I was at a reception for our brother and colleague, Dele Momodu, a life-long reporter, author, publisher, media-preneur, community chief, politician, public intellectual, Chairman/CEO of Ovation Magazine, Ovation Carol and Boss Magazine on Sunday, November 14 at the Reds Chinese Restaurant of Eko Hotels in Lagos. It was meant to be a drink up, eat, celebrate our brother kind of event, put together by a committee of friends led by Aremo Olusegun Oniru, a Prince of Lagos, an entrepreneur, and a former commissioner in charge of the Waterfront of Lagos. Bob Dee, as we call him, invited me in my capacity, I guess, as one of his very loyal brothers. I ended up being drafted by Aremo Oniru as the person to present the citation of Aare Dele Momodu.
The notice was short. But I was ready. Momodu is one of those characters who are just in your life, because they are perpetually looking out for you. As a certified busy-body myself, in this our line of business, I don’t need to be prompted to talk about some people who have shared the same field of experience with me. Dele Momodu is one of such persons. I didn’t need a script. Or any long notice. Tee-A, the Master of Ceremonies announced that I would speak but just then Prince Damola Aderemi, also a dear brother, one of those quiet ones, seized the microphone, and implored the gathering to stand up and observe a minute silence in honour of two friends, who died in the Ikoyi building collapse incident on Gerrard Road, Ikoyi. He mentioned Femi Osibona, the developer, and Wale Bobs-Oseni, a friend of the developer who was on his way back to the United States, but was called back to come and see the 21-storey building being put up by his friend. Oseni turned back and headed towards Ikoyi. It turned out to be the call of destiny.
Aremo Oniru is a good host. He made everything available and the managers of Eko Hotel and Suites ensured that we got excellent reception. The event was star-studded. Should I point out that this was Dele Momodu being celebrated? What do you expect? It is no big deal for a master of celebrity journalism to light up the space, and in some of his recent events, I have observed an attempt by him to downplay his reach and influence in the Miliki space, while cultivating the serious end of the social and political space. There was more than enough to eat and drink. I would have staye,d longer if I was not reminded that it was Sunday evening and I would have to appear on early Morning TV. Good food, good drinks have a way of tying down even the most prudent of all men. Sir Shina Peters, life-long friend of the honoree had taken the microphone, crooning: “Ore mi o, Ore mi o, Dele Momodu, Oko Bolaji, aya Momodu, oni te mi o, Ore mi o, Ore mi o ooo h”. There was no shortage of anything. Segun Oniru was clearly up to the task. But I had to leave.
And as I did, in my head was the one-minute silence in remembrance of the men that died at the 21-storey building at Gerrard, Ikoyi. If Femi Osibona and Wale Bobs-Oseni had not died, they probably would have been at the Dele Momodu reception, organised in appreciation/celebration of the recent conferment on him of the title of Aare of Iwo and Yeye Aare of Iwo land on his wife, by His Majesty, the Oluwo of Iwoland, Abdulrasheed Adewale Akanbi, Telu II. Both men or their friends would have been at that cosy, Reds Restaurant at Eko hotel clinking glasses along with us. In life, shit happens, pardon my language, and it did happen at the Fourscore Homes site on Gerrard Road, Ikoyi Lagos. Every time I drive past this site of destruction, I pause a bit to reflect on the unpredictability of life, the very emptiness of it, the supremacy of the unknown, and the smallness of man in the presence of the immensity of the Cosmos.
On November 1, a 21-storey building, under construction, collapsed like the Tower of Babel. The state government may have been able to rescue some of the survivors, 15 survived, 44 died, but hopes were lost. Memories were destroyed. Lives disappeared. It is possible to imagine that more than a week later, the tragedy is complete. It is sad. So sad. Our commiserations with the affected families. What happened in Ikoyi was a classic case of human tragedy, a truly elemental case of the failure of the human story. Can you imagine persons going to work, all the way from different parts of Lagos only to be buried beneath a building that crashed like a pack of cards? Can you imagine the story of a man who was already on his way to the international airport, called back by a friend to come and have a look at a project, only to die in the process? A certain young woman whose wedding had been scheduled for December and who had only spent a week with the company also died. There was also the story of the National Youth Corps member who travelled many miles down South to work at a construction site but ended up dying. Or the many young men and women who work at construction sites every day for companies that have no structure, no manifest, no safety protocols, no evidence of professional compliance, and yet when things go wrong as they may, they die, they disappear without trace. The Ikoyi building tragedy was a comment on the construction industry in Nigeria. The failure of standards. My driver, Egunje, has been lamenting about how two persons from his neighbourhood managed to survive as the building crashed. And how others were not so lucky. They travelled from over 100 kilometres away to work in Ikoyi. I see them every day at round-abouts in the neighbourhood. They work on the island, many miles away from their homes, to be able to feed others and remain relevant. The building that collapsed is now a graveyard of dreams. The fact that both the poor and the rich perished in one instant moment is a poignant fact about the collective anguish that we all share in the face of omissions. Death knows no billionaires. It does not differentiate along class lines. It is why everyone must do the right thing.
