Building collapse is a recurring problem. Experts finger absence of strict enforcement of building codes, corruption and the low rate of prosecution of offenders as some of the causes. How can it be reduced? What sort of compensation do victims deserve? Whose duty is it to prosecute owners of collapsed buildings or culpable engineers? Lawyers believe the problem will remain until those who violate building laws are prosecuted. JOSEPH JIBUEZE sought their views.
Last Wednesday, a three-storey building on Swamp Street, Odunfa, Lagos Island, collapsed. Many were trapped. An octogenarian, Mrs. Mistura Amodu, died in hospital hours after being rescued from the rubbles. This is just one of many incidences of building collapse across the country.
The General Manager, Lagos State Building Control Agency, Sola Adeigbe, said the building was marked for non-destructive integrity test to ascertain its structural stability before it caved in.
“Once a building has been detected to have a defect, we ask building owners to take the test before further actions are taken. We gave an ultimatum for the test which had expired before the collapse; they responded by saying they will do the test. But, unfortunately, the incident occurred.
“The law is explanatory enough; if only our people will comply; it is like a suicide mission when people occupy a distressed building. The agency has sealed about 1,104 buildings from June till date across the state due to defective or illegal construction,” Adeigbe said.
According to a building expert, Walter Emiedafe, between 1974 and 2010, 401 lives were reportedly lost from over 60 collapsed buildings in Nigeria. Several more lives were lost but have not yet been accounted for nor reported.
Privately-owned buildings – commercial or residential – accounted for the highest number of collapsed buildings. A study revealed that more than 70 per cent of the reported cases of building collapse in Nigeria stemmed from the informal sector.
Analysts say the building construction process demands careful supervision, monitoring and valuation to ensure that the requirements and specifications for quality assurance are strictly adhered to.
But Nigeria, it appears, has become one of the countries with a high incidence of building collapse. Nearly every month, there are gory tales of building collapse with the attendant loss of lives, property and investments. Many are injured or maimed for life.
Major cities like Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Kaduna, Onitsha, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Abuja, and others have had their share of building collapse over the years.
Observers have criticised the inability of the authorities to put an end to the menace. Recently, the Abu Naima Primary and Secondary School building in Jos, Plateau State collapsed killing 10 children.
In the same week, seven people escaped death in Yaba, Lagos when a four-storey building under construction collapsed on them.
Similarly, two buildings under construction in Lekki and Surulere, Lagos State, collapsed.
Why buildings collapse
Non-compliance with laws on building construction and maintenance account for some of the collapses. A tribunal of inquiry set up by Lagos State in 2013 identified weak implementation, as well as deliberate flouting of regulations and gross corruption across board as factors hindering the effectiveness of construction and building laws.
Buildings collapse due to several factors, such as use of low quality materials, use of incompetent craftsmen leading to poor workmanship, weak supervision, poor building design and planning, natural disaster, non-compatible soil type, non-compliance with specifications/standards by developers/contractors, incompetent contractors, lack of enforcement of building codes by the relevant town planning officials and poor monitoring, among others
Other factors are poor maintenance culture, faulty construction methodology, poor town planning approval/development monitoring process, non-enforcement of existing laws, bribery and corruption and structural defects.
Last year, Lagos State sealed 1,939 structures which flouted building laws. Some of the violations included buildings without approvals, use of substandard materials and altering approved building designs.
The sealed buildings were among 7,281 served notices for contravening the relevant building laws.
The state said violation of physical planning laws was a major cause of building collapse.
Some experts as well as anti-corruption crusaders have insisted that buildings would continue to collapse as long as builders continue to use the 32.5-grade cement.
Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) Director-General Dr. Joseph Odumodu, in a memorandum, urged the House of Representatives to investigate the composition and pigmentation of cement in the country.
He said: “At the moment, two cement types are prevalent in the Nigerian market: 32.5-grade and 42.5-grade, with the former, constituting about 50 per cent of the cement produced in Nigeria. Two years back, it accounted for over 85 per cent.
“The 32.5-grade is suitable for plastering, block-making and light concrete activities, while 42.5-grade and above are for more solid structures and heavy concretes. Using 32.5-grade type of cement for works that require 42.5 type of cement would amount to inappropriate application.”
Legal requirements circumvented
According to observers, legal requirements for building a house are hardly observed. In Lagos, for instance, before a house is built, certain necessary licences and permits have to be obtained, as well as completing required notifications and inspections.
The first stage is obtaining soil investigation report to ensure the stability of the foundation. The law says three-storey (or more) residential or office buildings would need such a report. It is also needed for a commercial warehouse.
Another requirement is to obtain an Environmental Technical Analysis Report, which is needed to check whether the project is viable and the impact it will have on the immediate environment.
After obtaining a certified true copy (CTC) of the survey plan and CTC of the land ownership title from the Land Registry, a development permit from the Lagos State Physical Planning Authority (LASPPA) is required. This authorises construction.
Legally, a pre-approval inspection is required to verify that the land is where the owner has stated it is and to verify that construction has not already started.
For construction involving a structure of more than two floors, the developer or owner must submit a general contractors all-risk insurance policy certificate to the Building Control Agency along with the application to begin work.
