When an uncompleted seven-storey building on Lagos’ Banana Island collapsed in April, it was thought no one had died, as a roll-call of workers on the site had been checked and all were accounted for.
Two days after the incident, the body of a man was recovered from the rubble.
It is not publicly known how the man came to be on the building site at the time of the collapse. He has not been officially named, and authorities are yet to identify any relative of the victim, Lagos state’s commissioner for information Gbenga Omotosho has said.
The unnamed man is the latest victim in a long list of building collapses which have claimed scores of lives.
The repeated incidence of such collapses tells a story of impotent regulation in the face of developers determined to gouge profits out of a booming property market.
One of the worst cases in recent times was in Ikoyi, one of the most affluent neighbourhoods of Lagos. A high-rise block of luxury flats under construction collapsed, killing 46, including the building’s owner.
The 21-storey building crumbled on developer Femi Osibona and his workmen, site supervisors, engineers, bricklayers, and others who were unfortunate to be at the scene at the time.
Oluwafemi Oke-Osayintolu, Director-General of the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA), says though its agency deployed “heavy life-saving equipment”, it was too late to rescue the 46 people who died.
For families of victims, the aspirations of their loved ones crumbled in the building. Titilayo Ajayi, wife to one of the victims known as T-Money, said her husband, a bricklayer, went to the site with over 30 workers from Ibafo area of Ogun State but only two survived.
“It was a terrible thing to lose a husband I had been with for 13 years,” she said. “I have been depressed since then because I am left to take responsibility for five children.”
Of the at least 61 collapses in various states across the country in 2022, Lagos accounts for just under half of all the cases in the year, according to a report by the Building Collapse Prevention Guild.
It is hard to track down how much a developer can make from building a highrise block of flats in the heart of Megacity Lagos. The cost of land is disguised by it being flipped many times to suitcase companies, each time increasing the value.
But even a small unit can go on the retail market for as much as ₦500 million (over a million dollars). The market value of a multi-storey block is comfortably in the billions of naira, if you can deliver it.
However, sudden increases in costs and building delays can quickly eliminate any profit for the developer.
Though the building in Ikoyi got the approval of the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA), a body created through the Lagos State Urban and Regional Planning and Development Law of 2010 to regulate standards for the design and construction of buildings, these standards were jettisoned.
Obafemi Hamzat, deputy governor of Lagos State, admitted the building was once sealed for four months by the government after it failed a structural integrity test.
But speaking at the tribunal set up to investigate the building’s approval by the regulator and the collapse of the construction, LASBCA said they were “unaware” that construction continued on the building despite the stop-work order.
Oluseun Randle, an official in charge of the Ikoyi area also claimed that the property developer prevented LASBCA officials from gaining access to the construction site.
“On June 10, 2020, Femi Osibona, his wife, and his workers were arrested for contravening certification and planning laws by the enforcement team of LASBCA. The security men at the gate put up an attitude by resisting the team’s access to the property. The agency was not aware that he went back to the site,” Randle had said.
“The structure failure was due to design errors, lack of quality assurance/control, and poor management of the project. The project board, which should have shown important information, including the names and addresses of the professionals who carried out the project, was deliberately not provided. The act shows that the agencies responsible for approval and supervision of the building project were compromised,” the report said.
Explaining how the building collapsed, a survivor who spoke anonymously to avoid being victimised because he was warned not to discuss the incident, said they “were working on a cracked pillar on the first floor of the skyscraper when it crumbled.”
Once that pillar failed, the rest of the building came down.
As of the time of filing this report, no individual had been arrested and prosecuted for the disaster.
A case too many
Despite the harsh economic situation in the country, the real estate industry is one of the most vibrant sectors in Lagos. The growth of the sector is, however, battling with the challenge of building collapses.
While the collapse of buildings is not peculiar to Lagos, experts say the frequency in the last few years exposed the vacuum in regulatory laws and implementation. It also brings to the front burner discussions of corruption and use of fake materials.
After the incidents in 2021, more buildings under construction have fallen in Lagos.
On Feb 12, 2022, a three-storey building still under construction on Akanbi Crescent in the Yaba area of Lagos collapsed, leading to the death of five people. The state government later announced the arrest of the building developer saying he defied stop-work order.
“The site had been sealed off twice by the control agency in 2021 for non-compliance with building regulations after which the site was abandoned. However, the developer later broke government seal, sneaked into the site and re-commenced construction without official authorisation,” said Idris Salako, ex-commissioner for physical planning and urban development.
How developers carry out illegal activities
Kehinde Fayegbami, an estate agent and developer, told HumAngle that lack of compliance with regulations and corruption within the sector responsible for monitoring constructions are the major reasons for the trend in Lagos.
“Use of substandard materials, lack of compliance building standards and corruption are causing a lot of building collapses and a threat to the real estate business. Its reoccurrence is causing setbacks to our business.”
