INVESTIGATION: Inside Story of Lagos Building Collapse where Regulators Waste Lives for Bribes (1)
By OmoLabake Fashogbon
For years, building collapse, leading to hundreds of deaths has become a recurring and worrisome nightmare to citizens of Lagos State. In the first part of this undercover investigation, Omolabake Fasogbon discovers that in spite of this havoc, infractions persist on construction sites, with regulatory officials aiding and abetting violation of building codes.
On May 1, 2022 when house 34, Ibadan Street, located in Ebute-Metta, Lagos State collapsed, it left people killed, wounded and others maimed.
But that is not all; the dead have forgotten their pains, but the living are still suffering. The event left scars in the lives of those that survived, among which are Mr. Adekunle Mufutau, his wife and four children.
The Ebute-metta incident followed shortly after a three-storey building under construction at Akanbi Crescent in Yaba, Lagos, collapsed in February 12, claiming no fewer than five lives.
Ebute-metta boasts features that rate its high in Lagos profiling. The predominantly market area houses the legendary 112-year-old Nigerian Railway Corporation. Rated as one of the first developed areas in Lagos, the suburb packs a number of buildings that are as old as the colonial era.
Little wonder it recently became a hotspot for building collapse in Lagos, after Lagos Island. A recent study carried out by Nigerian real estate data analytics platform, Estate Intel, submits that 20 percent of building collapse in Lagos was due to old/dilapidated buildings.
Mufutau and some of his family members may have survived the incident, their lives have never been the same. Aside from trauma, the family has been literally torn apart, with all living separately with acquaintances. That inclusive, unity bound, unique to African families, has been ripped.
Another incident that keeps Mufutau awake at night was the death of his only educated daughter, Sinat.
Mufutau’s new shelter, where he resides alone, is nowhere better than a shanty, a reality he has come to accept.
Coming to receive this reporter, he literally squeezed his body, while bending his head towards the knee to make exit out of his table-sized under stairs cubbyhole apartment.
“Let’s talk outside. Inside is stuffy and dark,” Mufutau, 54, said in a sotto voce voice.
The man, who looks frail and weary, became emotional as he speaks about the death of his daughter. Tears gathered in his eyes as much as he tried to suppress it. In Africa, a man must not cry, even when his heart is breaking. He whispered rhetorically, “What am I living for when my hope is gone?”
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According to Mufutau, Sinat, 24, and awaiting corp member, was his only educated child of five others.
Continuing, he said with tears rolling down his cheeks, “She is all that I laboured for in 30 years. Her older siblings didn’t go to school because I don’t have the financial power. I saw Sinat as an extremely bright child who has shown keen interest in education right from when she was a child. This was why I gave it all it took, including obtaining loan to enable her get quality education. I had hoped that she would be able to sponsor the education of her two younger siblings once she starts working, and also fend for me in my old age.”
Late Sinat and others who lost their lives in the building collapse should not have, had Lagos State Building Control Agency, LASBCA, demolished the ill-fated house which came down 21 days after it was discovered to be unsafe.
LASBCA is a government agency empowered by law to remove distressed buildings so as to prevent collapse.
Our reporter found out that the 21-year old building, filled with tenants, was left precariously for close to 180 days, before it finally caved in.
Just when Lagos was still undone with the evacuation exercise at Ebutte-meta, another two-storey building crumbled like a pack of cards in Chris Igadi Street, Ago Palace area of Lagos.
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The trend of building collapse in the state appears to bring the prediction of the Building Collapse Prevention Guild, BCPG, to fruition. The Guild in 2019 had forewarned that Lagos should gear up for more than 36,000 building collapses.
According to the guild, of the 508 building collapse in Nigeria between 1974 and July 2022, Lagos accounts for 63 percent of the collapses, recording 320 cases.
Between January and July 2022, the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency, LASEMA disclosed that Lagos experienced 31 cases of building collapse, the highest in 21 years.
As it stands, Lagos is tagged the epicenter of building collapse globally.
Experts blame incessant collapse in the state on lack of compliance to building codes and standards, fuelled by corrupt regulatory officials and weak enforcement.
Corroborating experts position, Estate Intel’s study further asserted that man-made factors were largely responsible for building collapses in Lagos, which could have been averted.
The study maintains that building collapse in Lagos has a root in corrupt practices of enforcement personnel, who get carried away by instant gratifications, thus throw building rules to the wind.
But despite the awful havoc, it is as though lessons were not learnt judging from this reporter’s experience on construction site, and particularly, the shady conduct of regulatory officials when this reporter went undercover.
As a necessity, which is in accordance with Lagos State Urban and Regional Planning Development (URPD) Law 2019, a property owner must obtain a building permit approval before he/she kicks-off construction.
