(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 8 November, 2021)
The Ikoyi skyscraper tragedy has more than its 21 fatal floors. It is like wood falling on wood; and more wood falling on wood; a tangled narrative woven by fate and circumstances. The building came down in style: a very huge structure collapsing on itself in a matter of seconds. It wasn’t an implosion and it was not an explosion. It just got tired of standing and fell on its bottom. What force failed the feet of the building and what was the impact of the fall on its immediate neighbours, including its two sister high-rise buildings? If this happened in black man’s ancient times, the skyline crash would be blamed on thunder and its celts of precision fire. But this is the year of our Lord 2021, the divining priests are different. That is why, I, a stark illiterate in architecture and engineering matters, will be asking unschooled questions. I start from the first pictures of what remains of the Ikoyi building. Look at them. I see a huge pile of sliced concrete – I wanted to say sliced bread, almost neatly packed, but no; this is death. Is that how they fall – and sit- like a tired mountain of serrated rocks?
Lagos and its leaders are habitual newsmakers; they are a stubborn riddle. The headline last year was about the Lekki Toll Gate; this time, it is about an Ikoyi skyscraper that crashed. Those in the news last year are in this news again. I read Dele Momodu and his Pendulum two days ago. He described the tragedy as a jigsaw. In the good old jigsaw puzzle, the game starts when a picture is cut up into odd shapes. You get back that your picture -and win- only if you can correctly piece together the pieces. We have a complex case on our hands. The Ikoyi free fall has more than 21 levels of tragedy. At the very base are the raw wounds of personal losses; in the middle is the question of what went wrong; occupying the upper floors are bolts of the intriguing politics of who benefits from this misfortune. You’ve seen statements and exhumation of long buried videos; you’ve heard allegations and denials and threats; you’ve read of a fierce Berlin scramble for the assets of the unburied dead; we’ve also seen complementary visits by the government of Lagos and by the owners of Lagos. The fall is as huge as its elephantine benefits; every knife of imaginable curves is out, carving pounds of political capital.
There is a panel of inquiry charged with answering all questions connected with this tragedy. What will it find? The ones before this one, what were the fruits of their labour? The government said the developer got approval for 15 floors but jerked the building up to 21. That was an addition of six floors! And were those additional floors built in a day? Where was the law when the money-man rewrote the approval in his own image? Now, when buildings collapse, who do we blame? The owner? The builder? The construction workers? The regulators? Or all? I think the last option is the correct answer. Did the Ikoyi building give any warning signs that were ignored? We do not know and may never know. It is a jigsaw, a puzzle. Every star you’ve seen in the skies of that place was involved in the making of that horror. But the living among them are exhaling relief sighs because so much has died with the dead in that mound.
Dele Momodu said the developer wanted his own residence in that particular tower. What he was building was a condominium, not a death-house. The man was not known to be tired of living and so could not have built for himself a fatal trap by cutting corners. He was also neither an investor in suicidal terrorism nor a self-killing Samson fulfilling a morbid divine purpose. Now, did the man put his trust too much in the expertise of his specialists, ignoring fatal fissures and crevices? If he didn’t trust the foundation of his dream, the super and sub-structures, would he be caught taking his lords, spiritual and temporal, on a triumphal tour of the floors? What really happened? We saw a showy video of some white wizards of construction. Were the white men in the building when it fell? If they weren’t, where were they? We saw another video of praise and worship, of prayers and electrifying songs of victory over the enemy. Who was that enemy?
How long are buildings, especially tall ones, destined to stand? Zaria Gorvett of the BBC answered a similar question in August 2016. Gorvett said “Egypt’s pyramids were the skyscrapers of their day – and they are still standing 5,000 years later.” So, what brought down that 21-floor building in our Lagos before its full moon? That is the question to ask and for which we must get the correct answer(s) if there won’t be another crash. Everyone knows that vultures forever hover over Lagos lands. For this one and its precious ruins, hawks and vultures appear fighting already. Read the news. Going forward, we will see the horrors clearly by the time ‘widow’ inheritors take over. Greek biographer and historian, Plutarch, recorded the feat of a man called Crassus. The man was famed as Rome’s wealthiest man of the first century BCE. Rome of that era was always on fire but it had no fire service. Crassus saw business here and proceeded to build a vast empire of riches from the mass misery of victims of fire disasters. Was he involved in the fire breakouts? History is silent on this but check out how he acquired his vast fortune: “Crassus or his agents would, on the spot, purchase buildings that were still ablaze and the buildings abutting the flaming structure at a fraction of the buildings’ worth. Once the deal had been concluded, Crassus’s personal fire brigade would step in and seek to halt the damage…” (See ‘The Great Fire of Rome: Life and Death in the Ancient City’ By Joseph J. Walsh, at page 32). The Crassuses of Nigeria must be salivating over that Gerrad Road property already. Sadly, we may not hear a whimper after they are done ringing their bells.
