The House that Quacks Built


Blood-soaked clothes. Crushed pieces of furniture. Twisted iron rods. Broken pots, plates, and rubble. These are all that remain of House No. 26, Idusagbe Lane, Idumota, Lagos. The house collapsed, on September 14, 1987, and brought down two other adjoining bungalows. Eleven people were crushed to death. The horror of the tragedy still hovers like a ghost above the debris. The killer building was just a bungalow until 1977, when Sanusi Hassan, the landlord, brought some bricklayers who did what they thought was the reinforcement of the foundation. Thereafter, Hassan would come around as he pleased to add a few rows of blocks on top of the bungalow. Soon, he became a proud owner of a one-story building. Then, he added another floor to it. Everything was still fine until work started on the third floor. Then the house came down in a heap of rubble.

On September 29, 1987, barely two weeks after the Idumota disaster, another house collapsed at Ikorodu, Lagos, killing four children. Several other children were severely injured. The house was used as a coaching class for about 60 children. On a fateful day, some pupils were still arriving in batches, while early comers were busy playing and waiting for their teachers when the bungalow caved in.

Ten days later, yet another house collapsed in Calabar, Cross River State, shortly after heavy rainfall, killing three women and leaving many others with plastered legs and bandaged heads.

The incidence of collapsed buildings is not confined to Idumota, Ikorodu, and Calabar. Similar tragedy has become a recurring decimal in several parts of Nigeria. This situation has raised much concern and anxiety about the safety of lives and property. Lagos has recorded an alarming proportion of this tragedy. Estimates by experts show that at least 200 people die every year in Lagos as a result of collapsed buildings, most of which go unreported.

Amid feasting and dancing at a christening party, July 18, 1985, an uncompleted three-story building on the Lagos Island came tumbling down. Seven children and two women were killed. Three of the dead were kids of the celebrant. As in the Idumota case, the collapsed building was constructed on a small plot of land which hitherto housed a two-room apartment. Similarly, two nearby houses were affected by the falling building. Akeem Mollah, a local contractor, who constructed the sandcastle was later charged to court for “criminal negligence and building without regard to public safety.”

On May 18, 1985, two months earlier, 13 people were killed when another uncompleted four-story building at Iponri, Lagos, collapsed while casual laborers were putting finishing touches to the decking of the fourth floor at nine o’clock in the night. Neighbors narrated how construction work on the house had progressed at an incredible speed. The foundation was laid just seven weeks before the tragedy and the construction work went on daily, round the clock. Just two days after the Iponri disaster, another house, along Ojuelegba Road, also in Lagos, a walking distance from Iponri, collapsed after a rainstorm.

The public was outraged by these disasters, which happened within 48 hours. The Nigerian Society of Engineers, NSE, quickly set up a panel to investigate them. Newspaper editorials followed. Said The Nigerian Observer: “We hope that Lagos disaster will not repeat itself.” That was not to be. Three other houses collapsed on Allen Avenue, Bereku Lane, and Adeniji Adele, all within the space of a few weeks. On May 9, this year, a two-story building under construction similarly crumbled at Agege, Lagos, trapping and killing the landlord and a woman, said to be his girlfriend. The two had just arrived at the site of the construction in a gleaming new model Mercedes Benz car to inspect the work, when tragedy struck.

Mike Akhigbe, a navy captain and governor of Lagos State, was livid with anger. He promised to “deal severely with landlords who engage the services of fake builders and draughtsmen who posed as engineers.” Akhigbe wished that that was the last of collapsed buildings. But that was not to be. Barely a fortnight later, 20 students of Ipakodo Grammar School, Lagos, sustained multiple injuries when the wall of their school hall collapsed shortly after the closing prayers. It seems secondary school students in Lagos State may have to spend more time praying than studying; if that would save them from the rampant collapse of school walls across the State.

A series of collapsing school blocks built during the Second Republic by the Jakande administration has turned some schools into the valley of the shadow of death. Last year (1986) Gbolade Abiodun, a primary three pupil of Jamatal Islamiyya School, Ikorodu, was crushed to death, when his classroom wall collapsed on him. Only a few months ago on July 15, eight pupils of Bishop Howell Memorial School, Bariga, Lagos, ended up at the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi, when the wall of their classroom similarly collapsed on them. I found out that Christian Mbaeru, one of the seriously injured students, has still not recovered fully, even with the transfusion of four pints of blood.