Experts say that permit would ensure that a building complies with building laws and codes and prevent people from just constructing as they deem fit.
A building permit as defined is an official approval to construct a new building or expand or remodel an existing one. Its purpose is to ensure that the construction project follows all relevant regulations, including building standards, land use, and environmental protection.
A former President of the Nigerian Institute of Building (NIOB), Mr Kunle Awobodu said, “The essence of a building permit is to check and assess both the architectural and structural designs for adequacy.”
Infractions on Construction Sites
Surprisingly, of up to six sites that this reporter visited across Agege, Ijaiye, Ebutte-meta and Lagos Island, only a property situated at 23, Freeman Street, Lagos Island claimed to have a permit.
But, inspite that the site coordinator (name unknown) boasted about having the mandatory permit, this reporter who observed for more than two hours found out, with help from one of the bricklayers that mixed ratio blocks setting was below standards.
According to the bricklayer, who did not divulge his name, one bag of cement was being used in setting of 60 bricks of 9-inches size, which Awobodu said 40 bricks is the standard.
Questioned on the mixed imbalance, the bricklayer said, “We do so because it is a developer’s property. If it is your personal house, I will advise you use one bag of cement to set 40 or 45 bricks. By that, the house will be stronger.”
In another instance, an Ijaiye landlord, in his 50s, who craved anonymity for fear of being targeted, told this reporter that he did not get a permit because of the many conditions that come with it.
The landlord, who occupies an uncompleted one-storey building, said that he got more discouraged when he was told by the permit issuing agency that such permit will become invalid if he does not begin to build in two years.
The landlord said he bribed up to five regulatory agencies to the tune of N300, 000, to get the building to its present level, adding that they did not bother to check the construction works for error or any abnormalities.
Our reporter found out that other than Lagos State Physical Planning Permit Authority (LASPPPA) that issues building permit and LASBCA that monitors construction on permitted building, there are four more agencies that regulate building in Lagos. These agencies also set conditions with accruing charges.
Another landlord who also did not give his name in Agege area, said he failed to obtain permit because the money involved was enough to complete his building half way. He said that his site was sealed by LASPPPA officials for not having a permit, but he settled them with N50,000.
Already, experts have faulted the complexity of procedure in permit processing, which also included the delay and high cost of getting it done.
A check on the pre-conditions for obtaining building permit in Lagos revealed that a property owner has to fulfill up to 25 conditions before he can be granted a permit approval, all of which come with charges as high as N1million.
Out of these conditions as highlighted in Lagos URPD law are: Certificate of Occupancy, Lands Bureau Clearance, Land use Charge Receipt, Evidence of Payment of Assessment Fees, Tax Clearance and Land Use Planning and Analysis Report ( LUPAR), amongst others.
Our reporter found out that countries such as Liberia and Malawi recently reduce their building permit fees by up to half, and trimmed their conditions to exclude item as tax clearance certificate, to enhance compliance to building codes.
A further search via Google revealed that Liberia experienced four building collapse between 2013 and August 2022, two of which were due to rainfall and fire.
Stressing the danger in bribery, a past President of Nigerian Society of Engineers, NSE, Engr. Babagana Mohammed said, “Choosing to bribe against obtaining permit is a free license to building collapse. By implication, there will be no professional monitoring for such houses; the owners will build at will without observing building codes. The permit is there to guide in building and ensure suitability and appropriateness.”
Disturbingly, only 20 percent of construction in Lagos possess permit, according to the Public Relations Officer of the Lagos State Chapter of NIOB, Edidiong Ikpoto.
Inspite of this hanging statistic, which is manifesting as constant building collapse in different parts of the state, officials are still helping property owners to contravene building codes for a penny.
This is evident in the transaction that ensued between our reporter and officials of LASBCA and LASPPPA when she went undercover.
Do you want Construction or Permit?
Visiting LASBCA office in Agege, in a place popularly called ‘Maternity’, this reporter feigned being a property owner, situated in power line area of Orile-Agege local government, with the intention to get building permit.
Though this reporter was meant to visit LASPPPA, the agency empowered by law to issue permit, the visit to LASBCA was deliberate.
Meanwhile, Lagos State URPD law frowns at building under high tension power line because of the danger it poses.
This notwithstanding, the official simply identified as Johnson asked, “Do you want construction or Permit?” Construction simply means bribe by Johnson’s explanation.
By offering bribe, property owners are allowed to build at will and not to be disturbed by regulatory officials even if such building is not at par with standards.
Surprisingly, this period was when a nine-storey building collapsed in Oniru, Victoria Island, on September 4, 2022, that caused the former Commissioner for Physical Planning and Urban Development, Idris Salako to resign.
