Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Monopoly U-17 tournament in Nigeria reflects reality of the housing market

The clock was running out at the Lagos Under-17 Monopoly Championship, and the pace of play was becoming so frantic it was hard to decipher the true holder of Banana Island, Tiamiyu Savage Street and other properties on the board.

“I am the owner of this house!” shouted Ibrahim Mubarak, 14, a student from Isale Eko Junior Grammar School, his finger jabbing the property on the board.

But just after Ibrahim collected his rent, time was up: The largest Monopoly tournament in Africa’s biggest city was finished.

Crumpled and weathered Monopoly money lay scattered across 153 wobbly tables in the stuffy gymnasium, where more than 1,200 students had huddled for an hour around game boards based on Lagos. A champion was declared, only to be usurped moments later by organizers who had made a mistake and overlooked another competitor.

“The key to winning is just to have determination,” said Elizabeth Braimoh, 13, the official winner and a student at Topfield College.

Nigerians have a fondness for board games. Chess and ayo, a game similar to mancala, are popular here. And the nation’s prowess at Scrabble went global this year when a Nigerian player, Wellington Jighere, captured the world championship.

But playing Monopoly is appealing for another reason: It mimics the chaos of the real estate market in Lagos. Buying property is a tangled affair, plagued by bribery, scams and even machete-wielding gangsters.

“It’s a true reflection of what is on the ground in Lagos,” said Tarba Fatai Oladele, a physical education teacher at Ipakodo Senior Grammar School.

Monopoly began to take off about four years ago here, when Lagos got its own version of the game. The new board replaced staples of the American game, like Park Place and Boardwalk, with local properties like Bourdillon Road, a street in the Ikoyi neighborhood lined by luxury apartments, and Agege, an area near the main airport that is home to a government affordable housing project.

In August, the Lagos State Sports Commission named Monopoly an officially recognized sport. Officials quickly organized the late-September tournament, hoping to break a world record for the number of competitors simultaneously playing the game — 605 people at Universal Studios in Singapore in March, according to Guinness World Records. The Lagos event has been submitted to Guinness for verification.

The commission hopes to host more tournaments, with the added aim of teaching children strategies for saving money and making good investments.

“Real estate is an asset class that everyone should aspire to have,” said Nimi Akinkugbe, chief executive of Bestman Games, which distributes the Lagos version of Monopoly and helped organize the tournament.

Yet outside the gymnasium, on the streets of sprawling and hectic Lagos, the actual real estate market rivals the chaos of 1,200 raucous teenagers rocking tables and screaming, “Pay, pay, pay!”

“It’s a big mess,” said Megan Chapman, a founder of the Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, a Nigerian nonprofit that monitors land rights issues.

Nigerians, like many people around the world, dream of owning property. In a country that has one of the biggest economies on the continent and brags of a nascent middle class, the staple of owning real estate should seem within reach.

But the country is struggling through a recession. Inflation is at levels not seen in 11 years. Interest rates are so high that most home loans are unaffordable for average buyers.

The real estate market operates on a buyer-beware system starkly visible across the metropolis, where spray-painted signs on numerous homes shout warnings: “This house is not for sale.” The messages try to thwart a longtime con game in which scammers sell homes they don’t actually own to unsuspecting buyers.

Buyers must also navigate corruption even at official levels. Government workers have long demanded bribes in order to obtain official documents needed for buying property.

Even once a deal is done, problems emerge. Armed with machetes, criminal gangs so well established they have a name, omo onile, roam Lagos building sites looking to extort money before allowing construction to begin.

Also, the government makes liberal use of eminent domain, regularly seizing property, sometimes with extreme consequences. This month, nearly 33,000 people were evicted from a seaside community in the Lekki suburb of Lagos.

Officials razed part of a slum near the city’s main port in 2013, forcing 9,000 people from their homes. The year before, the state cleared part of Makoko, a waterside slum, which appears on the Lagos version of the Monopoly board as the cheapest property.

The Nigerian judicial system offers little relief from scams and property takeovers; dockets are so clogged that land disputes take years to resolve. Petitioners’ homes in Lagos are sometimes flattened before judgments can be handed down.

Matthew Ottah, a top property rights lawyer in Lagos who specializes in detecting land scams, estimated that this year alone he investigated more than 200 deals for clients hoping to buy property and found less than a quarter of them to be legitimate.

“There’s one story or the other that makes it impossible for us to approve it,” said Mr. Ottah, adding that he sometimes gets calls from omo onile gang members who threaten his life.

Mr. Ottah himself was once a victim of a land scam, losing the equivalent of about $25,000 after handing over cash for a piece of property from a seller who turned out to be a fraudster.

During the Monopoly tournament, the haphazard nature of real-life real-estate transactions was lost on the students who focused on the top prize, which amounted to about $2,000. Playing the board game was chaotic enough.

Players had only an hour to snap up as much property as they could. The game grew more pitched as the minutes ticked by, with students rolling the dice so fast that the teachers and state officials who were acting as volunteer bankers had trouble keeping track.

The student landlords shook their hands in opponents’ faces and demanded payment while harried bankers tried to keep up with the cries for cash.

“Fast, fast, give me two naira,” one student demanded of another who had landed on his property. (Naira is the local currency.)

For most students, a strategy emerged: hoarding.

“On this table,” complained Adeleke Olayinka Bello, a student at St. Jude, a private school, “no one wanted to sell their property.”

The organizers appealed to the students to negotiate with one another, a staple ability in Nigeria’s haggling-centric economy.

The champion, 13-year-old Elizabeth, bargained her way to control of the yellow properties: Silverbird Cinemas, 35 Marina and Falomo Shopping Center.

With two houses on each property and seven other players orbiting the board, Elizabeth sat back and watched her fortune grow to more than 17,000 naira.

“Using that,” she said, “I can win the game.”

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