Churches as big business: Acquiring factories, warehouses in Lagos

Nigeria’s business climate is depressing with industries collapsing in many cities across the country. Yet, factory sites and warehouses are fast being acquired by churches as if in a contest to buy up every available site with the government literally turning a blind eye to what many termed an unfortunate development, writes. Isioma Madike

 

 

A time was, specifically in the 1980s and ‘90s, when French tyre maker, Michelin and its major competitor, Dunlop, whose factory is sited along Oba Akran Road, Ikeja, were the cynosure of all eyes. Their buildings, scattered on a large expanse of lands, were magnificent. So were their special designs and colours that stand them out in their neighbourhood.

The manufacturing concerns were factories to work in those days, according to those who witnessed that phase. They were famous for the manufacture of durable tyres; they soon spread across different locations in the country. Their operating environments glittered like other progressive firms of that era, with a combined workforce of over 15, 000 Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike. However, both companies claimed high production cost, resulting from the near absence of available electricity supply as the major reasons for closures. They have since relocated to neighbouring West African country, Ghana, where their businesses are thriving once again.

Dunlop compound is at present serving as a mini stadium for Guinness factory workers, who frequent the complex for games at intervals. Some Pentecostal churches have also made the factory, home to their weekly church services and vigil centres. The gigantic machines that used to compete with those of the neighbouring Guinness now lay in solitude with no hope of ever getting attention again.

But, Michelin and Dunlop were not the only manufacturing outfits in Nigeria to have closed shop.

Eleganza industries, located along the Oregun industrial axis, also in Ikeja, faced similar situation before it packed up. The manufacturing firm, which is a few poles away from 7-Up Bottling Company, was equally a wonder to behold in its good days. It was famous for the manufacture of plastic products and ball pens. Indeed, Eleganza industries practically produced all manner of household goods and utensils including cutleries, food warmers, ice chest, electric fans, cosmetics and ballpoint pens.

But, that was then!

The flamboyant and ageing owner of Eleganza, Rasaq Okoya, has since retreated, quietly to his Lekki Peninsula abode.

Okoya had responded to the effect of the Japanese economic incursion on the global market in the 1970s and ‘80s. He bought into the new ideas, philosophies, trends and aspirations because he was disposed to the entrepreneurial ideology. Unfortunately, the harsh climate for industrial boom in Nigeria halted what was seen as a nationalist spirit. Today, the once conglomerate is deserted and left to rot. It now houses all manner of miniature business concerns; from an outlet of “I beta pass my neighbour generator” to uncoordinated carpentry works. It has also been home at different points to destitute in the city, even as church services hold at intervals during the week days.

Incidentally, as the businesses are collapsing in the mega city, factory sites and warehouses are fast being acquired by churches. The contest to buy up every available site, including closed down factories is intense among the Pentecostal faithful. Between economy and development, the sustainable debate is being titled towards the churches. This is strongly so because that appears to be the only booming industry in Nigeria at present. Many also believe it is where to read the mood of Nigerians.

Around the Oregun industrial axis, the churches are buying up almost everything in a desperate effort to assert dominance over the area. The Mountain of Fire Miracles Ministry (MFM) opens the stretch of churches along No 2 Kudirat Abiola way from the Ikeja end, facing Zenith Bank Plc at the opposite side. The imposing church occupies what used to be showroom of a Lebanese company that imported generators and the spare parts from Japan. According to those in the neighbourhood, the generator sales shop was doing well around the mid-1990s, until the arrival of the rampaging Chinese, whose aggressiveness squeezed the market against Japanese products. MFM took advantage of the collapsed business to establish its presence in the locality.

The church shares a boundary with two barren warehouses, though a small printing press warms the premises of the one in the middle with very scanty workforce. Ironically, the company had a bold signboard with inscription, Agat Ltd: Apex Aluminum Technologies. Yet, no one was ready to confirm whether the organisation with the inscription was one of the original ones that owned the warehouses or a new group managing the small printing company in the premises. “The company started experiencing hard times and before one could say Jack Robinson, they have moved and were replaced by MFM. The church started in a small portion of the big warehouse and spread within a short period. In fact, the rate of growth of the church was phenomenal,” said a man, who refused to give his name.

In-between MFM and Mobil filling station is a small close leading to another street behind the Mobil station. Within that enclave is a cluster of dormant warehouses. These stockrooms, it was gathered, used to serve big manufacturing companies around the Oregun industrial zone until the parent companies went under. Though, names of the firms could not be ascertained from the informants, they nonetheless, informed that some of the companies were into production of household items and textiles materials. However, some of those storehouses have been “captured” and cornered by some pastors, who claimed to be led by the Holy Spirit. At present, religious groups such as the Lighted Church, Sanctuary of Grace and another without an identifiable signboard adorn some of the warehouses.

