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Accountability: a powerful deterrence to building collapse – By Tochukwu Ezukanma

By Tochukwu Ezukanma  | Lagos, Nigeria | May 8, 2019 – 

In saner countries of the world, a workman takes pride in the quality of his products. Apart from the pecuniary incentives of his labor, he appreciates his moral obligation to society to uphold professional standards in his work, and, for his credibility, he strives for the excellence of his outputs for they define his professional hallmark. On the other hand, due to the moral and ethical collapse of the Nigerian society, the workman is indifferent to societal expectations and his professional credibility to the point of total disregards to the quality of his output.

As a result, some Nigerian builders mortgage professional standards, worthy workmanship and quality to profit maximization, and thus, end up building structurally defective buildings. But then, it may be understandable that an entrepreneur driven mostly by profit violates professional standards and circumvents building codes and ordinances for profit. But what about the government agency empowered by law to regulate the builders and ensure that they adhere to government stipulated construction standards? In Lagos State, the agency responsible for these is the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA).

The powers and responsibilities of the agency are enormous: controls and regulates every phase of the construction process, and identifies and demolishes distressed and nonconforming structures. If this agency is incorruptible and efficient, there will be virtually no building collapse in Lagos State. It is the corruption and inefficiency of LASBCA that account for the repeated building collapse in the state. LASBCA officials accept bribes from builders and then relax the stringency of the approval and inspection processes. Thus, allowing for the use of substandard materials and unqualified labor, and breach of building codes and ordinances, and ultimately, the construction of structurally defective buildings that will, sooner or later, collapse.

Due to corruption also, LASBCA has not been effective in the demolition of distressed and nonconforming structures. As such, although the collapse of a building is preceded by conspicuous signs that allow LASBCA ample time to evacuate and demolish it, buildings still routinely cave-in on their residents, trapping, maiming and killing people. On March 13, 2019, a three storey building, still inhabited by businesses, residents and an illegal primary school, collapsed in the Ita Faji area of Lagos Island. For long, the building showed glaring signs of imminent collapse. And, on three different occasions, officials of the LASBCA marked it for demolition but it was never demolished. It was alleged that each time it was marked for demolition, the landlord forestalled it by bribing LASBCA officials. Finally, the building caved-in, and twenty persons, many of them pupils of the school, died. In this country of ours that glories in violence and trivializes human life, we are inundated with figures of human death that it is beginning to lose its enormity and gravity; it just has a statistical ring.

But then, “statistics are like bikinis, what they reveal is important but what they hide is essential”. The statistics (twenty deaths) hid poignant and tear-jerking narratives that attended the Ita Faji tragedy. A father was lamenting the death of his three children. For two weeks, they stayed home because he could not pay their school fees. Then, on that ill-fated day, he got their school fees ready and sent them back to school. As the build collapsed, all his three children died. It was his birthday, and this 10 year old boy refused to go to school. He wanted to stay home and romp around in celebration of his birthday. But his parents objected; reluctantly, he went to school. He died in the building collapse. On receiving the news of the death of her two children in the building collapse, a young mother stepped out of her house, bought poison, took a portion of it and died. Statistics hid the personal trauma, anguish and sorrow of those that lost their love ones. It failed to reveal the personal agony of each life irretrievably shattered by that preventable catastrophe.

The preventable catastrophe was not prevented because of the corruption, greed and disdain for human lives of the Nigerian society. A society that, in its convoluted religionism, becomes progressively selfish, corrupt, fraudulent and murderous as it becomes increasingly religious. It would have been prevented, if not that venal, voracious, conscienceless officials of LASBCA, repeatedly took bribe and reneged on the demolition of a fatally defective structure that imperiled the lives of many, including children. It was not prevented because unscrupulous officials of the state Ministry of Education, evidently, evidently, for a bribe, consented to the continued operation of all illegal school with one hundred registered pupils; and the school operators, in their negligence, betrayed the trust reposed on them by parents: that the school could guarantee the safety of their children in their learning environment.

As usual, the governor visited the site of the disaster, displayed genuine concerns, ordered investigation, etc. But, in the characteristic Nigerian modus operandi, the hoopla that attends this tragedy will die down after a few weeks, and it will all relapse to business as usual. And, as usual, government officials will continue with their ingrained habits of accepting bribes from builders to approve shoddy constructions, and landlords to avoid the demolition of dangerously, defective structures. Invariably, buildings will continue to collapse and kill and maim the innocent and unsuspecting.

The antidote to this macabre routine is accountability on the part of the government. Accountability demands that the chairman of LASBCA and the state Commissioner for Education take personal responsibilities for the corruption and dereliction of duty of their subordinates, and resign, and individual officials, in the agency and ministry, whose actions and inactions led to the Ita Faji calamity, should be severely punished: arrested, prosecuted and jailed. Secondly, the bereaved families should sue for damages demanding billions of naira. Those to be sued include the state Ministry of Education, LASBCA, the landlord and the school proprietor.

Although nothing can retrieve the dead or totally relieve the trauma and anguish of the bereaved, it is extremely important that government officials, builders and landlords learn the hard way that they will be held accountable for their actions and their consequences. This will be a power deterrent on their corrupt activities, irresponsibility and moral remiss that, in the past, resulted to building collapses in Lagos.

Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria


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