BY ETIM INYANG
THE debate over the quality of cement being sold in Nigeria cannot be ignored, owing to the importance of cement in building and construction. Cement is a chemical binder, a substance that sets and hardens independently, and can bind other materials together. With all these qualities, cement is no doubt, a central factor in building and construction. It serves as the major framework which all other materials cling to.
On one hand, a coalition of civil society groups and professional bodies in the construction industry are set to launch a major campaign for what they call the standardisation of cement production and importation in Nigeria, on the grounds that government is turning a blind eye to the scourge of substandard cement in the country.
The coalition further outlined its planned activities that included getting the National Assembly to probe manufacturers and importers for compromising standards; enlisting the Consumer Protection Council, CPC, to help with regulation, enforcing the National Building Code and enlisting the Council of Registered Engineers of Nigeria, COREN, in fighting sub-standard cement. The coalition of civil society groups also planned to confront the Cement Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, CMAN, for what it called the poor standard of local and imported cement.
On the other hand, most of the cement manufacturers, under the auspices of CMAN, deny the accusation levelled against it by the coalition, stating that they have all along complied with conventional practice in the cement industry. The nation’s leading manufacturer of cement, Dangote Cement Plc, however, toes a somewhat different line; one that has pitched the company in-between both contrasting assertions.
While Dangote Cement Plc believes that some cement manufacturers and importers deal in substandard cement, it strongly disagrees that it is among such companies, on the grounds that it has strived to maintain its brand name and leading position in the market by complying with global standards. Meanwhile, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, SON, has debunked the accusation levelled against it by the coalition of civil society groups, while affirming its stand on infractions and those who contravene the law and go contrary to set standards in the Nigerian market.
In response, SON stressed that there was no substandard cement in Nigeria, explaining that it was a matter of application of cement in practice. SON explained that it had long been in contact with the National Assembly over far-reaching matters as evident from records of its activities which are well known, and reminded that it had all along been working closely with the CPC and professional bodies like COREN, while it had continued to make progress in enforcing the national building code.
A question which one is tempted to ask is why the coalition of civil society groups did not approach SON with their alleged findings and discontentment, rather than going public with the matter; a situation that may have escalated the controversy and misinformed an aspect of the populace.
The controversy is not a complicated one, though there has been misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the true situation. To start with, Nigeria does not produce or trade in substandard cement. SON has ensured this through its tight supervision and regulation. The various types of cement available in the country are only being misapplied in some instances and not even in all cases.
Out of the three major grades of cement traded globally, namely 32.5N/m2 42.5N/m2 and 52.5N/m2, two main ones are traded in most countries, including Nigeria. These are 32.5 N/m2 and 42.5 N/m2. The 32.5 grade cement is used for lighter-weight construction such as plastering walls, for pavements, culverts, among other uses, while 42.5 is used to erect buildings, flyovers and other more solid structures.
The notion is that 32.5N/m2 is applied for usage where 42.5N/m2 is required, thus compromising human safety. This revelation has sent shockwaves round the industry and the nation at large, with associations like the Block Moulders Association of Nigeria, BMAN, calling on the government to verify the claim. The appropriate authorities should not hesitate to address this situation.
Thankfully, SON is on hand to address the situation. It must, however, be pointed out that the regulation, monitoring and attempts to ensure strict compliance to standards are not for SON alone. Indeed, SON has been in the eye of the media, and rightly so. SON must be commended for its herculean efforts in upgrading national quality infrastructure such as the enumeration of standards, upgrading of testing laboratories like the one which offers testing of building materials in Enugu, among other quality infrastructure which SON has put in place.
It is noteworthy to state that 32.5 is not a bad grade for cement. It has served and will continue to serve many purposes. However, the right type of cement must be used for the right type of construction. The advantage which the higher grade of cement has over the lower is that the higher (42.5) can perform most functions which the lower (32.5) can perform, but such is not obtainable when the reverse is the case. I have travelled far and wide and the practice is the same.
It is also imperative for the decision makers to take a stand on the cement dispute, with a view of taking a decision that is in the best interest of Nigerians.
It is only appropriate and fair to all parties concerned, that we wait for an expeditious outcome of the technical committee meeting on the review of standards. This will provide the country and all stakeholders with the right guidelines for sustained activity in Nigeria’s cement industry, keeping in mind, the overall well being of the economy and its people.