•Joe Odumodu, SON director-general
In the last few months, there has been another brewing war over cement in the country. This time around, the issue has to do with the 32.5mpa grade which a few stakeholders claim is responsible for the frequent building collapse in Nigeria. Curiously, it is the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), which had consistently maintained that all the cement produced in or imported into the country, met international standards that prescribed the reviewed standards of cement. Quite interestingly, only Dangote Cement, the dominant cement manufacturer in Nigeria, supports the SON’s review because it already has a headstart as it produces mainly the 42.5mpa cement. Others can hardly catch up.
Cement comes in three grades, 32.5mpa, 42.5mpa and recently, 52.5mpa.. The new policy prescribes the use of the 52.5mpa for the construction of bridges; 42.5mpa for the casting of columns, slabs and moulding of blocks and the 32.5mpa for plastering only. Hitherto, 32.5mpa had been used for most construction purposes. The matter eventually got to the House of Representatives which set up an Ad-hoc Committee on Public Investigative Hearing on the Composition and Pigmentation of Cement (Cement Quality) in Nigeria. The committee conducted a three-day public investigative session from May 13 to 15, 2014, with relevant stakeholders submitting memoranda to it. The stakeholders included Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment, SON, Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN), Cement Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (CMAN), Nigeria Society of Engineers, Nigerian Institute of Architects, Nigerian Institute of Building, Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, Federal Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development and FCT Development Department. All the eight cement manufacturers in the country also submitted their position papers on the matter.
The chairman of the ad-hoc committee, Yakubu Dogara, in his welcome address at the public investigative hearing noted that building collapse claimed about 297 lives between 1974 and 2010 .. These numbers do not take into account the injured as well as many cases of permanent disabilities. Material losses, if properly quantified, will be in billions of naira”. Without doubt, the figure will be higher if we realise that not all the cases of collapsed buildings are captured in the media.
Any rational human being confronted with such grim statistics would naturally be moved and the tendency could be to call for the removal of whatever is said to be responsible . But this is not something to be unduly emotional about. The situation requires extensive research to determine the true role that 32.5mpa cement played in these unfortunate incidents. As they say, ‘beheading cannot be the solution to headache’. Moreover, some of the prominent buildings built decades back were constructed with 32.5mpa cement and many of them are still standing. These include the National Assembly Complex, Abuja; Elephant House, Alausa, Lagos; Nitel Building, Lagos; Airport Hotel, Lagos; Western House, Lagos; Great Nigeria Insurance House, Lagos; Federal Secretariat, Lagos; Oriental Hotel, Lekki, Lagos; Premier Hotel, Ibadan and Cocoa House, also in Ibadan, among many others.
Many of these structures have been there for decades. Cocoa House, a 24-storey building, for instance, was commissioned in 1965. The 32-storey NITEL Building was completed in 1979, etc.
For me, to blame a particular grade of cement for building collapse is like blaming waiters in restaurants for obesity. We all know, as the House committee and other stakeholders in the industry noted, that cement is not the only material that is used in the construction industry. In essence therefore, it cannot alone be responsible for the high incidence of collapsed buildings. So many other things could have gone wrong in the mix that could have led to building collapse.
It would appear that the Federal Government has finally realised the dangers that unfair monopolies constitute to the economy, hence its decision to break them. At least that was the impression created by the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Mr. Olusegun Aganga, during the formal presentation of the Draft Competition and Consumer Protection Policy to ministries, extra-ministerial agencies, organised business communities and state governments in the northern part of Nigeria, when he disclosed that a new competition and consumer protection policy that would address the various trade concerns and provide a level-playing ground for businessmen in the interest of consumers, in particular, and the economy at large, would begin soon.
Unfortunately, it is the same minister and SON that are behind the review of cement standards in the country in this suspicious manner. Now, at what point did SON have a change of heart, having certified the 32.5mpa cement as having met international standards, until lately? From the look of things, it would seem the decision was hasty and decisions on such crucial matters ought to be properly digested before they become government policy. All the critical stakeholders in the built industry that presented memoranda to the House committee could not have been wrong. Most of them are professionals in their own rights whose views should count when such decisions are about to be taken.
This was what the House committee public sitting on the matter achieved. Its conclusions are much more robust and reflect the cross-fertilisation of ideas that went into their assignment. If we are even to go by the assertion by COREN that “SON does not have a technical laboratory nor competence to test the qualities of cement produced, packaged or imported into Nigeria, nor equipment for periodic monitoring of companies producing cement in Nigeria”, at the public hearing, a claim the House committee said “was not refuted by SON”, then, we can see that there is much to the matter than meets the eye. As the committee observed, no other country, apart from China, has banned the production of 32.5mpa cement. India’s grade 43 is said to be equivalent to the 32.5 mpa. Even China that banned the 32.5mpa did so because it has achieved over-capacity in cement production, and, also as the committee noted, “to address environmental concerns”. Nigeria is nowhere near self-sufficiency in cement production.
It is instructive that the committee asserted that not in any single case of collapsed building has the use of 32.5mpa cement been blamed by the relevant independent professional bodies that investigated them. Buildings may collapse due to a number of factors including, but not limited to the following: the cement exhausting its shelf span or due to loss of its essential qualities as a result of stacking exposure or exposure to the element; lack of control or regulation, and because relevant standards on concrete and related issues are not enforced in the downstream informal construction sector. Other causes are: inadequate education or awareness on the appropriate application of cement grades in the country. Indeed, this is so serious, as, according to the House committee, “The level of ignorance of the availability of different grades of cement in the Nigerian market is so high to the extent that most directors of works and academic institutions of higher learning are not aware of the different types of cement available in the country”. So, “if gold rusts, what would iron do”? There is also the problem of the greed of some professionals or end-users who might decide to add more sand than required in the construction mix. Of course, there is also the problem of the quality of iron used in construction, etc.
What one can see in all of these is the ubiquitous ‘Nigerian Factor’. If, as SON claimed, the 32.5mpa cement is susceptible to misapplication and can therefore “result in construction failure”, what is the guarantee that cement of higher grades cannot also result in the same thing once those saddled with the responsibility of ensuring standards and best practices in the sector do not do their work as they should? Or, put differently, when the ‘Nigerian factor’ still reigns supreme? The sad reality is that more buildings will still collapse in the country unless we begin to hold people accountable for the menace.
All said, until it is conclusively proven that grade 32.5mpa cement is responsible for the high incidence of collapsed buildings in the country, or elsewhere, the SON review, which confers undue advantage on the dominant player in the industry that currently produces essentially the 42.5mpa grade would appear to have been targeted at stifling the weaker players who produce the 32.5mpa largely, and the 42.5mpa only on requests by their customers. It would be tantamount to continuation of the cement war by some other means, with the Federal Government throwing its weight, as usual, behind the dominant player. It does not make economic sense for any investor to set up a cement factory for the sole purpose of producing products for plastering. The government has to rethink the policy in the overall interest of the economy.