Why buildings continue to collapse in Lagos – Ex-physical planning commissioner

The President of the Nigerian Institute of Town Planners and former Commissioner for Physical Planning and Urban Development in Lagos State, Olutoyin Ayinde, speaks with ALEXANDER OKERE about incessant building collapses in the country, particularly Lagos State

What is your assessment of the built environment in Nigeria?

That is a very wide question because it depends on the angle from which you are looking at it. I’m an urban planner, so what I first want to look at is whether the principles of urban planning are even respected in Nigeria and I can tell you that Nigeria is still struggling with planning because we don’t plan our human settlements – the cities, the towns, the villages; there is supposed to be a vision for them. Development happens after planning. Construction is development and before you construct, you should be talking of a plan. It is like going out in the morning and getting to a motor park where buses are going to various destinations, and one is asked where they are going and they say anywhere. If it is anywhere, then one can hop in any vehicle. But that is exactly how we have been running our human settlements in Nigeria. And that is why we have slums and a disorganised environment.

Aside from that, we also have a lot of quacks in the industry, including foreigners that we are not even sure they registered to practise in their own countries, but we tend to give them more prominence over Nigerians. This, I think, makes us have a number of challenges.

There have been numerous reports of buildings collapsing and leading to the loss of lives in different parts of the country. What do you think is blameable for these tragedies?

When there is a building collapse, there is just something wrong with the process. One thing we should realise is that building construction is a science but in Nigeria, we tend to think it is not and that is why anybody who watched their father build a house thinks they already know how to build. That is why a bricklayer who was engaged just in laying blocks thinks they have now become a builder. So, we have had profane hands, people who were not qualified in the industry. But this is an industry that has specialties; it goes from pre-design to the design, to the analysis of that design for construction, to construction, post-construction, and then the auditing of that environment. It involves land surveyors, architects, town planners, structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers, sub-soil engineers, quantity and estate surveyors, lawyers, and accountants because buildings need financing. So, all of these things are interwoven and they need to be coordinated. Where the role of one person is skipped, then there is a gap and any gap can eventually lead to a construction error.

Most times, because Nigerians think it is expensive to engage professionals, they go for the quacks. So, until we get the right people to do the right thing, building collapse may continue.

While the prevalence of quacks is a problem, there are concerns about the connivance of professionals, including town planners, in the sector who collect bribes to enable developers to cut corners. Isn’t this a serious indictment on your members?

I don’t think that is how it works. When you hear about a town planning office, it’s not just about town planners. In a town planning office, there are land surveyors, charting officers, architects, structural engineers, builders, and town planners. So, when a building plan comes in, the survey is charted, and the architectural and engineering drawing is checked. Once all these other professionals certify that everything is correct, then the town planner looks at it within the context of the operating development plan. Where there is, the town planner approves on paper. The building is unlikely to collapse on paper; where it collapses is on site. So, these same people (professionals) need to play the role of monitoring the process of that construction. It’s in that process that we always have a gap. That process involves more of the architect, engineer, and builder; that’s where failures come.

But then, we also have part of the responsibility of the town planner to monitor the environment to ensure that what is being constructed is in alignment with what was approved.

Lagos appears to have become the epicentre of building collapse in Nigeria, with more cases reported in the state than anywhere else in the country. Why is this so?

One of the reasons is that Lagos has one of the highest numbers of constructions going on. I don’t have the statistics now but on the average, there are about 30,000 to 40,000 constructions going on in Lagos annually. I am not sure of the staff strength of the Ministry of Physical Planning now but when I was in office, in the ministry and all its agencies, we were about 763 and not all of them were professionals in the construction industry; there was the legal department, administrators, accountants, and others. But let’s even assume that all the personnel are building professionals and let’s raise the number to 1,000, can 1,000 people monitor 30,000 constructions? It is difficult. So, there is that lack of capacity, in terms of numbers, to be present at every site at the same time. That is one.

