1 February 2013

Nigeria: Lessons From Brazil Nightclub Fire


On Sunday, January 27, a fire swept through the packed, popular Kiss Nightclub in Santa Maria, Southern Brazil, killing over 235 people - enough to fill a large airliner. Brazilian authorities have said that of the 143 people still hospitalised, more than 70 are in very critical condition.

The Kiss Nightclub is popular with young people in Santa Maria, which is home to a number of universities and colleges, including the Federal University of Santa Maria. At least 80 of those killed were students from that University, Brazilian authorities disclosed.

Brazilian Police investigating the blaze have said that it likely started when a country music band performing at the Kiss Nightclub lit a flare which ignited flammable soundproofing foam on the ceiling. That initial error was compounded by the over-capacity crowd, near-total lack of emergency infrastructure such as fire alarms or sprinkler systems, the police further revealed and noted that the club also had only one working door and a faulty fire extinguisher.

Amid the shock of what has become the world's deadliest nightclub fire in a decade, stricter safety measures in Brazil seem on the horizon. In Brasilia, the nation's capital, lawmakers in the Lower House are working on a proposal that would require federal safety minimum standards across Brazil. States are expected to domesticate such laws when they come on stream. Significantly, the tragedy raises questions about the reliability of safety regulations in a nation set to host the World Cup and Olympic Games.

We believe that the Brazilian nightclub fire tragedy contains several important lessons for Nigeria and our laid-back approach to regulation of critical institutions and public spaces. In Nigeria currently, the Federal Capital Territory Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Asaba, Enugu and a few other towns represent active centres of night life. The tragic Brazil fire quickly puts these centres of vibrant night life on the spot.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press in the aftermath of the blaze, examining fire safety plan permits issued to the club, showed that the single exit, the foam insulation and other contributors to the tragedy didn't violate existing laws in that city. This is strange. Our town/city councils, local regulators and parliament must update subsisting laws to decisively preempt such a tragedy in Nigeria.

Because of the apparent cheapness of life in the country, we can state that many of the night clubs that currently operate in Nigeria may not have the minimum safety infrastructure to guarantee quick evacuation in case of fire and other emergencies. It must not take a Brazil-type tragedy to wake us up to that possibility.

Many night-clubs currently operating are actually not designed for the purpose. Many are converted residential structures dressed up as grade-A night clubs as the regulators look the other way. Many of the entertainment centres may potentially be death traps. Town planning authorities, the national and state parliaments, law enforcement agencies, Non-governmental Organisations and other concerned groups must close ranks and insist that the rational course be followed.

We recall that in 2004, another deadly nightclub fire in Argentina killed close to 200 people. This was also an avoidable tragedy. In Abuja, many existing nightclubs were not originally built for the purpose. Yet their high-decibel nightly shindigs go on night after night.

While we are not against the existence of night-clubs or night-clubbing, we insist that such public spaces must be made safe for the public. While existing regulations should be updated, the police should ensure that all nightclubs, bars and other entertainment venues comply. Single exits do not serve public safety interest best. Overcrowding, appropriate fire control and all irregularities in night-club construction must be addressed.

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