12 November 2012

Ghana: The Melcom Shop Tragedy


Let the records show that on the morning of Wednesday, November 7, 2012, a high-rise building housing a Melcom shop collapsed at Achimota, near or opposite the NEOPLAN Assembly Plant.

I was mystified, even angered, to hear the barrage of questions with which a radio reporter bombarded the Public Affairs Manager of Melcom Company about the existence or non-existence of a permit for the collapsed building.

To me, it was most unfair for the reporter to keep asking the Public Affairs Manager whether the company had ascertained that the owner of the building had acquired a permit before having the building put up.

It is reasonable to expect that the first major consideration in the mind of the potential lessee is whether the lessor is the rightful owner of the property, or is a duly empowered agent.

Of course, if it is a building, the prospective lessee would also take reasonable steps to ensure that the building is safe for the designated purpose.

But, somebody should tell me if it is reasonable for the prospective lessee to find out if a permit was issued for the building, and even go as far as to ask for the architectural and engineering drawings, ask the contractor whether he complied with all the specifications, and whether he used the right materials.

The next time that reporter boards a taxi, I hope he will ask whether the taxi driver has a valid driving license that has not expired, a valid roadworthiness certificate, vehicle insurance, a maintenance certificate showing that the vehicle has been properly maintained, and whether the driver does not suffer from epilepsy.

I am not downplaying the importance of a permit. Apart from putting money into the coffers of the issuing authority, a building permit ensures, or should ensure, that a building is not put up anywhere and anyhow.

The fact of the matter is that the putting of a building goes beyond the mere issuing of a building permit. There is the need for expert construction work, the use of proper materials in their proper specifications, and expert supervision or inspection. I will return to the subject.

My anger also rose when two members of a radio discussion panel injected partisan party politics into a discussion of this national tragedy.

Referring to President John Dramani Mahama's announced intention to have the tragedy investigated, the lady representing the New Patriotic Party (NPP) expressed the hope for a thorough investigation.

That was good enough. But, then, she went further to say that she had heard that the owner of the collapsed building was a friend of the President.

The lady is a lawyer and she should have realised the unfairness of that remark, unless she was sure that, indeed, the owner of the building is actually a friend of the President and that, therefore, that friendship would seriously interfere with any investigations into the matter.

She felt scandalised that the rescue operation was reportedly being undertaken by what she described as "civilians", and called for the recruitment of 'galamsey' people to train those to be engaged in future rescue operations.

Again, that was an unfair, below-the-belt blow. Has she not heard of the number of 'galamsey' workers who have been entombed in the pit they were working in? How can anybody see these people as expert trainers in rescue work?

Not to be outdone, the representative of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) went into the praise-singing of the NDC government for buying ambulances, firefighting tenders and equipment, and generally equipping the security services for the kind of work needed to handle the tragedy. He ended with calls on the electorate to vote to retain the NDC in power.

My, oh my! Such a gargantuan, human-made tragedy occurs, and it provides a wonderful opportunity for reporters to show how smart they are, and for politicians to indulge in political point-scoring, especially NPP and NDC politicians?

I am with the President all the way in his announced intention to have this big tragedy investigated. Still, having developed a certain amount of cynicism with regard to these investigations, I hope I can be permitted the expression of some reservations.

This was not an Act of God like an earthquake, a hurricane, a tsunami, etc. If it was any of these, the Geological Survey Department, the Department of Meteorology, or the relevant body would have informed us by now.

A few questions: Was any proper building permit issued to the owner of the building? If not, why not? If yes, who issued it? Did the owner or the contractor, or both religiously follow the specifications of the architects and engineers who designed the building? Do we have properly trained foundation geologists to do proper soil testing, especially, in the matter of high-rise buildings?

The trouble we have in this country is not that we do not have biting laws and norms to deal with offenders, criminals, civil or moral.

Our problem is that the political, social, economic, religious, cultural etc., heavyweight and their hangers-on can always treat the law with supreme contempt and impunity. They can always simply do nothing, or buy their way out of trouble. In short, they have immunity. It is insignificant you and me who can be ruthlessly proceeded against when we break the law.

It is five months since the Adenta authorities invited the owner of that shoddily-constructed building at Adenta. Why is it that the police are now taking actions to arrest three poor workers at the site? In five months, what steps did the police take to look for the owner?

Let us say that, at least, the Melcom tragedy has galvanised one police station into action. Whether any positive results will be achieved, is another matter.

We also hear that all high-rise buildings will be investigated to find out how safe they are. A building close to the collapsed one, and said to be owned also by the same person, is to be evacuated for investigations to be carried out about its safety. Once again, where will it all end?

While I send my sympathies and condolence to the families whose relations have died or been injured, I also praise all those, both civilian and security, who worked, and continue to work, tirelessly on behalf of their fellow human beings and the nation. Policeman Nestor Ameateba, congratulations.

PS- The security agencies and the Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly are waiting for a tall, hotel-like, navy-blue building opposite the Asokwa Police Station in Kumasi to collapse, after which the President will order another probe. The power of money and influence indeed!

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