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Outrage in Cultural Sector Trail TBS’ Gate Demolition
Literally speaking, the gates to Nigeria’s post-independence history were recently torn down. Unconcerned passers-by watched with little or no interest. With their wares and the knowledge of impending displacement, street vendors moved away from the site of destruction. The scene of the carnage? The Tafawa Balewa Square, formerly the Lagos Race Course, whose gates are seen by many in the cultural community as the relics of Nigeria’s history.
Therefore, it was not surprising that the voices raised in opposition to the demolition exercise were those from the cultural sector. For a culture archivist like Taiye Olaniyi, who is also the vice president of Legacy (a Nigerian historical and environmental interest group), the scene of the destruction of the Tafawa Balewa Square Gates was simple obscene and distasteful to the preservation of history and cultural heritage. Then, a statement from the Sculptors’ Association Nigeria (ScAN) – signed by its president Nelson Edewor and its secretary Dr Shola Kokoyi – decried the demolition exercise, which it described as “heinous ‘articide’”.
In a Facebook post on January 11, Legacy wrote that it “has seen with great concern the destruction of a historical monument that has been started at Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS).” Acknowledging the fact that it was aware “that this important property has been sold to a private investor,” it stressed that “TBS it is a listed building: the site is listed as a Grade 1 Monument under Lagos State Law. This means that a purchaser must not do anything which changes the way the property looks, he can only restore what may have deteriorated.”
Founded by the colonial authorities under the watch of the traditional ruler of Lagos, Oba Dosunmu, in 1859, the then Lagos Race Course was initially set up as a sports field that hosted horse racing, football, and cricket. This was before it was demolished by the government of the regime of General Yakubu Gowon and rebuilt as Tafawa Balewa Square. It was on this site that the celebration of Nigeria’s independence on October 1, 1960, and the lowering of the union jack were held.
Tafawa Balewa Square, which was built in 1972, was notable for its entrance gates, which included massive statues of four white horses and seven red eagles, which are emblems from the national emblem representing strength and dignity, respectively. Other monuments in the square include the Remembrance Arcade (with memorials to World War I, World War II, and Nigerian civil war victims) and the 26-story Independence House, built in 1963, which for a long time was the tallest building in Nigeria.
The 50,000-capacity facility includes a courthouse, shopping centre, travel agencies, restaurants, a car park, and a bus terminal. “It has actually been in circulation on many platforms but by the time that we at Legacy 1995 took the bull by the horn was on Monday (over two weeks ago) when we started sending information out to the social media and other media outfits,” Olaniyi lamented. “On Tuesday, I was so much annoyed that I had to go to the National Commission for Museum and Monument. Fortunately, by the time I got there, they were holding a meeting in respect of that and they did a letter to the TBS management.”
Beyond making this a war of words or wit, the representatives of the National Commission for Museum and Monument approached the management of TBS to salvage what would have become a monumental loss. Olaniyi was part of the entourage on that visit.
“We expressed our dismay at the unfortunate situation, and we had one man who spoke,” Olaniyi continued. He pretended to be unaware of whether such a site had been designated as a national monument, and that the gate had been subjected to deterioration due to climate, and that the iron cast had become rusty to prevent it from falling on people or vehicles. He claimed that they were not informed that the site had been listed as a national monument. But I know that the National Commission for Museums and Monuments has regularly been letting them know about the condition and status of the place.”
Meanwhile, according to the ScAN statement, the demolished sculptures, which were produced in 1972 by the late British artist Paul Mount, who died in 2009, during General Gowon’s administration, served among other iconic relics of symbolic essence, telling the story of our national independence and unity. Paul Mount, the statement explained, was the founding father of the art department at Yaba Technical Institute (now YabaTech), Lagos, between 1955 and 1962. “The piece is a definition of Nigeria as a democratic state and a celebration of Nigeria’s military prowess.
This rich heritage, which would have been visible history for future generations, has been mercilessly destroyed in the blink of an eye.”
“I happen to know of one Mr. Paul Mount, one of the principal people that established the art department of Yabatech as far back as the 50s,” Olaniyi corroborated. “He is known to have trained some of Nigeria’s respected artists such as Abayomi Barber and the rest of them. Not a lot of people have had the opportunity to visit international museums. That is why they don’t know the value of things that is supposed to be part of our checkered history, cultural heritage.”
Declaring that it is not “averse to government-to-government policies relating to the use of its public space, its design, and possible redesign,” ScAN argued that the government “must be sensitive to the peculiarity of the environment and interface with the different stakeholders for meaningful or purposeful dialogues that avert situations of breach of trust.”
The association consequently demanded that the demolished sculpture gate “be restored and mounted in a space without delay, where it does not interfere with developmental policies of government.” It also called for the art community’s representation in government boards and committees and the need for the government to “always consider and satisfy the 5% quota for the arts in its public construction projects.”
On a cheery note, Olaniyi disclosed that the remains of the gates have been retrieved and put into safekeeping as conversations continue on how to preserve monuments within the ambit of the law. “Notably, TBS is one of the listed sites marked for preservation under the Lagos State Listed Sites (Preservation) Law 2011. The law provides a framework for the preservation, protection, and restoration of historical properties and cultural heritage sites in the state.”