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Victims and survivors of the Ikoyi tragedy

Victims and survivors of the Ikoyi tragedy
November 08
12:07 2021

We are used to buildings crashing down like a pack of cards and in a matter of days; the news will go away like the morning dew – as if nothing happened. It usually fits into a familiar pattern of first responders getting to the scene of the collapsed building for search and rescue operations.

But no one was expecting the 21-storey building on Gerrard Road, Ikoyi, the highbrow neighbourhood in Lagos, to come down the way it did. It grabbed headlines instantly.

The developer of the Ikoyi Towers and founder of FourScore, the high profile property development company, Femi Osibona, was an upwardly mobile professional who had established a great network of friends and associates. He was a victim of the collapsed building along with about 48 others who also lost their lives.

Before he came to Nigeria, Osibona had established his credentials as a top-flight developer in the United Kingdom and South Africa. Those buildings are still standing. Even in Lagos, he had completed other buildings with penthouses that are still standing. Chief Dele Momodu (Bob Dee), the chairman/chief executive of Ovation Media Group, confirmed that in his testimony.

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Osibona was a younger friend to Bob Dee whom he regarded as his mentor. So, why did the building come down? We may never know until we get to the bottom of the matter. According to Chief Momodu, Osibona had planned to live in the same building that collapsed.

How do we then reconcile this piece of information with the stories flying around that the property developer compromised the integrity of the building? This is one jigsaw puzzle that is difficult to understand because the developer is no longer with us to tell his own side of the story.

I’m saying this because there is no way the developer would erect a tower that would take his own life. It doesn’t add up. Unfortunately, cutting corners is a way of life for us – it is an everyday experience. If indeed construction work on that site was stopped last year for some months due to safety concerns, are we then surprised that the building came crashing down last Monday?

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I’m not an engineer or builder but for even a duplex to stand well, columns and beams must be at the right places in addition to having a solid foundation to carry the expected load. Re-enforcement of the structure is therefore compulsory as you add more floors based on the approved building plan.

It was reported that Prowess Engineering, the consulting firm responsible for the structures of the ill-fated Ikoyi towers, quit the job and left the construction site after their advice was ignored by the developer. This is an issue that should be examined in greater detail.

The task of the investigation panel inaugurated by Babajide Sanwo-Olu, Lagos state governor, is already well cut out but it would be truly helpful to find the pin in the haystack. There are many stories coming from different sources since the building came down and we are not even sure what to believe anymore.

An important fact the panel must confirm is whether the approved building plan was for 15 or 21 floors because the controversy will not go away. In fact, it was suggested in some quarters that only eight floors were originally approved by the Lagos state government.

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This is not the time to sweep matters under the carpet otherwise more buildings will come down with lifeless bodies buried under the rubble. The expectation is that all the facts relating to the Ikoyi tragedy will be placed on the table in a transparent manner.

It has to be so because the integrity of the state government is at stake. It is better to come clean and clear every cloud of doubt once and for all. The issue of who sold the land, as far as I’m concerned, is not critical. But what approvals were given to FourScore to erect the tower? How well did the relevant government agencies play their roles? These are valid questions that the panel of enquiry should look into.

This may not be the last building collapse but the next tragedy can be prevented if we are honest with ourselves. The craze for making money is why many contractors cut corners even when they are building face-me-I-face-you apartments.

The blocks that are used to build houses nowadays no longer have the tensile strength to stand the test of time. With the prohibitive cost of cement and the greed of contractors as well as middlemen, they cut corners at all costs to make extra bucks for themselves, trading safety for profit.

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These shylock contractors avoid using the right mix of cement and sand. The result is the poor quality of blocks that are sold to customers. But that is only one part of the problem because the entire construction value chain is heavily compromised.

The quality of building materials is the major issue. When the right quality of materials is used, buildings will stand forever. The social media was agog with the story of the 26-storey Cocoa House built in 1965 that is still standing tall.

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The message was clear: build your high rise buildings or any building for that matter by using the approved building codes and quality materials. If only four floors were approved by the authorities, please do not build eight or nine floors. It is a criminal offence and the law will catch up with you.

On top of that, work with professionals who not only have integrity as their nickname but also wear it as a badge of honour.

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There are similar high rise buildings on Marina and Broad Street in Lagos that are still standing because the “right thing” was done by the builders.

We are even lucky in this part of the world where we do not experience natural disasters such as earthquakes or storms or extreme temperatures. The devastating effects of climate change is a global concern which was why world leaders, activists and journalists gathered in Glasgow, Scotland recently to discuss how to tackle the problem.

Our buildings are not affected in any way by natural disasters except when we have severe rainfall resulting in flooded areas, especially in lowland and coastal areas like Lagos. But when you build in areas that are susceptible to flooding, who do you blame?

It is not easy to become a landlord but when you plan to buy land for your property, it is better to seek and obtain relevant approvals. Once this is done, the next step is to build by engaging qualified professional builders/contractors who will be responsible for the construction work on your site – from foundation to roofing stage – so that you can have peace of mind.

I doff my hat for professional builders who stay strictly with approved building codes and insist on best practices. They may charge you more for their services but it is better to stay with them.

When the Ikoyi tower came down, lives were lost – painful and avoidable deaths. Each time we leave our loved ones behind when we set out for our daily work or to keep appointments, the expectation is that we would be back. Nothing prepares anyone for untimely death that may come like a thief in the night. The reality is that any one of us can be a victim.

The Ikoyi tragedy had deaths that were of a different kind. How do you explain the case of Wale Bob-Oseni who was on his way to the airport for a scheduled flight to the United States but stopped at the tower to see Osibona, the developer? What of Osibona himself? These things are hard to explain. His dream of a luxurious 7-star high rise, a paradise on earth, ended in a tragedy.

At construction sites, itinerant workers are always on hand to offer different services. There are those who get paid on a daily basis while the vendors have the opportunity to do brisk business, selling mainly food to workers at the site.

As the tower came down, people who were not sick suddenly found themselves confronting death face-to-face and saying their last prayers. That, for me, is a horrifying experience. As Bob Dee narrated, he thought an earthquake had swallowed the surrounding buildings on Gerrard Road when the Ikoyi tower came crashing down.

Every death is painful but being trapped in the rubble of a high rise (21 floors) is not a good way to die. It is not different from dying in a plane crash or a ghastly motor accident. No time to even say goodbye to your folks, and you can only imagine how deep the pain is on the families of the victims.

The lucky survivors who were rescued must be pinching themselves to be sure they are truly well and alive. They cannot believe their luck but their survival is only by the grace of God.

Professional bodies and advocacy groups including whistleblowers in the construction industry must come together and engage the authorities in all the states and Abuja to find a lasting solution to this endemic problem. It is not too late to begin this conversation so that we can prevent the next building collapse.

Braimah is the publisher/editor-in-chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng)

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