It is time to enforce building codes and regulations

The recent fire incident at the Sabon Gari Market in Kano reportedly was the worst market fire disaster in Nigeria, taking down with it some 3,800 shops and goods estimated at N2 trillion. Unfortunately, it was not an isolated fire incident. Barely a few hours after, other fire incidents also spread panic and darkened the outlook in a neighbouring furniture market in Gwarzo in the same Kano State and another one in Birnin Kebbi, the Kebbi State capital. In a space of three months, 10 major markets across the country went down with goods and property worth trillions of naira.

The National Association of Nigerian Traders (NANTs) is alarmed and pained at the spate of market fires in the country. In the last 17 years, the association estimated the cost of goods lost to fire incidents at a hefty N5.3 trillion, barely a trillion less than the most ambitious budget of Africa’s largest economy. Among the gutted markets was the famous Balogun Market in Lagos Island. The early morning inferno razed six buildings within the market and some 50 lockup shops in January 2015. Some N30 billion worth of goods was lost to the fire incident.

What compounds the tragedy, according to NANTs President, Mr. Ken Ukaoha, was that in all the instances, the state authorities could only offer sympathy visits and pronouncements of support, which were hardly backed up with any concrete measures. Perhaps what made these losses really haunting is that most traders do not insure their goods and hence cannot recover their losses in the event of disasters.

Ukaoha was bold enough to lay the blame where it partly belongs. He linked some of the fire outbreaks to factors such as fuel storage; power surges (the cause of the Kano inferno); illegal connection of electricity, carelessness due to lit matches or forgotten candle lights, stoves, cookers and gas cylinders in the markets; as well as ignorance of safety procedures and of course, the often lousy and ineffective response to emergencies by the fire fighting agency. “We further appeal to government to revisit the nation’s firefighting agency with a view to re-organising and retooling it for effectiveness,” he said.

However, while many of these disasters are preventable, it is imperative to ask whether serious consideration was ever given for the inevitability of fire outbreaks in many of these markets and indeed in private and public buildings in Nigeria. In most countries, it is not just enough to design and construct buildings, it is also important to make allowances for a possible outbreaks of fire by ensuring the availability of fire fighting equipment in such facilities. Making such allowances is indeed part of urban planning.

We are aware that such codes and regulations are also available here, but they are rarely enforced. Indeed, limited access points through which firefighters and emergency personnel could gain entrance to put off a fire before it spread led to the huge damage in the Jankara Market fire incident in Lagos a few years ago. The fire, said to have been caused by the combustion of explosives, razed 15 buildings.

What all the recent developments point to is that there is need for a better appreciation of the challenge posed by fire outbreaks so that the authorities can begin to fashion ways to deal with them. To reduce the increasing regularity of fire outbreaks and the attendant dangers to lives and property, it is important to step up advocacy on the issue, conduct regular fire drills in markets and other public buildings, enforce existing fire codes, and raise the profile and the resources available to our fire services. It has also become increasingly important that traders should get their shops and goods insured. That is the only way they could recover goods lost to fire disasters.