Inside Story of Lagos Building Collapse where Regulators Mortgage Lives for as low as N50,000 (II)

Aside regulatory malfeasance fuelling building collapse  as detailed in  part one of this report,  racketeering between the regulator  and property owners, as well as  judicial laxity and government’s insouciance in the aftermath of  building collapse, have been shielding culprits from due sanctions which could have deterred reoccurrence of tragedy, writes  Omolabake Fasogbon in the concluding part of this report. 

Francis Egbuonu, a generator retailer, narrowly escaped death when tragedy hit house 34, Ibadan Street, Ebute-metta, Lagos on the night of May 1, 2022. It was the 2nd reported building collapse in Lagos that year. Perhaps, Egbuonu may not be alive to tell his story had the incident not happened on a Sunday when most businesses observe rest. In his late forties, Egbuonu not only lost his three shops which rent was still in effect, over N7millon worth of credit purchased goods restocked just on the eve of the tragedy all went with the collapse that claimed over 10 lives, that including Sinat referenced in part one of this report .Already, up to $3.2 trillion had been lost to 166 building collapses in Lagos between 2020 and 2021, according to Brookings, an American research group.

Worse still, Egbuonu’s wife who then was nine months pregnant is yet to recover from complication resulting from shock of the collapse. 

Saying Egbuonu is now a shadow of his former self would be stating the obvious. Though striving to recover, he is not anywhere close to his previous, maybe after paying off his huge debt incurred by the collapse.

” My family has been thriving on debt ever since, we pay off one debt with  another, no one is willing to help, not even government who brought this burden on us”  cried Egbuonu who now manages a smaller single shop in the same vicinity.

Owned by not a few extended family members, the collapsed structure had been marked unsafe for habitation by the regulatory agency, LASBCA in Adekunle district area, Yaba, Lagos since November 2021. It should demolished within 21days as the law states, but left precariously for another six months.

Following the incident, there were allegations and counter allegations from different quarters bordering on negligence and unclear racket between regulatory officials and structure owners after building was tagged vulnerable, prompting the collapse. 

One of such was a claim by an anonymous caretaker of the property on Premium Times newspaper that tenant were issued a quit notice after LASBCA flagged the house, in which they defied.

 But Egbuonu and three other tenants bereft by the incident dismissed ignoring the notice, alleging that caretaker and building owners had ulterior motive.

 Visibly distraught Egbuonu said, “Yes, the landlord asked us to leave on a reason that they want to renovate, not to demolish the building. However, we became doubtful for many shady developments that played afterwards. 

“We discovered that the landlords admitted a new tenant even  after a vacation notice was served, and this was just few weeks to the collapse. Besides, we requested to be re- admitted upon completion of the renovation since our rent and agreement fee had not terminated but they declined. We were even utterly shocked when LABSCA officials came to lock up three shops in the building, including mine, sparing about 19 other shops and 16 flats”.

“I mean! Why not lock up the whole house and demolish if they meant business? “Teary Egbuonu asked rhetorically. He continued, “Can you imagine they even reopened our shops after we went begging, not convincing us afterall that the house was sinking”, he raged. 

Like many experts, he blamed the collapse on the well-learned officials who refused to demolish the building promptly. 

Egbuonu suspected landlords may have struck a deal with power wielding regulatory officials to help evict old tenants, while they patch up the structure and admit new tenants to realise more money. Many a landlord in Lagos apply this method once they intend to raise rent cost. 

While the aggrieved may have succumbed to fate, they are still bittered that the culprits, both the owner of the building and regulatory officials were neither rebuked nor sanctioned. To these ones, finding closure will be for the law to take its course on the offenders. Sadly, their wishes may never be, judging from precedents. 

Owners of Collapsed Structure Defy Lagos Law, Plans Reconstruction

By Chapter 59 Section 74 of the Lagos URPD law, in the event of collapse due to negligence on the part of the owner or the developer, such property shall be forfeited to state government after due investigation.

The law also prescribes prosecution of house owner or engineers handling such building. 

Despite these laws, not only are the owners of Ebutte-meta property above absolved, the property was neither confiscated.  Employing subterfuge, this reporter yet learnt from two of the property owners, Sunkanmi Ayorinde & Ayo Dosunmu that a reconstruction is being proposed on the site. 

“The family is already in talks with another developer to erect in a new structure”, disclosed the landdlords.

Still irked, Egbuonu is concerned that overarching regulatory body may have upended the matter to absolve all culprits from due consequences. 

“It is so sad that that the law has failed to take its course, this way, building collapse will thrive in the country”, Egbuonu remarked, sighing.

Sagging Enforcement

Besides the law, threats and scary government warnings after each incident of collapse are not uncommon.  These, echoing hopes of sanctity have not really deterred a reoccurrence where sector infractions seemingly flourishes, with statistics of building collapse building up on monthly basis, according to Kunle  Awobodu in a report he released recently. Awobodu is the Past President of the Nigerian Institute of Building(NIOB).

