Dirty LAWMA: Why Lagos may remain dirty

LAWMA street sweepers

By Nehru Odeh

Officials of the Lagos State Waste Management Agency, LAWMA, are battling for the survival of its soul. Though set up by the Lagos State government in 1977 as the Lagos State Refuse Disposal Board and renamed LAWMA in 1991, to rid the state of dirt and keep it clean, it has become a bastion of corruption. And its objective of keeping Lagos clean has become a tall order, as dirt has become a recurring decimal in the state and it – the agency responsible for ridding the state of dirt and refuse – is itself not just dirty but also stinks.

Corruption is not just law in LAWMA, it has become the new normal. And if the large scale corruption currently going on in the agency is not checked, Lagos State may likely remain dirty.

How? You may ask? Hundreds of millions of naira have been discovered to have been defrauded in LAWMA. And this sleaze, which led to bleeding of the State’s treasury, had gone on for a very long time, until some whistle blowers, under the aegis of Concerned LAWMA Operators, spilled the beans, which made the state government order a forensic audit of the organization.

The erstwhile Managing Director/CEO of LAWMA, Dr. Muyiwa Gbadegesin was suspended by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, based on the allegations to allow for proper investigation according to established practice. The Governor named Mr. Ibrahim Odumboni as replacement, though in acting capacity.

However, before Gbadegesin’s unceremonious exit, a lot of water had passed under the bridge. As it used to be the case, LAWMA never employed sweepers directly. Rather it made use of Private Sector Opeators, PSP, or contactors, who employ supervisors and cleaners. While the state government paid the contractors, who are mostly politicians, directly based on the numbers of supervisors and cleaners under their employ, it was the responsibility of the contractors to ensure that those supervisors and sweepers employ were paid promptly.

For instance, no fewer than 600 operators are accredited by LAWMA and they, in turn, employ more than 16,000 sweepers and hundreds of supervisors. For effective coverage, LAWMA delineates the 20 councils and 37 development areas into routes and allocates them to operators who, in turn, employ and assign sweepers and a supervisor on each route. A sweeper earns N25, 000 per month, while their supervisor receives N40, 000 per month.

However, the truth is, those contractors have been defrauding the state government at the expense of the sweepers via padding of wage bills and remuneration for ghost workers bearing fictitious names etc. It was observed that the wage bill of those contractors suddenly spiked from N500 million to N900 million. Aside from the fact that those contractors were collecting wages for ghost workers, those sweepers, who were employed by the contractors, were also being shortchanged and defrauded. Though they were supposed to be earning N25, 000 monthly, the contractors paid them N5, 000. The remaining N20, 000 went into those contractors’ bottomless pockets. The contractors also delayed the sweepers’ salaries unnecessarily. An insider, however, said this applies only to those who stay away from work and are paid based on the number of days.

Still, it has been alleged that a cartel was involved in that racketeering and the person in charge was one “Iron lady” who controlled 66 routes, which put her share of the Lagos waste market at more than 10 per cent. . This lady, the whistle blowers claimed, who enjoyed the backing o some powerful political actors in the state had hijacked routes originally concessioned to them by LAWMA.

What a typical unscrupulous operator does to defraud the system is to pad the monthly invoice submitted to LAWMA with fictitious names for payment. From the investigations, trouble started when auditors approved by the governor hit Ikorodu axis only to discover that most of the names submitted by “Iron Lady” to collect money were nonexistent while a good number of the routes were found practically unkempt.

At the end of the verification exercise, twelve of the routes were found to be abandoned as no sweepers were found on site. In the books, she had in her employ on the 66 routes a total of 2,310 workers. Each route engages 33 sweepers and 2 supervisors. Based on those figures, her company was collecting over N80 million monthly from LAWMA.

“It was not too difficult to uncover the racket through the introduction of biometrics. On the appointed day, only half of the number touted showed up to either have their passport photograph taken, thumbprint collected and phone number registered. In some cases, a sweeper would be discovered to own several phones registered with different names.” a source said.

However , the whistle blowers maintained: “The reason why we are crying out now is because we reliably gathered that government auditors have visited some of our locations but discovered ghosts had been collecting salaries all these months without doing any job. “But the truth of the matter is that some people were using the name of our routes to collect money from LAWMA. It’s very easy to identify those who were collecting such money. Their bank accounts have names.”

It is instructive to note that no sooner had Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu removed Gbadegesin as Managing Director of LAWMA and started carrying out the audit and verification exercise than those contractors, in order to feather their nests, sponsored stage-managed protests and complaints against the new leadership of the agency, claiming that they were being owed backlog of salaries, so as to stop the verification exercise.

That explained the reason for the protest carried out by a rented crowd at the State House, Marina, Lagos and the viral video in which one Sulaimon, a supervisor who claimed to be an asthmatic patient, complained bitterly that he was being owed three months salaries. In that emotion-laden viral video, the supervisor accused the management of the agency of being insensitive to the plight of the workers. The worker also showed viewers his empty kitchen, wondering where LAWMA wanted him to get food.

“Mr Ibrahim, LAWMA MD, what did the poor do to you? What did the mothers do to you? What did they buy from your tray, and did not pay, that you decided to make them go through this kind of punishment?

“We go to work every day. We ensure that Lagos State is clean. We go to work very early in the morning till 4 pm – when we return home. When there was COVID-19 lockdown, we had no break. We were still going out and ensured that Lagos was clean.

“I am an asthmatic patient. I work with LAWMA as a supervisor. Look at what I use? Ask a doctor, ask them at the pharmacy how much it is worth. It is N6,500, with this one (inhaler). When they did not pay my salary, where do you want me to get money to buy my drugs?” he lamented.

The worker later knelt and begged the LAWMA boss not to “destroy the good work” Sanwo-Olu was doing. He begged the governor to come to their rescue, saying the workers are hungry. The official then proceeded to show viewers his empty kitchen, saying it has been long he refilled his gas cylinder and cooked.

However, TheNEWS gathered that the video was sponsored and orchestrated to paint the new management of LAWMA in bad light and stall the clean-up exercise going on in the agency. Odumboni, while denying the allegation, said the agency had been up to date with payments to the contractors who employ these street sweepers. LAWMA also released a statement in which it said government cared about the welfare of the street sweepers.

“The sweepers though, are engaged by contractors who are responsible for their upkeep. Despite this, the authority and indeed the state government prioritize their welfare and wellbeing, hence, they are given adequate care, support, and protection …“The authority has since made April payments to our sweeping contractors, for onward disbursement to their staff members … In addition, efforts are being made to ensure prompt release of subsequent payments, not only for May, but all future payments,” the statement read.

However, LAWMA, in a swift reaction to the findings of the audit and verification exercise, which exposed the massive fraud and corruption in the agency, has terminated all the street sweeping briefs awarded to some of these waste management companies found to have been involved in sharp practices that violate their contracts.

In a statement it issued on Friday 19 June, 2020, it noted that the termination of the contracts was informed by established cases of unethical behaviour by these PSP operators. The statement also gave all employees of the affected companies opportunity to re-apply directly to the Agency for employment consideration

It pointed out that as part of its rebranding process and efforts to sanitize operations, the management has approved the restoration of single apparel as a uniform for all street sweepers in order to enable easy identification of genuine workers. It also warned that any sweeper or agent who wears any unapproved apparel will be termed an impostor.

Sanity can only return to the agency if the dirty politicking going on in the place is addressed.