A palpable pall descends on Lagos Island, otherwise called Isale Eko, as I arrive here with my team on the morning of Thursday, March 14.
We couldn't have visited at a worse time.
A day earlier, Wednesday, March 13, a three-storey property had collapsed here, trapping some 100 school kids and other residents in the wreckage.
I am scribbling this piece from N0 14, Massey Street, opposite Oja, Ita-Faaji, on my smartphone. Around me are somber faces, wailing women, dejected parents and residents unsure of their future in their own country. They tug at me, they yell for help, they want to be heard. They tell me they have been abandoned. They badly need shoulders to cry on.
They tell me, sometimes through tear soaked eyes, that they are not sure if the buildings they reside in, would collapse the next day. They are afraid. Afraid of what tomorrow holds, in the land of their birth.
One gentleman tells me that most residents in the neighborhood had no idea that a school was operating from what looked like an okay three-storey structure. There was no school signage outdoors. No black boards strategically positioned outdoors on which the words “register your child here” were poorly scrawled, they say.
As far as most residents were concerned, the building was a residential one and nothing more.
An elderly man tells me that when he moved into Lagos in the ‘70s, the building was there and that to the best of his knowledge, the property had never been renovated except for a fresh daub of paint now and again.
Eyewitnesses tell me that this week’s tragedy was an accident waiting to happen. They share tales of how greedy landlords collude with proprietors to operate schools from decrepit and derelict buildings, just so they could game the system.
They tell me that Lagos landlords are often so heartless, ignoring warning signs, while increasing rent charges instead. They tell me that the collapsed building had long been marked for demolition, that it had failed all kinds of tests and that the relevant Lagos state government agencies often receive bribes from landlords in exchange for non-demolition of sagging, creaking property.
“The government marks the buildings for demolition but the landlords bring small money and the government looks the other way”, says Mr. Abiodun who tells me that he earns a living as a carpenter in the neighborhood.
I look up and there are similar buildings dotting Ita-faaji and all of Lagos Island. Old, decaying structures, shorn of maintenance and modernity. In Ita-faaji, regulations are poorly enforced and construction materials are often substandard.
Sewage water spills from crowded apartments into narrow streets milling with hundreds of people. The streets have no drainage. So, when it rains in Isale-Eko, it pours. The water has nowhere to empty into, so it settles underneath building foundations, further weakening the decaying properties.
“Look!”, someone hollers at me from the din. I turn to see that another child has just been rescued from the pile of mud, sand, cement and reinforced concrete. Everyone lets out a victory cry as she is rushed to a waiting ambulance. She is draped in her own blood and struggling to breathe.
The death toll is a flux at the moment, depending on who is doing the telling. Official death toll stood at 20 on Thursday, March 14. Over 40 persons were also said to have been rescued as I pace the neighborhood to talk to first responders and eyewitnesses.
One lady walks up to me and pulls me aside. And then she goes: “na government kill this children. Dem blood dey for government head”. And then she breaks down in tears and more tears.
She is an aunt of one of the kids trapped and pulled out from the rubble, dead. I comfort her by putting an arm around her. And then she cries some more. My tear ducts are also acting up. Even though I am here to report the story and not cry.
This was avoidable.
But the Nigerian system is set up to never learn lessons. According to a report by the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing, 54 cases of building collapse were recorded in 2017 alone across the country.
Punch writes that there were 33 building collapses in Lagos and 22 in Abuja in 2012; 17 buildings collapsed in Lagos and 20 in Abuja in 2013, 13 buildings collapsed in Lagos and two in Abuja in 2014. You remember some of them, don't you? Synagogue church collapse, Lekki Gardens collapse, Akwa Ibom church collapse and on and on it goes....
Worse, some of the landlords whose actions or inactions led to the collapse of their properties, trapping and killing tenants, have never been tried or prosecuted for manslaughter. Some of these landlords or property developers have paid their way out of trouble because they are above the law.
My team and I are leaving the collapsed building site now and No 14, Massey Street, opposite Oja, Ita-Faaji, rises to bid us farewell in its rustic, decaying, over-crowded glory. We wave back, fighting back tears, and disappear into Broad Street where a poorly air-conditioned Uber ride awaits to chauffeur us to the hospitals where some of the survivors have been taken.
At the hospitals, we meet doctors who wouldn't say a word or let us see the victims. "They are recuperating. They are doing well and in stable condition. I can't say more than that", says Administrator of the Lagos Island Hospital, Dr Ismail Ganikale.