Why Are So Many Buildings Collapsing in Lagos?

Bribery, a housing shortage and mushy soil may all share the blame.

An emergency worker standing among the rubble of the synagogue collapse in Lagos. (Photo by AP / Sunday Alamba)

Every year, thousands of people from all over the world, including celebrities and politicians, visit the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos State, founded by the popular TV evangelist T. B. Joshua. On September 12, a six-story guesthouse at the church collapsed, killing 115 and injuring 131, and sparking a national dialogue on building safety.

The synagogue tragedy generated headlines around the world due to the number of people killed, including 84 South Africans and three Zimbabweans. But the story is even more pernicious – the collapse at the Synagogue Church of All Nations is not an isolated case. In Nigeria, buildings collapse all the time, and Lagos has the highest collapse rates in the entire country. Between 2007 and 2012 there were 130 reported cases of collapsed buildings. This number has recently increased sharply – more than 135 buildings were reported to have collapsed in 2013 alone. That’s nearly three per week.

Building collapse is a problem in rapidly developing cities all over the world. In the months leading up to the 2014 World Cup, Brazil suffered a string of construction disasters, including the collapse of three buildings in one day in the center of Rio de Janeiro. Rushed building practices due to Brazil’s housing crisis are only making things worse. One resident estimated that “95 percent of these houses have [structural] problems.”

China’s breakneck development is causing similar issues, as buildings are constructed at startlingly low standards in the race to accommodate millions of urbanizing migrants. On average, commercial buildings built in China today are expected to stand for a mere 25 to 30 years – less than half the lifespan of a commercial building in America, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. India’s not much better off. In the past two years there have been several collapses in Mumbai, killing a total of more than 60 people. As all this new construction ages, the problem will only get worse.

The collapses stem mainly from hasty illegal construction as buildings are tossed up virtually overnight to accommodate these cities’ mushrooming populations. In the rush to solve these worsening housing deficits, corners are cut, palms are greased, low-quality materials are used and, in general, shoddy work is performed.

Lagos, population 21 million, is now one of the biggest cities in the world, and its 3.2 percent growth rate has forced development on land that can’t support multi-story buildings. Environmental specialist Nnimmo Bassey points to Lagos’ mushy soil as a major factor in the recent collapses – wetlands cover over 40 percent of the city’s total land area.

The regulation of such an environment is a challenge for authorities, and is proving particularly difficult for the Lagos State Building Control Agency and the Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development. The Doing Business Registering Property Index, which tracks how difficult it is to register property in different countries around the world, ranks Nigeria 185th out of 188 countries. On average, it takes 13 procedures over the course of 77 days, and costs 20.8 percent of the property value, to register a property that is free of title disputes in Nigeria. These costs and delays only encourage more developers to build off the books.

The current preliminary investigation into the September 12 collapse is being undertaken by the Lagos State government, and aims to identify construction violations and apply appropriate sanctions. So far, however, no concrete steps have been taken to apply such sanctions, even though it appears that the structure was only approved to be three stories high, not six. Last week, Abimbola Animashaun-Odunayo, general manager of the Lagos State Building Control Agency, said that the official report on the accident will be made public in two weeks.

But already, pressure from the South African government and the media has started to wane, and there’s concern that the Lagos State government will simply sweep this tragedy under the carpet. It wouldn’t be the first time: “There is no record of persons prosecuted or sanctioned for incidence of building collapse by the Ministry of Justice, the Nigeria Police and any other law organ because of political, cultural, administrative and other interventions,” said Mrs. Abimbola Ajayi, chairperson of the tribunal of inquiry on collapsed buildings, at the launch of the tribunal’s report in 2013.

That 2013 tribunal found that existing industry regulations were adequate, but were rendered ineffective by non-adherence and wanton disregard. When asked by Next City what can be done about the frequency of building collapses in Lagos, Obi Ejimofo, managing director of the online real estate marketplace Lamudi, was pessimistic. “Nigeria as a whole has a checkered past, with decades of misrule under corrupt military regimes where urban planning and regulation sat very much on the back-burner,” he said. “It is quite possible that we will continue to see incidences occur in areas previously lacking adequate oversight until the building control becomes much more commonplace.”

Recently the Lagos State government seems to be waking up to the enormity of the problem. Though the findings from the 2013 tribunal have yet to make an impact, buzz around the problem has continued to grow. The synagogue tragedy should be used as the basis to call for reform. Not only can it set an example, it can make history by generating regulations that are dogmatically implemented and don’t give infrastructure in developing cities a pass.

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