Scaffolding for hire, Abuja's ghost houses: The lives and times of Nigerian buildings

A Nigerian government audit revealed that there were a staggering 435 abandoned buildings in the capital, most of them reach six or eight storeys.

THIS WEEK, a guesthouse in the church compound of flamboyant preacher TB Joshua collapsed in Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos, killing 67 South Africans, and injuring a reported 131 others whose nationality is not confirmed.

The total death toll is also not clear, but the latest figures put it at 84. It appears that the wing that collapsed was housing South Africans visiting as part of a bigger group of 300. According to reports the building collapsed as two extra storeys were being added to three existing floors—without strengthening the foundations.

But the preacher denies that it was simple negligence that bought down the building, suggesting a low-flying aircraft was responsible for the collapse and released security camera footage apparently showing a plane flying four times over the hostel before it came down.

However, to understand the bigger forces that brought down the godly hostel, a good place to start could be in a cramped corner of Ikeja, Lagos, in a modest-looking business selling assorted items such as mobile phone airtime, plastic buckets and confectionery. There are a few planks of wood strapped together outside the shop, and hanging over them a sign “Scaffolding For Hire”.

It’s a curious sight, and raises the question why any decent contractor putting up a building would hire scaffolding, but it’s just a snapshot of the extensive informality that predominates the economy in the city, where being a middleman is a quick way to squeeze through the cracks and make a kill—so all sorts of things are up for hire.

Elsewhere, an original Armani suit or Louis Vuitton bag is a luxury good purchased as a status symbol; but in Lagos, it could be also be  asolid business investment—there is a market for designer gear for hire as people try to make an impression in business meetings and the like.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but one entertainment promoter in the city told this writer that the hourly rate for an Armani suit, for example is about $300—so lending it out just three or four times recoups the investment.

But if the problem in Lagos is cutting corners, the federal capital Abuja faces a different challenge. Driving on the wide, smooth highways, one is struck by the number of huge buildings dotting the expansive city that seem to be under construction. But a closer look reveals a different story—the sites are eerily quiet, the stones have started to wear, and moss and even grass is sprouting from the walls and roof.

Abuja is one of Africa’s top five most expensive cities, and one might think that it is a simple case of a supply-demand mismatch: that people are building big expensive buildings hoping to make a handsome profit, but that the demand is simply not there.

But one government audit revealed that there were a staggering 435 abandoned buildings in Abuja, and most of them are not small-time structures, they can reach six or eight storeys.

When asked why there were so many unfinished buildings in the city, one Abuja resident told this writer that it was because the owners had violated some regulation in the building code and the authorities moved in to halt construction.

But the sheer number of abandoned structures didn’t make sense, until another taxi driver – the fellows will always have the best local knowledge in most cities - gave an alternative insight into the story. “Most of these buildings are put up using corrupt money, and when the money stops, the building stops too,” he said. Strict controls on movement to previous safe havens abroad means that many people cannot stash illegally acquired money abroad, so they launder it through real estate. “They don’t care if the building is finished or not, because all they want is to use the property as collateral for more money from a bank,” he said. And if they don’t pay back the loan, the bank simply repossesses the property and life moves on—until the next chap comes along looking for scaffolding to hire, just for the day.

“Prophet” Joshua is a man of God, and far be it for him to break both God’s or Caesar’s laws. However, while the good book speaks of temples, it says nothing about hostels, especially in Nigeria. Like the ghost houses in Abuja, therefore, it was probably built to much lower standards.


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