The Monday collapse of the 21-storey building under construction on Gerard Road, Ikoyi, Lagos State is one too many. With an undetermined number of people still trapped under the rubble, so much is unknown yet. In the coming weeks, some of the truth of the official negligence that led to such a gigantic structure becoming a giant pile of debris will emerge. However, the unfolding narrative is consistent with reasons other buildings have recurrently collapsed in Lagos: somebody somewhere thought the rules defining building constructions were mere suggestions and could therefore be abridged.
Now, the question is if Lagos State is ready for the radical reforms necessary to curtail these regular building collapses or merely hand-wringing through this. The news that the General Manager of the Lagos State Building Control Agency, Gbolahan Oki, had been suspended following the incident was gladdening because it meant that there were going to be some repercussions. By the time Lagos Deputy Governor, Obafemi Hamzat, visited the site and expressed some self-justifications on behalf of the builders, it was no longer as sure that heads would roll. According to him, the building was shut down for four months last year because they noticed some anomalies, although later reopened. Hamzat said the builders “were making corrective actions when this happened” and “at the time this happened, they were not really constructing.” His making excuses for the builders, when a proper investigation has not been conducted, is not reassuring. Are they finally ready to confront the massive rot in Lagos urban planning or will they remain on the well-worn path of self-defence and coverups?
Less than 24 hours after the Ikoyi collapse, another building went down in Lekki, Lagos State. Fortunately, no one has been reported dead in the latest incident. The reason many old buildings in that same Lagos – and some of them were put up as far back as during the colonial era – are still standing strong while the newer ones are falling like the walls of Jericho is evident: as a society, we stopped doing something right. We cultivated the bad habit of dismissing due processes so that certain privileged people could carry on as they wished.
Shortly after the tower collapsed, a letter by a consulting firm that initially worked on the building construction, Prowess Engineering Limited, surfaced. The missive, dated February 2020 and sent to the estate development company, Fourscore Heights Limited, more or less washed its hand off any consequences that might arise from what the builder was doing outside the prescribed rules. The letter did not detail what transpired between the two firms but, at least, two things since learned in the wake of the disaster are serious pointers to the cause of the collapse.
One is Oki’s outburst that Fourscore Heights raised the structure a whole six floors above what was approved (Hamzat denied this when he visited the site). For Oki to have said – and this was mere hours after the incident when no formal assessment had been done – that the owner of the collapsed building went beyond approved limits and had even used “inferior and terrible” materials in the construction, the regulatory agencies cannot justifiably claim to have been blindsided by what was happening at the site. They had just acted blind. Two is a video of an earlier television interview by Fourscore Heights Managing Director, Femi Osibona, himself where he dismissed the expertise of building consultants as “book people” who lack the practical knowledge his business entailed. Presently, Osibona himself is said to be one of the victims, as he was inspecting the site when the building collapsed. In the wake of the collapse, his confession about not following expert directives because he prioritises his intuition has become a testimony to his moral character. Realising that people who dedicate their lives to studying books when they could wing processes should not have been that costly.
There is a lesson for those who defy expertise, especially in our society where people needlessly end up as sad victims of their own lack of deference to expert knowledge. Ours is a society where people, disillusioned with their formal education, regularly complain they wasted their time in school learning abstract concepts like the Pythagoras Theorem rather than more “practical things” they could use to navigate their post-school life. You listen to them and realize it is precisely that kind of epistemological disconnect killing us as a society. Theoretical knowledge, especially when held by experts, is invaluable because what they study is the inherent calculus that upholds the physical (and even ethical) pillars that constitute society. Without understanding the logic that underwrites any concept, from putting up high-rise buildings to managing a democracy, you cannot create those so-called “practical things.” Experts might have their blind spots and shortcomings like every human, but cultivating an attitude of disdaining professional expertise can lead to fatal consequences.
If the engineering consultant that signed the letter had bluntly stated that the building’s collapse was imminent, they would be deemed a prophet by now. But we know the knowledge that prompted the severance of relationship with Fourscore Heights was purely logical, not inspirational. Construction is calibrated on arithmetic and those who try to outsmart its calculus pay dearly.
Incidentally, it was around this period seven years ago that the infamous building collapse at The Synagogue, Church Of All Nations happened. The catastrophe claimed 116 lives, and the mess of revelations that followed is painfully recrudescent of the one in Ikoyi. Even though a coroner’s inquest indicted the Synagogue church and its engineers for “criminal negligence” and recommended them for prosecution, not much came out of it. Not only did those involved get away with the blood on their hands, but some cheap journalists and fake academics further helped to push the narrative that the collapse was an attack on the church’s pastor.
Due to serial failures to properly punish such infractions, building collapse has virtually become routine. The phenomenon of collapsing buildings in Lagos State today is a ring of conspiracy between corrupt government agencies whose moral abdication of their oversight duties links with the soullessness of some construction personnel. Both legitimise their perfidy through hungry publicists and social media influencers who help sell a lie.
In this particular instance, there is one thing that Lagos Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, owes everyone and that is massive reforms. Suspending Oki is a good first step, but the governor needs far more than that to demonstrate that he is just as tired of building collapses as the rest of us. All the agencies that have to do with physical and urban planning in Lagos require a complete leadership overhaul. Anyone who has ever tried to conduct legitimate business in those agencies will tell you for free how irretrievably corrupt and inept their officials can be. Without the state purging them, I doubt those people can ever appreciate the scale of responsibility their job entails.
Lagos is one Nigerian city that should be putting up more high-rise buildings to accommodate its teeming population, but you cannot realise that kind of vision if buildings are likely to collapse. Lagos state urgently needs ethical personnel, people who grasp how much their diligence matters and take themselves seriously enough never to compromise standards. The Ikoyi collapse should be an opportunity to affirm a no-compromise rule. One way to go about it is to prosecute anyone that failed in their responsibilities for dereliction of duty. Until you start to jail people who compromise on standards, there cannot be progress.
On a final note, firms like Prowess Engineering should also be given the “duty to report.” Consulting firms who work with clients who overreach themselves and thereby risk public safety should be imposed with the moral duty to report them to an independent agency. It is possible that in those situations, reporting to the government might be ineffectual because – like it or not – political considerations feature in how the government approaches such infractions. And if the government cannot rise above its self-interests, an independent agency should receive such concerns on behalf of everyone.