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Update on the Demolition of Olaiya House

I spent some time this afternoon at the site of Ọláìyá House/Ilojo Bar, a national monument, the contentious demolition of which I reported on yesterday and which has raised lots of angry voices including this petition by the Legacy Nigeria Group.

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Agents of LASBCA arriving to pull down the artificial fence.

I arrived there at around 1.55pm, just minutes after the officials of the Lagos State Building Control Agency (LASBCA) got there to begin opening up the corrugated roofing sheets which had been constructed to protect the site of demolition from public eyes.

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A view from within the enclosure, before the work began.

I sneaked into the enclosure and took a few shots of the workers. I also made a small panoramic video clip against the background of the pounding noise.

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There was no visible law enforcement. Just men in the uniform of the LASBCA and their supervisors.

Later I was accosted by two senior officials from the state ministry who wanted to know what I was doing in the enclosure. Told them I was a journalist and interested and curious citizen. But not being able to produce a “journalist” identity card, I was asked to leave.

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I was later referred to the PRO of the ministry, who gave me his phone number and promised to answer any questions I have at a later date, but not at the venue.

There were a few cameras on sight as well as a small television crew from TVC news who had wanted to interview the LASBCA director, Mr. Ọládọ̀tun Lásojú. They got their way after about an hour, when the demolition of the fence was done.

When I left the enclosure, I returned outside to eavesdrop on the surrounding conversations by observers and passers-by, and also talk to residents.

Here is what I gathered so far, from the scene, and from talking to eye-witnesses of the original demolition:

  1. Ilojo Bar was pulled down on Sunday, September 11, 2016, a day before the Eid Holidays which began on Monday the 12th. (Heartbreaking photos here)
  2. The demolition took about five hours to complete.
  3. At the time of demolition, there was nobody in the building. They had been served some notice ahead of time (perhaps a few days, perhaps a few hours) and they had evacuated, along with their properties.
  4. During and the demolition, area boys auctioned off parts of the building to the highest bidder. A part of the building (photo attached) was sold for 700 naira to a local resident who wanted it as souvenir and who has shared the photo with me.
  5. For the period of the demolition, nobody stopped the demolition crew. They operated freely.
  6. The “developer” who supervised the demolishing of the building had documented approval (either from a ministry in the state or a Federal one) to complete the task. Still unclear which. His name as he gave it to newsmen was “Onitolo”. (Source)
  7. After the building was completely pulled down on Sunday, and valuable parts of it auctioned out, the land was fenced around with corrugated roofing sheets, held together by thin wooden planks.
  8. There has been a conflict over the building for a while now, with competing descendants of the family taking their cases to Abuja over many years. The building could not have been pulled down without some form of support by government officials.
  9. [I’ll update as more facts become clear]
Bought for 700 naira on site

Bought for 700 naira on site

***

But before the pulling down of the roofing fence was complete, a group of men from the area came in to challenge the LASBCA workers and to ask them for their permit from the State Government to come work on a private property. They either didn’t have any, or weren’t willing to produce it. This got the invaders pretty incensed.

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The invaders

There was a lot of shuffle and near breakdown of order, but no punches were thrown. One of the men claims to have obtained the original permit to pull down Ilojo Bar. I tried but I couldn’t get him to show me the document he had so I could photograph it.

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The man in the white and red t-shirt coordinated the initial opposition and had plenty to say to the cameras later on. He is known as “Onitolo” and claims to have documented permit from the “government” which permitted him to supervise the demolition of the building. More here.

After a few hours of work and plenty arguments with the invading men, the LASBCA was finally done pulling down the artificial fencing. They then erected a green sign post they had brought along on which Lagos state asserts its claim to the space, warning trespassers off.

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New sign

Then there was a short press conference for the television crew.

