[Viewpoint] Why Do Buildings Fail in Nigeria?

In 2022, Nigeria recorded over 61 incidents of building collapse. As I write this article, I don’t know of any forensic report that has been made public on any of these incidents, or do you?

image showing the building collapse of ikoyi lagos
Collapse of 21 Storey, Ikoyi-Lagos

Last week, a colleague had said to me, “What do you think is the cause of the recent 7 Storey building collapse in Ikoyi, Lagos?”

I paused for a moment, pondering why he was asking me this question. While several thoughts went through my mind, he suggested: “could it be a structural error from design?” He said speculations in the news was that a mobile concrete mixer had rammed into a column culminating in the structural collapse. Perhaps to him, he did not think damage to a single column should result in the total collapse of a building.

I replied: “it could be, but to suggest that it is, would be jumping into a conclusion.” Even if this speculation is true, that there was, in fact, accidental loading, it still wouldn’t prove that a structural error led to the collapse. It would only mean that the structure might not have satisfied structural robustness requirement. For instance, BS EN 1991-1-7 states that key structural elements (such as corner columns) in addition to standard design loadings are to be designed for an applied loading of 34kN/m2 as a measure against disproportionate collapse, in the event that there is an accidental loading condition. The objective of this clause, is to ensure that buildings do not suffer disproportionate collapse under accidental loading (See quote).

All building shall be constructed so that in the event of an accident the building will not suffer collapse to an extent disproportionate to the cause.

UK Building Regulation

Whether or not structural robustness was an integral part of the building’s structural design is something we can’t independently verify. Hence, my conclusion to him was that we wouldn’t know, till the circumstances leading to the collapse has been fully investigated and a forensic engineering report released.

At least for a “sane clime”, as it is loosely called, this is a fair answer. However, it suddenly occurred to me that it is Nigeria.  Who is going to investigate what? And what forensic report? Isn’t it the usual procedure that we wait for an evitable structural failure to happen, we then set up panel of inquiries and committees to investigate and submit recommendations that would not be implemented until the next structural failure would happen, we then repeat the process- “rinsing and repeating” as it is often called in local parlance.

In 2022, Nigeria recorded over 61 incidents of building collapse. As I write this article, I don’t know of any forensic report that has been made public on any of these incidents, or do you? 

The only time professionals in the built environment have any clout is when there is a structural failure. As soon as the clout retires, everybody goes to sleep. What makes the collapse of this seven Storey building different from the 21 Storey building that went down on Gerald’s in Ikoyi? See, nobody is actually going to conduct any positive investigation on this failure. The harsh reality is that it would happen all over again. A former president of COREN, or ARCON, or NIStructE would soon go on another media round in at most 6 months’ time for the same cause. 

Having written extensively on structural failures and the lessons they hold for engineers; I can understand if a colleague thinks I am in a position to cure his curiosity on why a 7 Storey building went down while still under construction. However, this is where I concede.  I do not know and may never know why the 7 Storey building in Ikoyi, Lagos collapsed. It could be a design error as he has speculated. What I do know is why buildings fail in Nigeria. And, he has the best of my assurances that if an actual forensic investigation is conducted on the recent collapse, the apple will not fall far from the tree.

Why Buildings Fail in Nigeria

If you do a simple google search on why buildings collapse, the usual culprit includes inadequate design, poor workmanship, use of substandard materials, illegal alteration and modification et al.  All of these items can be grouped into technical and human factors, as this writer as previously written somewhere. ‘Faulty design’, ‘alterations’ and ‘modifications’ can all be grouped under technical factors, while use of substandard materials and poor workmanship are human factors. Hence you can think about technical factors as issues around design and implementation and human factors as purely human and procedural issues.

Sean Brady, a forensic engineer, submits that even where technical factors are very present, it is often the human factors that hold answers to why the failure would not be averted. This statement is especially true for Nigeria’s construction industry. Except in our case, it can even be posited that human factors are, in fact, responsible for why the structural failure would happen in the first place.

There is no statistics to back this claim up, however, I dare say that, if a forensic audit is conducted on structural failures in Nigeria today, human factors would turn out to be responsible for nearly all failures.

Neal Fitzsimons describes human factors in more precise terms as “the four horsemen of the engineering apocalypse: ignorance; incompetence, negligence and avarice.”  You can analyze and dissect all structural failures in Nigeria by simply considering these four “horsemen.” Indeed, structural failures in Nigeria are a reflection of societal failure. It is almost always going to be the case that someone somewhere was either ignorant, or incompetent, or negligent, or got paid to vary a building approval document.  

Take the case of the 21-storey building in Ikoyi that went down in November 2021 as a case study. According to official information in the public, this was a building originally designed for 6 floors, along the line was reviewed to 15 floors, and then the developer went ahead to add 6 extra floors. Anyone who understands the standard process of building approvals knows that approval is a continuous process up until the close of a project.  Each major construction stage had to be scrutinized by the building control agency before a formal approval is granted for each construction stage to happen.