Household of God, owned by flamboyant preacher, Pastor Chris Okotie, occupies another stretch of land by clay bus stop, off the same Kudirat Abiola way. Okotie and his Household members, according to information, had been on the acquisition spree in the area for more than 30 years now. He is said to have gradually but steadily forced every other company, including a bank to relocate from that vicinity. It was even speculated at a time that the church was planning to establish a broadcasting house within the community, though, that is yet to materialise.

Behind the Household of God church is Christ Embassy cathedral, whose pastor, Chris Oyakhilome, like Okotie, currently occupies another long stretch off Kudirat Abiola road. The church is housed in a brilliant glass building with blue and gold colours that stands it out in its class within that environs. Those familiar with the location of the two churches would agree that the Edo State-born preacher and his Delta State-born counterpart love life and seem to be in competition to outdo each other in the race for a finer complex.

In like manner, Victorious Army church appears to have conquered ACME Road, off Agidingbi Road, Ikeja. Although, there is a parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in the neighbourhood, it stands no chance in competition with Victorious Army in terms of size. Mama Ngozi, who sells close to the entrance of Victorious Army, says the owner of the church bought over seven buildings and two virgin lands, which they merged together to get to the state it is now.

RCCG has also bought over the compound that once housed the Okada Microfinance Bank, owned by billionaire businessman, Gabriel Igbinedion, at Palm grove. Igbinedion, who could not bring his “Midas Touch” to bear in the business, abruptly closed the company within the first year it operated. That was in the 1990s, when many went into micro financing, as it was the fad then.

At the Ilupeju Industrial Estate, almost all the churches are located in places that were formerly warehouses. Prominent among them is the Fountain of Life church, led by Pastor Taiwo Odukoya. The church is located at 12 Industrial Estate Road, off Town Planning way, by PZ Industries Plc, Ilupeju. PZ is the only notable company in the area that is still functioning; it manufactures consumer goods.

A bakery at No 13 Kukoyi Street, Olodi-Apapa was closed and the place sold to a worship centre, named International Gloryhouse Christian centre as well at the Apapa axis. According to neighbours, the bakery had more than a 15-man workforce and was the major supplier of bread in the locality before its demise. Those who claimed to know the former owner said the place was sold about 12 years ago after the man had complained of high cost of producing the confectionery.

Another hotel at No 144 Idowu Street, also in Olodi-Apapa went under and the one-storey building housing it now hosts a church at the ground floor known as Christ Bible Church while the upper floor has been converted to a residential place for the church’s pastor. The owner was said to have taken that decision about six years ago, to, according to him, “make more money from the church pastors.” Several warehouses scattered around Ibafon area of the Ajeromi-Ifelodun local development council have also been converted to churches. The most prominent is Day to Day Prayer Ministries. Another named The Sowers Church is at N0 4 Kirikiri Road in Apapa, Lagos.

It is the same sorry tale that has trailed the multitude of crashing and even outrightly dead companies, multinationals and corporations around Nigeria. Many of the industrial zones in the country have turned into grave yards as no visible activities take place in those places. Erratic power supply presents itself as the reason behind the closure of the numerous small and medium scale industries and enterprises across the land.

However, the cessation of tyre manufacturers, Michelin, Dunlop and other companies that closed shop abruptly, sparked off questions on industrial progress in the country. According to the Manufacturing Association of Nigeria (MAN) survey in December 2010, a total of 834 manufacturing companies closed as a result of their inability to cope with the challenges posed by the harsh operating environment in Nigeria. The figure represents the cumulative aggregate of firms that shut down their operations in 2009 across the nation.

The report classified half of the remaining operating firms as “ailing”, a situation it said possess great threat to the survival of manufacturing in the country in the next few years. It equally showed that in 2009, a total of 176 firms became terminally sick and collapsed in the Northern area, comprising the Kano and Kaduna manufacturing axis.

In the South-East area with Anambra, Enugu, Imo, Ebonyi and Abia states, a total of 178 businesses closed shop during the period, while in the South-South area, which consists of Rivers, Bayelsa, Edo, Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, 46 companies shot down operations before December 2009.

The study listed the South-West area, comprising Oyo, Ogun, Osun, Ondo, Ekiti, Kogi and Kwara states, as having lost 225 member companies during the same year in review. It said the Lagos area, covering Ikeja, Apapa, Ikorodu and other industrial divisions in the state, followed closely with 214 manufacturing firms going moribund before the end of 2009. The South-West manufacturing axis, according to the survey, suffered the highest casualty rate in terms of operational stoppage, owing dominantly to the impacts of some negative policies of some state governments in the zone, especially policies bordering on multiple taxation and levies.