The Press Conference

The Press Conference with the head of the LASBCA Mr. Ọládọ̀tun Lásoju (wearing the cap) and the General Manager of the Lagos State Physical Planning Permit Authority (LASPPPA), Mr. Rẹ̀mí Oni-Orísan (speaking)

I managed to shout in one indignant question about why the state couldn’t stop the demolition while it was in progress. The response was in itself a question: “What if they demolished it during the holidays when officials weren’t around?” I couldn’t get a follow-up in because the PRO held me back informing me that I hadn’t shown her that I was a journalist, and I was being a nuisance to the television recording.

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***

I have obtained exclusive video of the original demolition from Sunday, September 11. Watch it here.

I left the venue at around 3.05pm.

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Sacrilege at Ilojo Bar

Ọláìyá House, a 161 year-old building declared a national monument in 1956 by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments has been pulled down. This is a sentence that has haunted me since I read this news story a few minutes ago.

The building, also called Ilojo Bar was one of the cultural landmarks on Lagos Island bearing physical stories of our colonial and post-colonial past. The structure, built in an old Brazilian style was recently the family home to famous Highlife musician Victor Ọláìyá.

Photo credit: http://www.simonateba.com/

Photo credit: http://www.simonateba.com/

There had been talks of restoring the building for touristy and cultural purposes. But to wake up to hear news of its demolition is sickening and shocking. The news report doesn’t provide any reason for the demolition except for this quote by an occupant:

“They did not call our attention to the fact that the house had been leased to a developer. The developer just came one day and said they wanted to demolish, promising to settle those who live there. That was since April, we did not agree. We don’t like the way they drove away those people occupying the building.”

If true, this continues a pattern recently established by the state government in demolishing buildings without due process. In this case, the building is actually a protected cultural site, and that makes it way worse.

We’re following this news as it develops.

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Travel as Life: A Review of Route 234

I haven’t read many books about travelling around Nigeria written by Nigerians. No doubt they exist (and readers should please recommend some for me in the comment section). I have however read many about traveling in other parts of the world. Tẹ́jú Cole’s (2016) essay collection comes to mind as well as Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s memoir You Must Set Forth At Dawn (2006). There is also America Their America (1964), an “autotravography” by J.P. Clark which caused controversy for what critics thought was a narrow and judgmental view of American values. Recently, there is Okey Ndibe’s Never Look An American In the Eye (2016), an autobiography, and many more.

There are however many more narratives written about the country, and about the continent, by visiting (foreign) journalists, writers, novelists over the years. Karen Blixen‘s Out of Africa (1937), JMG Le Clezio’s Onitsha (1991) and VS Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa (2010) come to mind easily. But so does this one. The overall impression of such books has always been the worry that they rarely depict reality as is, but only as perceived by the visiting foreigner, which – to be fair – is the whole purpose of the subjective narrative. I expect that the impression of America I’ll get from reading travel notes from an African visiting the US in the 1960s will give me an idea of America through that writer’s perspective of events as they unfold to him/her.

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At the Des Moines Capitol, Iowa (2015)

Even in the online space, one might easily find blogs written by foreigners about travel around the continent than one might of blogs by Africans of travel experiences in their own continent. (This is changing, of course. You’re reading this on a travel blog managed by an African, after all). But why is this the case? Human civilization itself is an experiment in travel, documentation and adventure conditioned by necessity, curiosity and sometimes nationalism. We have always left our comfort zones for new experiences. And, as archaeology and anthropology tell us, we have always documented those movements, even unconsciously, in hieroglyphics, and oral poetry, tribal marks, and lately in writing. In the 21st century Africa, the prevailing narrative is that travel for leisure and travel writing is a Western chore, done by the privileged few, and those conditioned to it by their profession in journalism.