What comes to mind in the case of the ill-fated 21-storey building is how it was possible to add 6 extra floors without the notice of the regulatory body?  For instance, who vetted and gave approval for the 21st floor? Could it have been the case that the building regulation agencies weren’t aware of this change? Who gave the approval? Think about it, what are the odds that you would add just one floor without approval and without the notice of the building regulatory body? I don’t know if your guess is as good as mine, but my answer is zero, at least in the FCT and Lagos.

The answer to these disturbing train of questions is that people saddled with the responsibility of ensuring that building collapse do not happen were compromised. To put it succinctly, some people in government were aware of this change, they were aware of infractions, they were also aware that the structural engineering consultant had pulled-out on account of these infractions and how the project was been executed. However, all of these meant nothing to them. Hence, they did nothing. The panel of inquiry commissioned to determine the cause of this failure ultimately found that negligence by agencies responsible for approval and supervision of the building project led to the failure.

Almost all structural engineering failures in Nigeria have a similar storyline. When it’s not a developer displaying crass ignorance, sometimes even gasconading about how he does not require the service of consultants, because he has gotten lucky with cutting corners for 30-something years, then it’s a civil engineer that has only practiced geotechnical engineering yet would dabble into the field of structural engineering at any instance, because the regulatory bodies grants him a seal that allows him to vet all civil engineering designs, even when he knows that he lacks the requisite competence to vet structural engineering projects.  And then, of course, the regulatory bodies in the built environment, the council for the regulation of engineering COREN in particular that hasn’t lived up to its reputation.

What Can Be Done

The answer to the question: Why do buildings fail in Nigeria? is purely human factors. Here are some practical steps that can be taken to address this issue.

Enforce Building Codes and Standards

One of the most effective ways to address building collapse in Nigeria is to enforce building codes and standards. The Nigerian government needs to develop and implement building codes and standards that are in line with international best practices. Builders and developers must adhere to these codes and standards, and any violations should be strongly met with penalties and legal action to serve as deterrent.

What we’ve mostly seen with structural failures in Nigeria is that there are no consequences for bad behaviour, hence there is no incentive to do the right thing.

Advocacy, Public Awareness and Education

There is a lot that has to be done at the level of advocacy. If you ask the average Nigerian what he thinks is the standard process of putting up a building? What is the role of the structural engineer, for instance? How about the land surveyor? You are likely to end up with a resounding silence. The job of putting up a building doesn’t start with the architect and end with the roadside Mason. There are about 9 professionals in the built environment, each having a key role to play in putting up a building.

Thus, there is a need to increase public awareness and education on building development procedures and safety. This can be achieved through public campaigns, seminars, and workshops. The government, engineering regulatory, and professional bodies, media, and civil society organizations can work together to disseminate this information to the general public.

Improve Construction Quality and Materials

Building collapse can also be prevented by improving the quality of construction and materials used. Builders and developers must prioritize the use of high-quality materials and ensure that they are used correctly. The government, regulatory, and professional bodies must also be intentional about regulating the sale of substandard materials. This will help to ensure that buildings are constructed to standard, reducing the risk of a collapse.

Increase Building Inspections and Monitoring

Building inspections should be conducted regularly to ensure that buildings are constructed in compliance with building codes and standards. This can be achieved by strengthening the capacity of building regulatory agencies and increasing the number of inspectors. Building inspections should never be limited to the construction phase but should also cover the maintenance and upkeep of buildings. Building owners must be held responsible for ensuring that their buildings are safe and in compliance with building codes and standards.

Sanctions and Penalties

Finally, and more importantly, there must be a comprehensive forensic investigation into building failures in Nigeria to promote greater accountability in the construction industry. The government and professional bodies should be prepared to disclose unequivocally, the identities of the owners, investors, consultants, the entire project team, along with the building regulatory officers in charge of a project. These will help ensure that those responsible for any failures are held accountable and will encourage the adoption of more responsible practices in future construction projects.


To conclude here a quote from Sir Alec Merrison in the wake of the collapse of the box girders in the 1970s:

“No amount of writing of design codes and writing of contracts can in the end be guaranteed to prevent the results of stupidity, carelessness or incompetence. But one can do a great deal to discourage these vices and that must be done.”

Sir Alec Merrison

We can tweak the line and say no amount of setting up panel of inquiries and committees can be guaranteed to prevent recurrent building collapse in Nigeria, without concerted efforts from all stakeholders. Enforcing building codes and standards, increasing public awareness and education, improving construction quality and materials, increasing building inspections and monitoring, along with sanctions and penalties meted out to erring parties are all practical steps that can be taken to address this issue. And the regulatory and professional bodies must take the lead in implementing these measures.

See: Human Factors and Structural Failure

Sources & Citation

  • FitzSimons, N. (1986) ‘An Historical Perspective of Failures of Civil Engineering Works’, in Forensic Engineering: Learning from Failures, New York: ASCE, pp.38-45 2).
  •  BS EN 1991-1-7 Actions on structures. General actions. Accidental actions
  • Merrison Committee (1973) Inquiry into the basis of design and method of erection of steel-box girder bridges, London: HMSO
  • UK Building Regulation

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