Of Encounters and Recent History

06 Feb 2013

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In many respects, the public presentation of two books in honour of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi last week in Lagos provided those who attended the occasion the opportunity to look back into episodes and policies in our recent history. The organisers of the event, The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), achieved their aim of making it an intellectual feast. It was a fulfillment of a promise made during the 70th birthday of Akinyemi last year. The publications  - Perspectives on Nigeria’s National & External Relations: Essays in Honour of Professor A. Bolaji Akinyemi and Nigeria and the World:  A. Bolaji Akinyemi Revisited - were efficiently reviewed by Professor Nuhu Yaqub and Ambassador Marc Egbe respectively. This was fittingly accompanied by a symposium on the Technical Aid Corps, a signature foreign policy initiative for which Akinyemi is still remembered. 

The occasion was, however, more than the usual book launch; there were some snippets of history on display and more remarkably some deep reflections on the Nigerian condition. First, there were intriguing encounters of some personalities which probably justified the saying that “time heals wounds”. As THISDAY reported the event last Friday, what happened was like winding back the hand of the clock. But the historical clock keeps ticking.

On the podium was a smiling former President Ibrahim Babangida, the chairman of the occasion, who held the hands of Colonel Anthony Nyiam. Nyiam stood on the floor and raised his hands towards Babangida on the high table. They had a brief chat. Chief Great Ogboru actually walked to the podium to exchange pleasantries with Babangida.  Ogboru and Nyiam also exchanged warm greetings with Brigadier Halilu Akilu, the one-time dreaded Director of Military Intelligence during the regime of Babangida. Akilu was in the Babangida’s entourage. Now, this sort of meeting was not conceivable even years after the bloody April 22, 1990 coup attempt against the regime of Babangida. That was the coup in which Nyiam and Ogboru played prominent roles.  In the tragic events, Babangida’s ADC, Lt. Col. Bello, was killed and a number of the coup-makers including Major Gideon Orkah, who announced the coup, were later tried in a military tribunal and executed.

  Nyiam and Ogboru went on exile for years after the aborted coup. Both of them left the venue of the event last Thursday in the same car. Only a reporter with historical memory would readily smell the big story in what took place. This probably explains why only our senior colleague, legendary photojournalist Sunmi Smart-Cole, concentrated his camera on the drama unfolding where the younger folks were busy with other faces in the room.  Mr. Smart-Cole, a septuagenarian, masterly got the news for the front page of this newspaper last Friday, confirming his status as the owner of the game!

Babangida got a warm welcome in Lagos and characteristically seized the moment to make a resounding statement. He once said that Lagos was the place where the great things in career happened to him. So, was it a homecoming?  In providing the urgent answer to the National Question, Babangida, called for a “grand consensus”. He said: “That after nearly 100 years of existence, people and national groups still have grievances provide us with an opportunity to address these grievances. That these grievances are of sufficient magnitude for them to demand a dissolution of the nation show the extent of the grievances and therefore should point to the magnitude of the seriousness with which we should address the grievances”. You can see what the passage of time can do political views.

In the aftermath of the coup attempt, radical lawyer and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, the late Alao Aka-Bashorun and other patriots  organised  in August 1990 a conference at the National Theatre in Lagos in response to the National Question that was sorely put in the foreground of the polity by the coup. It should be remembered that leading elements of the coup were those grouped in the geo-political language of the Nigerian establishment as “southern minorities” and “northern minorities”? It was in this context that the military government of Babangida stopped the conference. Since then, of course, no President has ever countenanced the idea of a Sovereign National Conference. Here we are today with Babangida calling on his compatriots to join “the rescue effort to secure (Nigeria for the) maximum benefits of all and not... temporary advantage of one group over another” 

Babangida spoke on an optimistic note and he was really at home with the intellectual ambience of the occasion. Akinyemi gave an insight into Babangida’s life-long engagement with ideas. Akinyemi’s relationship with Babangida predated the appointment of the former by the later as External Affairs Minister following the coup of August 27, 1985 against General Muhammadu Buhari’s regime. At the age of 33 in 1975, Akinyemi became the director-general of NIIA and Babangida was then a young Lt. Col, commanding the Armoured Corps and strategically a member of the Supreme Military Council. As Akinyemi revealed, Babangida was a constant face at the public lectures of the institute.

Babangida would  “... sit in the back row and leave immediately after the lecture. He never asked a question, never joined us for the after-lecture reception but was here for most if not for every lecture...”,  according to Akinyemi. It was no surprise that the chairman of the board of the institute and also a minister in the Babangida’ s regime, General Ike Nwachkwu, and Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State, who was guest of honour, acknowledged Babangida’s embrace of ideas. For instance, Mimiko wondered how Babangida operated with “ so many professors” in his government.

The reflections on the occasion were indeed varied, but there was a thread to all of them: what is to be done about the Nigerian condition? The reflections of the man in honour, Akinyemi, bear a resonance beyond the room.  He reviewed the  grim statistics of poverty and called “for a robust debate about how to build a more just, equitable and egalitarian society where there will be a safety economic and social net below which no one will be allowed to fall...” His premise is that Nigeria is fast becoming a country in which “ ... the poor cannot sleep because they are hungry and the rich cannot sleep because the poor are awake...” Those who are in power today should find these voices based on experience worthy of further reflection to guide their action.           

