NIGERIANS are brilliant, one of the best educated peoples in the world. But none of us can show our children or grandchildren the spot where, 63 years ago, our country’s independence was declared. The spot where the iniquitous colonial British flag was lowered and the Nigerian Green-White-Green independence flag was hoisted to proclaim the birth of the most populous Black Nation in the world.
That spot is buried under the concrete of our leaders’ lack of historical sense and greed. This spot, which is on Lagos Island, was known as the Race Course. You get it: where races, including those of humans and horses, were held. It was the place for parades, including those by school children and the military. It was the centre for ceremonies where we annually marked Independence Day.
In front of the Race Course was the Parliament Building where laws were made before the military shifted law-making to Dodan Barracks. At the opposite end was where the Unknown Soldier Cenotaph was built. Opposite the cenotaph was the famous Independence House, a 25-storey building completed in 1961. It was then the tallest structure in the country. That was before the Babangida military regime seized the building, turned it into ‘Defence House’. It was eventually burnt and abandoned.
By the side, is the Race Course Bus-stop, and opposite the bus-stop was the Love Garden, a big green park where couples were encouraged to take walks and sit out. It was also a place where, as school boys, we played football on our way home. The Love Garden disappeared. In its place stands the privately-owned MUSON Centre.
The lush 14.5-hectare Race Course itself was turned into concrete with a big event centre, offices, restaurants and bars. It is now called the Tafawa Balewa Square. No symbol, and nothing reminds us of the spot our independence was proclaimed.
In Obalende where I grew up, the race course where horses were tended and races held, has disappeared, giving way to concrete buildings as part of Dodan Barracks.
It can be argued that these places I have described are still mainly under public ownership. But there are many public places, some of historical significance which the elites simply parcelled amongst themselves and gave private titles of deed. For instance, Ikeja, the capital of Lagos State, had a stadium in its Government Reservation Area (GRA). That stadium has simply disappeared. Those who knew the Stadium during the Second Republic will find standing there today, private residential houses.
The costliest and most beautiful part of the country through colonial times into the 1980s, was Ikoyi GRA. It had perhaps the largest park in our history with streams and trees. It was called Ikoyi Park and was where, along with Bar Beach, citizens went for picnic. Ikoyi Park was seized by the elites who portioned out the natural water haven to themselves and built their private property. Today, on Ikoyi Park which has been renamed Parkview Estate, stand several privates houses, offices and hotels.
The conversion of public spaces, parks and waterways into private estates, offices and residential areas is not uncommon across the country. It is a main reason for flooding in many urban centres.
After witnessing this tragic trend in Lagos where I grew up, my antenna is bound to go up when I see a similar trend in Abuja where I reside. So far, only the Obasanjo administration with Mallam Nasir el-Rufai as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Minister made concrete efforts to restore the Abuja Master Plan and rescue the city.
I was therefore elated when on August 21, 2023, in his maiden address as the new FCT Minister, His Excellency Nyesom Wike declared the restoration of the Abuja environment as a key priority. Wike, in his emphatic mannerism declared: “If you know you have built where you are not supposed to build, it will go down. It will go down. Be a minister of anywhere, be an ambassador. If you have developed where you are not supposed to develop, your house must go down”.
He added: “Those who have taken over the green areas to build, our parks must come back, the green areas must come back. If you hate green, you must hate yourself. So, if you have anybody who is involved, that has taken over the green areas or has taken over the parks, to where you now do restaurants, we will not accept that.”
In excitement, I sent a public message to the new Minister on August 28, 2023. It reads: “Government officials and security agencies are seizing parks and green areas and building on them. Minister Nyesom Wike, if you are to be taken serious, let me throw a public challenge: the Nigeria Police Force has just seized the beautiful Berger Junction/Wuse Zone 6 public park and commenced massive construction. Can you check this rape of the environment by sending the violators packing? The frenzy with which this construction by the Police Property Development and Construction Company has gone on since President Tinubu was sworn in gives the impression that the builders want to present your office with a fait accompli. So, should Nigerians join you in this pointed fight, or are you backing down because the violator is the Nigeria Police?”
The police reacted to my writing by immediately removing most of its signboards. But when no reaction seemed to be coming from Minister Wike, the builders redoubled their efforts and since then, some of the buildings in the park have been taken to lintel level. But I have also received messages from members of the public mentioning other parks with illegal construction. In one case, I was informed that the police had seized another public park, this time in Utako and built structures right into the fence.
Two additional points to be made on the construction in the Berger Park. One, the builders have also cleared the land up to the natural water and the drainage system that collects drainage from Wuse Zones 1 and 2. So, if the construction is not halted, there may be flooding in the area. The second point is that the massive construction stretches from Sudan Street, the parallel street the Abuja Environmental Agency has its offices and equipment. So, officials of the agency pass by the construction site on their way to work and back. The sheer audacity!
President Bola Tinubu and Minister Wike must prevent the tragedy that occurred in Lagos where public spaces and parks were converted to private use, from being the portion of Abuja.
A people who forget their past and condone impunity, cannot have a good future. The time to start rebuilding our country is now!