Not bothered still, Johnson said, “If you want permit, you have to fulfill all conditions, make payment and get clearance from appropriate quarters after which you wait for your permit to be ready. This does not come so soon but if you want to fast track it, you have to pay processing fee (PR) to the officer helping you. The faster you want it out will determine how much you pay.” Johnson said PR cost between N300, 000 to N500, 000.
Continuing, he said, “But note that if your permit is not ready and you start building, you have contravened; you will still have to settle us or pay penal fee to government.”
Our investigation revealed that permit may take up three to six months before it is ready, although the state claimed to have reviewed processing period downward to 10 working days.
This reporter further found out that oftentimes, property owners get stuck for having not to be able to fulfill up to 25 preconditions for permit processing, thus choose to cut corners with ready and willing officials.
On the consequence of delayed permit, Awobodu said, “Prolonged building approval process is a prelude to building collapse. When building plan approval is unnecessarily delayed, usually with the intention of extorting money from the building owners or developers, some daredevil developers haunted by interest on bank loans or subscribers’ pressure, proceed with building construction without government approval.”
As part of efforts to address this hitch, Lagos State government introduced the e- planning permit to fast-track the process and also checks corrupt practices of officers.
Asked if one would still need to pay PR for e-permit, Johnson’s colleague (name unknown), who was part of the discussion said, “Whether e-permit or paper processing, PR is unavoidable if you want your permit processing to be fast.”
Johnson further hinted this reporter on the cost implications of some of the conditions needed to process a permit.
He said, “Prepare up to N200, 000 for LUPAR, the cost of permit is not fixed, it will be calculated from your architectural drawings. You should also prepare between N750, 000 to N1millon for property tax, depending on the price of the property but expect to pay more than this if you’ve not been paying tax .”
While Johnson was still analysing these conditions, this reporter let out a heavy sigh in exclamation, which prompted an ironic smile from Johnson. His smiles simply connotes and admits the ambiguity and impossibility of fulfilling the conditions.
A close source in LASPPPA once told this reporter that most officials avoid permit for their personal property because of the tough process and huge cost.
Johnson quickly cashed in on this reporter’s expression and retorted, “E fee gbese wole abi” meaning “You don’t want to get permit?” The reporter struggled to stammer a ‘Yes’ in fear, while anticipating a stark objection from Johnson, since her choice was unlawful.
His response was, however, reassuring. “Why are you stammering? You don’t have to be afraid; you don’t have any problem at all. There is no big deal in it; people do it a lot”, he boasted.
Not only did Johnson who is meant to enforce building codes obliged to building in power-line area, a restricted area, he equally gave a go ahead to carry out construction without adherence to mandatory building code.
N1millon settlement or N3millon Permit fee
Like Johnson, Chanpee, another LASBCA official, also did not hesitate to help this reporter to cut corners against the standards.
Chanpee was introduced to this reporter after efforts to meet LASPPPA junior officer in their Agege, stadium office failed.
At LASPPPA office, the officials seemed to be out on site inspection, but an administrative staff directed this journalist to the District Officer (DO), the most superior officer.
The DO was sighted attending to permit related issues for some persons seated in queue. Right in front of her door was a poster with inscription, “Don’t pay assessment through staff or tout.” Assessment also means permit fee.
Our investigation revealed that fake officers often parade themselves as either LASPPPA or LABSCA officers to extort unsuspecting property owners.
Further findings showed how some very bad officers issue fake permit to innocent property owners after collecting huge sums.
Meeting the DO, simply identified as Mrs Aina, told this reporter to present a survey of the land before rendering any help.
But meeting Chanpee, he asked this reporter to prepare N3millon for permit fee or N1million settlement.
Questioned on the restriction on power line, he said, “There is really no problem with building on power line, after all, there are several houses there. You won’t be the first and you won’t be the last.”
This reporter opted to bribe, but plea to get him to reduce the bribe fell on deaf ears, instead, he gave a sarcastic response, saying, “It is even better that you obtain your permit since your project is near power line so in the event of future demolition, you can be sure of compensation from government. Just that your permit will not be ready between now and December that you are planning to finish the house.”
Often times during the conversation, Chanpee enquired to know how close the site was to the main road as well as how soon the project will be completed.
Our reporter learnt that corrupt officers work better with building projects in obscure location that cannot be easily sighted or traced by their superiors.
After this reporter agreed to pay N1millon, Chanpee further conditioned this reporter, saying, “You need to complete the house within the four months you promised o because I can’t look at your back for so long. And I hope you will be secretive about this because you people are difficult to help. You can imagine that it is those people that Commissioner helped and collected money from that exposed him to the governor when a building collapsed recently,” he said referring to Salako on the Oniru collapse.
