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Chukwuma Okonkwo: Building collapse – Don’t be complicit in human cost of avoidable acts

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Chukwuma Okonkwo: Building collapse – Don’t be complicit in human cost of avoidable acts

by Chukwuma Okonkwo

Building collapses. We have seen them happen again and again. The incidences have now become alarming. If you have been around the places where they have happened you have experienced the shock and terror firsthand. If you have seen the footage on the news you have experienced the shock from the disturbing images. Irrespective of the circumstances under which you have experienced them, you may have somewhat been in a snit, but completely petrified.

No doubts, buildings collapse in other countries, but what is unsettling is that in the wake of all the rhetoric about how Nigeria has transformed economically, we still experience such avoidable incidents, not once in a blue moon, but repeatedly. The frequent occurrence of building failures and subsequent collapse in Nigeria has reached a flashpoint. The consequences of this trending building collapse range from loss of human lives, to loss of large investments in housing and properties, to perennial impoverishment of victims who cannot withstand the economic shocks there-from, down to global shame where a country that claims to be grail for foreign investment is riddled with repeated building failures and collapse.

Recently, I listened to the Director General of Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON), Dr Joseph Odumodu, speaking on Channels morning talk show – Sunrise – on the collapsed Synagogue Church in Lagos. In the course of the discussion, he gave a brief account of the new policy on cement standards. It is a fact that inapt application of cement grade, inter alia, has been responsible for several building failures and subsequent collapse in Nigeria. I was rather elated listening to him. He spoke with passion about reforming the ills in the construction industry and seemed committed to ensuring that cement standards in Nigeria are in line with global practices. I understood that the new cement standards, inter alia, specify the various grades of cement and applications as well as product labeling and traceability.

Few days later, articles with the headline “Court Stops SON from Implementing Cement Standards” surfaced in public. To my consternation, some antibodies – in the form of operators and stakeholders in the industry – have ganged together to stall the implementation of the policy. They, perhaps, felt threatened for some reasons underscored by selfishness and monetary gains. Reform, particularly in Nigeria, is a difficult venture. No matter how brilliant and well designed your reform is, you will always be confronted with rebellious forces that put a spanner in the works. This is why reforms take time and need sacrifices.

What reasons do we often hear are responsible for collapse of buildings in Nigeria? They range from the use of substandard building materials, to wrong interpretation of building designs by incompetent artisans, to non-adherence to established standards in building construction which includes building a multi-storey building on a building plan approved for one storey building, all the way to poor supervision of workers at the building sites, and absence of building maintenance culture.

At the heart of all these reasons are two striking points. One is greed, which spreads across the owners of the buildings, the contractors, the workers on the site, and government officials as well as members of the society who by actions or inactions turn blind eyes to the ills in the building structure. The other is non-enforcement of laws, which government officials are the culprits.

There is power in perception. The way we perceive events shapes our reactions to events. It describes our religious biases and reveals our visceral and physical reactions to events as well as intellectual weaknesses. The footage of the collapsed Synagogue Church in Lagos was disturbing. I guess the level of disturbance it exuded would be the same as or similar to any other collapsed building in the past we did not see the footage. When I saw the footage, at the first instance, my feet felt like I had developed trench feet and someone who saw the way I held my mouth in shock would think I had trench mouth. Then opinions began to drop like winter rains, analysts began to apportion blames, citizens began to let religious grouping dilute logical thinking, we began to see religious cards unfold on the table, we began to see the political arena theatre display interesting drama where government sits at the centre twirling with the facts (in the name of investigation), while international observers sit cross-legged and arms folded waiting for the outcome of this drama.

I have heard people link the collapsed Synagogue Church to terrorist attack, or some kind of natural disaster. That was a tragedy, but not different from other collapsed religious buildings. In June 2014, a four-storey building owned by an Anglican Church had collapsed in Onitsha. These tragedies should be called what they were. They were man-made and act of greed. We created them. No amount of religious cards we play or lame excuses we give to exonerate those whom we feel we owe allegiance to that will change the tragedies from what they were.

Whenever buildings collapse, rather than protect the images of those who by their actions or inactions have a hand in the collapse, we should call for, the arrest of the owners of the collapsed buildings, the names of government officials who approved the building plans, the names of government officials whose duties were to inspect the sites to ensure that constructions were in line with the approved plans, the names of the construction companies and contractors, the names of the architects who designed the buildings, the names of the site engineers and workers who were working at the sites, and the names of the cement manufacturers and sellers of building materials used. They should all be made public information. We should not be complicit in human cost of avoidable acts.

– Chukwuma Okonkwo is a member of the Nigerian Economic Society and writes from the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

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