Fresh disaster looms on Lagos Island

Tessy Igomu

The bustling commercial-cum-residential area of Ita-Faji on Lagos Island was still settling for the days’ activities when the peace of the day was shattered irretrievably with the distressed cries of children trapped underneath the rubble of a three-storey building.

As rescuers feverishly dug through the mass of twist metal and heaps of concrete, in hopes that those trapped under what was left of 63, Massey Street might still be extracted, apprehension was rife. And as the clock ticked away, hopes were dashed, while shock and mourning gripped the country.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 would remain a black day in the minds of all Nigerians.

As it stands, building collapse has become a reoccurring decimal in Lagos. Though it is not exclusive to the state, as other states across the country have also suffered similar fate, Lagos, however, stands out like a sore thumb.

Many have been killed in building collapse incidents that have rocked mostly the heart of Lagos Island, popularly referred to as Isale Eko, a densely populated area of Lagos. As expected, any time such tragedy struck, officials of various rescue departments would always swarm such disaster sites like bees on a honeycomb. And after conducting some kind of rescue operations, they would make policy statements and disappear.

Years after such incidents, those alive live with the memories of losing loved ones or property, while others live with bruises that are sad reminders of their narrow escape.

As they happen, these incidents jolt Nigerians to reality and remind them that the malaise remains uncurbed.

Many have blamed the unending incidence of building collapse in Lagos to changing climate conditions, quackery and on the lackadaisical, nonchalant attitude of relevant authorities in charge of buildings. However, most people opined that at the centre of it all is the poor structural state of the buildings, which are caused by poor engineering and construction. Downpours and floods are also believed to certainly weaken the buildings in this category, thereby creating the condition for their ultimate collapse. But beyond these factors, many believe leaders should be blamed for the lack of political will to tackle the menace once and for all, especially when it comes to demolishing structurally defective buildings scattered in the many narrow, windy passageways of Lagos.

In the wake of the collapse, the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA), started the demolition of about 180 houses marked as defective. And while the exercise was on-going, a two-storey structure already marked for demolition gave way on March 25. Though some occupants evacuating their belongings were injured, no one was killed in the incident.

The dust might be settling on the recent building collapse incidents, as the grief that accompanied them has subsided. But the same calamity might likely be replayed soon, and with higher fatalities.

According to Kunle Awobodu, National President of the Building Collapse Prevention Guild (BCPG), an independent body aimed at promoting standard construction practices across the country, there are over 1,000 buildings in Lagos Island that are unfit for human habitation and due for demolition.

The reporter recently embarked on a fact-finding mission to Lagos Island and discovered scores of deplorable and derelict buildings tucked in the heart of the bustling business district that have not been marked for demolition. Some of them stand precariously at dizzying heights and are, without a doubt, accidents waiting to happen.

Over the years, navigating the area, anytime a building collapses is a herculean task. Victims, most times, are already dead before the needed help gets to them. This challenge is majorly due to distortions in the physical planning of the bubbling commercial enclave, which makes rescue operations extremely difficult. Traversing the narrow maze of overcrowded alleys and dark passageways that serve as roads in this commercial hub is a traumatic effort.

And this was the situation in 2007 when three structures collapsed within a week. In one of the buildings, a five-storey structure located at 31/32 Ergeton Street, five people lost their lives, including two pregnant women and a toddler because help could not get to them on time due to the inaccessible nature of the area. Days later, concerned residents engaged in rescue efforts with local implements were forced to stop by the nauseous stench of decomposing bodies.

The concentration of business and human activities in Obalende, where the reporter started the journey to Adeniji Adele, Apogbon, Balogun, Ebute Ero, Oke-Arin, Idumota, Idumagbo, Dosunmu, Jankara, Oluwole, Mandilas, Sangrouse, among others, makes human and vehicular movement practically impossible. It is like a jungle bubbling with activities. Through the narrow streets where trading thrives at virtually all the time, pedestrians, trucks, load carriers, wheelbarrow pushers, petty traders and hawkers of assorted products jostle to have a right of way. Every corner and spot is a worthy business venture. Goods are also displayed on the floor in the middle of the road, causing unprecedented human and vehicular traffic jam.

The buildings are built so close to each other that they leave little or no spaces for cross ventilation. 

Amid this chaos, residents go about their businesses within and outside the frail-looking and overcrowded multi-storey buildings, unmindful of the danger.

In this category of defective structures, are some houses on Togunwa Street, off Ita-Gangan. The three-storey structures that look more like relics fit for the museum are located a stone’s throw from Ita-Faji.

The houses are tilted dangerously and also rest on each other for support. As it stands, if by chance one of them collapses, the possibility of others crumbling is high. The pillars, which are visible, also appeared slanted at dangerous angles, while the plasters on the walls have peeled off in several areas, revealing rusted iron rods.  

On Bamgbose Street, one of the main arteries leading from Obalende to Isale Eko, is another three-storey building that is gradually falling apart. Though visible renovation works could be seen being carried out as a palliative measure, the danger it portends are glaring. The structure houses many families, while business activities go on in makeshift shops located on its ground floor.

On Bridge Street, Oke-Arin, is a massive brown three-storey structure that also poses serious threats to residents, traders and passers-by. The building has some of its balconies dangling loosely overhead, while some windows without louvres were seen hanging on their hinges.

