The nearly-completed building on 1 Tiamiyu Savage Street, Victoria Island does not strike one as any different from the many that dot Lagos. The only thing that makes it a bit conspicuous is that it is one of the tallest buildings at the entrance to Tiamiyu Savage Street. However, within its skeletal bowels, certain factors that make it impossible for Mahmud, the Lebanese foreman to employ the horde of Nigerian labourers who daily besiege him for employment play out daily. Some of the unhappy Nigerian labourers told the magazine that when the scaffolding for the building was to be erected, Mahmud employed a Nigerian builder and paid him the full contract sum of N100, 000 for the project. According to some of the builders, the man constructed the scaffolding halfway and bolted.
Perhaps that was why Lucky Enahoro, 27, a former security guard at a blue chip company, has not been lucky with landing a job as a manual labourer with Mahmud. Enahoro told the magazine that when he lost his job and accommodation in 2005, he decided to take refuge at the Kuramo beach, Victoria Island, VI, from where he hoped to clinch another job. None came, and that was when he decided to do odd jobs to get by. According to him, ‘as soon as I approached Mahmud and he found out my nationality, he threw me out at once!’ Enahoro told the magazine that he had counted more than 20 other manual workers that Mahmud gave jobs and he wondered what he had done wrong. Undaunted, Enahoro said he mixed with the labourers on the site one day when they were having lunch and found out that nearly all of them were Togolese, Beninese and a few Ghanaian. ‘I tried to pose as one of them so that I could at least get something to do. But they found and threw me out again’, he said.
Enahoro is angry. So are other Nigerians on that site and many other sites across the country. Some told the magazine that they are angry because of the nickels and dimes they are paid. A construction worker on that building on Tiamiyu Savage who wanted to remain anonymous said that he was not worried that Togolese and Beninese builders were getting all the construction jobs at the sites. ‘What worries me is that they come very cheap. Because of their large numbers, and because they accept whatever conditions from the site managers, we get paid only N500 working from dusk till dawn. The workers from Togo and Benin Republic collect less than N200 daily and there are many of them willing to accept such meager pay’, he said.
This may not always be the case. The inability of Nigerians to land construction jobs seems to stem from their own negligence. Ben Ejimadu, a building engineer told the magazine that Nigerian builders are mostly unreliable, citing the spate of collapsed buildings across the country as the reason why most contractors prefer Togolese and Beninese builders. ‘Instead of using materials to specification, they cut corners. If you tell them to mix one bag of cement to 20 head pans of sand, they mix a bag of cement to 30 head pans. They count by bag of cement rather than what you ask them to. They want to make more money at the expense of the safety of the owners of the buildings. In fact, most of them belong to building associations that impose all kinds of conditions and the number of days that they must spend in the construction of specific kinds of buildings. One of those conditions is that they must spread out the required number of days, and collect certain fees that may not have been part of your initial agreement with them.’, Ejimadu said. He added that the problem of quackery in the building industry also contributes to the preference for foreign construction workers by Nigerian contractors. Ejimadu also told the magazine that there is no dearth of Nigerian professionals to handle the technical aspects of building houses, but that process has been hijacked by Nigerian quacks, who insist that because they had worked with big firms like Julius Berger, and Reynolds Construction Company, RCC, etcetera, they should call the shots. Kemi Ushie, a pastor with the Redeemed Christian Church of God, RCCG, and also a landowner, said that some landlords must take some of the for the preference for foreigners instead of Nigerian builders. According to her, ’many landlords or property owners do not provide the required materials needed to construct the houses. They ask the builders to ‘’manage’’, probably because of the fact that they may not be the ones to live in those houses. You will find out that by the time they begin to ‘’manage’’, what should go into the building will not, and most of the buildings begin to crack’.
