BY BRIGHT JACOB
The last five weeks have been a sombre one for Lagosians. There were three reported cases of building collapse that left in its wake blood, mangled bodies and unfulfilled dreams. The latest one happened on Freeman Road, Lagos Island, sending Lagos State government officials and agencies scurrying to prevent future occurrences.
The incident on Freeman Road left at least four persons dead, and five others barely escaped with their lives.
According to multiple sources, the building gave way during a heavy downpour in Lagos on Saturday, May 21, and like an unpalatable déjà vu, the usual bickering and mudslinging between the state government and ordinary citizens over who should be held accountable have been reignited once again.
Residents of Lagos Island had braved the odds and accused Lagos State government officials of becoming compromised after they took bribes from the owners of the collapsed structure. The officials, however, countered the allegation, saying they did their job and sealed the site of the building after they discovered that construction there contravened the building code, but the developer clandestinely continued work at night and during the weekends.
It was in the light of this the Lagos State Government called on all and sundry to join hands with it to nip the menace of building collapse in the bud. According to an interview granted by the state’s Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotosho, on a TV station, it would take the cooperation of everyone to arrest the situation even as residents must be alive to their responsibilities.
“If the government seals a building for not complying with the law and the developer creates another entrance to continue the illegal construction at night when enforcement officers are not on duty, people around such a site have the responsibility to notify the government,” Omotosho said.
The Commissioner explained that the government usually issues a “stop-work order” when it discovers that developers and owners haven’t obtained necessary building approvals, but find ways to continue constructions that would eventually lead to a calamity. He called for a concerted effort to bring such culprits to justice.
“Every good law has a human element in enforcing it. In a situation where the government has activated the enforcement of the law, it is important that our people expose those who exploit the lacuna in the official operational hours so that they can be brought to justice, as the government cannot be everywhere every time,” he added.
However, it remains to be seen whether residents of the state are willing to make such reports to the government. Making this revelation to The Point was Solomon Okoh, a resident in the Egbeda area of Lagos.
“How can we report one of our own who is building a house and has done well for us? Please, let the Government leave us out of this and do their job,” he told our correspondent.
In a related development, some people resident in Lagos rose against the attempt by the State Government to demolish a distressed three-storey building at Number 100, Herbert Macaulay Way, Ebute-Meta. They objected to the demolition of the over 40 years old structure because the Lagos State Building Control Agency “failed to serve the occupants with a quit notice” and “follow due process” in arriving at their decision.
The endemic nature of building collapse in Lagos seems to defy logic. The state government seems overwhelmed by its recurrence, and the statistics are a killjoy. Only last year, immediate past President of the Nigeria Institute of Building, Kunle Awobodu, said there had been 461 incidents of building collapse in Nigeria in the last 47 years, that is, October 1974 to July 2021.
In his analysis, he said Lagos State accounted for 295 cases or 65 percent of cases in Nigeria. He added that Lagos Island alone accounted for 67 cases or 23 percent of the cases in Lagos alone.
After the collapse of the 21-storey building on Gerard Road, Ikoyi, in November 2021, owned by the late Femi Osibona, the Governnor of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, had set up a panel chaired by the President of the Nigeria Institute of Town Planners, Toyin Ayinde, probe the remote and immediate causes of the collapse.
The panel’s terms of reference included ascertaining whether there was a compromise of the building code by the developer, his contractor and statutory regulatory agencies. After the panel submitted its report, Sanwo-Olu vowed that the findings and recommendations of the panel’s report would be implemented by the government to bring a lasting solution to incidents of building collapse in Lagos.
Critics of the governor have now used the many building collapses in Lagos recorded after the Gerard Road incident to say nothing was implemented.
Whether these critics are correct or not, a sad reality about most building collapse is that children are usually part of the casualty figure. The falling rubbles do not differentiate between children and adults. A pointer to this is the ugly incident in the Itafaji area of Lagos Island in 2019, where a three storey building that housed a children’s school located on the third floor, collapsed and snowballed into a tragedy of monumental proportion.
Eyewitnesses said more than 100 people, mostly pupils of the school, were trapped in the debris. Some of the children died in the process, and the then Governnor of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode, said the building was registered as a residential bu and the school didn’t have any permission to be where it was. Unfortunately, innocent young lives had been lost.
