By Olayinka Ajayi

Mr. Benson Ezem is a Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA). Ezem is also the Managing Director of Cosmo Base Consortium and founder of Jades Hotel, Abuja. In this interview, the revered architect speaks on the need for the panel probing buildings collapse to desist from shrouding their reports in secrecy for stakeholders and the public to learn. Excerpts:

How do you describe your humble beginning as a young architect?

I have been in the business of training and redirecting young architects to become professionals with integrity in the practice of architecture.

Apart from that, we have ventured into other businesses on the need to add value to ourselves. In the larger area, we do philanthropy and we have, over the years, impacted on youths by investing in them and making them have impact in the society. I am someone that encourages entrepreneurship a lot and that is why the Umuhia Development Association’s Youth Wing in Lagos honoured me with an award. So, entrepreneurship is the way to go to develop our economy in Nigeria. The Bill Gates of this world started as an entrepreneur. They wouldn’t have come without starting something on their own.

What has happened today is that Nigeria has left the creation of wealth to people entering into politics to amass wealth without having something to show that this is the source of the wealth. People boast of billions of naira and there’s no industry they can point to, you see people with private jets and there’s no industry that has given rise to these private jets. You see that at the end of the day, this money will soon disappear because if there’s no history, there’s no story. There should be a history to any wealth that has been created. If you create wealth, you start small and begin to develop; you find it difficult buying luxurious items.

You won’t go putting your wealth into cars valued at about N200million. I started my company in somebody’s boys’ quarters. From there I got a one-bedroom office, I hired a secretary and the company grew in leaps and bound. I can tell you the history of every kobo I made in my life. I got some young architects, trained them, and today they are doing exploits in their fields. So it gladdens my heart that I have developed people. Apart from the company, I have encouraged a lot of people in the area of employment both in the private and public sectors. It gives me joy to see these people happy. Many have come to me for mentorship and it gives me joy to have mentored them. For me, that is the thing that shows that I have given back to society when I look back.

With your experience of over 40 years in architecture, what in your view could have led to the recently collapsed 21 storey building that buried about 45 persons?

Our problem in Nigeria is that we are fighting corruption. There’s corruption in every area. A building is supposed to be a life-long project. You expect a building to last about 50 to 100 years, so everything that has to be done, has to be done right. So, before any building of such capacity is to be constructed, you need approval from government and I expect that, in that government agency, there are professionals. The approval is supposed to start from architect designs with all the relevant professionals that are supposed to be properly checked from table to table.

On the site, there are supposed to be soil tests, surveys, and theological tests among others. If people are to do their work, they are expected to do their work at every level. If these things are subjected to relevant authorities, collapse is not supposed to occur. If developers follow approvals and what is recommended at every level, there won’t be a problem. Sometimes clients want to cut corners. They would tell you “look if I follow your instructions, I am going to spend money.” You see, building a house is not a matter of butter and bread. When people come to the house we developed, if it’s the 16 mm rod we recommended, you must use the 16mm rod. If it is 1 to 2 to 4 concrete, you must adhere to our dictate. Contractors would tell you not to bother that it can be manipulated.

But sometimes it’s the lack of confidence in the competence of Nigerian architects that warrant clients to seek for foreign architects…

That is the mistake most of them are making. Nigerian architects that are worth their expertise are trained to operate in this region. It’s a different thing when you bring somebody from abroad. A foreigner must subject himself to the Nigerian practice. We once had a situation like that when I was involved in a project for the first Benin Central Hospital. Then governor took the drawing outside the country and they came back with it and there was a problem. If you give a Nigerian architect the opportunity they will definitely deliver. They have been handling projects of multi-buildings and there have been no collapses, then you bring somebody who does not know the area, the soil and some other things about the area and you expect that the person is going to do well. It’s a pity that this has happened but it would serve as a lesson for all of us.

What lesson does it bring?

The lesson is that you must obey every instruction given and follow the designs of your consultants. Your consultants are like your doctors when it comes to building, if your doctor prescribes a particular drug for your well-being, and you oblige, why would you on earth reject the instruction of your consultant? If you want to have a good return on your investment, you don’t play with N1million, N2million of somebody that would help you manage that money. You must take instructions. Don’t look for too much profit that you would want to use to acquire an aircraft tomorrow.

But are you aware of the panel set up to look into the Ikoyi building collapse?

Yes. But they should do a thorough job and make it public for everybody to learn. Because that is our challenge in this part of the world. Everybody is aware of the panel’s objective, but they should desist from shrouding their report in secrecy. If we want to move forward as a nation, in every situation, there’s something to learn from. Also from every panel of investigation, there’s something the public could learn from and something the professionals would also learn from.

As a professional, do you see 30 days being enough to come up with a factual report?

It’s enough to come up with something tangible. Was there a drawing, was it followed? What did the government do? At what point was it approved? 30 days is enough to do that. All they are just doing is post mortem. My advice to them is to be thorough and the areas that need to be investigated should be investigated. It would help us move forward as a nation and in the profession.

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