Illegal construction: What was Sanwo-Olu doing at Banana Island?

Of late, no six months pass during which there is no news of collapsed buildings in Lagos State. Cases of construction of buildings on waterways are rampant. New and old buildings that can’t pass the integrity test are many. Land is reclaimed illegally from the sea, and buildings completed before government officials show up like firefighters, if they show up at all. The latest example was Banana Island, Lagos.

The governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, reportedly visited a reclaimed land on waterways with buildings that were 80 per cent complete. He said the action was illegal and ordered that the structures be demolished. Why did it take the visit of the governor to have this illegality sanctioned? If governance is what it should be, does he need to be there?

With regard to qualitative governance, I critically pay attention to what the Lagos State Government does. It’s because this is essentially a sprawling city-state that attracts everyone’s attention. Its governors tend to be people who are exposed to best practices across the world. Lagos has the revenue to bring into reality whatever it dreams of. It can do most things other states in the country don’t have the financial muscles to do. Since 1999, it has demonstrated it has a brain of its own, willing to do things its own way without looking over its shoulders to check what Abuja likes or doesn’t like. So, I’ve come to expect the best in terms of governance, implementation of policies, enforcement of the law. Some things are achieved. Others aren’t. In fact, to me, Lagos isn’t moving at the pace it should in the area of qualitative governance.

With the kind of wealth it swims in, some of the things we see in regard to educational and social infrastructure are a disservice to Lagos State. Yet, in years past, we heard it noised that Lagos had arrived where it should be. In fact, it was advertised that everything regarding education was neat and sparkling. Some people believed it. I knew with the kind of system we ran, no government could get it so right in the manner Lagos was being portrayed in jingles at that time. I was sure TV cameras were taken to some places to capture gleaming school classrooms but they weren’t taken to others. At one point, a reporter with investigative inclinations showed pictures of dilapidated school buildings in Lagos State. That confirmed my suspicion. I had already seen the report when, at one point, I hosted a well-known university professor who was full of praises for the government for rehabilitating every school structure in Lagos State at the time.

I told this professor that in Lagos State, nothing of such had happened and it was all sloganeering. It occurred to me that many of us were so gullible that we could believe politicians when they claimed on TV that they had turned their states into El dorado. That no government ever completely gets it right isn’t in contention. That Lagos State can still harbour the extent of rot that we see from time to time in certain aspects of governance is what I have issues with. Of course, lately, we saw on Lagos TV all those horrible-looking classrooms that were renovated by the current government at the time COVID-19 forced the closure of schools.

The foregoing makes me return to the issue of illegality with regard to building construction in Lagos State. In a state that has the financial muscles to ensure compliance with the construction code, this shouldn’t be happening. How come the ministries and the agencies responsible watched as land was illegally reclaimed from waterways on Banana Island, developed, the structures some 80 per cent complete, but they did nothing about it? Who gave the developers approval? How come the structures were developed up to that point before state officials said they failed integrity test? Does it mean that if the state governor didn’t show up personally, no government agency would have the nerve to order the illegal activity to stop? This is a sign of weakness in the governance process and I would imagine the state should have passed this level.

Lagos State is such a sprawling city-state that one would expect the government to always have an idea, by monitoring with satellite, what is going on anywhere in its territory. Lives have been lost in collapsed buildings to the point that by now the government should have come up with the means of seeing at a glance what construction work is going on where. It should be able to daily check who is constructing what, and if standards are being met. This reactive approach, that is government agencies running around to pull down a structure, is below the calibre of a state like Lagos. With the number of lives lost in unsafe structures, and the dedication to acts of illegality on the part of some developers, no single structure should be erected beyond 10 per cent before enforcement agencies stop it. Anything short of this amounts to playing with the lives of people, and it’s criminal. It doesn’t show seriousness on the part of any government that has seen the lives of people wasted. To me such lack of seriousness is unacceptable.

I listened to some state officials in recent past. What they’re saying in regard to taking care of Lagos for the well-being of all isn’t what we should be hearing from a state with the kind of brains and manpower that Lagos State can boast of. For instance, in the course of the annual flooding last year, an official explained why Lagos State experienced so much flooding. He said a certain percentage of rain water ought to find its way into the soil. But because most people sealed off the earth on their premises, more water gathered on the surface, causing serious flooding. I had waited for this official to state what the government was doing to reverse this phenomenon. I expected him to say all new developers would at least be ordered to use interlocking stones so that rain water would find its way into the soil. Also, I expected him to say all road constructions in the state would be done using interlocking stones as is done in some places on Victoria Island. None of these was mentioned by the said government official. Really, it’s exasperating hearing decision-makers state what the challenges are, but they don’t add what they plan to do. I suppose providing solution to challenges is one reason government exists, isn’t it?

At that moment when the official spoke, it occurred to me that while Lagos State had serious challenges, the government didn’t appear to have concrete plans or the kind of political will needed to frontally confront them. It’s a general problem in Nigeria. The only difference is that Lagos State with the quality of its governors should be showing better examples than it’s doing. Some challenges require head-on collision from the government if the lives of our people mustn’t be wasted. This is most needed in the area of illegal land reclamation that contributes to flooding, as well as structures that don’t meet building standards.

In addition, there should be a plan which ensures that at any point, students aren’t sitting in school classrooms where even rats shouldn’t dwell. The terrible condition of some schools before they were repaired lately was alarming. This shouldn’t be happening in Lagos State. Some things aren’t just in place yet, including strong and well-funded government agencies that ensure compliance with the law. This was obviously the challenge with regard to what transpired on Banana Island. Government agencies that don’t work well, or are easily induced, are ever an issue where qualitative governance is concerned. It’s largely responsible for the innumerable cases of collapsed buildings and loss of lives. Yet, all it takes to curb the trend as well as embolden these agencies is a promise of absolute support from the governor. Like former President Olusegun Obasanjo did to a former Abuja minister who thereafter confidently descended on illegal structures, Sanwo-Olu needs to publicly say to enforcement agencies that he means business, and as such they have his unambiguous backing to descend heavily on illegal construction activities wherever they happen.

By Tunji Ajibade

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