BY YUSUF BABALOLA
In Lagos, the renowned business and commercial hub of Nigeria, warehouses are disappearing at a worrisome speed, giving way for their occupation, first by rodents and reptiles, then churches. YUSUF BABALOLA writes.
he cluster of warehouses that once choked Ikeja, Apapa, Agege, Orile-Iganmu, Oregun and Ilupeju areas of Lagos State have all almost become worship centres. The effacement of warehouses in Lagos is also replicating in commercial and industrial centres of Aba, Onitsha, Ibadan, Kano and Calabar.
It could be recalled that the teeming presence of industrial and merchandise warehouses in the early 80’s spoke eloquently of employment opportunities for Nigerians, both young and old. The warehouses began a gradual receding process as manufacturing and importation began to contract in the country, following the deathly blow, dealt to the system by the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP of the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida.
Consequently, the warehouses that were owned by multi-national manufacturing companies operating in Nigeria for storage of end products and those of importers of goods, and those of importers became abandoned. Incidentally, the loss of manufacturers and importers, in Lagos and other commercial and industrial hubs, became the gain of promoters of Pentecostal churches. The takeover of the warehouses, it must be noted, was after a lengthy period of their lying fallow and occupation by reptiles and rodents.
Nature they say, abhors vacuum-as businesses and industrial concerns are collapsing in Lagos and other cities, their factories and warehouses are rapidly being acquired by churches.
In Pen Cinema area, Agege, Lagos, a Pentecostal church with penchant for acquiring abandoned warehouses has taken over the once prominent warehouse that is nearby the cinema house.
The trend to buy up closed down factories and abandoned warehouses has come to stay because religion has clearly become the only flourishing industry in the present day Nigeria.
Around the Oregun industrial axis, manufacturers’ and importers’ warehouses have also yielded to churches. The Mountain of Fire Miracles Ministry (MFM) operates a long stretch of church premises along 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 shop meant for generator sales was doing well around the mid-1990s, until the arrival of the Chinese businessmen, whose aggressiveness squeezed the market away from the Japanese. Without wasting time, MFM took advantage of the collapsed business to establish its presence in the locality.
The church shares a boundary with two empty warehouses, though a small printing press warms the premises of the one in the middle with very scanty workforce.
“The company started experiencing hard times and left before they moved and was 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,” a source hinted.
At the Ilupeju Industrial Estate, almost all the churches are located in former 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 and Nestle are the only notable company in the area that is still functioning.
A bakery at No 13 Kukoyi Street, Olodi-Apapa was closed and the place sold to a worship centre, named International GloryHouse Christian Centre. 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 after the man had complained of high cost of production
A hotel at No 144 Idowu Street 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, according to him, “to make easier from the church.” Several warehouses that litter 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.
According to Abayomi Obabolujo, “I lead a church. I preach the gospel but I am also a business man,” and says the trend whereby warehouses are now worship centres is disturbing. He said “Churches don’t need to take over warehouses to grow. It is a disturbing trend. I was in a church when they were celebrating the purchase of a portion of Dunlop’s facilities along Oba Akran.
“Everyone in the church was dancing and rejoicing but the business man in me was shedding tears as my heart was bleeding because with Dunlop’s death, those who invested in their stocks have lost money. Jobs were lost and hopes dashed. But, are the churches to be blamed? Not at all.
Obabolujo revealed that the companies took loans from banks so whenever there is problem their warehouses are seized and auctioned.
“The companies took loan from a bank, failed to pay back after many years. When they died, the bank only took over its facilities that were pledged as securities for the loan.
“The bank also was under pressure because it was depositors’ funds, if they did not recover some of the funds given as loan, CBN axe dangles and the bank itself may follow. The onus was on the bank to get a buyer and so the church in question heard about it, negotiated, made payment and by that, helped the bank to stay afloat.” This indeed may capture what took place with so many of the warehouses in Lagos, which have become churches.
Giving further insight on the real issues, Obabolujo averred that “The economy is harsh. Doing business to make money in Nigeria takes God’s intervention. Economics don’t work in Nigeria. In Nigeria, nothing works. At that, don’t blame the churches but economic managers.
“Some Nigerian business men are frivolous with borrowed funds. Some took loans they never needed while some had situations worked against them as the plans did not gel. The churches did not cause any of these.
“Many of the owners of the warehouses in question were textile manufacturers but along the line, our fashion preferences changed. We became more interested in foreign items at the expense of the home-made goods. The material Nigerians wear are not made in Nigeria though sewn here. That was why those warehouses became empty. Our consumption pattern changed, we no longer wear ankara to big occasions. Did the churches change our consumption pattern?
“The cost of production became too high. Profit became difficult. Imported items even became cheaper because the system became so corrupt that duties that should increase the cost of imported items were not paid as expected but just some amount paid to personal accounts of custom officers. These importers and custom officers’ smiled to the banks but local manufacturers died and their warehouses were taken over, first by rats and rodents before the churches bought them and converted them to purposeful use regardless of perceptions.”
A social commentator, Sam Diala recalled that “The warehouses that filled Lagos, Onitsha, PortHarcourt, Aba, Ibadan, Kano etc were occupied with imported goods and services. With petro-dollar flooding the forex market at N0.75/US$1 later N1.00/US$1, the warehouses competed for space in the bouncing economy. They feasted prodigally on the notoriously prolonged forex regime of N22/US$1 (official) and N82/US$1 (parallel) during which many of the ‘successful’ Nigerian businessmen we celebrate today for their ‘hard work’ created the nest for their wealth.
“Of course, the warehouses faded away like the morning star at the rising of the sun when the boom era ended. That is the kernel of our economic woes till date — a consuming nation that creates no wealth, adds no value and invents nothing.
“I can’t see where the church comes into the matter. At a time, we blamed colonialism and neo-colonialism for Nigeria’s economic backwardness; later, we placed it at the doorsteps of prolonged military rule. Now, it’s the church and its worshippers. Let the non-church goers brave it and move the economy to Singapore/Malaysia/China level. The beauty of this life is the six-letter word called choice.”
Diala further observed that “The era that will take over the warehouses from the churches may be on the way. When it comes, no one will need to be persuaded to return to heathenism and idol-worshipping. I am told that is the trend in India”.