by Tolu Ogunlesi
With what I now know about the history of coup plotting in Nigeria, I will never again look at Ikoyi in the same way. I’m now much more attuned to its conspiratorial character, and its bloody, violent past (connected to its status as the seat of post-independence government for three decades); a past we seem rather disinclined to acknowledge.
For many of us, a drive along King George V Road in Ikoyi is most readily associated with the “Ghana High (Commission)”, that egalitarian palace of culinary delights to whose jollof rice feasts multitudes of Lagosians are daily drawn. No one thinks of the fact that on somewhere on that road once stood the official residences of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and Finance Minister Festus Okotie-Eboh, two of the highest profile victims of Nigeria’s first coup; the homes from which both men were during the January 1966 coup. (Neither of them made it back home alive.)
Again, driving along the Federal Secretariat Road, you’re more likely to be caught up in ruing the fate of the abandoned Secretariat building, than in pondering on the fact that you’re not very far off from where the then Head of State, Murtala Muhammed, was shot dead a decade after Prime Minister Balewa.
It seems to me that in stepping into the future as a country, we are faced with two options: We could either leave the past behind – with all its tragedies, failings, intrigues and demands for atonement and restitution – and march triumphantly into the presumed virgin-ness of the future; or, we could make that same journey dragging the past along, realising how much we need it as torchlight and guiding oracle to navigate the inevitable uncertainties that lie ahead.
The question therefore is a simple one: Do we need the past? Does it serve any purpose, beyond being a source of unhelpful guilt and shame? Should we leave the past where it is; obeying Karl Marx’ injunction, in his essay on the French Revolution, to jettison all “superstitious regard for the past” and to (echoing the words of Jesus Christ) “let the dead bury their dead.”
I think not. In support of my stance, I’d like to quote the Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
Interestingly, even Marx acknowledges that the past is never really past. He wrote, in that same French Revolution essay: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all the great events and characters of world history occur, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: The first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
Nigeria of course gleefully subverts that theory, and repeals the two-time Hegelian limit. So that, here, the first time is tragedy, the second farce, the third and fourth and fifth all the way to the umpteenth are simply habit, custom, or, to succumb to bureaucratic convention, “due process.”
It was perhaps with this in mind (this penchant for carrying on as though behind us is nothing but a blank slate inviting original atrocity) that Chinua Achebe spent his life advocating the need to “look back and try to find where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us”; endlessly reminding us of that Igbo proverb: “A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.”
Once upon a time, it was the colonial invaders who seemed bent on dispossessing Africa and Africans of their history. As recently as 1963, eminent British historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, was still famously declaring: “Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach.”
These days however we are the self-attacking aggressors, carrying on like there’s no past; like there are no lessons to be learnt from what has gone by.
If you watched the CNN or the BBC during the birth of the Royal Baby, you would have seen how, at every opportunity, the connections to recent and distant pasts were evoked – photos of Lady Diana and Prince Charles holding Baby William placed side-by-side with Prince William and Lady Catherine holding Baby George; alongside all those references to the fact that this is the first time in more than a century since a reigning monarch was alive to witness the birth of a great-grandchild in the line of succession, and that this was the first Prince of Cambridge born in almost 200 years.
Think of what this sort of “aware-ness” does for national pride.
Think also of what a consciousness of historical context does in helping instill a collective sense of responsibility in a people – the sobering effect of the realisation that just as we are beneficiaries and victims of decisions made long before our time, we will ourselves be leaving those coming behind us at the mercy of our own actions and inaction.
But in Nigeria, the very real connections between the past and the present and the future are made to exist in a permanently tenuous state. There is very little context to anything we do; everyone appears to act in a historical vacuum.
Monuments to genocide and slavery and war exist elsewhere in the world to remind people of the ever-present human capacity for descending into unspeakable horror. When these monuments are absent, as they often are in these parts, how do we even know the levels of the evil we’re capable of?
That’s how we’ve come to deal with a Lagos mostly without monuments. So obsessed with the present and the future, the immensely appealing prospects of “megacitiness”, that we forget the bloody and violent routes that have led us to where we stand today. Ikoyi Hotel, where on January 15, 1966, Lt.-Col. Abogo Largema was shot (just outside his room) and killed, has since come down, along with its bloody and sobering past, and been replaced by a swankier hotel; one of the emblems of our rising prosperity. Bar Beach, where, two decades ago, public executions of armed robbers and drug kingpins were a Sunday afternoon family entertainment, will soon be replaced by the Eko Atlantic City, the “Manhattan of West Africa”, where, all things being equal, armed robbers will be unheard of, Halleluia!
And that’s how we’ve also come to saddle ourselves with a country in which victims routinely die two deaths – the literal one at the hands of terrorists or ritualists or policemen or drug fakers or car accidents or tanker explosions, etc, and the other, a symbolic but no less painful one, at the hands of a society that refuses to give them, in death, names or faces.
This is my point: That, it is the same impulse responsible for the “forgetting” or the obliteration of Ikoyi history, for example, that lies behind our refusal to acknowledge that the countless victims of Boko Haram have names and lives; that they’re not merely “42 students shot in dawn Boko Haram attack.”
Of course, a part of the problem is the intimidating hand of poverty on the land. Who’s permitted to care about history, or memory, in a country where 70 per cent of the citizens cannot categorically tell you that they will have a single meal to eat tomorrow?
To put it in a more identifiable Nigerian lingo – Na history/memory/memorial we go chop?
Aren’t those First World problems such as museums and monuments and tributes better left to First World countries that have succeeded in first feeding and housing and providing medical insurance for most of their citizens?
Fair point. There is very little that can matter to a people wholly pre-occupied with hustling in a system that loudly advertises its disdain for compassion and safety-netting. Recall Maslow?
And therein lies the final, irreversible bit of the tragedy.
By the time we eventually wake up to the need to preserve and document and remember – and re-member – our past, distant and recent, it will be too late. By the time we start to seriously conceive of Lagos as a city with tourism appeal on a scale comparable to the big tourist destinations of the world (and we live perpetually on the brink of that possibility), it’ll be far too late. There will be no record of the fact that a man called Tafawa Balewa (once honoured with a Time Magazine cover) ruled Nigeria from this city, or that once upon a time, Obalende was the scene of some of the bloodiest gun battles imaginable, in quests for the control of Africa’s most appealing treasure-cave.
The Lagos State Government certainly deserves kudos for the impressive work done on the Old Colonial Prison on Broad Street (now Freedom Park), the Fela Kuti Museum in Ikeja, and the Obafemi Awolowo Museum in Lekki (on the site of a building where Awo was detained in the early 1960s).
But a lot more work needs to be done, and requires the efforts of everyone – governments, the corporate sector, individuals, academics.
Time is not on our side. In our quest to catch up with the rest of the globalising world, we risk ending up with a Lagos of villas and high-rises and malls and six-lane roads, but no past, no history. No knowing where the rain began to beat, or where the body began to dry.
We will all stand there, trapped on a spinning Ferris wheel of tragedy, farce, and habit; hapless prisoners of forces well beyond our comprehension.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Tolu Ogunlesi. Follow this writer on Twitter: @toluogunlesi