History pays a generous attention to disasters and whatever may have caused them. It assumes that man would read and sweat to prevent a silly repeat of what was bad and destructive. But is it in the nature of man to learn? Like a massive stroke, something snapped in that Ikoyi building and levelled the rich and the poor. Was there any sign of an impending crash? We think disasters are thieves in the night; that they very rarely whistle their coming. We think tragedies usually come crashing in to laugh at the folly of wise men. There was the mythical Tower of Babel, an audacious attempt to “take the celestial kingdom, piling mountains up to the stars.” What crashed it? Was it the fault of man or the force of God that fractured and crashed the lofty house?
Beyond myths, there have been many disastrous crashes that claimed lives and sealed fates because of the greed of man. One such bad story happened in Rome in 27 CE. Historian William Slater said “as destructive as a major war, it began and ended in a moment.” The tragedy of Fidenae theatre – that is the incident. Its casualties were so many that imperial Rome never forgot the calamity. Slater said the builder, one Atilius, an ex-slave, wanted an amphitheater of outstanding stature, but he “neither rested its foundations on solid ground nor fastened the superstructure securely.” Motives matter in what we build and how we build it. In this case, Atilius, as recorded in history “had undertaken the project not because of great wealth or municipal ambition but for sordid profits.” He completed the construction and threw it open “to host gladiatorial spectacles.” Then, Slater wrote, thousands flocked the stadium “—men and women of all ages.” Sorrow, tears and blood visited the stadium almost immediately. Slater, the historian, puts the tragedy elegantly in this narration: “The packed structure collapsed, subsiding both inwards and outwards and precipitating or overwhelming a huge crowd of spectators and bystanders. Those killed at the outset of the catastrophe at least escaped torture, as far as their violent deaths permitted. More pitiable were those, mangled but not yet dead, who knew their wives and children lay there too. In daytime they could see them, and at night they heard their screams and moans. The news attracted crowds, lamenting kinsmen, brothers, and fathers. Even those whose friends and relations had gone away on other business were alarmed, for while the casualties remained unidentified, uncertainty gave free range for anxieties. When the ruins began to be cleared, people reached to embrace and kiss the corpses—and even quarrelled over them, when features were unrecognizable but similarities of physique or age had caused wrong identifications. Fifty thousand people were mutilated or crushed to death in the disaster.” Ancient Rome blamed Atilius, the owner/builder of the amphitheater; history blames him too. But should he solely carry the burden of guilt?
Some works should represent the ethical immanence of God. The construction industry is one. Regulators and building specialists, workmen and artisans have people’s lives right there in the cusps of their palms. They will go to hell whose greed cracks roads and crashes buildings and kills people. Steve Jobs has an interesting viewpoint here. He warned that “your work is going to fill a large part of your life,” and “the only way to be truly satisfied is to do great work.” What then is great work? It is work that endures.
A jigsaw tragedy is what we have in Ikoyi, Lagos. Ghostly questions stomp that eerie place demanding answers. Will they ever get justice? Men and machine have been busy on that plate of fate since last Monday. They are still there, roaring round the rubble like lions in search of lost cubs. How do we piece together life and its meaning from this pile of death and tears? The man who built the failed skyscraper was its ‘inmate’ when it crashed. It was his labour room; he went in there very expectant of joy in bouncing bundles. But he was brought out dead, his pot and its precious water got lost in the debris of death. And it wasn’t as if the man was a daily face there. Yet, the crash waited and chose his very presence to end everything, including the dreamer. I have heard questions on how and where the man got his billions. We’ve heard and read other stories and the stories of others. We’ve heard repeated shouts of horror, the sighs of receding hope and thunder claps of escape. A job seeker failed to get what he sought there; he left that spot sad and crest-fallen. He soon had cause to thank his God for making him fail. ‘Blessings of Failure’ won’t be a bad title for his memoirs. One youth corps member flew off the killing field of North East Nigeria; she landed on the velvet laps of Lagos and sadly died at the safe harbour of Ikoyi. There is a word called fate, inscrutable is its sole adjective. The white man calls it destiny; the Yoruba say it is Ayanmo. There is no armour against its darts. It is the handcuff which chains man to where his portion lays. May God heal the wounded and repose the souls of the dead.