Cutting costs and buying substandard materials can net developers millions of dollars, when the eventual sale price is taken into account.
He broke down how the developers work the gaps and weaknesses in the system.
“When developers apply to get a physical planning permit, they lie about the structure they plan to build on site. Some may get approval for a three-storey building but would go ahead to build ten-storey. While building is going on, they connive with some officials of supervising agencies who usually get bribed and keep mum.
Any official who goes to follow up is likely to be also open to asking for a bribe, Fayebami said.
“Because there is corruption in every sector, most officials sent to the field to investigate activities on sites receive money from developers and never return there again.”
Even if officials are not open to being bribed, developers have more forceful ways, he said. Some developers carrying out illegal building without appropriate permits even make use of soldiers and policemen to scare away officials meant to monitor constructions, he said.
The practice is commonplace, he says.
Asked how the developers and corrupt officials get away with their atrocities even after their projects collapse and cause loss of lives, Fayegbami says the government inaction is so pervasive, it all but condones them.
“Most of the cases of building collapse are not properly investigated and even the ones properly investigated, culprits are not prosecuted. So, failure to punish culprits beyond the threat on pages of newspapers is like a motivation for others.”
Fayegbami cited the collapse of the guesthouse of the Synagogue Church of All Nations that killed 115 people in 2014 as an example of failure of the government to deal with corrupt property owners and developers.
An investigative panel on the incident ruled that the church owner, Temitope Joshua, should be prosecuted for failing to obtain the relevant approval before embarking on the construction of the building, but no official charges were filed against him up until his death in 2021.
Though there are building codes and regulations expected to curb all forms of vices, there have been cases of lack of adherence to laid down laws by developers and the complicity of some enforcement agencies as explained above.
Experts say while the National Building Code 2006 laid down the minimum provisions buildings need to ensure public safety with regards to structural efficiency, private and public bodies in the building sector hardly read and follow the requirements of the law.
In a bid to address building collapses menace in Lagos, ex-governor Babatunde Fashola set up the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA) through the Lagos State Urban and Regional Planning and Development Law of 2010, but it officially started in Aug. 12, 2012.
The aim of the agency is to ensure that buildings in Lagos are designed, constructed and maintained to high standards of safety so as to avoid loss of lives and properties.
LASBCA is yet to respond to HumAngle’s enquiries requesting for details of cases of building collapses that have been prosecuted.
A senior lawyer, Femi Falana, has vowed to render free legal services to the victims of developers whose negligence has caused a building collapse.
“If a building collapses and the government is not ready to take action against the developers and their collaborators, come to us and we will obtain a fiat to prosecute those found culpable.” Falana, a veteran Senior Advocate of Nigeria, said.
“That is my commitment and that should be the commitment of all of us,” he said on May 4 during the Lagos Architect Forum (LAF) programme organised by the state’s chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA).
Another lawyer, Chidinma Innocent, said simply having regulations and regulatory bodies to achieve safe and sustainable buildings is not enough. He also advised that the government must show seriousness in the enforcement of laws guiding building construction.
Experts express concern
Speaking at a virtual meeting organised by the Eko EnvirotalkTV themed “Contemporary Issues in Building Collapse and its Implications for Sustainable Development in Lagos” on May 2, a professor of construction management at the University of Cape Town, Abimbola Windapo, also advised professionals to comply with sustainable construction principles.
“Building collapse has serious implications for the socio-economic development of Lagos and Nigeria. It must be tackled decisively in order to secure a more sustainable future. Prevention is often said to be better than cure.”
Funsho Adebayo urged building control agencies to move around constantly and do integrity tests at every critical stage through the help of local government representatives.
“There should be a certificate to proceed or a stop work order after the completion of every stage from foundation of a building to roofing. Residents should also help the government by reporting illegal constructions in their environment.”
Meanwhile, authorities in Lagos have since March begun the demolition of 349 distressed buildings identified as threats to safety of residents.
But there is little feeling that such efforts are any more than cosmetic.
After the Banana Island building collapse in April Lagos governor Babajide Sanwu-Olu called a press conference in front of two other buildings on the man-made island that he said had been found to break regulations.
He announced that the buildings would be pulled down. They were built extending out further than they were permitted, out into the water of the lagoon. But instead of looking toward the state regulatory agencies, apparently incapable of enforcing the regulations they are charged with, he blamed a different layer of government. It was Federal agencies, like the national waterways agency who were responsible.
The remarkable ability of developers to wriggle free from the constraints of public bodies charged with ensuring the safety of the megacity’s buildings, combined with the astronomical amounts of money to be made in the property game, mean that until the government can work out a way to stop it, there will inevitably be more casualties.
And as the still-unidentified corpse pulled from the rubble on Banana Island shows, even the most basic safety regulations are not being followed.
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