It was, however, silent on the number of firms that had relocated from Nigeria to neighbouring countries, particularly Ghana as a result of the hostile operating environment in the last few years. Information on such firms had always been scanty and difficult to get due to the unwillingness of the managements of such firms to make it public.

This huge number of closed manufacturing firms, according to experts, has worsened the country’s growing unemployment rate and may be responsible for the sluggish economic growth. According to the former United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) top economist, who commented on the survey, Dr. Warea Thomas, “the fact is that when a company stops operation, the workers there become frontline victims. If 834 firms were officially given by MAN to have closed shop in 2009, it is easy to speculate that not less than 83, 400 jobs were lost in that year alone; if we assume that they were all medium-size manufacturing firms, with each having 100 workers.

“Apart from job losses, the depletion in the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and a scare syndrome it creates to the outside investment market are serious reasons why the government should consider tackling the problems associated with the declining trend head on,” he suggested.

Another industry player, Wole Madiola, attributed divestment from Nigeria to other countries to survival strategy. “Most companies go into the neighbouring countries with a different name. This is because they want to be cautious, and to gauge the mood of the Federal Government against such more,” he added.

Kola Jamodu, former president of MAN, had pointed to power supply as the debilitating factor among the challenges faced by manufacturers in Nigeria. He equally noted that dilapidated infrastructure, policy inconsistency, multiple taxation and lack of adequate take-off incentives for new business, conspire to stiffen manufacturers. “A situation where the manufacturer is the government onto himself; providing power, water, roads and other infrastructure, and at the same time, paying a plethora of taxes and levies that are not coordinated, is enough to kill any business. The problem is also often compounded by government’s penchant for reversing industrial policies haphazardly from time to time. These, coupled with the general poverty in the land, place serious strain on manufacturing firms,” he said.

To former MAN Director-General, Jide Mike, “the drift had worsened the unemployment situation nationwide.” He stated that job lost between the time of the MAN survey and now may have been tripled. “Approximately, one million jobs may have been lost from then till date in view of the continually failing firms,” he added.

Past president, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Otunba Solomon Onafowokan, in his assessment blamed the trend of collapsing industries on successive administrations’ lack of political Will to tackle the protracted power and infrastructure problems in the country.

However, some men of God have also reacted to condemn the trend, with many insisting that some in their fold have become businessmen other than preaching, which they were called to do. For instance, former prelate of the Methodist church of Nigeria, Dr. Ola Makinde, described some Pentecostal pastors as “gold diggers.” For Peter Akinola, another former prelate of the Anglican Communion, “the way and manner some pastors have turned churches into business outfits is disturbing.” Like Makinde, Akinola said that most of them have deviated from the teachings of Christ in pursuit of business.

Yet, Chairman of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), South-West chapter and Arch Bishop of Gospel Baptist Conference of Nigeria and Overseas, Lagos, Magnus Atilade, says “what we are concerned about is the spiritual content of the churches involved in this acquisition spree. Are they Bible-based? If they are, then, it’s all well and good. If they are doing that to expand the work of God in a genuine way, I do not have problems with that. They should be encouraged. Whether the churches are in school premises or warehouses of dead factories, does not matter much provided they are preaching the correct version of the gospel according to God’s injunctions.”

In like manner, Bishop Steven Ogedengbe, General Overseer, Wisdom Chapel Church, Akowonjo, Lagos, is of the belief that if the companies are not dead, the churches would not acquire their premises. He added that most of the factories folding up are as a result of faulty foundation and “that should not be blamed on the churches.”

Ogedengbe, however, stressed that the churches should strive to use the acquisition strategy to develop other sectors of the economy. “They should also ensure that people are empowered as well as invest in other sectors of the economy. There is nothing wrong in Christians taking over the economy if the people running it now continue to fail because I believe that they are less corrupt. It’s that way all over the world; people with focus are buying up dead companies and turning them into more useful ventures. In Nigeria, it is the church because they are the ones that are vibrant for now. It’s time the children of God should assert their dominance to propel the economy. So, they should not limit the acquisition to building of worship centres only; that’s the way I see the exercise.”

Andrew Rice, writing in The New York Times, may have given a gleam of what may have informed the motive for what the Pentecostal churches are doing in Nigeria. He calls the RCCG “one of Africa’s most vigorously expansionary religious movements, a homegrown Pentecostal denomination that is crusading to become a global faith.” Similarly, Daniel Ajayi-Adeniran, a pastor in that flock, in his submission said one of the church’s missions is “to have a member of RCCG in every family in every nation.”

But, are these assertions justification for the acquisition policy? Would it not live a moral burden on the churches that are taking over facilities of troubled companies and warehouses?

 

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