Why Nigerian buildings will continue to collapse

Apr 29, 2019|Noelle Okwedy

Buildings and structures collapse all over the world. In 2018, a building marked for demolition in Miami, United States, suddenly collapsed. That same year, Italy’s most famous bridge—the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, collapsed, killing 43 people. This year, the Turkish authorities detained a technical implementation supervisor and building inspector after a building collapsed in Istanbul, claiming over 20 lives. 

Buildings collapse for many reasons: natural disasters like earthquakes, gas leaks, structural failure, and even fire. In Nigeria, buildings mostly collapse because of negligence—in building materials, design, or demolition.  

In 2017, a bungalow with a shop extension in Lagos collapsed because sub-standard building materials had been used, and in 2018, a seven-story building in Port-Harcourt collapsed due to faulty design. Famously, over 100 people died after a building collapsed next to the Synagogue Church of all Nations site in Lagos in 2014. 

The Council for Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN) suggests that over ₦500 billion has been lost due to building collapses. There were roughly 175 building collapses in Nigeria between 1971 and 2016, and 1,455 lives were lost.

However, considering Nigeria’s data problem, there is a high likelihood that these numbers are underestimated. When tragedies occur, it typically takes a long time for officials to collect or release the information of those affected. On the 13thof March 2019, a school collapsed in Lagos Island. It took at least a week for an official death toll to be released, and it came with the usual murmurs of inaccuracy. 

The prevalence of pseudo-professionals in building design is a major reason why building standards are not upheld in Nigeria. Rather than employ professional architects to design buildings, people would rather hire Computer Aided Design (CAD) experts who lack the requisite training, just to save money. It’s like hiring a paralegal to defend you in court, in lieu of a trained lawyer; you shouldn’t be surprised when you end up in jail.

Architects are also more likely to adhere to Nigeria’s building code. Until 2006, Nigeria lacked formal regulations or standards for the design, construction and maintenance of buildings. The widespread use of sub-standard building materials and employment of non-professionals resulted in incessant reports of structural failure in the country. 

Building regulations and standards are important because they give minimum safety and quality requirements that builders must follow. They also map out how these standards should be enforced.

Building codes of this form are ancient. The Code of Hammurabi is one of the oldest written laws in human history, and part of the law covered construction practices. Law 229 (there are 282 laws) says: “If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.”

Nigeria has its own building regulation: the National Building Code. For example, the code states that all government at all levels should establish a “Code Enforcement Division/Section/Unit in their Development Control Department” that would inspect buildings and enforce the guidelines of the building code. Crucially, this inspection is done at every stage: pre-design, design, construction, and post-construction. 

However, it is one thing to have a Building Code, and it is another to enforce it. After a 22-storey building collapsed in Bangladesh, surrounding high-rise buildings were found to have violated the building code. One of the buildings had no fire exits and had staircases narrower than stated in the building code. The building development regulator gave the owners two options: adhere to recommended changes or face demolition of unapproved floors and face a mobile court. 

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, when a building in Lekki Gardens, Lagos State, was served a contravention notice and sealed for exceeding the approved number of floors, the developers resumed building without getting further approval from building authorities. The building subsequently collapsed.  

Another key issue is that developers alter buildings without the necessary approvals. In the United Kingdom, before you can alter a structure, you need to get building regulation approval. If any changes are made to a building without getting a planning permit, you could be served an enforcement notice ordering you to undo all the changes you have made. While Nigeria’s Building Code imposes similar constraints on developers, it is often ignored. Sometimes, the consequences are fatal. 

That being said, developers are not the only ones that contravene building regulations. The building that collapsed in Lagos Island in March 2019 was marked for demolition in 2014 and was still converted into a school. Estimates from the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA), show that hundreds of buildings in Lagos have been marked for demolition but remain in use. These structures are tragedies in waiting.  

Despite the obvious threat, Nigerians are unlikely to move out of these buildings, simply because they have no reasonable alternatives. Lagos, in particular, has a large deficit of affordable housing, and informal settlements remain common. Roughly 65% of Lagos’ population live in slums. 

In the absence of affordable housing, people will resort to any structure that stands for shelter, and state governments lack the manpower and resources to change this or manage the impact when tragedy strikes.

This lack of resources also reflects in the response to building collapses. For instance, when a seven-storey building collapsed in Port-Harcourt in 2018, the response of the National Emergency Management Agency was heavily criticised. According to eye-witness reports, the equipment was inadequate, and there was no sense of urgency in the rescue efforts. In addition, rescued victims taken to private hospitals were not given adequate attention as management informed the victims that they would take care of their bills.

This reminds us that most states in Nigeria don’t have adequate functional emergency services – only 53 out of 774 local governments in Nigeria have some an emergency management institution according to the former Director General of NEMA. And in the few states that have them, it’s almost impossible for them to respond rapidly.

All in all, you have an alarming cocktail of distress: weak enforcement of building regulations, a population desperate to find any structure for shelter, and a government unable to intervene when tragedy strikes. And unfortunately, in Nigeria, disaster will strike. Again, and again and again.


Follow this Writer noelleokwedy on Twitter.