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Opinions of Saturday, 10 November 2012

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney

Frog marching the Melcom House rogues to justice

By George Sydney Abugri

Gather in the Electoral Commissioner’s office. Drink some tea. Eat some biscuits. Engage in some banter. Let the bonhomie and camaraderie flow like never before.

Pledge a mutual commitment to civil, ethical and peaceful conduct of Election 2012. Share a song about humble winners and graceful losers. Remind each other that while eight have been called, only one gets to wear the crown. Thump each on the back and let each be on his way to December 7.

Save what they told the media on emerging from behind steel walls and closed doors, it is difficult to say what else transpired between Electoral Commissioner Dr. Afari-Gyan and the eight presidential candidates when they met in the commissioner’s office on Tuesday.

What I might add, Jomo, is that no sooner had the presidential candidates taken leave of Dr. Afari-Gyan and returned to the campaign trail, than disaster struck our mighty republic:

It was one of the most heart-rending catastrophes to occur in Ghana in recent times and it took attention away from a national uproar that had gone up over the attempts by the executive and the legislature to award their good selves, ridiculously monstrous pay increases at the over-taxed tax payers’ expense.

The six-storey building housing the Achimota branch of Melcom suddenly and inexplicably imploded on Wednesday morning without a single terrorist in sight, killing and trapping scores of morning shoppers and workers of the country’s foremost retail chain.

During the past decade, I have watched with some apprehension, our local versions of the skyscraper rear up across the skyline of Accra in stiff competition for colour, height and architectural elegance and wondered how the new generation of high-rise buildings sparkling in the noon sun would fare in times of disasters requiring swift evacuation.

Now it emerges that there may be grave structural deficiencies the construction of some of the new symbols of the recent massive investment in business and construction and the fast emerging middle class, even as the wolf stays sentry at the average Ghanaian’s door.

President John Mahama who was up on the Savanna campaigning for precious votes to the loud and jazzy tune of, “the man is abusing incumbency”, cut short his campaign and returned to Accra muttering threats of judicial reprisals against those whose actions and inactions led to the tragedy.

Stringing up those whose negligence led to the tragedy on the gallows to dry for heaven or hell will not bring the dead back to life or heal the badly injured and the traumatized but it will do one thing: Affirm to all and sundry that laws and regulations in our statues are not meant as jokes.

When we are done with sanctioning the rogues responsible for the tragedy, it will be necessary to take a look at the sudden collapse of the high rise building from a much broader perspective as there is apparently something untoward going on in the country’s building community.

From masons, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and contractors through structural engineers and architects to building inspectors, officials in charge of building permits and those in charge of monitoring construction work, many need the good old check-over for competence, honesty and integrity.

We will have to await the outcome of geotechnical, structural and architectural investigations into the tragedy but I can hazard a couple of tame guesses in the mean time: To cut down on the cost of construction and maximize profits, some contractors use substandard building materials, employ untrained workmen and engage incompetent professionals in the various delicate construction activities.

The statement by Melcom that the building is a rented one, brings us right back to the same vexed issue of many people in Ghana not wanting to pay for professional services so that they can “save costs” and make handsome profits.

Did Melcom engage professionals to inspect and certify the suitability of the six storey building as stores for example? That is only another way of asking whether the building was designed to bear the weight of goods, materials and equipment of the giant supermarket or whether it was designed for use as offices only.

The yet to be verified claim that the high rise building had been constructed without a valid building permit, is so incredible that we will have to await confirmation.

The unbelievable impression is given that there is no national institution with responsibility for ensuring the appropriate design, building and monitoring of construction work on public buildings in Ghana, to make them safe for occupation and the conduct of commercial activities.

Maybe the various experts in the country’s building community will speak up for themselves on these matters in coming weeks- the structural engineers, architects, builders and professionals who designing and monitoring construction works at building sites.

Oh yes, it was a carbon black Wednesday for us this week, Jomo: From shortly after 9.00 AM until midnight, people in offices, shops, supermarkets, homes and other places watched the agonizing episodes unfold on television screens:

Totally distraught people stood around the vast debris of the collapsed building weeping and talking on mobile phones to relatives trapped in the rubble as frantic rescue operations went on. Human limbs stuck out from under the debris as rescue workers dug at concrete with pick axes and other hand tools to get out the trapped.

The response of the police, the military, the Fire Service, the ambulance service and public-spirited volunteers and deployment at short notice, of cranes, dozers, excavators and other rescue equipment was commendable but there was an element of initial disorganization and impromptu improvisation about it all.

This is one tragedy that points to the need for a specialized institution equipped to deal more adequately with disasters of this nature.

As dusk approached on Wednesday and relations of the dead were grieving and those of the trapped shoppers and Melcom workers were praying, news came that a plane had taken up for the skies in Israel and was fast bound for Ghana, laden with medical and rescue equipment, disaster management experts, medical doctors with trauma expertise and various specialists in rescue operations.

That is it, Jomo! If I get elected president my reincarnated life around, that is where I will put some of the money from cocoa and taxes: The establishment of a national emergency service equipped with up-to-date rescue technology and equipment and staffed by professionals across the relevant disciplines on the Israeli disaster management team list.

When we have lived down this tragedy a bit, Jomo, we might be returning to one riddle: How the President of the republic, by his account, got a big, fat pay rise without his knowledge, until news of the pay increase became public and the prospect of grossly underpaid and perpetually stone-broke workers pouring out into the streets to demand their share of big pie on offer, appeared real.

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