at the seams with vehicles because the construction work is slow. Why should they be eager to start collecting tolls on an uncompleted road? It is absurd and I believe Lagosians won't accept it. What they are doing is inconsistent with global standard practice. To erect three toll plazas on a 49.5-kilometre road is undemocratic, collecting tolls on them for 30 years is unheard of,' he stated.

Decrying the traffic snarl being witnessed in the area, Funke, a resident of Admiralty Way, Lekki, said it takes her about three hours to get home from her office at Victoria Island.

'This is a drive that should not take more than 10 minutes. I tell you, it is terrible. If you don't live in this area you will not understand. It is sad because the construction firm have concentrated more effort on the toll gates. They are taking too long and it is affecting us adversely,' she lamented.

Expressing similar sentiments, the chairman of Eti-Osa Indigene Forum, Alhaji Abideen Lawal insisted that the plaza would be demanding too much from people in the area, even as he feared it could lead to restiveness. He opined that since the state government had designed an alternative road, LCC should expedite action on it, rather than fencing them in.

His words: 'We don't understand the rationale behind building tollgates without the provision of alternative access roads. We also learnt that a towing van and a car being towed would pay tolls respectively. Tolls will have negative impact on local residents, some of whom are currently struggling with everyday life. It would have been better if they decide to toll the only lane added to the road, or better still, make it an option by constructing a bypass. Governor Fashola should not allow this little project to destroy the good work his administration has done.'

The Baba Oja of Ajah, Alhaji Rasaki Odunlami while speaking with Daily Sun regretted that dividend of democracy, which the Lekki-Epe Expressway project is meant to deliver, has become a distress. He insisted that traders can't cope when forced to pay tolls in three places, adding that it would negatively affect prices of foodstuffs in the area.

'Presently, buses charge N200 from Ajah to CMS or Obalende. With three tollgates, they will charge nothing less than N500. How would school children, market women and civil servants survive in such situation? It also has security and safety implications because there would be crises if there is any emergency that requires immediate evacuation of people. The toll plazas would be choked and the only alternative escape routes would be the surrounding water,' he said.

Reacting to the issue, the Managing Director of Lekki Concession Company Limited, Mr. Opuiyo Oforiokuma explained that fencing of some areas along the expressway was necessitated by safety considerations. He maintained that it is not the duty of LCC to provide alternative routes for the axis, rather, that of the Lagos State government.

'We have consistently explained that LCC has no business providing access routes. There are alternative routes that can take people through the toll plaza. Survey has been conducted to prepare the routes. The fencing is not going to extend to all the tollgates. It is meant to cover only the first tollgate. The road and toll project is in line with international standard. Evidence would speak for itself by the time we are through,' he defended.