Reality, unfortunately, seems to bear it out for the most part except in some rare cases. Olábísí Àjàlá was a Nigerian student who found himself in the United States at age 18 in the late 1940s. Having failed to succeed as a medical student at DePaul University, Chicago, he decided to travel through the country to Los Angeles, on a bicycle and document his experiences along the way. Through deportations, skirmishes with authorities, short Hollywood career (including meeting then actor Ronald Reagan), many short-lived marriages, children, and global fame, through the fifties, sixties, and seventies, he became the patron saint of all adventurers, and an icon in popular culture for African travel. Being called Ajàlá Travels in Nigeria today is a homage to his larger-than-life reputation. He also wrote a book An African Abroad.* 

So why is it that unless in rare cases Africans are not known globally to document our adventures in writing, or is it that we are just generally averse to travelling for its own sake? My friend and scholar Rebecca Jones has been asking this question for a while. In a conference she facilitated in Birmingham earlier in the year, the Call observed:

“For a long time study of African travel writing in the West has focused on Western-authored travel writing about Africa. But this has ignored both the long heritage of the genre amongst African and diaspora authors. African travel writers have traversed both the African continent and the rest of the world, writing about encounters and differences they meet in their own societies and others. They have engaged with colonialism and the post-colonial world, have produced ethnographic description, reportage, poetry, humour and more. They have traversed genres and forms, from the Swahili habari written at the turn of the twentieth century to Yoruba newspaper travel narratives of the 1920s, from accounts of students and soldiers abroad, to newspapers and today’s online travel writing.”

Aside from this blog, there are quite a few other ones online with focus on travel as an African hobby, done especially without the express purpose of becoming a travel “journalist” working for a media house, but for its own sake. Why are there not more. Africans, after all, travel as much as everyone else. Is it that we don’t care about documenting our experiences the way that others do? I have just finished reading Route 234 (2016), an anthology of global travel writing by Nigerian arts and culture journalists, compiled and edited by Pẹ̀lú Awófẹ̀sọ, an award-winning culture journalist. It is a delightful read of many fun, scary, heartwarming, and diverse experience of Nigerians in many different local and international situations. The contributors are however many of the continent’s known arts and culture journalists. This fact will not help our subject matter, but it shouldn’t remove from the value of the book as a necessary work and a delightful read.

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Route 234(2016), edited by Pẹ̀lú Awófẹ̀sọ̀

According to the editor, the idea for the book came from a private listserve conversation among these culture/travel writers earlier in the decade about documenting some of their travel experiences. It took many years before the idea finally became concrete.  The 211-paged book lists Kọ́lé Adé-Odùtọ́la, Olúmìdé Ìyàndá, Ọláyínká Oyègbilé, Èyítáyọ̀ Alọ́h, Mọlará Wood, Steve Ayọ̀rìndé, Pẹ̀lú Awófẹ̀sọ̀, Jahman Aníkúlápó, Túndé Àrẹ̀mú, Nseobong Okon-Ekong, Akíntáyọ̀ Abọ́dúnrìn, Ayẹni Adékúnlé, Fúnkẹ́ Osae-Brown, Sọlá Balógun and Ozolua Uhakheme as contributors. The scope of the travel experiences documented therein covers Los Angeles, Atlanta, Bahia, Juffureh, Accra, Plateau, Nairobi, Durban, Pilanesberg, India, London, France, Frankfurt, Nice, and Holland.

One of my favourite narrative in the work is Mọlará Wood’s “Farewell Juffureh” (page 35), covering a visit to Alex Haley’s ancestral hometown in the heart of Gambia as well as Nseobong Okon-Ekon’s “Trekking the Mambilla Plateau” (page 93). In both, the reader is vividly guided through experiences that must have been much more intense and affecting than words could capture. Some of the others detail culture shocks at visiting a new place for the first time and re-setting their opinions and expectations preconceived from a distance (“Accra Mystic” by Jahman Anikulapo, page 79) while some focus on their immediate task; covering a film festival, for instance (“Film, FESPACO, Ezra” by Steve Ayọ̀rìndé, page 61). A heartwarming one by Ṣọlá Balógun (“The Good Samaritans of Nice”, page 181) describe an experience common to many frequent travellers: being stranded in a strange city after a missed flight.

