By OKUNADE ADEKUNLE
The lid was sensationally blown off a massive racketeering at the Lagos state waste management authority (LAWMA), at the weekend following an expose by a group of whistleblowers.
The bazaar of shady deals, it was revealed, ran into hundreds of millions of naira for several months, thus bleeding Lagos State’s treasury to the tune of hundreds of millions of Naira in total.
The startling revelation came from a group of stakeholders who identified themselves as “Concerned LAWMA operators”.
Statutorily, LAWMA’s brief includes oversight of PSP operators, sweepers of highways, clearing of marine waste and market management, as well as the de-silting of the primary and secondary drainage.
No fewer than 600 operators are accredited by LAWMA and they, in turn, employ more than 16,000 sweepers and hundreds of supervisors. Or, so it is stated in the books.
The alleged sleaze specifically involved the padding of the wage bill for highway sweepers and their supervisors for several months by a cartel led by a lady named Ms. Wuraola Williams (alias “Iron Lady”) said to enjoy the backing of some powerful political actors in the state.
The 66 routes the “Iron Lady” controlled effectively put her share of the Lagos waste market at more than 10 percent.
To ensure that there was enough cash to feed the guzzling elephant, funds budgeted to take care of other critical like marine service, public transport, drainage de-silting and used tyre clearance were said to have been cleverly converted into offsetting the bogus and ever-rising wage bills, thereby leaving those equally essential needs to suffer.
Interestingly, last month, the state government relieved Dr. Muyiwa Gbadegesin of duties as Managing Director/CEO of the agency and named Mr. Ibrahim Odumboni in acting capacity.
Both Gbadegesin and Odumboni were appointed last year by the Babajide Sanwo-Olu administration with the intent to restoring LAWMA back to the original masterplan and cleaning up the mess left in the waste management sector as a result of the “disastrous romance” the preceding administration of Governor Ambode entered into with Visionscape.
Whereas the former came from ICT background, the latter had a rich experience in the financial sector and was head-hunted from a top-notch financial institution in the United Kingdom.
Though no official reasons were given for Gbadegesin’s exit in May, our investigations revealed that Sanwo-Olu, a no-nonsense Governor with zero tolerance for sloppiness or corruption, took the action to allow unimpeded forensic audit of the agency following security reports cataloguing shady deals and primitive looting of LAWMA’s treasury.
Use of thugs and disinformation
Now, the whistleblowers complained that Ms. Williams had forcibly hijacked routes concessioned to them originally by LAWMA by unleashing thugs on their workers on duty and dropping her powerful connections to intimate them.
Their decision to spill the beans was apparently triggered by displeasure at what was described as “an orchestrated campaign of disinformation in a section of the social media” capped with a protest by “a rented crowd of women” at the State House, Marina, Lagos at the weekend.
The protesters, all women, had claimed they were highway sweepers and complained of being owed a backlog of four months wages.
While all were chanting war songs, some threatened to strip themselves right-away to embarrass the governor. It took the donation of an unspecified amount and a passionate plea by the security personnel on ground before they left the scene.
But, intriguingly, no sooner had they dispersed from the Marina State House around 2P.M than they regrouped in front of the governor’s family compound at Omididun Street, near the palace of Oba of Lagos on Lagos island, fueling suspicion of being tele-guided.
Dissociating themselves from what they described as the “show of shame”, the “Concerned LAWMA operators” said, “To the best of our knowledge, genuine highway sweepers are being owed for the month of May only. The reason for the delay is because of the recent change of leadership at LAWMA. To tell the truth, the new leadership had cleared the backlog incurred by Gbadegesin almost as soon as they assumed office. We believe this is a sponsored protest to distract public attention and blackmail the new management from sustaining the ongoing audit of LAWMA which has revealed a lot of skeletons in the cupboard.”
Specifically, the “Concerned LAWMA Operators” alleged that more than half of the total of 66 “prime” routes controlled by the “Iron Lady” were originally allocated to them during the leadership of Dr. Oresanya but later snatched from them with the use of thugs armed with dangerous weapons.
Their spokesman, who craved anonymity said “For the avoidance of doubt, we wish to state that we’re are in total support of the ongoing audit of salary payments made by LAWMA in the last one year.
“However, 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.
“We’re aware that after the verification exercise at Ikorodu, the next port of call in the coming days will be routes on Lagos island as well as Victoria Island. We believe these sponsored protests are to blackmail LAWMA from forging ahead with the audit lest more skeletons be uncovered. We therefore passionately appeal to the auditors not to be dissuaded or intimidated in the name of Lagos taxpayers and beg the state governor to direct the new M.D to restore our routes that were hijacked from us.”
Concerted efforts to reach Ms. Williams for her reaction were unsuccessful as at press time.
Her office located at No. 72, Oja Oba, Adeniji Adele Road, Lagos was under lock and key on three occasions we visited.
But a source close to her volunteered this: “ Yes, it’s true that Madam has had some issues with them at LAWMA in recent time. But I can assure you that things are being sorted out and Madam will surely bounce back and put her enemies to shame.”
How racket works
For effective statewide coverage, LAWMA delineates the 20 councils and 37 development areas into routes and allocates such to licensed operators who, in turn, employ and assign sweepers and a supervisor on each route.
A sweeper earns a flat wage of N25,000 month, while their supervisor receives N40,000 per month.
What a typical unscrupulous operator does to game the system is to pad the monthly invoice submitted to LAWMA with fictitious names for payment.
From our investigations, trouble started when auditors approved by the governor hit Ikorodu axis over the last two weeks to verify the claims, only to discover that most of the names submitted by “Iron Lady” to collect money previously 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 practically 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 N80m 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 documented under different names!
‘Iron Lady’ and her many controversies
Allegations against the “Iron Lady” were hardly restricted to “ghost workers”. There were accusations of indiscriminate use of thugs to subdue and dominate competitors in the Lagos waste management sector. One of her victims was said to be Dr. Daudu, a retired Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Local Government Affairs and Chieftaincy Titles. He was allegedly physically assaulted by the “Iron Lady’s” thugs in April during the nationwide lockdown.
Despite the strict protocols imposing social distancing, Ms. Williams was said to be cruising around in her bus overloaded by her “crew”, to the extent that some had to lap the others.
On sighting them that fateful day, the elderly Daudu was said to have appealed to the “Iron Lady” to set a good example to the public since she and her folks were moving around in LAWMA-branded aprons.
For the effrontery to question the “Iron Lady”, her thugs allegedly rained vicious slaps on the old man.
It took the intervention and insistence of the body of retired Heads of Service, Permanent Secretaries and Commissioners to compel the then LAWMA boss (Dr. Gbadegesin) to make her apologize to Dr. Daudu several days later.
On another occasion at Ilubirin, the “Iron Lady” was said to have physically assaulted a female LAWMA official in her 50s and boasted that “nothing will happen”.
For now, LAWMA insiders are watching with bated breath to see how long the ‘Iron Lady’s’ impunity will last.