Featured Notes Wole Olaoye

Calamity and the Rumour Mill

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By Wole Olaoye. wole.olaoye@gmail.com

The vulture is a patient bird. That’s in the animal kingdom. Among humankind, the vulture of social media is the most restless and jumpy animal ever to walk the surface of the earth. In the forest, the bush or the desert, the vulture baits its prey until it drops dead. In real life among homo sapiens, the vulture makes carrion out of every kind of human beef, dead or alive.

The collapse of a 21-storey building under construction in Ikoyi, Lagos, was a monumental tragedy which shocked the world. Nothing sells like bad news, so the major global networks compete to flash the breaking news. Crumbling skyscrapers aren’t exactly what Nigeria wants to be known for, but here we are — confronted with our omissions and commissions and helpless in the face of an eventuality we could have prevented.

Tragedy is part of life. But tragic incidents are made more horrendous by the total detachment and loss of humanity demonstrated by those who pretend to know the hows and whys and wheretofores of happenings yet to fully unravel.

God rest the souls of all the victims. When such terrible events happen, some analysts are quick to make judgements and deliver sentences before the full facts are available. Ahead of the interment of some of the notable victims, some social media vultures are already pissing on their graves in advance. The craze for relevance in the unfolding revelations about the property is so intense that every social media loonie has taken off on his/her own tangent to propound conspiracy theories and libel innocent personalities.

Take the allegation against Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo for instance. The social media vultures alleged that the land on which the ill-fated building sat belonged to him and that he was even a co-investor on the property. As a corollary, the purveyors of fake news suggested that Femi Osibona, the property owner, was fronting for some big politician. The name of Chief Michael Ade Ojo, proprietor of Elizade Motors and founder of Elizade University was thrown into the mix as the original landowner who sold the plot to Osinbajo before Osinbajo offloaded it to Osibona.

Lies! The Vice-President’s media aide reacted swiftly and pointedly to the allegations that (a) The VP owns the land upon which the collapsed building in Ikoyi stood; (b) That the said land was sold to him by Chief Michael Ade. Ojo, Chairman of Elizade Motors; and (c) That the Vice President, at some point, intervened with the regulatory authorities in Lagos State to unseal the said property.

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Laolu Akande, who signed the press statement declared: “At no time whatsoever did the VP buy this or any other piece of land from Chief Michael Ade. Ojo, or entered into any transaction for the sale of that land or any other piece of land from Chief Ade. Ojo or anyone for that matter. All property and assets owned by the Vice President have been publicly declared.

“Also, the Vice President has never spoken to the Governor of Lagos State or any other official of the State Government regarding the unsealing of the said building on Gerrard Road, Ikoyi, which subsequently collapsed. He has, indeed, never acted to influence any other regulatory action on the collapsed building, or any other building for that matter, in Lagos State. The Vice President restates categorically that he has no interest whatsoever, and has never had any interest, either legally or beneficially, in the land, the building or development.”

Prof Osinbajo decried the “wickedness and viciousness of a lie that seeks to utilise a tragedy where so many people have lost their lives, even as rescue efforts are ongoing, and in wanton disregard to the feelings and untold grief of their loved ones for political gain”

The coordinated assault on the integrity of VP Osinbajo reeked of a well coordinated flinging of political dung at a man who knew nothing and had no hand in the unfortunate disaster. As 2023 presidential jostling gathers steam, we are likely to see more of such attempts to de-market those considered credible threats to the ambitions of some other puppeteer lurking in the shadows.

As a citizen — and considering our habitual lethargy in such matters — I think commendations are in order for the responsiveness of the Lagos State government under the leadership of Babajide Sanwo-Olu. The governor has now confirmed that the developer has approval for a 15-storey building, not 21-storey.

How he sidetracked an earlier order to stop work on the site and the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of the original firm of structural engineers supervising the project, are some of the knots to be untied by the newly constituted panel of enquiry made up of a Town Planner, Structural Engineer, Architect, Builder and two Lawyers with one of them acting as secretary.

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Not many people will be surprised if eventually the investigative panel proves that the developer cut corners and shunned the building code. It happens with us all the time. If that turns out to be the case, I still contend that we all have to look in the mirror. If a man who has successfully operated in the property markets of South Africa, USA and the UK returns home only to defy building codes (as he cannot do in those other climes without grievous consequences), we must take another look at our culture of impunity fuelled by corruption.

Of what use are laws if they won’t be enforced?

The General Manager of the Lagos State Building Control Agency, LASBCA, Gbolahan Oki, has been suspended. The governor promised to guillotine more heads if other people are found culpable in the course of investigations. “Mistakes were made from all angles,” said the governor.

Help desks have been set up on site to give information and psychological props to distraught family members. But the big problem is that nobody, not even the government or any of its agencies, knows the number of people on site when disaster struck. The customary manifest that is supposed to be filled on site was non-existent. As at the time of writing this piece, 38 corpses (including that of the property developer, his visiting friend and his personal assistant) had been recovered. There are nine survivors so far.

As a precautionary measure, the state government has sealed at least 67 commercial, residential buildings and other structures in Alimosho Local Government Area over contraventions of planning laws. Perhaps we can begin to learn to follow due process in such matters going forward.

Social media is rife with salacious stories, many of which are unverified. This has compounded the grief of families who are yet to locate their loved ones. It is clear that attention seekers determined to ‘trend’ on social media will do anything to score more hits by sounding authoritative on a matter they know next to nothing about. Suddenly, everyone is a building expert, the same way we all pretend to be security gurus.

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Among the perpetual ‘experts’ running riot on social media is one self-appointed investigative expert who apparently has the ability to predict the gestation stage of a snail’s pregnancy. She runs riot on every subject, slanders people at will and claims ‘inside knowledge’ of every subject under the sun. Such media vultures can’t wait for a piece of news to mature so that they can give a rounded narrative. And they are too arrogant to admit that all they have is a developing story. No, they claim to know the end from the beginning. Left to them, the panel of enquiry may as well not bother to sit. The armchair ‘investigative journalist’ knows all the answers.

In this digital age, we are constrained to live with fabricated information that is patently false. Many tools have been developed to help people detect it and distinguish it from real news. Websites like Snopes and Politifact verify information using a battalion of human fact-checkers. Machine based algorithms are now being developed to help tackle the problem.

Having tasted the many good sides of social media, who wants it to die? We are in the era of citizen journalism. Laypersons now write and disseminate their own news without any gatekeeper whatsoever. There is a liberating air around the new media, but beware, in the midst of reckless freedom lurks the viper.

Back to the calamity at hand: Are we going to learn the necessary lessons from this incident, or is it going to be just another significant mention in the litany of collapsed buildings in Lagos? Sanwo-Olu has his work cut out: carry out a comprehensive audit of buildings under construction in Lagos and enforce the laws! The housing needs of Nigeria’s largest city are enormous. There is understandable pressure. But of what use is an edifice that depopulates?

  • Wole Olaoye is a public relations practitioner and a public affairs commentator and can be reached at wole.olaoye@gmail.comReaders comments are welcome.

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