To make good her promise to ensure security and safety of all residents and visitors, Lagos state government under Governor Akinwunmi Ambode filed criminal charges against the Managing Director of Lekki Gardens Estate Limited, Richard Nyong, and five others, for the collapse of a five-storey building under construction on Kushenla Road, in the Ikate Elegushi area of the state.
The defendants Lekki Gardens Estate Ltd, GT Rich Ltd, HC Insight Solutions Ltd, Taiwo Odofin, Omolabake Mortune, Maruis Agwu, Sola Olumofe and Omotilewa Joseph are facing six counts of failure to obtain approval for the collapsed building and manslaughter contrary to Section 75 of the Urban and Regional Planning and Development Law of Lagos State. The five-storey building under construction which collapsed in March 9, 2016 killed no fewer than 35 persons.
This present administration that had earlier prosecuted the SCOAN Trustees, two engineers – Messrs Oladele Ogundeji and Akinbela Fatiregun; and their companies – Hardrock Construction and Engineering Company and Jandy Trust Limited, for their involvement in the SCOAN building collapse which led to the death of 116 persons on September 12, 2014, has shown to be making an unprecedented move to sanitise the construction industry within its jurisdiction.
This is rare in a country where arrest and prosecution of employers who neglect workers’ safety is the exception rather than the norm. It is an indication that our justice system, especially in Lagos state, is potent, and businesses owners and other executives would no longer be shielded from criminal charges when they gamble with workers’ lives.
When a worker dies because a trench or building collapses, and it turns out that managers sacrificed safety precautions to get the job done faster, that’s a crime which should attract commensurate punishment. When an employee loses a limb because building owners fail to get building permits or approval from the right authorities, as required by several state and federal legislation, those building owners should be indicted.
But prosecutions for such absolute reckless behaviors are so rare that too many companies think they can save money by cutting corners on workers’ health and safety, and they view the potential cost of injuries and the small fines (if any) involved as a cost of doing business.
Just consider the anomaly that brought about the collapse of Reigners Bible Church, Uyo on December 10, 2016 during the ordination of its founder, Akan Weeks, during which scores of worshippers were killed and many more injured. The Commission of Inquiry set up by the Akwa Ibom State Government to determine the remote and immediate causes of the incident revealed that the church was built on an unapproved site. The site on which the collapsed church was built had been designated by Akwa Ibom Government as conservation zone due to its topography. Again, Counsel to the Nigeria Society of Engineers, NSE, also said that there was no scientific soil analysis before the commencement of the building to determine whether the land was good enough for church auditorium.
So, when a building of the size of Reigners Bible Church was built on an unapproved site, and no scientific soil analysis was conducted to determine suitability of the land for the building, causing the building to collapse on the worshippers during the inauguration service, it shows no safety measures were taken to prevent the death and injury of the inhabitants while worshiping. In plain language, it proves the carnage was willful.
It is particularly distressing the perpetrators of this heinous act are yet to be charged to court despite that the State Governor, Udom Emmanuel and many important personalities present at the event barely made it alive.
Building collapse stories are too common in this country. Hundreds of construction workers are killed on the job across the nation yearly. These workers, and innocent lives killed are much more than just an alarming statistic — they are parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends who are just trying to make a fair day’s pay, and have families to provide for, while at the same time contributing their own quota to national development.
Construction mishap injuries and deaths are not just “tragic accidents.” They are tragic, to be sure. But calling them “accidents” misses an important point: often, they do not occur by chance or happenstance. Rather, all too frequently, they result from unacceptably risky business decisions that put profits over people. In other words, they happen when a top decision maker in the company decides to trade their lives for personal interest, much more like a game: he wins, they lose.
Our justice system is fast to arrest, try and appropriately punish armed robbers, fraudsters, or kidnappers, when found guilty. When a drunk driver kills an innocent bystander, we treat that death as a criminal act punishable with fines and jail term.
On the contrary, when an employer ignores workplace safety and causes a worker to be seriously injured or killed on the job, which is just as criminal, arrests and prosecutions are rare. The central goals of the criminal law are punishment, which will serve as deterrence and resulting to upholding the core values of the community. Prosecutors’ responses to criminal behavior by managers in the construction business, and other industries, are so weak as to disrupt all of these goals.
Frequent collapse of buildings across Nigeria should get government at all levels thinking about how to halt this ugly trajectory in the construction industry.
Government needs to learn to see it is a crime, because it caused the death of a Nigerian worker by willfully violating safety rules; and call for invocation of the criminal law irrespective of who the perpetrator is. Prosecutors should pursue building collapse deaths as manslaughter or criminal negligence.
The Lagos prosecutions, therefore, is an acceptable action that all states and the FCT should embrace to change this ugly tide in the construction industry.