By Laurence Ani
In a few weeks time just about anyone could stroll down the courtyard of the old Premier’s Lodge in Enugu in much the same manner as its previous occupant had done over 60 years ago.
You may also, in fact, slouch at a desk as the former illustrious resident of this lodge must have done countless times and ponder how he would have felt carrying the weight of his people’s expectations. Or simply indulge your fantasies and pretend to rehearse for one of those typically riveting stump speeches that made him a household name across the country. The occupant referred to here is the venerable nationalist and Nigeria’s first president, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
The old Premier’s Lodge where Azikiwe once lived as the premier of the Eastern Region is getting a makeover intended to bring back the classic grandeur it once exuded during its colonial and post-independence heyday. When complete the makeover, as conceived by Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, will prepare the facility for its new status as a tourist centre. “We actually want to have that place as a heritage. We’re going to have shelves for the artifacts and put some of his personal effects like eyeglasses, letters and books on display,” said the project’s coordinator, Agu Chukwuemelie, sounding upbeat.
Although the progress of the repairs has been slowed down by the rains, he is nonetheless confident the facility will be ready for use in about one month. “It’s something we want to do in remembrance of Zik,” Chukwuemelie, who is also the general manager and chief executive officer of Enugu Housing Development Corporation, said.
But despite the optimism, the challenge of refurbishing a structure built in the 1950s and retaining its original pristine look is not lost. “We want to renew and beautify it; but we’re doing so without giving it a modern architectural design,” he said, pointing out that such consideration is the reason behind the choice of black roof and, possibly, white coat for the building. “We won’t touch the windows extensively. The places with wood we would polish and retain but replace the bad ones. And where there are tiles we won’t alter.”
Even amid the pile of debris and the frenzied shuffling as the masons worked to meet the schedule, standing within the building felt like being frozen in time with the musty smell and the many monochrome pictures of First Republic figures and artworks strewn across the rooms. The addition of some of the foremost nationalist’s personal effects and memorabilia which his widow, Professor Uche Azikiwe, had promised to make available, will further strengthen that perception.
This trove of history is expected to be a key attraction for visitors just as buildings erected as memorial in honour of influential leaders around the world have been. Major examples include the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, built in honour of two presidents of the United States of America – George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Another notable memorial with a huge tourist traffic is the Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London, built as a monument to the heroic exploits of Horatio Nelson, a British admiral who earned immense fame after he won the Battle of Trafalgar against a French-Spanish fleet in 1805.
The project coordinator is also confident that a refurbished Premier’s Lodge would positively impact the value of real estate in the adjoining neighbourhood and hence the decision to construct the Heritage Estate, a leasehold development.
“I think it would even increase its value because everyone would love to reside in an estate where Zik’s official residence is located,” he said, to allay fears that a housing estate might obscure the aesthetics of the Lodge. Work on the perimeter fence has been concluded and the allottees would start building soon.
With the sharp drop in oil price and the consequent adverse effect on Nigeria’s income, many states are teetering on the brink as regards their statutory obligations. In fact, only a few (that includes Enugu State) are able to pay salaries of public workers when due owing to reduced earnings from the federal purse. States have been exploring alternative sources of revenue to make up for the shortfall. In Enugu, investing in tourism is a promising option being explored.
So, the makeover of Zik’s former official residence is consistent with Governor Ugwuanyi’s goal to give tourism in Enugu a new sheen and make it a vibrant sector that can bolster the state’s economy. Closely linked to this goal is the plan to establish a new zoo in Enugu, some years after the Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani administration shut the old one and converted the space to residential use.
It’s a fitting tribute to memorialize the official residence of Nigeria’s first president and one of Africa’s preeminent anti-colonial voices, but there is a compelling – even if hitherto overlooked – point which further validates the choice of his home as a launchpad for Enugu’s tourism dream: Zik was quite passionate about tourism.
You would not doubt that if you had ever been to Onuiyi, the pastoral community in Nsukka with an altitude that gives it a mostly agreeable weather. It was here he built his famous Onuiyi Haven and spent much of his retirement years.
So a visit to a home where this great personality once held court should be a time well spent and, of course, an experience worth the visitors’ fee. You would agree once you have felt its rustic splendour. That will not be long for it’s only a matter of weeks before the Premier’s Lodge is open to the public.