Outside Lagos, the story is not different. In Enugu, five families residing at a three-storey building along Ona Street, returned from work last year to find in place of their beautiful house, a huge heap of debris. A curious housemaid had averted what could have been a fatal situation. At 8.30 in the morning, Nkechi (the housemaid) was washing nappies in the backyard when she heard some little creaking sound. She turned and noticed yawning gaps tearing right through from the ground floor at several points. Water was splashing out of the wall, plasters and paints were falling off before Nkechi’s eyes. Quickly, she drew the attention of another housemaid. All that the two housemaids could take out of the house were little kids, seconds before the whole house buckled and fell apart.

Many people in Ibadan cannot forget October 6, 1971. On that day, 27 people were killed when a multi-storey building under construction collapsed at Mokola area of the city. Some 48 other labourers sustained serious injuries. In Barnawa Housing Estate, Kaduna, three buildings similarly collapsed in 1981, killing six residents leading to a mass evacuation of the estate. In Benue State, a Briton, Margaret Gusuah, was killed in September 1985, when her family residence in Gboko, collapsed on her shortly after heavy rainfall.

These days collapsed buildings do not respect mosques or courts of law and their unsmiling presiding judges. In Imo State, Justice J.S. Anyanwu narrowly escaped death last year, when the whole ceiling of the Isiala Ngwa High Court gave way, a few minutes after the court rose. His Lordship had no choice but to adjourn sine die. And in Oshogbo, the seat of Yoruba ancestral arts, two brothers, Sikiru and Ganiyu Nasiru, was killed, in May 1986, when the walls of the Oluode mosque caved in, while they were carrying out repairs of God’s own house. No prayers could save them. They went straight, obviously, to heaven where there are better mansions that need no repairs.

The question is: What is responsible for this endless calamity? Critics have accused the government; town planning agencies and its corrupt officials. Government has, in turn, accused personnel in the building industry; the architects, building engineers, draughtsmen, etc. Different segments of the building industry have been pointing accusing fingers at one another. Greedy contractors and landlords too, have not been left out of the blame.

Akin Dayo, the Lagos-based architect, told me that in the past, the Lagos City Council, LCC, was known to be doing a fine job. It made sure that buildings under construction were thoroughly supervised from scratch to finish, using qualified structural engineers to check structural drawings, designs and calculations. The council, he said, was also very strict and uncompromising in its guidelines to contractors, especially in areas of reinforcement and concrete. “Today,” Dayo said in despair, “the approving authorities seem to have thrown the good practices to the dogs.”

During the Jakande administration in Lagos State, the town planning department, inundated with complaints of illegal and sub-standard buildings, appointed 100 uniformed men, called building inspectors. Soon however, another kind of complaint overtook the department: allegations of corruption were leveled against the inspectors. It was alleged that they took money to approve even buildings without approved architectural plans. Many developers readily patronized them, brushing aside the town planning department.

At the peak of their lucrative “business,” the inspectors allegedly went a step further and set up a fake approval syndicate. Everything went haywire. In 1983, the Nigerian Security Organization, now SSS, was asked to take a look at the town planning department. What they saw was terrible. Three inspectors landed immediately at an Ikeja courtroom on their expressway to Kirikiri prison. When Gbolahan Mudashiru, a group captain, became the governor of the state following the overthrow of the civilian government, the air force-man got angry and sent the entire inspectors packing.

In their place, Mudashiru appointed 18 young men who held ordinary diplomas in building-related courses. Unlike the Jakande inspectors, the new inspectors had no vehicles to go about their work. In the process, they achieved little or nothing. Said a top town planning official who does not want his name published: “This place is short-staffed and under-equipped. We have made proposals for the government to provide at least motorcycles for the inspectors, but our appeals have not received any attention.” He went further to rationalise corruption accusations, constantly leveled against the department. “There is corruption in every big organization in this country, so don’t blow our own out of proportion,” he said.

But Adekunle Bolarinwa, 32, chairman of Ibadan Metropolitan Planning Authority, IMPA, exposed the ills afflicting two planning departments in Nigeria, with Ibadan as his case study. “A draughtsman can submit a drawing for a three-storey building and get an approval, when, in fact, the law makes it clear that he cannot handle anything beyond a bungalow,” Bolarinwa said. In his one year as the boss of the IMPA, he said, he has seen sufficient irregularity to make him shudder. “One finds that a lot of mishaps have collusion internally,” Bolarinwa said.

