Feature Article of Monday, 12 November 2012

Columnist: Daily Graphic

Voice from Afar: Melcom disaster puts a generation on trial

The collapse of the Melcom store at Achimota confirms institutional failure, official incompetence and the acceptance of petty corruption by us the people of Ghana.

Officials in various organisations are paid to ensure compliance with rules and regulations before licences are granted for the erection of buildings.

For some time, however, all that many officials did was to paint notices of “STOP WORK OR PRODUCE PERMIT” on structures being constructed.

The owner of the structure then sees the official or officials concerned “does custom” that is pays bribes and officialdom turns a blind eye on the illegal construction.

Law –abiding citizens find it impossible to follow laid down procedures.

They receive no replies to letters and applications. Therefore, they submit plans and the relevant documents to authority and proceed to build.

Near completion or after completion, officials appear and the “necessaries” are done and the building is sanctioned. The present generation has succumbed to the easy way of indiscipline and petty corruption and is on trial.

In the light of this, rules and procedures are forgotten.Few, if any remember the earthquake of 1939 and its effect on buildings. Only a few years ago, when I was the Chairman of the Building Committee of La Community Bank, idle gossipers accused me of wasting money on structural engineers.

“Fileppi is a good construction firm” they said, “Leave it to them” But Fileppi, being a good construction firm, worked closely and effectively with the consultants. We built a structure for three floors although immediately we needed only one floor.

For some time now, I have been writing about floors being added to buildings in Accra, I suspected that the foundations were not designed for the floors added. The first question we should ask about the collapsed Melcom building is whether the foundation could support the superstructure Melcom rented, the building and already there are questions about whether Melcom saw to it that the building was structurally suitable for the purpose for which it was used????. We should not allow such questions to divert us from the questions which should be asked by any enquiry.

In Ghana, we are not happy about conducting enquiries thoroughly so that improvement may follow. We have a culture of burying the past, especially the unpleasant ones. Great and costly consequences follow when an individual swears on the great Oath. But we should learn to confront the past thoroughly and faithfully to enlighten the future.

In the Melcom disaster’s case, the first question asked by any Committee or Commission of enquiry should be designed to find out what caused the collapse. An internal explosion or vibration might have been responsible. Sound can trigger off resonance with far reaching consequences.

A mild tremor might have caused movement to trigger off the disaster because of bad structural engineering or design. The experts should be asked to pronounce on these issues after the appropriate examination.

The next line of approach should be compliance with municipal planning and rules and regulations.

Was the plan of the area modified to allow the Melcom building to be erected?

Did the plan of the building satisfy all the rules and regulations? Those who issued the permit to allow the building to be erected should be interrogated. Copies of applications and replies should be produced. Severe sanctions should be imposed on officials and departmental heads if records are not kept or not available.

Buildings or houses should be inspected and approved for dwelling or offices. Appropriate installations or structures such as fire appliances may be required before permission for a particular occupancy is granted.

A committee of enquiry may also examine the quality of building materials and also concrete mixtures and reinforcement.

It is election time and the administration may find it difficult to adequately deal with the issues raised by the collapse of the Melcom building. But illegality in the building industry from land acquisition through changes in national or municipal plans to irregular building permits can lead to disasters. The collapse of the Melcom building is, therefore, an opportunity to examine the disaster at its roots. It should be a major election issue even if it exposes the present indiscipline of the Ghanaian and his or her disregard for rules and regulations and then connivance at petty corruption.