What the book represents overall is an intervention in a space where much more effort of this nature is needed. But travel isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the preserve of just culture writers and journalists. Writing about it shouldn’t be either. Tourism isn’t a big deal in Nigeria today because of lack of government (and private sector) care, yes, but also because of a seeming lack of interest in the populace itself. As I argued in this recent piece on a visit to historical locations in Ìbàdàn, commercial attention will come when governmental and private sector intervention takes the first step:

“I think back to a recent experience, in Italy, where tourism has built a thriving industry of restaurants, malls, and gift shops around notable structures that tell the country’s history, real and fictional, and how much value that attention (and tourist dollars) has brought to the country. Old churches and abbeys, ancient arenas in Verona and the Colosseum in Rome, among others, are all just ruins of a certain past. But they have been preserved and well branded in order to attract foreigners and their resources. Even a fictional character, Juliet, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, has a touristy structure built in her honour, called Casa di Giulietta.”

Travel is fun. And even when it is not, it is always an enlightening exercise. As Mark Twain said in The Innocents Abroad (1869), “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” That same perhaps can be said about travel writing, if not as a way to reflect on one’s adventures, as a way to keep said experiences in the memory of the world.

The book is a delightful read, but much more is needed.

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There are many other stories like this, no doubt. Ravi on twitter has pointed me out to “Sol Plaatje’s sea travel piece” (by which I assume he means this bookMhudi, an epic of South African native life a hundred years ago), and Rebecca, in the comment section, to a few more published narratives, also of a few years back. Their input also reminded me of Olaudah Equiano’s  equally notable memoir. There are many more like these, I agree. My point is that there are not many more, and certainly not as many notable ones as there should be).

For more reading

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Encounter With a Brexiter

by Dèjì Tóyè

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A Cambridge Union Speech. Photo by Dèjì Tóyè.

The first Brexit ideologue I met in flesh and blood was not as dramatic as the foul-mouthed Nigel Farage or mop-headed Boris Johnson. The novelist Fredrick Forsyth was at the Cambridge Union Society to talk about ‘the 7 Pillars of Freedom’ a pretty dainty title for a talk about the future of the UK in Europe. It was in the late autumn of 2013 and Forsyth, himself now in the autumn of his life, was a character from a different era. The Union hall which filled up to the brim and spilled into the lawns when crowd pullers like Jesse Jackson or, as I understand, Julian Assange visited, was sparse on that occasion. I even got a front-row seat in the motley crowd that occupied half an aisle of the hall. As I made my way to that event, Forsyth was for me still an image—that young reporter whose career took off with his coverage of the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960s, whose reportage of that event challenged official British policy much earlier than most analysts’ and whose two books on the war would become as important as any other in the much controversial historiography of that war. In short, I was going to hear this internationalist with an expansive view of the world. But oh, what autumn does!

‘The 7 Pillars of Freedom’ was really a nativist treatise on how only the Anglo-Saxon world now holds the hope for true democracy, and freedom, in the world. And, oh, how Europe is gradually dragging Britain down the path that leads away from all that. Although, in my view, many countries across the world would check the boxes of the so-called 7-pillars, Forsyth did not believe what passes for democracy in the rest of Europe and much of the world (he has interesting things to say about Africa, by the way) meets the mark. The speaker also papers over the fact that Britain does not balance two of the pillars well—that is, the Pillar of ‘Elective supreme power’ (elective executive government) and ‘Election by constituencies’, at least not as well as in her ‘Anglo-Saxon’ peer, the US, where both popular and electoral votes are better balanced in the direct choice of the executive authority. This should have been warning signal that democracies are not all the same. After all, Aristotle may not even recognise as representative of democracy a gathering where all eligible men of the town are not congregated in the agora, caviling all day.

Forsyth’s performance in Cambridge has something to say about the way the Brexit campaign had been carefully curated over the years. Farage may fume and curse in the European parliament, and Boris Johnson may scare the hoi polloi with the immigrant bogeyman, our speaker knew well enough to strike a more dignifying pose before this debating society, appealing rather to the finer, if somewhat exaggerated, elements of the British heritage. Subliminal in Forsyth’s speech – made to the more politically aware of the students in this university that, together with Oxford, has produced all of UK Prime Ministers with university degrees, bar four – was a reminder of ‘the good old days’ when all of Europe was fascism or socialism and Britain ‘alone’ spread the light of freedom and democracy from the Atlantic to the Pacific (never mind that that itself rode on the tailcoat of imperialism).