Town planners alone are not to blame. The dangerous infiltration of all segments of the building industry by non-professionals and fakes is part of the trouble. Said T. Ogu, a building engineer: “The problem is that even the old bricklayer claims to be an engineer, and due to his several years of experience, he quickly dismisses the qualified professional as a newcomer.” Femi Majekodunmi of the Nigeria Institute of Architects, NIA, shifts the blame on draughtsmen who by law, are not permitted to design storey buildings. He said evidence of many collapsed buildings, especially in Lagos area, have shown that the drawings of such buildings were prepared by draughtsmen.”

Landlords are not helping matters either. In Lagos, it has become a practice for most landlords to complete their buildings before beginning the frantic search for an “approved plan.” Incredible but true. Besides, they go all out for cheap building materials and labour. Even worse, some obstinate ones among them would not stop building when ordered to do so by town planning inspectors. In the case of the tragedy during a party on Lagos Island, the town planning department had warned the owner of the house to stop work a month before the incident. He ignored the warning.

Similarly, the report of internal investigations by the LSTPA, now with the police, shows that in the celebrated Iponri disaster, the illegal building was first demolished but the landlord went back immediately to erect another illegal building on the same spot. Said an official of the LSTPA: “Such landlords do not build their illegal structures during working days but at weekends and in the night to evade town planning officers.”

Contractors, too, have contributed to the incidence of collapsed buildings. They are known to be hostile to supervision by engineers and architects. They often see professional supervisors as stumbling blocks to their fast bucks. Sometimes, contractors even convince the owner of a building to believe that the supervising professional is out to frustrate his project. There are reported cases of supervising professionals being chased out of sites by clients because the contractor has made him see the supervising professionals as enemies.

What is to be done then? The NSE, in its investigations following the Iponri disaster, traced the cause of the disaster to inadequate soil investigation on the building site, lack of monitoring of construction stages, and improper mixing of concrete. To avoid further disaster, the engineers want to be allowed to examine building plans before they are approved.” They also want the government to ensure a “strenuous certification process” before approving buildings plans.

Following the same Iponri disaster, the NIA also pushed forward a 10-point guideline to the government on how to check future occurrences of collapsed buildings. They recommended among other things that: only registered architects with the Architects Registration Council of Nigeria, ARCON, and registered engineers with the Council of Registered Engineers of Nigeria, COREN, be allowed to present architectural and structural drawings respectively for statutory and planning approvals. They insisted further that the drawings and other such documents for such applications should bear the ARCON and COREN stamps and signatures.

The Nigerian Institute of Town Planners, NITP, has advised the government to remove those they called “non-professionals” from the management of planning agencies. It has also called for the involvement of town planning units which approve building designs, as well as structural engineers and architects in the monitoring of construction work at all stages. The professionals in the building industry, themselves have been advised to cut down their exorbitant fees which have served to drive intending developers into the hands of quacks. The public too can help. This, an official of the LSTPA said, can be done by immediately reporting any suspected illegal building or cracks on the walls of any building. “No building collapses without warning. The cracks and crevices we see on houses around us are actually warnings, which must be heeded without much delay,” he said. The public, government officials said, must also be less hostile to town planning officials. In 1983, a town planning bulldozer operator was stabbed to death after demolishing an illegal building on Lagos Island.

The government, said Bassey Inyang, an engineer, has a greater responsibility and must respond adequately to solve the problem. For one, Inyang wants the government to mount a campaign on the radio, television, and newspapers, to educate and warn the public on the consequences of illegal buildings. He also wants the government to impose firm and stiffer penalties on culprits. Government too should recruit professionals to man the LSTPA and provide sufficient equipment and vehicles to town planning departments. I found that the 20 units of the LSTPA have only 10 vehicles, most of them in bad shape.

Bolarinwa, the IMPA boss said the government can do more. He believes there is “too much bureaucracy” by the supervising ministries before approvals are given. This, he said, tends to force would-be developers into the hands of corrupt and unprofessional officials. “The administrative process must be simplified with a view to discouraging irregularities, which in most cases lead to these disasters.”

*This report was written by Anietie Usen in 1987 for Newswatch Magazine. The issues raised here are still fresh today and the solution proffered is still valid.

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