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Tolu Ogunlesi: Synagogue Building Collapse Offers An Opportunity



The world is rightly outraged at the building collapse in Lagos, just as it was in April when more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted in Chibok, Borno State. But in both cases, outsiders don’t seem to have realised that these tragedies are a way of life in Nigeria.

Just as Chibok was certainly not the first, or last, mass abduction of young people in northeastern Nigeria, the Synagogue incident is merely another page in a book of building collapses that promises to run into several editions.

The incident lingers in the headlines for two reasons: First, because it involves the most controversial televangelist in Nigeria, and second, because foreigners were affected. Had it only been Nigerian lives lost in the collapsed building, the fuss would have been less. We would have moved on quicker. Because life in this country isn’t worth very much.

Fifty-nine boys were slaughtered last February in Buni Yadi, to hardly a national whimper. Britain’s worst ever road accident occurred in 1975, and killed 33 people. Accidents on that scale occur with astonishing regularity in Nigeria. In 2008, 46 soldiers returning from a peacekeeping mission in Sudan died in a crash in Potiskum, Yobe State. They survived a war, only to die a needless death at home, because this is Nigeria. Such things happen.

It is easy to see why these tragedies don’t move Nigerians. When death is on sale on every street corner, when supply overwhelms demand, prices fall. People find it easier to dust off tragedy and move on.

I very much hope that the South African Government keeps up the pressure on the Nigerian authorities. What happened on September 12 must not be allowed to be treated in a typical Nigerian fashion.

The investigation into the cause of the collapse needs to be seen to the end. It does seem to me that the most likely cause of the collapse is a structural defect. The Synagogue Church of All Nations would like us to believe something else: that it was a sabotage; a strange plane caught on camera hovering around the building in the minutes before the collapse. A thorough investigation will be required. If we need to enlist foreign help, let’s do it. But while we await the outcome of investigations, this is a good time for a national conversation about our processes for getting building approval in Nigeria.

I believe very strongly that the sheer complicatedness of official procedures in Nigeria is the reason why cutting corners is a national sport. This is not to excuse the art of corner-cutting, but to examine it and understand it, and perhaps find a way to remedy it.

Every day, I hear horror stories from Nigerians who want to do things that should ordinarily be deemed simple: Getting a land title, renewing a driving licence, registering a business, paying taxes or fines. Ruth Obih, CEO of a real estate consultancy in Lagos, used to work as a real estate lawyer in the United Kingdom. She says that obtaining a land title in the UK would take her no more than a few weeks. But in Nigeria, it takes years to accomplish the same task. At every corner, there is an obstacle; something designed to frustrate and depress.

Jason Njoku, entrepreneur and founder of Iroko, recently blogged about getting a subisidiary of his business registered in Rwanda. It took a total of eight hours – only two of which were spent at the offices of the Rwanda Development Board – and no fees. In Nigeria, he wrote, it takes at least a week, and $800, to get a certificate of registration.

Earlier this month, the World Economic Forum released a new edition (2014-2015) of the Global Competitiveness Report. Nigeria fell seven places, from 120th last year, to 127th. While Nigeria’s National Competitiveness Council has disputed the Index, and advanced reasons for doing so, it is important to acknowledge that from the point of view of many Nigerians – the persons at the receiving end of their country’s several dysfunctions – the rankings are likely to be a very accurate reflection of reality.

In the absence of transparency, it becomes easier for a system to become a tool for manipulating end-users for purely pecuniary purposes. My theory is that our systems are so obsessed with revenue generation that they do not have any time or energy left for actual regulation.

I’ve been asking myself: How does one get approval to build in Lagos? Is there a website that lists every step in the process, and all the fees?

One of the effects of Nigeria’s recent macroeconomic boom is a surge in construction. Lagos has for decades been a low-lying city, but now it suddenly seems to be shooting for the skies. From Victoria Island to Ikeja, the skyscrapers are bursting forth with life. What are the procedures for regulating these construction projects? If we don’t make the processes less complicated, people will seek, like water, the easiest ways out.

Where the process is not clearly and simply spelt out, the incentive to cut corners rises. When you know you’re going to spend an entire day in a queue to fill out a form and get thumbprints taken at the Federal Road Safety Corps office, or at the Lagos State Secretariat in Alausa, what you want to do is find a way out. You want to find a means of evading the crazy catacombs. You look for a tout, or an “agent”, who will, for a fee, take the burden off you. Everyone is happy at the end of the day – you’ve saved time and trouble, and someone has made money. The problem is that licences and permits have then been given out without any recourse to due process. The roads are therefore full of drivers who have no business on the roads, and buildings that have no business being built.

Some people find ways of ignoring the system completely, and get away with it.

A system that is not transparent, and that is designed for extortion of hapless users, quickly becomes impossible to manage. There are so many turns and twists and loopholes and bends that it cannot be policed efficiently.

The least we can do with this Synagogue tragedy is use it as a basis for calling for reform. Governments need to reconstruct their regulatory agencies with a view towards simplifying, instead of complicating.

President Goodluck Jonathan, on his visit to the site, alluded to this, promising to work with state governors to review the role of governments in the erection of high-rise structures in the country.

Considering that in Nigeria we are experts at saying what needs to be said and then moving on to the next tragedy, this is our chance to make a clean break with the past.


Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from his PUNCH Newspaper.


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