Two, there is also the lack of capacity to cope with the ingenious ways that people construct in Lagos. Do you know some people start their construction at 8pm and in the morning you won’t find them on site? As a commissioner, I was on a site at 10:30pm. I visited a site between 1am and 2am and got some videos. That is the way Lagos works; it is complex and anything as complex as that requires some complex approach, which is why I think citizens must become aware of their environment. There must be that drive for citizens to take note of what is going on and create a kind of whistleblower system, whether it is for good or bad. There are so many remote areas where people build and one never gets to know. But how do the authorities in other places get to know? They get information. It is the information that people don’t pass that makes things difficult.

In many of those areas where structures collapse, if you look through, due process was not followed; many of them (developers) did not do any soil test and if they did, they probably didn’t get the right engineers to design the structures. That is what is happening.

Did you experience this as a commissioner?

I had an experience as a commissioner. Somebody was developing along Awolowo Way in Ikeja and then we got news through whistleblowers that the building was in cracks. When we got there, the owner realised that the building was about to collapse and was rushing to build a column from the ground floor to meet the slab. Do you know what he did? He padlocked himself inside the site and we had to break the gate open and bring him out to see what he did. I asked him whether he wanted to die in the building. So, I gave him a choice to either allow the building to collapse and lose his land or allow us to do a controlled demolition and give the land back to him. He allowed us to do a controlled demolition and, of course, I told him to put it in writing. It was shocking how the building came down. We wanted to be gentle but the building didn’t survive the third knock; it came crashing like a pack of cards. He was not an engineer, yet he put up a fake signboard in front of the building with the name of an engineer that was non-existent. That is the extent to which people can go.

Do you think the resignation of Dr Idris Salako as the Commissioner for Physical Planning and Urban Development was an admittance of failure on his part and a sign that he did not want to continue to work with people sabotaging the government’s efforts to sanitise the system?

I can’t comment on that. It is an event I would like to be excused from. I just saw it in the newspaper and I’ve not brought myself to analyse it.

In February you were reported as describing states and federal governments as lawless and ignorant in the area of town planning. What exactly did you mean?

If one does not have a law, one is lawless. If one has a law and does not obey that law, one is lawless. In 1992, there was Decree 88, the Nigerian Urban and Regional Planning Law that prescribed the urban plans that we were supposed to have in Nigeria from the national to the local levels. There was the national physical development plan, sub-national physical development plan like those relating to geopolitical zones, then regional plans, sub-regional plans, master plans, sector plans, district plans, neighbourhood or local plans, and then action plans. It goes from the general to the specifics but even at the national level, the Federal Government has not prepared a national physical development plan. So, one cannot tell, in terms of a national physical development plan, how Nigeria will develop. Are there roads connecting our state capitals? Is there a railway system connecting all our state capitals? Is there a definition of air connections? There is nothing.

A national physical development plan will identify where our mineral resources are, where the market is, and where the industry is; you move raw materials to industry, to the market. The colonialists did it when they wanted to exploit us; they knew that groundnut was in Kano and the market was in the United Kingdom, so there was a rail system from Kano to Lagos. How did the rail system come from Lagos to Enugu? Was it not because of the coal? So, if we don’t embark on studies to establish these things, we can’t even have a national physical development plan.

It has been observed that construction continues on many sites even when the structures have markings of disapproval by a government agency. Why is this so?

When buildings are marked, it does not mean the sign is always for demolition. When construction is ongoing and government agents go to the sites to follow up but don’t find anyone on site, they put the mark to call the owner’s attention. When the person comes and it is discovered that the papers are complete, it is placed on record that everything is correct. I think the challenge we have is that government officials don’t go back and wipe off the marking. Sometimes, the marking directs the developer to stop work or indicates a contravention. It is only faulty or unsustainable structures that are eventually demolished.

How can home seekers know when a building has been marked for demolition?

The truth is most buildings don’t collapse immediately after they are built; so it is difficult to know. But demolition takes a process. Unless you see a building that is about to collapse, you cannot go there and begin to demolish it. The owner is first given a contravention and stop-work notice and in that notice, the owner could be asked to produce proof of authorisation within three or seven days. If that proof is not provided within that period, government agents can mark the building for demolition and give a two-day notice to remove the building and if the owner does not remove the building, the government agency does so at the owner’s expense.

This Interview was first published in Punch.

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