The preference for foreigners to build houses in Nigeria has gone on quietly for more than 30 years, and neither is it confined to masonry. Carpenters, welders, fitters, and electricians trooped into Nigeria from West Africa since the early 80s in search of jobs which they usually get. Investigations reveal that they are usually work long hours, sleep on the premises they work on, and are very reliable. They pass their expertise on to their siblings and children, from generation to generation. Take Oliver, a 14 year old from Benin Republic for instance, who is already an expert tiller. He is apprenticed to his uncle and as at when I spoke with him at a construction site in Ikoyi, Lagos, he had already served four years of his apprenticeship with his uncle whom he referred to simply as ‘master’. Oliver’s master said that the young boys who were with him struggled to come under his tutelage and are expected to pay N10, 000 each, to be trained as tillers because of the belief that it was easier to make it in Nigeria than any other country in West Africa. When they graduate, he would set them up by working with them and from there he collects the fee that they did not pay him when they began their tutelage with him. Oliver’s master told the magazine that big companies in Nigeria fall over each other for his services because of the reputation he had gathered over the years.
Many Togolese and Beninese who now struggle to come to Nigeria because of the lucrative nature of their business are ready catch for those who smuggle them through Nigeria’s porous borders. Musa Ibrahim, a ‘house agent’, is the kingpin of a cartel in Porto Novo, Benin Republic, which smuggles architects, bricklayers, plumbers and electricians into Lagos. According to him, crossing the border is not a problem because he usually gives ‘egunje’ to the Customs officials on patrol. He told me in Porto Novo that after he collects his fees from the contractors on the Nigerian end of the racket, he could still negotiate to manage the building construction site. ‘The workers must be paid their full fees if the house to be constructed is a bungalow, but in cases of storey building, they collect their fees in bits’, Ibrahim said.
Francoise, 49, a builder who resides in Porto Novo said that he has crossed the Badagry border to Lagos, for more than 20 years to many Nigerian cities to handle many building construction jobs. According to him, it usually takes only 12 persons, in six to eight months to start and finish a two-storey building. His fees depend on the location of the building to be constructed. He said that if the building is in a semi-rural location like Porto Novo, it would take at least CF9million [N3million] to raise it up to the decking, and another CF7million [N2.5million] to complete the building. This, however, does not include the costs of electrical fittings, plumbing, and painting and carpentry.
Nigeria is not the only country in the world that experiences this kind of illegal occupational mobility. In the wake of the global financial meltdown, many banks in the United States resorted to collecting billions of dollars in Federal bailout money to stay afloat. They did not stop at that. They also requested government permission to bring in
hundreds of foreign workers to the US for high-paying jobs. Associated Press, AP, review of visa applicants revealed that the 12 banks that received about $150billion in bailout money, requested visas for more than 21,800 foreign workers in the last six years for senior executive positions. ‘The average annual salary for those jobs was $90,721, nearly twice the median income for all American households. The figures are significant because they show that the bailed out banks, kept afloat with US tax payers money, actively sought to hire foreign workers instead of American workers. As the economic collapse worsened last year, – with huge numbers of bank employees laid off – the number of visas sought by the 12 banks increased by nearly one-third, from 3,258 to 4,163 in fiscal 2008’, the AP report said.
What makes the situation worrisome is that while there are coordinated processes that bring skilled workers to most countries to work legally, none of that exists in Nigeria. At the nation’s borders, officials of customs and immigration are most times the coordinators of illegal oil bunkering and smuggling activities that the Idi-Iroko and Seme borders are notorious for. Matthew-Kester Okosun, assistant comptroller of immigration, Nigeria Immigration Service, NIS, Ogun State Command, said that because of certain ‘contiguous areas’, like Ilaro in Ogun State that share a common border between Nigeria and Benin Republic, it would be difficult to establish any meaningful check on the influx of artisans pouring into Nigeria. Godwin Morka, head, Lagos Zonal office, of the National Agency for the Prohibition of traffic in Persons and other related matters, NANTIP, said that there was an ECOWAS treaty that stipulated that ECOWAS citizens were free to move freely within the sub-region, but they must regularize their stay within 60 days. In spite of the assurance that houses built by Beninese and Togolese have stood the test of time, Nigerian carpenter, mechanics and masons will continue to bear the brunt of their own inefficiency.