IN what has become a familiar refrain now, another building caved in at the Lekki area of Lagos last week, killing about 35 people and injuring several others. This latest incident has left exasperated Lagosians wondering when the problem of collapsing buildings will abate in the country.
According to eyewitness accounts, the building which is said to be part of the projects being developed by the housing development company, Lekki Gardens, gave way after a windstorm in the early hours of March 8. Most of the victims of the tragic incident were construction workers engaged by the contractors handling the project. The rescue effort, which started almost immediately, was initially hampered by the difficult terrain and the inadequacy of logistics. Even after the emergency rescue organisations called off the rescue effort after two days, some Hausa community leaders in the vicinity said up to 12 people may still be buried in the ground floor of the building which sank into the ground.
We sympathise with the people and government of Lagos State on this tragedy, especially the families which lost loved ones in the incident. We are, however, constrained to question the role of the state’s authorities in the recurring problem of building collapse in the state. Why are profit-minded housing developers given free rein in the “Centre of Excellence?” Why are the state’s building agencies unable to enforce their “stop work” orders when they discover that certain building projects are not meeting the required standards?
We ask these questions because in the case of this collapsed building, the developers were reported to have raised the building to five floors, contrary to reports that they obtained approval for a three-storey structure. An order was reported to have been given to the developers to stop work at this site about a month ago, but work was still ongoing at the site, which explains the presence of so many construction workers in the building when it caved in.
It is surprising that the Lagos State government admitted serving a contravention notice for exceeding the approved floors on the collapsed building, but its officials thereafter turned a blind eye when the notice was ignored and work went on there until its collapse. If the relevant government agencies had been alive to their responsibility of protecting life and property, this tragedy would probably have been averted. It is simple logic that it is not enough to make laws and even identify potential defaulters, it is more important to enforce the laws.
In this instant case, where were the Lagos State building control agencies and their enforcement agents, after the developers flouted the contravention notice? Where were they when the building exceeded the number of floors approved by the state authorities? And, how many other five-storey apartments are in the vicinity of this collapsed building, some of which the Lagos officials in front of television cameras in the aftermath of the collapsed building, hurriedly marked as unfit for human habitation.
The truth of the matter is that where human life really counts, buildings, especially high rise buildings, would be paid special attention. It is not enough to give building approvals, the monitoring mechanism should also be activated and sustained until the building is completed and delivered. It is on the latter point that most governments and their supervising officials fail. The bigger pain is that this sad tale is repeated all the time in the country. Lagos, because of its peculiar terrain and environmental constraints, needs to take even more care in approving and monitoring the construction of high-rise buildings. The state authorities should ensure that appropriate soil tests are carried out before approvals are given for the construction of buildings. In the case of this collapsed building, the government needs to determine the level of supervision of the project and the efforts made to ensure that the developer did not flout the contravention order. The claim by the Lagos Building Control Agency (LABCA) and some of the construction workers that substandard materials were used for the project should also be investigated.
The many questions that this disaster has thrown up are the same that we have asked anytime there are instances of building collapse in the country, but we never get appropriate answers. We lament this wanton waste of lives and call for a full investigation of the sad incident. We ask for full punishment in accordance with the law for anyone, no matter how highly placed, who is found culpable. The government should also desist from unduly shielding its defaulting officials whenever tragedies of this nature occur. Examples should be made of those of them who are found wanting in the discharge of their responsibilities, otherwise, the right lessons will never be learnt and tragic incidents like this will continue to occur.
This call has become germane, especially when weighed against the observation that hardly has any government official been ever brought to justice for failure to ensure adherence to extant housing laws. The public is becoming increasingly cynical of government’s seeming inaction on this problem. Starting with this case, let the state building authorities do everything that is necessary to redeem themselves.