Sad still, since 1974, no errant regulatory official or property owner has really been duly punished for collapse, inspite that not a few incidents are evidently linked to contraventions and corrupt practices prior.  As per the implication, President, Nigerian Institute of Town Planners (NITP), Olutoyin Ayinde said impunity has been the reason behind many substandard buildings in the state and called for stricter enforcement of law to deter errancy.

“Failure to punish those who violate building ethics encourages substandard buildings that collapse frequently”, Ayinde maintained. 

Even still, few attempts to get offenders pay for their actions or inactions are either truncated by powerful influences or trivialised by the law court. Oftentimes too, suspect flee, but they are not untraceable. 

For instance, this reporter reliably gathered that sacked LASBCA  officials  culpable in 2016 Lekki Gardens collapse were later reinstated by Lagos State Industrial Court, frustrating what should have passed for a good precedent.

Indeed, compromising officials exposed in the part one of this report were made to face disciplinary panel, with the overarching regulatory body, Lagos state Ministry of Physical Planning & Urban Development, MPPUD  publicly ordering an  investigation, unfortunately, the verdict is still to come. 

Manhunt for the Visible 

Under a tight regulation and security apparatus, stories of culprits fleeing are disappointingly common, of which alleged errant owner of collapsed nine- storey building in Oniru, Victoria Island, Lagos is one. That fleeing too has become a norm is considered anomalous, blamed on system failure and data gap. Many at times, regulatory officials are complicit like it turned out in this Oniru case.

The owner was alleged to have flouted building regulation, which the then  MPPUD Commissioner, Idris Salako claimed was on the run and being hunted too, just after the collapse.

 But Salako’s deliberate refusal to divulge the owner’s identity kind of confirmed sources’ revelation about his intimacy with Otunba Yemi Lawal, whom this reporter later discovered to be the owner and developer of the structure. 

Lawal, a popular real estate entrepreneur and close ally of politicians chairs Seagle Property Development Company, a popular Lagos-based real estate firm. His residence on  Akinlolu crescent (full address withheld) as sighted by this reporter is just a stone’s throw to the collapsed structure, where he also happens to be a key executive of the Community Development Association, CDA.

Confirming Lawal fled a morning after the tragedy on September 4, 2022   to evade arrest, neighbours said he is not unknown to the regulators. Besides, his profile and footmarks spread across Lagos were enough clues for his uncovering after all. Curiously, there have not been any evidence confirming his arrest or trial since then.

Like Lawal, the developer of a collapsed three- storey building under construction at house 4, Alayaki Lane, Lagos Island ran off after incident, which Salako said prevented his arrest.

But few weeks after when reporter returned to the site, neighbours and bricklayer working  in a nearby site said the ‘developer’, as popularly called had been  a regular visitor in the vicinity, which happens to be  just a walking distance to the manhaunting LABSCA office in Lagos Island. 

 “I still saw him here last week “,   an anonymous bricklayer responded in awe upon hearing developer was being hunted, which to him sounded like a joke. 

In reaction, new MPPUD Commissioner, Omotayo Bamgbose-Martins said, “Well, we are not aware that the developer is back in town. Any helpful information about his whereabouts will be appreciated” But not a notice to suggest the search or put the public in the know. Till date, it is not on record that the ‘developer’ was apprehended, perhaps, he is rolling his sleeve for another construction project. 

Returning to the site of a three-storey site that collapsed at Akanbi Crescent, Yaba, Lagos, it leaves no sign of a prior tragedy. Pitiable, the wreck and damage done by the collapse on Febuary 12, 2022 had soon become a history that neighbours hardly recollected when approached for enquiry. 

Expectedly, the developer of the structure broke the law, Including breaking of government seal which alone is punishable under Section 75 (8) and Section 75(2) of Lagos URPD law.

While Bamgbose-Martins boasted about the developer’s arrest and trial when questioned, findings with close sources confirmed only temporary arrest. 

“Yes, he was arrested but has since been released. It was later resolved, said an executive of the Community Development Association (CDA) who preferred anonymity for obvious reasons. 

A guard in the area who does not want to be named hinted further at a possible reconstruction on the site saying,  “The developer has been regular on the site.  He was here last week (May 2023) with some clerics to pray on the site. I think he’s planning to start construction activity” 

Requesting for proof of trial from Bamgbose -Martins who still insisted developer was sued, he rather directed reporter to Lagos State Ministry of Justice (MOJ), while the ministry too refused to pass comment when reached. 

Three Trials of 326 cases Truncated by Judiciary 

A fraction of building collapse cases that narrowly made it to court were literally dead on arrival. Search on Google and consultation with key stakeholders in the built sector showed  only three cases of over 326 incidents of building collapse have been tried since 1974 in Lagos.

“Too bad”, Awobodu frowned.

He further lamented, “It is unfortunate that nobody has been successfully prosecuted for building collapse offences in Nigeria. Quackery, compromise and   impunity remained unchecked.

