The upsurge in building collapse incidents currently being experienced in the country and the attendant loss of innocent lives demand a very strong response from the relevant government authorities to buck the ugly trend. There is a need also for well-trained building experts and professionals to weed out the quacks in their midst that are giving them a bad name and restore sanity to an industry whose credibility has been seriously undermined.
Although the tragic incidents of building collapse are a reality that cannot be completely avoided, there is nevertheless something increasingly worrisome about its frequency in the country and the number of lives wasted. According to a recent news report, more than 272 lives have been lost in such cases across the country in the past 17 months. This does not even include most of those recorded since the advent of the current rainy season.
Just two weeks ago, there was a report of the collapse of a section of a four-storey building still under construction in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital. Although no loss of lives was recorded in the August 18 incident, the same could not be said of the collapse of another four-storey building in Lagos on July 26 that reportedly claimed eight lives. The Ilorin incident was the second in two months in the city after yet another four-storey building, part of some blocks of hostels for the University of Ilorin students, caved in on June 22.
Also in Imo State, there were reports of the collapse of two buildings in the first week of July, one of them a four- storey building, while the other was three storeys; both collapsed within 24 hours of each other in Owerri, the state capital, and Umuguma, within Owerri West Local Government Area. The tragedy in Imo continued a week later, on August 13, when four people died after a two-storey building came down in the capital.
Most significant in the recent history of building collapse was that of a church in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, in December last year. The structure was teeming with a congregation of worshippers when it suddenly crumbled, claiming more than 200 lives and landing some 186 others in hospital, according to media reports. But the police came up with lower figures. Governor Udom Emmanuel, on that fateful day, was lucky to be among those whose lives were spared in the tragic incident. In what was a particularly very unfortunate year, a five-storey building which came down in the Lekki area of Lagos resulted in the death of 34 people.
Building collapse tragedies are occurring at such a frequency that is becoming very difficult to keep track of in what experts trace to lack of proper supervision, the use of substandard materials and attempts to cut corners by the builders in the area of cost. This view is confirmed by Samuel Oloyede, a professor of Estate Management, Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State. A report quoted him as listing, among other causes, non-compliance with specifications or standards by developers and contractors, employment of incompetent contractors and use of substandard materials and equipment as reasons for building collapse.
In a bid to instil sanity into the industry, a former Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, set up a tribunal to look into the matter in 2013. The tribunal, headed by Abimbola Ajayi, blamed weak enforcement of laws, especially the 2010 Planning Regulations and Building Control Law, “crass indiscipline and gross corruption by all and sundry” for the problem. The tribunal discovered that 135 cases of building collapse were recorded in Lagos alone between 2007 and 2013. Yet, it did not stop the collapse of a Synagogue Church of All Nations guest house that claimed 116 lives the following year.
The fact that most of the buildings usually come down while still under construction confirms the belief that they are usually handled by incompetent hands or that substandard materials are employed in their construction. Even in cases where the regulatory authorities identify faults and order the contractors to stay action, some of them still go ahead, thus exposing human lives to avoidable risks. This was exactly the case with the Uyo church, which continued after a “stop work” order had been issued.
In some other cases, a building with a foundation meant for a storey building suddenly becomes a three-to four-storey building, which ultimately would have to cave in. This change of design is mainly the fault when older buildings collapse.
In all these cases, very weak efforts are made to punish those involved. This is why the President of the Nigerian Institute of Architects, Tonye Braide, has called for the audit of activities of building regulators. Describing each collapsed building as a statement of the failure of the regulatory agencies, Braide said, “The frequency of building collapse may raise question on the relevance of the regulatory agencies.”
But it goes beyond the regulatory agencies; it is about crime and punishment. In other parts of the world, people do not get away easily with building disasters, especially when the loss of lives is involved. When the June fire disaster happened in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London, in the United Kingdom, Scotland Yard described it as manslaughter and initiated a criminal investigation into the matter. The fire consumed 80 people and the Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Martin Hewitt, said, “The investigation we are conducting is a criminal investigation that quite obviously is starting from the potential that there was something that effectively amounts to the manslaughter of those people.”
Despite the fact that the report of the investigation is yet to be out, the cladding used has come under scrutiny with suggestions by many that a more fire-resistant type should have been used. It is certain that when the investigations are over, those responsible will not go scot-free. Besides, it will also bring up issues about how to prevent such occurrences in the future. These are the way things are done in civilised societies; and Nigeria should learn from them.