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Fredrick Forsyth. Photo from thetimes.co.uk

That last point is important because Forsyth’s ostensibly more elevated argument also papers over the possible economic consequences of an ‘exit’ decision. It has been suggested that Britain got a better deal in the world when it was not constrained by the collective bargaining of the common market. What is forgotten is that the status quo ante has changed. The old empire has since disappeared and even that feel-good replacement for it – the Commonwealth – has now weakened. India, Britain’s most important colonial legacy is itself now a world power in both economic and technological terms (it launched 20 satellites into space in the last few days). China, that other Asian power, has since repossessed Hong Kong, the British Pacific holdout. Against the colonial dependency paradigm, the biggest European trading partner to Nigeria, Britain’s most important colonial haul in Africa, is, wait for it, The Netherlands.

But the UK has made its decision anyway. And as an avowed political determinist, I support it, just as I supported the Scottish referendum and even mildly wished the separation campaign won, if only to reinforce my belief that, as I stated then, a nation is an argument and not an axiom. It is a lesson for Nigeria and other struggling political inventions of, well, say Britain.

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Dèjì is a lawyer and creative writer, based in Lagos. 

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Visiting Verona

The city of Verona is about two hours from the Milan Central Train Station, but until a chance conversation with Valentina, my host, about the nearest Italian city with promising attraction for restless legs, I had no idea just how close it was. I also didn’t know just how easy it would be to get there, by myself, by train, in a country where English was a minority language.screenshot-99

The train ride to Verona travels through a colourful part of town that visitor postcards of Italy would not usually depict. Not negative – for how much can you experience sitting on a train – just quiet and normal, uneventful, like any modern city. The huge array of graffiti one encounters on the walls at almost every train stop however sent a sign that the universal language of expressing boredom consist somewhat of paint.

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More than two-third way into the trip, we spot on the left a majestic lake whose banks are visible for about a minute or two from the train, but not at the station when the train stops. It is Lake Garda (Lago di Garda), the largest lake in the country. Pictures will do it no justice – there are none – but the encounter from a vantage viewing point in a moving train was somewhat delightful. One moment it was there, then it was gone. For most of the other parts of the trip, views of residential houses all of which had flower gardens on their penthouses became subject of fun conversations. No pictures of those either.

Verona is notable, for readers, through three of Shakespeare’s famous works: Two Gentlemen of Verona, Taming the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. I’ve only read two of those. A big motivation for the trip was its description as ostensibly a poor man’s version of Rome, but in reality a more enchanting one. Rome has the Colosseum but Verona has the Arena, which is much about the same structure with the same purpose, but a more complete one even though it was built at an earlier time than its Roman equivalent.

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Speaking of Shakespeare, just a few feet away from the Arena is Casa di Giulietta, Juliet’s Balcony, a modern architectural reenactment of Juliet’s love balcony. Visited every year by more tourists than visit any other Italian location, the Balcony features a gift shop, a real balcony, a wall for lovers’ selfies and proposals, and a bronze statue of “Juliet” whose breastplate is reputed to bring good luck to all who rub it. (I heard the same of Abraham Lincoln’s nose in Springfield).

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Visiting the Balcony was not as enjoyable as finding one’s way there, through finely paved streets between ancient structures.img_6137

The crowd one meets at the Balcony made the experience slightly unbearable.img_6131

 

But in the end, the most enchanting thing about Verona wasn’t the tourist attractions of which there were many (castles, restaurants, food, a town that balances modernity with history to profitable outcomes), but the sense of order that seemed surprisingly welcoming, surprisingly normal in a re-assuring way that is not often the case in many American (and perhaps Nigerian) big towns.

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That, plus the fact that one could walk from the train station to the Arena, by oneself, without being able to speak Italian, and without feeling any more visible as a foreigner than any other tourist on the streets.

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A dry and breezy weather didn’t hurt.

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