“When human beings are not subjected to the law of consequence, misdeeds are absolved in sentiments. Alas, loss of lives and property becomes a continuum”.

Our reporter tried for official data of trials from MOJ through its Director of Public Affairs, Mrs Grace Ali, who instructed reporter to write to the office Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP for details. 

The office has refused to respond since it received reporter’s letter on July 19, 2023. In the letter too, this reporter has enquired for evidence of trials earlier  declared by Bamgbose-Martins as well as update on Synagogue building collapse case of 2014 which trial is as at today still  inconclusive.  

Recall the Synagogue collapse killed no fewer than 116, with it handlers charged with 110 counts bordering on involuntary manslaughter and project owner, one count of building without approval. 

Two years after the Synagogue collapse came the Lekki Gardens collapse, killing 34. Not like Synagogue’s, the judgment did not foot drag but largely questioned. 

The culprits, Managing Director of Lekki Gardens Estate Limited, Richard Nyong, and eight others were charged with six-count charge bordering on failure to obtain building approval and involuntary manslaughter. By gravity of damage, the judge, Sybil Nwaka initially declined a ‘Plea and Sentence Agreement’ proposed by the defendant, he eventually succumbed, investigation has revealed. This is however against Section 325 of Nigeria Criminal Code Act and Section 223 of 2015 Criminal Law of Lagos State which   prescribe a jail term punishment for a manslaughter offence.

Where this reporter could not obtain a document of the judgment formally, attempt to get it covertly was denied as she could not afford N500, 000 bribe request from a court worker. 

The seemingly cooperating court worker who failed to give his name being suspicious revealed, “I saw the copy of the judgment, but I can’t lay my hands on it again. it was clearly Plea and Sentence Agreement’. We were all shocked too. Anyway, this is Nigeria! 

“You see, Judgment like this are not easy to come by especially that the judge in charge has been transferred on promotion. Besides, I fear the judgment document is a classified one. If you insist on getting it, we will have to settle those that can fetch it out,” the source maintained

Plea Bargain, a Dangerous Precedent – Experts 

To many, an out of court settlement was inapt in a tragedy as grave as claiming scores of life.

These ones argued that such was too lenient a verdict in an environment where building collapse surges, amid pressure to stem the tide too.

A law firm, ASALAW defines plea bargain as an agreement between the prosecutor and a defendant who pleads guilty to a lesser charge or to one of multiple charges in exchange for a more lenient sentence or a dismissal of the other charges.

To President of Nigerian Institute of Town Planners, Nathaniel Atebije, a death sentence may not be necessary, there should however be a capital punishment commensurate to offence and gravity of impact so enough to deter other people from committing such offence.”

Whereas, Real Estate lawyer, Aderemi Fagbemi submitted that in a case of building collapse, both house owners and developer or building handlers should be sanctioned separately, suggesting therefore a combined sanction approach of fines and imprisonment.

“A plea bargain may not serve as sufficient deterrent to violation of building codes”, she disapproved. 

FG Refused us to Try Errant Engineers in Ikoyi collapse – Past President, COREN              

Just when Bamgbose-Martins had bragged about the law taking its full course against offenders, including culprits in collapsed 25-storey Ikoyi towers of November 1, 2021, a revelation by engineering professional body, Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN), blew the lid off his assertion. 

Moreover, aside that  the owner of collapsed Ikoyi tower built beyond  floors approved by regulator, COREN’s investigation also revealed engineering failure in the incident that killed no less than 45, leaving several others with lifelong injury and deformed structure. Whereas, a move to try erring engineers and even LASBCA, as proposed by COREN in 2022 is been frustrated by the federal government, immediate Past President of COREN, Ali Rabiu, alleged.

Dispirited Rabiu said, “Following our investigation, we recommended the trial of engineers we found culpable to the FMWH, but we are yet to get approval from the Federal Ministry of Works & Housing (FMWH). Unfortunately, we can’t act unless directed as we are responsible to them”. 

FMWH Passes Bucks, Fails to Comment

Contacted for comment, the then  serving Minister for Works& Housing , Mr Babatunde Fashola through his Special Adviser on Communications, Mr Hakeem Bello passed  reporter to the Director, Public Buildings and Housing, FMWH, Solomon Labafilo who in turn asked reporter to reach out to the Director of Engineering Services Department, FMWH, Felix Ebuzòeme on the issue.

Labafilo said, “COREN report wasn’t sent to us. It must have been sent to Engineering Services Department”.

When the reporter enquired further with Ebuzoeme, he replied by sending links of previously published stories on building collapse that clearly not speak to  enquiries presented  him.

When prodded further, he ignored reporter.

The burden of compromise and quackery, which often results to loss of lives and destruction of properties remain unabated because of lack strong institutions and the judiciary. To all concerned, as long as premium is not placed on the value of life, more building collapses would be recorded.

*This story was produced with support from Tiger Eye Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

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