According to a concerned trader, the fact that it sits in the heart of a bubbling commercial activity makes it deserving of urgent attention.

Some residents in the area told the reporter that on several occasions, people living in the premises as well as passers-by had been seriously injured by slabs that fell off the building.

A trader that sells footwear on the street described it as a ticking time bomb. Further voicing his fears, he said doing business around the structure was like having a date with death.

In his words, no one knows when the house would collapse, as it had been marked for demolition before, after heightened fears of imminent collapse.

“We have not seen any government official since it was marked for demolition. We heard the owners have gone to settle the case. Any time I am passing in front of the house, I practically run. I am scared for the shop owners and people living in the house. I cannot imagine the way they carry on as if the house is in good shape,” he said.

Still standing within the Oke-Arin district, are three houses marked for demolition since 2007. Two among them are located on Sanusi, but the building remains a beehive of activities for both traders and residents.   

On the Balogun axis, several derelict structures also stick out like sore thumbs. Among them is a brown and cream three-storey building located close to a T-junction off Nnamdi Azikiwe Street, Idumota. Twisted metal could be seen sticking out from some of its pillars, while efforts previously made to refurbish the house with cement did little to hide the defects.

Along Gutter Lane stands another three-storey structure that is being hurriedly renovated. The rot and decay in the building is so evident that efforts made to also hide them with cement and fresh paints, failed.

On Church Street, Idumota is another relic waiting dangerously to fall apart. Surprisingly, it is a thriving business hub despite the glaring dangers. At Ebute-Ero, overlooking Nnamdi Azikiwe Street, stands this imposing brown, four-storey building that can not be mistaken. It practically dwarfs other structures on the stretch and its state of dilapidation is mindboggling.

Yet showing visible signs of distress is a building on Nnamdi Azikiwe Street. The three-storey structure is just one among the many houses that are home to pharmaceutical shops. The front of the house is a waiting bay for inter-state passengers travelling with the several vehicles loading in the area. Oblivious of the hovering danger, the passengers could be seen seated patiently on benches placed directly under one of the houses’ cracked balconies.

A walk down the Adeniji Adele axis, also unveiled several houses at the brink of imminent collapse. One is located on Oduntafa Street, another grotesque-like structure can be found on Iga Idugaran Street, while yet another is on Enuowa.

The stretch of Onigbale Street, one of the narrow, winding streets behind the palace of the Oba of Lagos, lurks several structurally defective buildings bidding their time before the inevitable happens.

A walk into the crowded inner streets leads one to houses on Oju-Olobun Street. The two imposing architectural eyesores are partially deserted, while petty traders occupy and display their wares in every available space in front of the houses.

A concerned resident, Abimbola Ojo, said despite having some blocks falling off, people still go about their daily chores in the buildings unperturbed. She said the authorities have been notified about the poor condition of the structure, but no response had been received.

“I don’t know why government always pays lip service to issues that have to do with human lives. With the rate at which buildings are crumbling here, we expected that concrete steps would have been taken to forestall future bloodletting from collapsed buildings. We hope they would do something before it claims lives,” she said.

Many people have maintained that corruption on the part of government officials charged with the responsibility of ensuring and enforcing building codes, ignorance, human errors, carelessness and error of intent by greedy developers and landlords are responsible for frequent cases of building collapse on the island.

In the words of a building expert, Uche Akanobi, buildings without legal architectural specification should be pulled down promptly, rather than marking them for demolition and abandoning them.

Blaming the frequent cases of collapsed buildings across the country on the quality of professionals handling the projects, he noted that the presence of unprofessional engineers against the actual engineers and compromises of standard play huge roles in collapse disasters.

He maintained that it was time the construction industry woke up from its seeming slumber and take responsibility to curb the menace.

During the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, a National Building Code was passed into law by the National Assembly to guide construction of buildings in the country.  

Also, in 2007, the Lagos State House of Assembly passed a bill tightening the existing laws controlling the construction of buildings in the state. The bill was quickly signed into law by Governor Babatunde Fashola in 2008.

The law stipulates that every stage in the construction process of a building must be approved by supervisors from the Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development, and that construction materials must be tested at the state approved testing laboratory. The law also instructs that ministry officials assigned for the supervision of any building that eventually collapses will be prosecuted.

Another step taken to curb building collapse malaise was the enactment of the 2010 Physical Planning, Urban Development and Building Control Law of Lagos State which provided for the creation of the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA), an agency meant to ensure the enforcement of building control regulations in the state.

Many have, however, said it remains to be seen how all these would impact on the way buildings are designed and constructed in the state. They lamented that despite the law and town planning regulations, building designs approvals are given and obtained easily when cash exchanges hands.

Stressing the need to embark on structural audit of properties on the Lagos Island, especially within the Central Business District (CBD), a former President of the Nigerian Institution of Structural Engineers, Mr. Kunle Adebajo, said most of the houses on the island were built a long time ago, which explains why they are showing visible signs of structural weakness.

He noted that even the buildings put up for residential purposes have been converted into storage and other commercial uses, thereby weakening them.

He, however, advised property owners and residents of the houses to be wary of danger signs like cracks.

“For anyone with properties in that area, the best thing to do is to get a structural engineer to assess the building.”

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