On Wednesday, the 13th of March, 2019 a three-storey building collapsed at Ita Faji on Lagos Island, Lagos State. The building served both residential and commercial purposes. Unlike the many cases of building collapses experienced in Nigeria in the past, this case was particularly devastating as some of the victims were students of a primary school located in the building. It is reported that twenty people died as a result of the building collapse and forty people were injured. It was a very sad day, not only in Lagos but in Nigeria.
The occurrence of building collapses in Nigeria is completely unacceptable but it is particularly unacceptable that so many have occurred over a relatively-short period of time. According to F. C. Omenihu, L. O. Onundi and M. A. Alkali of the Department of Civil Engineering and Water Resources of University of Maiduguri, Nigeria, in their presentation “An Analysis of Building Collapse in Nigeria (1971-2016): Challenges for Stakeholders”, between 2011 and 2016, there were 41 building collapses in Nigeria. That is frightening.
The frequency of building collapses in Nigeria is alarming and leaves one wondering how as a nation we have not learned enough from past experiences. When time and again, promises are made assuring the nation of sweeping changes to prevent such situations and the collapses keep occurring, there is a lot to be worried about. It has been said that the building that collapsed at Ita Faji in Lagos was initially marked for demolition but the demolition was never carried out. Rather the building continued to be used for residential and commercial purposes.
What lessons can we draw from this situation? One obvious one is the fact that we need a revamp in regulation standards in the construction industry. Nigeria is known to have relatively-good laws. Its problem is usually the implementation or enforcement of the laws. Systems are often too relaxed and some officials of regulatory agencies are more concerned about their personal aggrandisement than they are about ensuring compliance with the codes of the agencies that they were employed to protect. Structures that house people should go through stringent approval and regulation processes as the loss of life is irreparable. Also, the standards for building regulation have fallen drastically and actions to sanction owners of collapsed buildings have either not been effective or have not received as much publicity as they should.
Another obvious lesson to be gleaned from the spate of building collapses is one of the problems associated with the engagement of unprofessional contractors in the execution of building projects. In our society, professionalism is not valued as much as it should be. Quite often, individuals are more particular about the cost aspects of projects they undertake than they are about the quality aspects. What this means is that they often end up seeking the cheapest means of achieving a project, often at the expense of the competence required for the peculiar project that they embark upon. Professional associations such as Nigerian Society of Engineers and Council for Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria must rise to the task of advising the government on ways to improve on standards and appropriate sanctions for anyone found to contravene building codes or ethics.
Finally, we must realise that poverty plays a huge role in many people’s choices of living areas. Poorly-built homes tend to command rents far lower than well-built ones. Some parts of Lagos Island in Nigeria are so densely-populated that they are prone to building collapse catastrophes but the lower cost of rent in many poorly-built homes in such areas is a factor in people’s choice to live there. The government can do many things towards helping the situation. First is the reexamining of policies surrounding erection of buildings – the entire process from conception to approval and construction, with a view to ensuring more reliable management standards from the regulation needs. Also, better effort should be made towards a long-term goal of ensuring affordable housing for citizens nationwide through open, low-cost but safe homes to be procured through home-ownership schemes. These should be open to the masses and not the rich or influential people who typically buy such cheaply and resell or let them out to others at higher costs.
Short-term, there should be mass enlightenment campaigns, all over the country but in particular in areas where poor building structures tend to exist. The goal should be to discourage people from taking up accommodation in buildings already marked for demolition or suspected to be in poor physical state. Citizens should know how to tell when a building may be structurally unsafe, what to do about it and who to report such to. We are all stakeholders in this situation of poor building structures and it is about time we all played our role in reducing the incidence of building collapses.