A building professional, Amechi Asugwuni, told The Point that there are many factors responsible for building collapse. However, he said that studies and research show that inadequate government supervision or a total absence of it, was the most proven risk factor that contributes to such collapses.
Asugwuni, who is the Acting President of the Nigeria Labour Congress and also a former President of the National Union of Civil Engineering, Construction, Furniture and Wood Workers, also said that obtaining or granting building permits or approvals wasn’t enough, whether to the builders or government themselves. According to him, such approvals must be backed-up by meticulous government supervision on the proposed site of the building.
“Building collapse is not linked to one factor. There are several (factors), but the one studies and research have proven is linked (the most to building collapse) is poor supervision by government,” he said.
He noted that government agencies usually come up for blame because of the way they handle the approval process.
“Building collapse is not linked to one factor. There are several (factors), but the one studies and research have proven is linked (the most to building collapse) is poor supervision by government”
Speaking further, Asugwuni said, “You are expected to meet up with the requirements of the structural drawings, and where the structural designs are done adequately, the government issues approval. Having secured the approval from the relevant government agencies, they (government agencies) must make supervision a priority to ensure that what is on paper is actually what would be implemented. That, unfortunately, is where compromise on the part of the government comes in.”
He posited that supervision during each stage of the building was vital. According to him, supervision doesn’t entail signing off a document when a building was completed. He suggested that a government official should supervise and take responsibility for the foundation, which when completed, he signs on the document, stating that he was the one who supervised the DPC of a foundation and he followed the approved design.
Asugwuni stated that another officer would be responsible for the DPC level to the lintel level, and also append his signature, stating he met the requirements. According to Asigwuni, this should be done at every stage of the building until it was completed, thereby guaranteeing buildings don’t collapse again, and officials don’t compromise in order to protect their jobs and careers.
The labour leader, who is the Chairman, Standing Committee on Economic Commission of the NLC, also said the soil where a foundation was laid mattered a lot and could be a factor that contributes to building collapse. In his submission, where the structure would sit should be an important consideration. He pointed out that sometimes government officials fail to understand that the approval given, notwithstanding, certain building designs may not do so well on certain grounds, except on the ones they were designed for.
Asugwuni also disclosed that builders or owners of collapsed buildings may not have adequately utilized the necessary funds while executing their projects. He said that naturally, more money ought to be spent to lay a foundation in a swampy area compared to an area that was not. In his opinion, the high cost of building materials oftentimes was to blame.
“When they want to implement the approval on a design for a swampy area, the builder or the owner may be ignorant about the consequences (of building in such area) and the high cost of building materials may also not help matters.
“But it is better to spend N10m to build a house and survive than to spend N5m to secure the same house and lose it after 3 years, because by that time building materials would have increased again due to the unstable inflation rate that we have here in Nigeria. So, I want to believe that supervision is weak and ignorance of owners and builders of these structures, in most cases, matters,” he said.
On the importance of using building professionals, he said, “A quack builder, a non-educated builder, somebody without a license has no stake in building. When a structural engineer or Civil Engineer combine their effort to build a house, their experience will come into play because they know if they fail, they may lose the chance to retain their licenses. This is why I think that those that drive the building also matter in this direction.
“Sadly, in most cases in Nigeria, most people build houses for themselves. Go to the villages and see what they are doing there. Somebody succeeds in building for one neighbor, and that has made him a builder. It is not right,” he added.
Asked whether it was safe to say that building collapse has become endemic, especially in Lagos, Asugwuni concurred, saying it had become “scary” too. He said most of the buildings in Lagos were old and their foundation had become suspect. He also said the endemic nature of building collapse was now sweeping through the whole country.
“It is endemic and it’s scary, too, because most of the buildings that are collapsing now were risks taking years back. Most of the buildings, the owners would have died and the living tenants have no idea the foundation can no longer bear the brunt (of the weight).
“The challenge here is that what you’re seeing in Lagos is a practical example of what is happening in most parts of the country. Building collapse in Lagos becomes news because of the sensitivity of Lagos to Nigeria, but I tell you, what is happening in Lagos is not far from what is happening in Bayelsa and in other parts of the country, but media absence (in those places) has made it difficult for people to take note and have a better record,” he submitted.