The Lagos State Government has done what it can to show empathy. Both the Governor and his Deputy and other state officials have been at the site. It is curious how Governor Babajide Sanwoolu’s tenure, his first term, that is, may well be remembered eventually for the management of tragedies: gas explosion, COVID-19, EndSARS protests and killings, buildings collapse, kidnappings, and other bad stories. The superstitious residents on the streets of Lagos are beginning to wonder if the incumbent Governor picked the calabash of pepper at his celestial moment of emergence. I speak in parables in that regard. My comment is not necessarily an endorsement. What we know is that in reality, the state government has suspended Gbolahan Oki, the head of the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA). However, I have seen stories indicating that any offence with regard to approvals, building supervision and control of standards may have been committed without him and beyond him, long before he assumed office. Excuses. Don’t be surprised if the Lagos State Government reinstates him tomorrow. I won’t be surprised either. He is not the problem. It is the system that is the problem. The 21-storey building in Gerrard was not the first of its type. Many collapsed before it. One other building collapsed in fact, a day after, in the Osapa, London-Lekki area of Lagos. Nobody has talked about that because nobody died. Other buildings will collapse tomorrow. And of course, all the relevant questions were writ large in the Femi Osibona project in Ikoyi. Since the tragedy occurred, nobody has stepped forward to represent the company. This was obviously a one-man project. How on earth can anyone in Lagos build a 21-storey, three structures project with direct labour! In the heart of Ikoyi, a high-brow neigbourhood! Who gave the approvals? Nobody has shown up to represent the company oh! The apartments in the development project were also said to have been fully sold. Nobody has shown up to claim losses. Real estate is big business in Nigeria. People invest in many of these construction projects. They pay up to a million dollar. But it is money that they dare not identify with in public. When the investment goes up in smoke as in the 21-storey Gerrard case, they scratch their heads and padlock their mouths, and pray that nobody will investigate anything. I sympathise with those silent losers, many of whom may end up dying silently.
One more thing: Nobody has talked about insurance. In the face of the tragedy that we have seen, who is going to step forward to make insurance claims? Was the project insured in the first place? The developer was said to have been an ardent priest of a spirit-filled, Pentecostal church. In the 21st Century, God and angels are the only insurance agents behind million-dollar projects in many parts of Africa. When tragedy occurs, the people take it in good faith and move on. I suspect that this is what may have happened in the Gerrard Street, Ikoyi tragedy.
The state government has set up a five-man independent panel of inquiry, a panel of experts and lawyers. When government in Nigeria does not want to do anything about anything, it sets up a panel, announces terms of reference, but it is all for the purpose being seen to be doing something. Who are the “gods” involved in the Ikoyi building collapse whose egos needed to be massaged with all that high-profile government eye-service? I imagine that the tribunal of inquiry as it is called, will make all the right noises: statements about approvals – who approved what, a few comments about negligence, structural engineering and a bit of gobbledygook. But who can compensate the affected families for their loss? The one-man business owner died with his business. Those who invest in real estate in Nigeria have many lessons to learn from this.
There are life lessons as well beyond investment. There are stories out there about how family members have been fighting over Femi Osibona’s estate. He reportedly had a nuclear family of a wife and four children. Within two days of his remains being rescued from the rubble, his family members reportedly went after his properties, resulting in all kinds of struggles over his cars, his homes, cheque books, and whatever anyone could grab. His wife and children who are based abroad, reportedly relocated to Nigeria to keep the family at the gates. Femi Osibona’s brothers, one report indicates, brought Mobile Policemen. The wife and children also rented their own Police! I have not seen a rebuttal of this story out there. But it is the most painful part of events like this. You live, work hard and struggle to make people around you happy, then tragedy happens, no man can live forever, but nobody even spares a thought for you. They don’t even wait for you to be buried. While you are still in the mortuary, the same scavengers you spent your entire life trying to help, helping them to pay bills and have hope, descend on your home and children. They fight over your belongings. They behave like a South African crowd on rampage all over your properties, looting this, carrying that, threatening your biological children and their mother to dare them if they could. Why are people like this? I have heard people say that if you don’t want such home trouble then do not die interstate. Write a will. I am sorry. The extended family system in Africa is so bad, a written Will is not always a guarantee. In the same manner in which our people have a sense of entitlement to the proverbial national cake and their claim to a part of it, a rich man or woman within the family is also seen as a source of oxygen. It is a sin to be rich or privileged in Africa, within the family and the larger society. If you drop dead, you are not safe. They will come after your remains like vultures and fight your wife and children while doing so. Why are we like this? There may be exceptions but the crisis of poverty in Africa defines everything else.
The trucks have begun to leave the site of the tragedy at Gerrard Road, Ikoyi, Lagos. I can see that. The road is now free on both sides. Visiting VIPs have had their photo-ops and mouthed their sweet-nothings and moved on. The public made all the necessary noises. And stopped. It will rain heavily tomorrow and the day after, and everything will die down. In due course, eventual winners of the family squabble among the Osibonas will take over the property, sell it to another developer, everyone else will look the other way, and life will continue as if nothing ever happened. So why do we all bother so much, knowing that life, no matter how beautiful, always ends up as an irony? May the souls of all the departed beloved who died at this construction site, victims of a country where death is cheap, and life is expensive, rest in peace… Na so we see am.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.
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