22 March 2019

Nigeria: Collapsed Building - the Audacity of Impunity

opinion

The nation was pitched in another wailing ordeal the other day as the news of the collapsed building in the heart of Lagos Island spread. As we mourn the departed and commiserate with their families, we are confronted yet again with the sad reality of our nation enmeshed in the weighty consequences of our collective failures and spiraling erosion of values.

Before our leaders, regulators and scoundrels in this systemic failure sweep this again under the carpet, there must be appropriate sanctions for all culprits. Beyond that, however, our leaders and citizens must rise up to proffer bold solutions to the deplorable conditions in our urban areas nationwide.

The details of the tragedy continue to unfold from day to day. At the conclusion of the on-site rescue operations, officials reported that 20 people had died while 43 survivors were receiving treatment at the Lagos Island General Hospital and other hospitals in Marina, Yaba, Idi Araba and Gbagada. One family had four children in the school; only one of them survived. The oldest of the four would have been 10 years the day after he died. A father reported that his late son was looking to attend King's College and had requested his father to pray for him just before leaving home that fateful day. While the father found solace in the enlightenment from his religion, he still had the challenge on how to console the boy's mother.

The tragic experience was not spared the usual Nigerian factor. Families of some survivors staged a protest at the Lagos Island General Hospital while the governor-elect and the NEMA director of research and rescue were visiting. The protesters alleged that the hospital demanded payment before treatment, although the State had offered to cover all costs. Although the management of the hospital denied the allegation, the allegation should not be dismissed.

The tragedy that affected pupils and teachers at Ohen Nursery and Primary School, Massey Street, Ita Faji Area of Lagos Island was the latest in the catalogue of collapsed buildings in the state. In the year 2018, there were cases of collapsed buildings in Alagbado, Ikeja, Agege and Oke Arin Lagos Island (that claimed two lives). Over the years, we have had collapsed buildings across the nation. There is a generally recognised pattern that buildings rarely collapse in highbrow areas with proper layout, good roads and adequate drainage. It is a fact that developers and owners in such areas can afford the professional services necessary for building construction and maintenance.

In the current tragedy, the usual team of relevant agencies responded to the calamity. The state's Emergency Management Agency coordinated the rescue operations, supported by the National Emergency Agency, Police, Civil Defence, Lagos State Traffic Management Agency and the Federal Road Safety Corps responded on time. However, they faced the challenge of getting equipment through Lagos Island's narrow streets strewn with numerous corner shops. The rescue operations encountered the usual problem of spectators as well as genuine individuals who volunteered to assist based on the passion to save lives. However, while their contribution was understandable before the arrival of the professionals, it was difficult to have them yield to the trained rescuers. When it was beyond the capacity of the team of civil agencies, the military was called in.

In the aftermath of the Massey Street tragedy, the Lagos State government announced that the school was not registered, as the proprietor had not followed the requirements. The spokesperson for the Ministry of Education declared that, "everything about the school was wrong." However, it is hard to believe the claim that the school was unknown to the ministry, considering that the State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development had marked the building (and 79 others in the area) for demolition. In such a highly visible location, how could the school have operated without detection? The acknowledgment of the Inspection Unit's failure is an admission of government's culpability.

Furthermore, how was the owner able to add another floor atop the existing structure without the certification of the Lagos State Building Control Agency? Clearly, the added floor overloaded the foundation. As the building had been marked for demolition since 2017, why was it not carried out? The reason adduced by the state government is unacceptable: that the owner was always making effort at improvements. The demolition of the marked structures should have been carried out swiftly, after the expiration of the period of notice. Considering the danger to public safety, the government may not tolerate the resistance of residents to relocate.

However, the government must comply with universal requirements of Resettlement Action Plan. The Lagos Executive Development Board did this well before for the relocation to Surulere, of those removed from what is now Lagos Central Business District.

Although the government bears the greater burden of blame, it goes further to involve the citizenry. Residents of neighbourhoods with buildings marked for demolition must insist on prompt action. Parents too must ensure that schools are registered and safe for their children. The owner of the building stands for the archetypal Nigerian: driven mainly by the profit motive, at the expense of public safety. Many developers avoid the services of professional engineers and settle for quacks. There have been cases of qualified engineers who withdrew from projects because the developers ignored standard requirements for materials and structural details. The relevant professional bodies must enforce their existing sanctions on any members who compromise standards.

We are compelled, yet again, to mention the malaise of materialism and its attendant crave for money. It is a sad commentary on the nation that education has become big business in Nigeria, as a consequence of failure by government to give priority and allocate sufficient resources to educating the citizenry. This tragedy brought to public attention the Association for Formidable Educational Development, established by proprietors of low-income private schools. Like many others on Lagos Island, the ill-fated school is not a member.

As has been stated, the problem of collapsing building is nationwide. The solutions require a holistic approach of all tiers of government. A comprehensive survey of housing in the nation will show that both in urban and rural areas, majority of our people live in structures unfit for human habitation. The problem is worse in the urban areas where dwellers lack good streets, proper drainages and adequate sanitation. While the solutions concern the whole nation, the relevant agencies in each state must carry out an integrity assessment of houses; especially in the urban areas. In many parts of Lagos, there are titling houses and people are still there.

Once again, the recent disaster in Lagos State has brought to the fore the peculiar problems of Lagos Island. There is dredging and land reclamation all around the nucleic core island. However, is the government undertaking an appropriate and adequate plan for comprehensive drainage? The peculiar terrain and soil structure of Lagos metropolis require a bold effort for the future development of the core island. For years, ideas have been touted about looping small plot holdings on Lagos Island into standard sizes to enable construction of high-rise buildings of multiple owners, in a "Build, Operate and Transfer" arrangement by developers.

Lagos State has the resources for such a comprehensive Marshal Plan approach to this challenge. Political will is required. Unless this is done, the present slum conditions will persist, with the certainty of similar avoidable tragedies. The audacity of this tragedy should not be tolerated anymore and anywhere in the country.

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