A builder is also required to obtain certificates of structural stability from the Lagos State Material Testing Laboratory.
The law also requires the Fire Service department to inspect the building and issue a report. A certificate of completion and fitness for habitation is also required from the Lagos State Building Control Agency.
In 2013, a Lagos tribunal on building collapse said laws regulating the building industry were adequate, but were rendered ineffective by non-adherence and crass indiscipline, among others.
How to prevent collapses
Observers say there are many regulatory authorities in the manufacturing, importation, environment and property sectors whose duties are to regulate the property and allied sectors – from manufacturing/importation of building materials, supply, storage, citing and construction, up to the finishing stage.
What is lacking, they said, is the commitment of regulatory authorities to their duties. According to them, there is an urgent need for stricter enforcement and complete overhaul of the building industry.
Town planning officials, experts say, must desist from issuing building permits to non-professionals, thereby making the construction industry an all-comers affair; as well as giving dubious approvals to sub-standard buildings.
Regulators must also ensure that buildings are not illegally raised on the same foundation. Also, buildings found to be structurally defective and marked for demolition should not be occupied by persons.
The Synagogue case
The Federal High Court in Lagos is set to hear a suit seeking to stop Governor Akinwunmi Ambode from enforcing a coroner’s ruling indicting the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) in the collapse of its guest house.
The governor had pledged to enforce the verdict. He vowed to seek justice for the victims, no matter the circumstances.
He has ordered law enforcement agencies to immediately arrest the indicted persons and enforce the verdict.
But the engineers – Oladele Ogundeji and Akinbela Fatiregun – filed two suits against the Lagos Commissioner of Police, COREN, the state Attorney-General and the District Coroner, Mr. Oyetade Komolafe, a magistrate.
They are challenging the July 8 verdict on the death of 116 persons in the building crash.
Ogundeji and Fatiregun were accused of criminal negligence in the building’s construction. The coroner recommended them for criminal prosecution.
Among others, they want the court to perpetually restrain the Attorney-General or any officer under his authority from initiating or commencing criminal proceedings against them on the basis of the coroner’s findings and recommendations.
Justice Buba has adjourned the case to November 2 for ruling on pending applications.
Experts say building collapses will remain a problem until those who violate building laws are prosecuted.
Worried at the unending spate of building collapse in the country, the Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) proposed the death penalty for owners of such faulty properties.
It made the recommendation at a three-day public hearing organised by the House of Representatives’ Ad-Hoc Committee on the “composition and pigmentation of cement.”
A former Chairman, Nigerian Institute of Architects, Mrs Abimbola Ajayi, said: “Although there is provision for summary trial of violators and offenders in the law, there is no record of persons prosecuted or sanctioned for incidence of building collapse by the Ministry of Justice, the Nigeria Police and other law organs because of political, cultural, administrative and other interventions.”
Lawyers said the government should ensure that corrupt building regulation officials found to be culpable in any building collapse should be prosecuted and made to serve long jail terms to serve as deterrent to others.
Besides, they said a policy should be put in place to ensure that professionals connected with collapsed building should not only have their licences withdrawn, they should be made to face the full weight of the law.
A constitutional lawyer, Mr Ike Ofuokwu, said victims of collapsed buildings deserve compensation.
His words: “There is absolutely no doubt that the government at all levels has totally failed in its regulatory and supervisory roles when buildings are being erected or renovated.
“They are more concerned and interested in collecting monies for physical planning approval and sundry levies without adequate supervision of the building project.
“The officials who ought to exercise supervisory functions are busy seeking gratification from the builders and once this is gotten, they turn the other way.
“In addition, if nothing is done to regulate the business of building and diligently prosecute offenders as well as revoke the ownership of the property in issue, then we should expect more of this national shame and embarrassment.
“The parliament should come in here and enact laws that will compel owners and / or developers of the offending properties, in conjunction with the regulatory agency if found to have connived with the builders or failed in its duty, to pay adequate compensation to victims and their dependents.
“Engineers who supervised or appended their signatures to such buildings should be made to appear before the disciplinary committee of their professional body.
“If found guilty they be made to face very stiff sanctions and have their certificates withdrawn where necessary.”
Lawyers said officials must not only ensure that occupants of buildings marked for demolition are evacuated, such persons should be prosecuted.
A lawyer, Mrs Judith Musa, said importers and manufacturers of sub-standard building materials as well as contractors and landlords found to be culpable in any incident of building collapse should be severely punished according to the law.
Lagos lawyer Jonathan Iyieke said it falls within the powers of the Attorney-General to prosecute all crimes, including negligence in building collapse and corruption associated with it.
According to him, building collapse resulting in death due to criminal negligence may amount to homicide and is therefore a serious crime.
“It’s not in doubt that the prosecution of offences of serious nature as homicide or culpable homicide falls within the powers of Attorney General of the state or of the federation as the case maybe.
“Where death occurs due to negligence of a professional advice, the body responsible for granting licence for that profession should be sued together with the negligent professional for damages and punitive compensation.
“Although, there is no amount of damages that can pay for lives lost in a building collapse, effective prosecution of culprits will serve as a deterrent to the multiplying culprits in our society,” Iyieke said.