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Feature Article of Friday, 9 November 2012

Columnist: Ofosu-Appiah, Ben

The Melcom Disaster and Criminal Responsibility

. No One Should Escape !

On a day that the United States re-elected President Barack Obama for a second term and the world was rejoicing, a tragic and avoidable disaster struck Ghana. Of course I am talking about the collapse of Melcom store in Achimota. This was one disaster that was easily preventable and could have been avoided if our institutions were working and doing the job they were set up to do. This particular disaster speak to the level of building standards in our country. It is also a disaster that speak to the greed in our society where it seems everyone seeks the shortest possible route to riches and damn the consequences to himself and to others. Those who put up that death trap knew very well the dangers it pose to public safety but they ignored every reasoning and sound architectural and engineering design and just erected a box of blocks six stories high without any supporting beams of iron rods and iron.
The sad story is that there are many such badly constructed structures all over the place in Accra, Kumasi and all the big cities in Ghana. On my last visit to Ghana, I drove on the Spintex road I could count many such dangerous edifices several stories high without even a single iron rod in it, no iron beams to strengthen them, no real concrete and the dangerous part of it all is that they are meant to be used as public buildings e.g. as shops, and things like that. Who on earth authorized these death traps to be put up contrary to sound engineering reasoning. Our country does not work. No institutions work. People do crazy stupid things, and more. Have we become a moron nation?
A friend wrote in reaction to this tragedy.
“What travesty is this?
How can an entire edifice COLLAPSE the way this SIX-storey structure did? Who are the building surveyors who inspected/supervised this work? Who are the contractors? Who gave permission for such a structure to be put up where it was? And why are my people so backward? Why are people standing around, impeding the work of the emergency services and taking photos and laughing, when they can help by being OUT of the way or putting their shoulders to the wheel? One day. TWO diametrically opposed account of a human STORY!”
The owners of the building, the Accra Metropolitan Authority, Melcom management, the contractor who put up the structure, the architect who designed it, must all be held fully accountable for this disaster. No one connected with it should escape responsibility. The AMA, KMA and all the Municipal Assemblies must do a nation wide inspection of all facilities that are used for public purposes to make sure that they are safe and do not pose a danger to the public. It’s clear that our security forces and the Ghana Fire Service are not up to the task of emergency disaster relief and saving people trapped under a rubble. Having lived in Japan where there are many earthquakes and disaster relief operations, I can testify to how smooth and efficient they are in situations like this. Disaster drills are conducted several times a year, and everyone knows what to do in situations like this. I was appalled to see such a large crowd of people congregated at the disaster site blocking the security personnel who were supposed to engage in the rescue activities. Most appalling of all was that there was no sense of urgency on anyone’s part when lives were at stake and the onlookers were just laughing. It was a shame.
Disaster prevention and management should be a way of life. It is absolutely essential. When constructing new schools, it's design and construction should include a multi purpose gymnasium that can serve as evacuation center and shelter during disasters and as a place for indoors sports, and an auditorium for the school in normal times. As a matter of policy all public buildings should have clearly marked exit points, well lit and easily noticeable and accessible. In addition to the main exits, there should be clearly marked emergency exits, fire extinguishers placed at all vantage points, and a water hydrant. All public buildings taller than two floors should have at least two stairs one at each end big enough for easy entry and exit of the building just in case. Needless to say, they must be strengthened with iron beams, supportive beams, and must have strong foundation.

A revitalized NADMO with energetic people, well trained in disaster prevention and management, committed to and passionate about their job will implement and enforce these standards, organize educational programs to raise awareness about disasters. This new organization should move from being a passive participant in disaster management and prevention to a more active role in prevention and management. The work of distributing relief materials should be secondary and NEVER the primary role of this organization. It has to focus (or re-focus) on its primary task of preventing and managing disasters.
This was a mega huge disaster that could have been prevented. Only God knows if the shop had collapsed around mid day or on a weekend, how many people would have been in there at that time. We need to get Ghana back to work and one way to do that is to get our institutions working again. Build the capacity of our national institutions, and put politics aside to recruit well qualified and professional people to manage them. My message to our political leaders and everyone: Place the interest of Ghana and the people ahead of politics and your personal pockets and work to achieve results for the sake of this dear nation we all call home.
My heart goes out to those who lost their lives in this tragedy.

Ben Ofosu-Appiah,
Tokyo, JAPAN.
The writer is a senior political, social and economic analyst and a policy strategist based in Tokyo. He welcomes your comments: do4luv27@yahoo.com

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