Following the recent collapse of the 21-storey building in Ikoyi, Lagos State and the subsequent blame trading by the parties involved, construction lawyer Iheanyi Dick has blamed the Lagos State government for collapse, citing negligence on the part of the government.
Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, had earlier ordered the indefinite suspension of the General Manager of the Lagos State Building Control Agency, LASBCA, Mr. Gbolahan Oki, an architect.
His suspension was announced after he told News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that the owner of the collapsed 21-storey building, under construction was given approval to construct only 15 floors. His word below:
“He got an approval for a 15-storey building and he exceeded his limit. I am on ground here and the materials he used are so inferior and terrible.
“The materials he used, the reinforcement, are so terrible. He got approval for 15 floors but built 21.
“I think he has been locked down. He has been arrested before now,” he said.
Kanyi Daily News reached out to construction lawyer, Iheanyi Dick to get his opinion on the drama playing out between the parties involved. Excerpts from the interview:
Question: As a seasoned construction lawyer, what do you have to say concerning the recent building collapse that occurred at Ikoyi recently?
Barr Dick: The Ikoyi building collapse on Monday, November 1, is a human disaster of monumental proportion.
The classical goriness of the incident is highlighted not just by the rising number of deaths, injuries and other collateral losses that have been recorded in its wake but more by the painful fact that the Ikoyi building collapse with its disastrous drama is largely an avoidable experience.
Yes, it is true that the Ikoyi building tragedy may have not occurred if God did not permit it but I think that God more or less permitted us to suffer for not preventing what we could have prevented.
By this, I mean that the relevant people should have and could have done the needful regulation-wise, professionally, ethically, punctually and proactively to avert the disaster. I heard though I have not confirmed that the developer of the collapsed building and the Lagos State Government which is responsible for carrying out building control duties in Lagos State knew or ought to know that something was structurally and monumentally wrong with the building but the same attitude of irresponsibility and impunity which have been exhibited in all aspects of public life in Nigeria and now elevated to a cultural ethos in the country made the key actors in the tragedy to ignore the red flags.
Before I say anything further on this matter, I send my condolences to the families of all those who lost their lives or limbs in the tragic incident, particularly labourers and all those who had no way of knowing that they had been engaged to work, usually for peanuts, in the extremely hazardous environment.
May God console all of you in His best-known way. To those who sustained various degrees of injury in the unfortunate incident, I thank God for your lives as I pray that He heals you all soon. To the rest of us who have been left in shock viewing our fellow human beings die gruesomely and sustain grievous injuries, I say that this is the time for us to say in a united voice, “NEVER AGAIN!”
I think that the machineries of law and justice have to be set in motion to unravel the extent of the disaster including determining the actual number of deaths recorded, the actual number for people injured and the kinds of injuries sustained by them, the responses given to the injured persons and the environmental, social, economic and other impacts of the unfortunate incident.
Those whose negligence, corruption and/or breached of public trust contributed to the tragedy should be brought to justice. Those that need to be prosecuted for manslaughter, bribery, corruption and breach of public trust should be prosecuted, and by this, I mean individuals, companies and public servants, as the case may be.
There is also scope for civil lawsuits to be instituted by those that sustained injuries and losses from the incident to seek remedies in the court of law. The families and relatives of those who were killed by the collapsed building can also bring lawsuits against those who are responsible for the collapse of the building.
Justice needs to be done, and everyone affected by the incident has the right to a legal remedy, because where there is a wrong or injury, there should be a remedy. That is the essence of the legal maxim: UBI JUS IBI REMEDIUM.
Question: WHO IN YOUR VIEW SHOULD BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR THE COLLAPSE OF THE IKOYI BUILDING?
In approaching your question as per who should be held responsible for the Ikoyi building collapse and all the other bad news that are coming with it, first of all, one needs to clearly understand what the concept of “building collapse” or “collapsed building” is all about. This important concept needs to be put in the proper perspective so as not to create any confusion in the mind, particularly in the mind of all those responsible for law enforcement in a case like this one. So, the first question in this regard should be this: When can it be said that a building has collapsed?
READ: Ikoyi Building Collapse: Sanwo-Olu Approves Identification Of 38 Recovered Bodies
To that question I can easily say that a building collapses when it falls like a pack of cards. But this is the layman’s view when it is said that a building has collapsed or that there is a collapsed building. It is not how I, as a construction lawyer, understand the concept.
For me, a building does not only collapse when the relevant erected structure falls like a pack of cards but may be deemed to have collapsed notwithstanding that the relevant structure is still standing if the structural integrity of the building has been significantly compromised.
In other words, if there is a defect in a building or structure – be it a defect in its foundation, pillars, roof, floor or otherwise – which challenges or compromises the integrity of the building in a significant manner, then the building can be said to have collapsed, technically, in the eye of the law.
So a building may collapse while construction of the building is on-going or even after construction of the building has been completed. In the case of the collapsed Ikoyi building, the building collapsed while under construction. This is different from the case of the collapse of Synagogue Church building, this occurred after the construction of the affected building.
Now, to your question proper. I would say that since a building collapses when the structural integrity of the building is compromised, one can safely say that all those who have one role or another to play in ensuring that the structural integrity of the Ikoyi building was not compromised should be held responsible for the disaster. Also to be held responsible are all those who have a duty or duties to ensure that any significant defect in the structure was rectified in order to restore the integrity of the building but who failed to do so as and when due.
