Olutoyin Ayinde, a former Commissioner for Physical Planning and Urban Development in Lagos State, is the President of the Nigerian Institute of Town Planners (NITP). In this interview with DAYO AYEYEMI, he spoke on the incessant building collapse in the country, blaming the menace on human errors.
What is your take on the incessant building collapse in the country?
When we have building collapse, it just means that things are not adding up. A building itself is made up of component parts. All those parts are brought together in unity such that by the time a building is completed, there are some parts that you can never take out again. For example, in a concrete, you have aggregates, you have sand, cement and reinforcement bars. When they are mixed together and formed a building, you can’t touch the cement nor can you touch anything because they have become one. This is a product of science. That science was studied by a group of professionals in their various specialisations – architects, planners, builders, structural engineers, geo technicians, mechanical, electrical, land surveyors, quantity surveyors, and estate surveyors and valuers. So we have a lot of people involved in the process, and everyone has a role to play, and the point at which it should be played. When anything is missing, when something goes amiss with the role that any of these professionals are expected to play, then we can have a failure in the construction system, which can eventually lead to building collapse. So generally speaking, building collapse will occur for one or two reasons. It is either through natural courses or artificial courses. We rarely have natural courses here.
We have seen a lot of building collapse investigation panels and many recommendations without any implementations of the outcomes or report or White Papers. What can you say?
No one has seen any of the report or the White Paper published. This makes it difficult to really ascertain what is in the report; what the recommendations are and what exactly the things that the whitepaper is doing? For example, the Tribunal that I chaired, there were 28 recommendations. Those 28 recommendations were not published; then the White Paper agreed and adopted 26 of the recommendations. Again, those 26 were not published. The White Paper rejected two and those two were not published. So when there is no publication of a report, the recommendations and what was adopted, it becomes a little bit difficult to monitor our progress. It is difficult for us to know whether we are making progress or not. So it’s not about the number of panels now. I think we have too many panels. Various institutes and various professionals have adduced reasons; people have been given the benefits during their doctoral research and master degree research on building collapse, we should have solved it. So if we have not solved it, the reason can only be human. It’s not divine nor spiritual, it can only be human, and until we decide to take the bull by the horn to address it, we won’t be able to solve it.
People have begun to see setting up of panels as a waste of time. Do you see it that way?
Investigations are not waste of time. Every investigation tries to get to the root of the problem. They are not entirely a waste. As a matter of fact, students in construction should be made to watch those investigations live so that they can learn from other experienced professionals how to go about investigating things like this. The process and various strategies is a case study on its own. Investigation is like conducting a study. There is usually something that comes out of the study, you may decide not to make use of it.
We discovered that in most of the recent cases of building collapse, agencies of government in charge of planning permit and building control served the owners notices of various contraventions, yet the developers continued the development. Is it that the government can no longer bite?
That is weakness! It is not government. It is the people in government. Government is not an inanimate subject. Government is made up of human beings and everybody has a role to play. There are times people see the governor as a government. No! The governor is also playing a role in government. In fact, he is not supposed to be concerned with the issue like building collapse because there are people who are trained to do that. Unfortunately, when a thing like this happens in any state for that matter, the buck stops on the table of the governor. But the truth is that government is a system. It’s a mechanism that has various parts. So when you say a site has been given notices and work continues, it is the failure of the system. Somebody is helping the system to fail, somebody is not doing his work right and, at the topand they may not know he is doing his work right until building collapse happens. So it should not ever be said that they served notice and someone else broke it. Anybody who continues work when government has served the notice has declared a battle line between himself and the state government. I believe government is always government. When I was part of MrBabatundeRajiFashola’s government, the idea was that government is government. If my ministry sealed a site and a developer unsealed, I know he has declared a battle line. Anytime that a reopening of what government sealed happens, there is compromise, and it’s good for us to do the study to know the source of the compromise.
Are you not disappointed that two commissioners, who are town planners, could not complete their tenure after you left office and don’t you see this as an aspersion on your profession?
Unfortunately, they are removed before their time. It is not an aspersion on the profession; it is an aspersion on that person himself because the appointment was based on some levels of trust, some levels of loyalty to the government. It is in the process of discharging your assignment that your level of trust or your level of loyalty is tested. It is such a dicey issue and that is why BRF (Fashola) himself, when he was asked a question about loyalty said, “May our loyalty not be tested”. The trust is that it is in the duty that you carried out that your loyalty to the government is being tested and your level of trustworthiness is been tested. So for me, it is an individual thing. Urban planning as a profession predates any of us who passed through the office but, the onus lies on us to discharge our duties. You must be professional as much as possible. Anytime we fail to do that in one way or the other, we don’t cast aspersion on the profession, we cast aspersion on ourselves.
You have been President of NITP for almost two years now. What has being the experience?
It has been challenging, it has been exciting, it has being a privilege to lead, a privilege to be tagged number one town planner in Nigeria. That for me, it’s a position not to be taken for granted. I always tell people that when you find yourself in office like that, it is not because you are the best; it is just because you are privileged. So for me, it’s a privilege to have been able to lead this administration for almost two years, and it’s really more exciting when you see people appreciating what you have done, acknowledging the intervention you have done in one way or the other, praising one innovation or the other that you did. So, that is why I said it has being exciting but, challenging in the sense that, the country called Nigeria is yet to embrace the practice of physical planning. Unfortunately, that is the base of every development. It is a springboard. Once you are not planning, you cannot develop. So the reason we are where we are is because we are not planning.
What are the challenges?
One of the things I realised is that planning is not visible enough as a profession. As a matter of fact, what people think is planning is exactly what is not planning. So, the majority of Nigerians including the political heads at the state and national levels don’t even understand what planning means. That is the first challenge. Once those in leadership positions don’t understand what planning is, how would the masses understand? They did not understand for example, there is a sequence between planning and development; and the sequence is that you plan and then develop. Anytime that you developed and you want to plan, it is an irreversible thing except you want to break, which is what we usually do. Anytime you see us breaking houses because you want to widen roads, it proves that we did not plan, because if we have planned we would have left that right-of-way.
If somebody encroaches the right of way, the person will know that he has encroached. Our cities do not have plans. Only few cities in Nigeria have plans. The ones that have, theplansare not being implemented. There are plans that are already old. In Kaduna State, the governor says he is implementing the master plan of Kaduna that was done in the sixties or seventies. That is not how to implement plans. Plans are meant to be reviewed. You won’t know this until you understand that human settlements are living organisms, just like human beings. You cannot put the coat you are using 30 years ago on now because you were smaller then, you were younger then. What you needed then was different from what you need now. You needed large banking halls before, now small spaces. This is the reason why plans should be reviewed and make functional so that people can live their life without stress. These are things that we did not understand in Nigeria. We did not understand that as big as Lagos State is, it can be demarcated into various development areas and each development area can grow on its own with its own centre. You can actually live in a development area, do business there without going elsewhere, thereby making the burden on the roads lighter. Technology also has helped. You can do virtual meetings; you don’t need go on roads. This is why planners are supposed to be working, collecting data and doing studies regularly to fit into the system that makes the plan reviewable from time to time. When you plan, you are trying to put things in order, but the moment you are not building according to a plan, it means you are just allocating space anyhow and building roads anyhow. Cities are consciously planned.