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Simon Kolawole: Do The Right Thing, For Pete’s Sake

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I was in shock – in fact, trauma – on Friday afternoon. I was in my bedroom, trying to do some work on my laptop when I heard a crashing sound behind my house. Initially, I thought a tipper had just discharged sand at a construction site nearby, with its back cover was violently hitting the floor of the trunk. But then I started hearing screams. My worst fear was that a tragedy had descended on the neighbourhood. I rushed out of my room, wobbled to the terrace and saw a collapsed fence in the compound next to mine, where some construction work was going on.

I saw distraught young men running around, trying to rescue labourers who were trapped underneath the debris. One young man threw up his hands in despair, in agony, in surrender. Others were trying to lift a large piece of the fallen fence with bare hands. Soon, the cry of one of the trapped boys petered out. My heart was bleeding profusely. The second boy had almost his entire body buried in the ground, with the other labourers trying to pull him out of the wreckage of blocks. I could no longer watch.

I rushed to my gate and asked the security guard to gather more able-bodied young men to join the rescue operation. But the other labourers were brave. They had pulled out the two boys – one looking alive, the other looking dead. The contractor took them to the hospital immediately. My eyes filled with tears and my legs shaking with shock, I said a silent prayer for their survival. Even as I collapsed into my sofa wondering if there would be any doctors to attend to them because of the strike, I became more worried about the bigger incidence of building collapse around the country, especially during the rainy season.

Nigeria is faced with many avoidable tragedies – avoidable since they are not natural disasters but those wrought by our own hands – because we refuse to do the right thing. For instance, houses collapse mainly because we fail to abide by construction standards. If every rule in the book had been followed, it was very likely that my neighbour’s fence wouldn’t have collapsed. We don’t use the right quantity of cement, the right mixture of concrete, the right size of iron rods, the right depth and quality of foundation, and so on. You can go on and make excuses that people are too poor to buy the right quantity of materials or do the right thing – finding excuses, sometimes in the name of poverty, is what we usually do in Nigeria.

Recently, when I added my voice to the clamour for the standardisation of cement in Nigeria from 32.5 megapascals (mpa) to 42.5 mpa – which industry experts say is far better because of its setting strength, yield and adherence capability – I was shocked at the fierce opposition by some Nigerians. Not even evidence from across the world that 32.5mpa cement was going out of fashion could convince the critics. Some even rejected the proof that India and China had decided to entirely phase out 32.5mpa from the construction industry – either for plastering or concrete work.

My shock was: how can anyone reject a proposal to improve construction standards in Nigeria, with all these gory tales around us? Does it make any form of sense at all? I was glad that the blackmail and intimidation did not work. The House of Representatives has taken a position on the need to standardise cement in the country and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) has also signed on to it. Industry players are now finally shifting ground and accepting that they will now do the right thing. BUA, Ibeto Cement and Dangote Cement have all committed to upgrading cement quality. We don’t stand to lose anything.

Don’t get me wrong – cement alone will not solve the problem. The problems are many, too many to mention here – but the quality of cement is one. We, however, also need to deal with the other issues with all the seriousness and urgency they deserve. There are issues of poor construction regulation and lax monitoring by government agencies. Our institutions are weak, principally because of the ease with which corruption penetrates the system. This has made it effortless for standards to be compromised. How do we tackle this menace? How do we hold regulators responsible and prosecute them if a building collapses because of poor regulatory oversight?

Finally, and quite critically – what can we do to our builders and masons? Do they need more education (I don’t mean the four walls of a classroom)? Do they need to be retrained? Do they need a new orientation? What programme can we come up with to make it fun for them to understand modern techniques in construction? How do we re-orientate them to understand the importance of honesty and diligence in their work? In Nigeria, cutting corners is fun. You feel smart. You are supposed to use 10 bags of cement but you con yourself into using only five. You then smile to the bank – without realising that you may frown to the mortuary one day.

The Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) had this programme of holding workshops at motor parks for commercial drivers. They teach them road signs all over again, give them safety tips and show them videos to improve their understanding of safe motoring. Do we need similar programmes for the construction industry? I don’t worry much about the big engineering companies – it is rare to experience building collapse in their jobs. I worry more about the bricklayer working next door. Millions of them all over the country. Some of them acquired their skills long ago and are too stiff to adapt to modern methods. They also consider themselves to be too smart for the rest of us.

In conclusion, I digress. The opposition to the upgrade of cement quality always reminds me of the failure of our lawmakers to increase the minimum educational qualification for elective positions. If we make a law requiring that anybody who wants to contest must have a minimum of first degree/higher national diploma, what is wrong with that? It is ridiculous that the constitution lowers that bar so much that it says a secondary school certificate “or its equivalent”. This is a country that has produced millions of graduates, hundreds of thousands of PhDs and professors!

You can argue that a university degree does not automatically translate to good governance – but neither does a secondary school certificate. Our minimum standard must, therefore, go up. Let’s do the right thing.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS
IMPEACHMENT SPREE
It seems the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is getting more ruthless by the day. What it lost to the All Progressives Congress (APC) through defections, it is now getting back bit by bit. Governor Murtala Nyako of Adamawa is a goner; Governor Umaru Al-Makura of Nasarawa is already at the exit door. Meanwhile, in Borno State, Senator Modu Sheriff has all but moved to the PDP, leaving his governor – harassed constantly by Boko Haram and alienated by Aso Rock – in even more distress. The party in power clearly enjoys an unfair advantage in our democratic space. Merciless.

CHIBOK CHARADE
How long would it take President Jonathan’s handlers to know that they erred in trying to “care” for Chibok through the back door? Some escapee schoolgirls and parents of those still in Boko Haram captivity came to Abuja to meet with Pakistani teenage education activist, Malala Yousafzai, only for them to be suddenly invited to the Presidential Villa – three months after the abduction saga. They declined. After pouring invectives on the #Bring Back Our Girls movement for playing politics, Presidency then decided to do the right thing by officially inviting the Chibok community. What took them so long? Mystifying.

KIND HEART
My dear sister, Maryam Augie, describes herself as an entrepreneur, but she has a very caring heart. Her Ayahay Foundation is planning to launch a non-cash humanitarian aid for the victims of terror in the North-eastern part of Nigeria. She will be launching the initiative, called Giftbasket-NG, on July 29 in Abuja. It is good that the federal government has launched a programme to support the victims – but government alone cannot handle this crisis. We are dealing with a huge humanitarian tragedy. For some of the survivors, living is worse than dying. They are mentally and physically dislocated. Heart-breaking.

FIFA FIRE
There is a bit of a relief that the world soccer governing body, FIFA, has lifted the ban on Nigeria for “third party” interference in the running of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). What many Nigerians don’t know is that FIFA only deals with its affiliate associations – it has no business with the government. Football disputes are resolved in-house or through arbitration, not in the law courts. This has been its modus operandi for ages. I don’t know when we are going to learn our lessons and follow due process in dissolving NFF boards if we don’t like them. Foolhardy.

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Article written By Simon Kolawole, and Culled from Thisday Newspaper.. Email: simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com

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