Resolving the Bar Beach Problem Benedict Nwobodo

In the third part in the series of a piece entitled: ‘The 2012 Prophesies (3),’ in the back-page of THISDAY on January 15, 2013, Dr. Okey Ikechukwu made some observations based, according to him, on his readers’ perception. The readers in his words declared that “Africa is free and that Nigerians need not worry about disasters”.

He admonished them to remember, among other things,  that The Bar Beach waterfront used to be almost a kilometre from the road, but the ocean waters have claimed the beach, part of the road, the School of Oceanography and are still coming. The new developments in Lagos will only compound the problem, because Victoria Island (a sponge Island) has been in trouble for a long time, partly because it should not be carrying the type of high-rise buildings on it today. So let dancing Nigerian sceptics watch their dance steps.

However, the fourth observation would be the thrust of this rejoinder for its lack of understanding of the genuine efforts so far taken by the Lagos state government in resolving the Lagos Bar Beach problem.

Perhaps, the question on what informed the efforts so far taken at the Bar Beach becomes more pertinent. As at 1900, the Bar Beach waters are about one and a half to two kilometres from the road. Most passer-by can hardly see the waters because it was very far from the road. But despite this, the British colonialists still took adequate steps of protecting and maintaining the beach against future encroachment. This was why between 1901 and 1930, the colonial powers constructed the East and West moles including the Training moles to protect the Lagos harbour from siltation (natural sediment flow). This was meant to allow easier passage of ocean going vessel to berth in Lagos harbour, ports and wharfs. Far more than this economic consideration, the moles act as a systemic and natural way of regulating the coastline of the beach, thereby, reducing if not eliminating, the chances of the beach overflowing its bank.

These and other methods of reinforcements were not only adopted but maintained by the colonial authorities till independence in 1960 in ensuring that the beach vicinity and the Lagos Port were a safe haven for the people and the society members co-habiting around that place.

Upon the change of mantle of guards between the colonial and the indigenous administration, the established structure for the beach safety by colonial powers was still being maintained; all through the regime of General Yakubu Gowon in mid-1960s till the late 1970s. What could be described as a dip in the wellbeing of the beach commenced slightly in the early 1980s till 1999? It was during the military era of especially this period that money budgeted for Bar Beach protection was wrongly deployed. This was despite the fact that Lagosians living and working around the beach had started witnessing beach water encroachment on the roads. The epoch witnessed high corruption and abuse from military administrations that stopped the beach maintenance, thereby exposing the highland areas’ inhabitants to the wrath of the beach waters.

If the military administrations were bad in their abject neglect of the beach, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government led by former President Olusegun Obasanjo was worse in that he toyed with the lives of Lagos with the kind of sadistic politics he played with gallant attempts made towards resolving the Bar Beach incessant surges between 1999 to 2007 by the administration of former governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu. All of these attempts were callously rebuffed by the then president.

It is on record that the Federal Government under Obasanjo twice awarded the contract to reclaim the coastlines of the beach. On all occasions, the contracts were shabbily done, leaving the beach shorelines worse than before ‘ordinary’ sands were administered by the PDP government. The best duration of such porous jobs done by Obasanjo/PDP lasted seven months before caving in to the pressure of the beach waters. What a deliberate waste of scarce public funds!

However, coming from this background, there is no doubt that more people would expectedly take more than mere interest in the Bar Beach situation. Moreover, the effect of global warming has led to climate change and rise in global sea levels. Under this situation, worsening high-energy waves including beach overflows and high tide among others should be expected; especially around the Lagos beach that has long been badly managed by successive military administrations and for years by narrow-minded civilian led federal government

The current Lagos state administration under Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola has initiated meetings with the federal government on ways of finding lasting solutions to the problems of the Bar Beach surges. Thus, it is with the centre government’s understanding that the positive landmark efforts of the current Lagos government are now being seen and felt around the Bar Beach area today.
The Fashola administration has done proper reinforcement for the beach that is in tandem with what obtains in other coastal states of Europe and the Middle-East including Spain, Brazil, Israel and India et’al. The trend of beach sand filling and reinforcement is a global one that is not peculiar to Lagos state alone.

The question that should be asked is whether the x-block and other reinforcements were properly done before construction was approved by the relevant agencies of government on it. The Bar Beach protection initiative was commenced after the necessary condition precedent of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was fully done and ratified by the relevant federal and state authorities. The job was rightly done to guarantee safety and the EIA has become a yearly thing now. For instance, the sand filling was seven metres above the sea level and the Dutch that is renowned for such job did this. The Dutch have been acknowledged around the coastal states of world to be reliable and tested professionals in this area dating back to over 500 years.

Since the Dutch intervention, there has been and will be no problem. Due to the fact that people live and stay around the place compel proper monitoring on a yearly basis by relevant agencies of government. Moreover, necessary alert is expected to be made once any untoward happening is sensed. The presence of people and structures is therefore a plus to the initiative.
The beach protection move has made it more environmentally friendly and secured for recreation/relaxation activities.
•Dr. Nwobodo, an environmental consultant wrote in from Lekki, Lagos state.

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