Another one bites the dust – literally

Collapsing buildings have become a frequent occurrence in Africa. Hardly a month goes by without news about the collapse of building X in country Y. It has become normal – in some countries more than others – such that people have become numb to the tragedy that it is. These days reactions range from “Again!?” to the disapproving head shake. Others even shrug it off as part of life. In most cases governments promise to “carry out a full investigation” and reassure the public that they will ensure such tragedies do not occur again. Well, those promises are yet to be fulfilled as evidenced by recent happenings.

Just yesterday, a four-storey building under construction in north-eastern Rwanda collapsed killing six people and injuring more than a dozen others. In April, two people died and several others were injured when a building collapsed in Kumasi, Ghana. A few weeks before that, another building also under construction collapsed in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania killing more than 30 people and injuring many more. In January, five people were killed and many others injured when a building under construction collapsed in Kisumu, Kenya.  These are just some of the ones that are reported. There are probably many more that are not covered by the media or are simply overshadowed by other news items.

Many lives continue to be lost in these preventable tragedies that are most often a result of greed, corruption and government inefficiencies.

There are some crude and wealth-hungry property developers out there who are simply looking to make a profit by any means necessary. They come up with cost cutting measures that severely compromise the safety, quality and durability of the building. If there is a cheaper substandard substitute for a building material, trust that they will use it. We can just go ahead and forget about regulations because they have mastered the art of bypassing them. One of the problems with such developers is that they are overly fixated on their short term moneymaking goal. Instead of thinking of these buildings as investments they think of them as 1-800-CASH-NOW.

It doesn’t help that building inspectors and other concerned authorities are willing to look the other way once you grease their palms. Money swiftly changes hands and dubious building designs are instantly approved. One may get instant gratification from the bribe, but aren’t they bothered by the fact that what they are doing is akin to signing an innocent person’s death warrant? Why endanger the lives of so many? People forget that they may actually end up living or working in one of these buildings. I would think that this would perhaps motivate them to do the right thing. We also need to ensure that people in these positions are qualified. It could be that they simply do not know what a proper building design looks like. Property developers also need to ensure that they are using qualified personnel. No one benefits from using shoddy constructions engineers and architects who lack professional ethos.

Governments do not seem to be too concerned about collapsing buildings. Sure leaders will take time off to mourn those who died. Yes they’ll say that those responsible will be held accountable. However, after a few weeks the collapse is forgotten and they have moved on to the next vote-generating activity. Is it really that difficult to enact and enforce building regulations? Isn’t having buildings that are not death traps beneficial to the overall development agenda? Why do leaders view these issues as mutually exclusive? How are we going to overcome some of the socio-economic challenges if we can’t even put up stable structures? Why is it that these shoddy building contractors, developers, architects and workers are never held accountable?

While we are it, can we also talk about how disaster preparedness is nonexistent? I remember when a building collapsed in Nairobi a few years ago and we had to fly in Israeli rescue teams. They came fully prepared -equipment, search dogs and all – and if I recall correctly took over the operation. They were very systematic in the way they carried out the rescue mission. The Kenyan rescue team on the other hand – not so much so. Their efforts were hampered by lack of equipment and poor organization. This has been the case in several other African countries. It’s about time that governments invested in disaster plans of action, rescue personnel and much-needed equipment.


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