LASPPPA Official Demands N700, 000 to help Reporter Violate Building Codes
This reporter had arranged for a plot of land in Power line with the help of a property agent, as Johnson insisted on seeing the land before billing.
Johnson visited the land and concluded it was a good one for the deal given that the location was far from the main road.
He billed this reporter N1millon to go ahead with building without permit.
This is inspite that the land in question is marshy. A marshy land according to Muhammed will require extra and tough supervision to get it done right.
As the reporter pleaded with him to reduce the price, his colleague who came with him for site inspection, retorted, “Then go for permit if you think N1millon is too much.”
This reporter played along and agreed to obtain building permit, but when a call was placed to one Opere in LASPPPA office, Opere said, “Chances of getting permit for a property under power line were slim but where it is possible, a space of 20 metre must be left between the building and the high tension wire.”
Johnson asked our reporter to do a survey of the land to be able to verify its eligibility for permit. This reporter was able to fetch the land’s survey through the property agent. After Johnson checked the survey, he claimed that the land was not eligible for permit.
From findings, a site ineligible for permit, like power line should not be constructed on.
But Johnson suggested to this reporter to manipulate the survey document to enhance its eligibility for permit, he later dropped the idea.
Our investigation revealed that regulatory officials sometimes help property owner to manipulate documents like survey and architectural drawing to deceive permit issuing agency.
Further investigation showed that this option works when a property is ineligible for permit or when a property owner is up to mischief.
Confirming this anomaly, Awobodu said, “At times, property owner prepare two sets of drawings for the same building: one set for purpose of obtaining permit and the other set is for the actual site construction. Hence, what is being built stands at variance with the approved building plan.”
Having established that the site is not eligible for permit, Johnson still asked this reporter to conclude on settlement, which reporter finally agreed to pay N1 million.
“But you should prepare to settle like five other agencies including LASPPPA. When you settle all these quarters, then you are free to build whatever you want to build. Nobody will monitor or disturb you,” he assured.
Upon our reporter’s request, Johnson placed another call to Opere , who billed this reporter N700, 000 to enable her build without a permit.
The trio of Johnson, Chanpee and Opere agreed that this reporter can build in a restricted area and not to follow the building codes.
While it is considered a criminal offence for regulatory officials to demand or accept bribes, the Lagos URPD law does not include punishment for compromising officers.
Both Johnson and Chanpee have since been calling this reporter to consummate the deal but this reporter stopped picking their calls.
Building regulations as ‘Bait’ for Contravention
Already, Lagos State has been adjudged the most expensive place to build in Africa at $2,056 per square metres, according to a Director at Turner and Townsend, Bruce Haswell.
A Lagos-based real estate lawyer, Aderemi Fagbemi, expressed that existing multiple regulatory agencies and expensive permit process further compound this reality.
Fagbemi argued that Lagos’ regulatory architecture makes it nearly impossible for property holder not to circumvent the process, given it ambiguities.
Our investigation revealed how the state mounts pressure on regulatory officials for returns on penal fee, usually obtained from contraveners.
A document sighted by our reporter on the amount Lagos generates from penal fee revealed the extent at which people violate building codes.
The document revealed that in May 2022 alone, Lagos was able to raise over N61million from target on penal fee, with some officials surpassing their monthly target.
Our investigation also revealed that corrupt officials often prey on the cryptic permit steps and owners tendency to circumvent the process, to enrich their pockets.
Awobodu also referred to the Land Use Act of 1978 as being counterproductive and tempting.
“A parcel of land purchased in the acquisition area will be denied Certificate of Occupancy, C of O. Meanwhile, building permit cannot be processed without C of O. The consequence of this is that developers circumvent the process and go ahead to construct. Whereas, government policy does not encourage monitoring of buildings bereft of plan approval. It’s so sad.
Awobodu urged government to relax the provision, stressing that it was one of the reasons why property owners contravene.
To enhance compliance, Fagbemi urged Lagos government to take a clue from Malawi and Liberia.
She added, “There is no country in the world where a cost is not attached to permitting process, and the same is true of Lagos. In view of the pressing need for reformation in our built environment, the government may wish to adopt Liberia and Malawi’s approach. Additionally, construction or renovation projects classified as small projects such as low-cost residential buildings may be totally exempt from payment of permitting fees to encourage a higher percentage of formalisation until we have a more stable built environment.”
On her part, a Real-Estate lawyer, Barr. Olamide Onifade asserted that the tough regulatory environment adds up to the burden of housing deficit in Lagos.
“Many low income earners are scared off from building, while developers may choose to invest in other sectors. Consequently, the few ones who succumbed to the tedious process will place high cost on rent which will be borne by tenants,” she said.T