Now, I need to pause here to make a point clear. Rectification of a significant defect in a building may, in some cases, warrant that the whole building be pulled down, demolished, during or after its construction. That is what should have been done in the case of the collapsed Ikoyi building. So those who failed to order the demolition of the significantly and structurally defective Ikoyi building are to be held responsible for the calamity.
In this category is the Lagos State Government together with all its agencies that are responsible for planning, inspection and other forms of building control. Another category of culprits are those who violated the terms of approvals given to the developer by the Lagos State Government in respect of the ill-fated Ikoyi building. In this category is the developer. Yet another category of culprits in the unfortunate incident are professionals who were aware or should be aware that the structural integrity of the building was compromised yet they ignored, neglected or otherwise failed to blow the safety whistle.
Even those victims who knew that the building under construction had serious structural defects that could result in fatalities and still went on to work in that site have their own share of the blame. The only ones that should be free from blame are those victims or persons who by the reason of their inexperience, chance exposure or subservient engagement do not know or are deemed not to know of the precarious state of the collapsed building.
In this category are mostly the unskilled labourers, suppliers and non-construction persons (whether professionals or not) involved in the project as well as the unsuspecting members of the public who were caught in the traps of tragic deaths, injuries and collateral economic loses arising from the incident.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The levels of culpability of the above-named persons may not all be the same but they are all culpable, one way or the other. This means that the developer is blameworthy. The Lagos State Government is blameworthy. The authorities in charge of urban planning, construction and buildings in Lagos State are all blameworthy. The architects, engineers and builders involved with the project are equally blameworthy.
Question: The government of Lagos State said that the building collapsed because the developer exceeded the number of storeys approved for the project. Should this not be enough to absolve the Lagos State Government?
No, it is not. To start with, Lagos State Government has not denied that it gave approval for the Ikoyi building project. What the government is saying is that the developer did not comply with the terms of the approval given to it by them. But I say that this is not a good defense.
You don’t give approval for a building and then you go to sleep. Are you not supposed to follow up by way of regular site visits and inspections, the purpose of which should be to assess whether the developer is complying with the approval given to it? If the developer had flouted the terms of the approval, is the Lagos State Government not supposed to either make the developer comply with the approval or punish the developer for not doing so, or do both?
But in the case of this ill-fated development, the Lagos State Government did not withdraw the building approval when they realized on inspection that the developer had violated the terms of the approval given to them by the reason of their erecting more storeys than the number approved.
Unless the government is saying that they did not know about this abuse, and that can only be the case if the Lagos State Government did not follow up on the approval of the building given to the developer with regular site visits and inspections as they ought to do.
So, I am of the view that for the Lagos State Government to have come out publicly to blame the tragic incident on the abuse of approval by the developer is a poor attempt at shifting blames that only leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
The truth is that the government was not alive to its regulatory responsibilities including the responsibility to ensure that building projects are approved by it and that approvals given by it are strictly complied with. If the Lagos State Government had done what they were supposed to do, if the government had been alive to their duties, the disastrous Ikoyi building ought to have been demolished as soon as the Lagos State Government discovered or ought to have discovered that the developer had exceeded the terms of the building approval granted to them.
The consequences of that failure is the tears in our eyes as we watch the gory sights of our fellow human beings as they are being pulled out of high rubbles, mostly dead or alive but with severe, life-altering injuries sustained. This ought not to be the kind of story we should be telling in twenty-first-century Lagos. But unfortunately, we are still where we were since the Synagogue Church disaster. Nothing really has changed.
Question: What do you think should be done to avoid a repeat of that disastrous incident?
I have said in many fora that Nigeria has one of the most progressive body of construction laws in the world. But like in other spheres of activities in the country where we are experiencing terrible things, what is lacking in this country is a proactive, ethics-driven implementation of the laws governing the construction industry.
I am sure that at least one person who was part of those that gave the approval for a 15-storey building at the site of the collapsed Ikoyi building used to drive past the structure almost every day and saw that the storeys there were more than the approved number. But what did he do? Nothing. I am sure that at least an architect, an engineer or a builder who was part of the construction project knew that the original plan for the building had been altered illegally after approval had been given for it by the Lagos State Government and knew also that the illegal alteration would compromise the structural integrity of the building and cause it to fall during or after construction or, worse still, when fully occupied by tenants. But what did he do? Nothing.
The man in the planning office knew what his responsibilities as a public servant was but chose to be irresponsible. Likewise, the architect, engineer or builder knew what his responsibilities were as a construction professional including the duty to blow a safety whistle and call the developer to order. But what did he do? Nothing.
There are laws governing the public servant. There are laws governing the construction professional. But in both cases they chose to ignore the law. That’s what I’m talking about. The right laws are there; the right people are there; but the right attitude is not there. So, I think more work needs to be done on the conscience and attitude of those who are positioned to implement the law rather than to be tinkering with the letters of the law every now and then.
We all know that laws, no matter how beautifully drafted, don’t implement themselves; people do. There is therefore the need for an ethical revolution in Nigeria’s construction industry, so that all players in the field would start to do the right things and do the things right.
Mazi Iheanyi. P. Dick is a Construction Lawyer and the Principal Partner of PATSON BEAVERS ATTORNEYS, a Lagos-based law firm that provides legal services to developers, contractors and other operators in the construction industry.