The entire scenario surrounding the collapse of a three-story building, harbouring pupils of Ohen Nursery and Primary School, Ita-Faji, Lagos Island, has again brought to the fore the increasingly apathetic attitude of parents, government and the public towards children, who unfortunately are the most vulnerable.
The heartbreaking tales that trailed the incident indicated that the situation could have been averted and lives of the affected innocent children saved.
Sadly, the lives of the future leaders were cut short in the calamitous event. Recent arguments have it that the victims of this ill-fated occurrence would have still been bubbling with lives and hopes, if only they were in a saner society.
According to reports, 20 people have been confirmed dead, with several others still receiving treatment at various hospitals.
When The Guardian arrived the scene of the incident the second day after the misfortune, residents and onlookers converged on the street in small units, analysing the development and lamenting how sick and weak they felt for the country.
But in all their conversations, one thing was obvious. The incident could have been prevented. Yes! It could have been avoided if the government lived up to its responsibility; if the supervisory ministry routinely embarks on inspection; if the developer was not greedy and cruel; if the school owner was not selfish; if the residents/neighbours had empathy and were emotionally intelligent; and most importantly, if parents of the victims had known.
Although, the Lagos State Ministry of Education affirmed shortcomings on the part of it's inspection unit, it refused to solely take the blame.
According to the Director, Public Affairs of the ministry, Mr. Adesegun Ogundeji, parents, neighbours and the society are to be blamed.
"Had any of the residents or neighbours find it expedient enough to say, even though my children are not here, but this school children are vulnerable, let me alert government, knowing fully well that the building had been marked, the story would have been different because we would have moved in swiftly, evacuated the children and shutdown the school."
Going forward, he warned that government will not take it lightly with unregistered and unapproved schools who are bent on flouting government's laid down rules.
Discrediting the rumour that the ill-fated school was paying levies and taxes to Lagos State Government, he said the school was not registered and therefore unknown to the ministry.
He emotionally criticised the residents of the area for not bringing the plight of the school to government's notice, saying societal cooperation is critical to averting tragedies.
Ogundeji said, "The least a person can do to even begin the process of establishing a school is name search, but that was not conducted. Much as we have monitoring groups out there, the fact is that schools spring up everyday and everywhere in Lagos. Some have been discovered, and others are still hiding. You will recall that last year doors were thrown open free of charge, and we said come and put down the name of your institution. None of them came.
"The essence was to know how many private schools are in operation in the state. Send our personnel to visit such schools assess their facilities, the structures they are operating in and things that can make them registrable and advise them on how to achieve that, so they can continue to upgrade until such a time when they meet the standard. We further explained that it is an attempt to widen the tax net. It was only geared towards knowing such schools.
"But this school (Ohen Nursery and Primary School) is one of those who snubbed such gesture of the government. There is nowhere in record that the state government knows that this kind of school exists. Most buildings around that area including the unfortunate building had been marked by our sister ministry for demolition. Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development. But the residents resisted all entreaties to leave such premises so that the government can take proper care of demolition that will not affect lives and properties."
Responding to a query that the supervisory unit of the ministry is not doing enough, for it not to have discovered such a school over the years, Ogundeji said, "If you say so, I would admit. But you see, there is no number of personnel that a state can have that would march the goodwill and the eagle eye of residents, who are on the same page with government to ensure that they avert tragedy. Everyone should be sensitive to anything that can cause this kind of stories that touch the heart."
But a resident at Massey Street, who identified himself as Mr. Adewale, pushed back the blame to the doorstep of government.
According to him, "Personally, I think government is to be blamed, they are supposed to give three to six months notice to the owner of the house or the developer, once the time elapses, they should swing into action. What stopped a government that marked a building and classify it unfit for habitation from coming to demolish it several years after? If only the parents of the innocent children knew that the building was substandard they wouldn't have allowed their children to attend that school. Unfortunately, it cost lives before everyone realised that."
Requirements for establishing a private school
Listing some of the operational regulations guiding the establishment of a school, Ogundeji said it is wrong to site a school in the same building with other residents, as it is capable of compromising security.
"When there is unbridled human traffic, you don't know who is who. Then when you operate a school in a resident harbouring other people, you are also causing a lot of distraction. When the children want to learn, perhaps that is when the neighbour wants to play some music and he/she is at liberty to do so. So everything about the school is wrong.
"Formally, the first thing to do is come for a name search. If one of the three names you have is not in use, it will be approved. The next is site inspection. The ministry will go for site inspection; the purpose is to look at what is on ground, what is not there and advice you on what to do. But, if the property is entirely out of it, you will be advised to look for another property. But if the site is usable you will be further advised on things to put in place."
Ogundeji said, once the applicant has done the needful, the next step is approval inspection. "After meeting the requirements of the property, you will write to the ministry informing them that you have completed the assignment, that they should come and inspect it for approval. So if the person receives a nod after the inspection for approval, then you be asked to obtain a form. These are the four steps."
He said the reason the ministry insists on site inspection and approval before selling out form is to avoid stories like, "I obtained a form, they didn't process my form, and they took my money."
Government's next move
Speaking on the way forward, the ministry's spokesman said government would dictate the next steps. "But very sincerely, I think that the easiest way forward is for all of us to voluntarily obey rules and regulations. You know there is this theory in sociology, 'when persuasion fails, force must be applied,' if we must achieve result, this is likely to be the next move. I am sure that government will not take it lightly with anybody who thinks he can trade off people's lives just because of his interest."
Meanwhile, Association for Formidable Educational Development (AFED), an umbrella body for low-income schools in the country has denied knowing the school.
National President of the group, Mrs. Esther Dada, in a chat with The Guardian, said "the school is not our member, we don't even have member in Lagos Island for now. That school is a low-income school, but they believed they are inside Lagos, and therefore they don't need us. There are many low-income schools in Lagos Island, but they are unwilling to join our association.
"The implication of such attitude is that they don't have an idea of what is obtainable, because they are on their own. I doubt if they belong to any association. Therefore, nobody can advise them on minimum standard and best practices. No monitoring, no direction. You can't see any of our member school sharing same apartment with residents. We have advised them against that. But when you don't associate and network, how do you know all these. If they are with us, we can easily monitor and direct them."
A concerned parent, Mrs. Mercy Nwamazi, counselled Nigerians not to wait until tragedy happens before they can be proactive and show sympathy. "This is a wake up call for government and the society. People should learn to speak up and report any misdemeanour once observed, especially when children are involved. But government has to make the process seamless and find a way of dictating false alarm, so that it won't be abused.
For Ogundeji, "it is illegal and unconstitutional for anyone to run any kind of business without following the rules and regulations of the government. And the entire society must be on the same page with government to ensure that nobody chose to satisfy himself at the expense of rules and regulations that are meant to protect the interest of every other citizen.
"Two, school owners should know that government is not interested in running anybody's business down, what government is interested in is to know how pupils progress educationally, whether in public or private schools and to ensure they are functioning in tandem with the rules and regulations, if not, we will continue to advise them until they meet the standard."