ENIOLA AKINKUOTU, who was in Zungeru, Niger State, writes about the sorry state of the historic monuments and relics in the place that should attract tourists and generate revenue
Sitting on an alluring locale like a treasured region guided by rocky enclave, Zungeru, Minna, Niger State, still retains its ancient appeal.
But despite the enchanting mien, obsolete buildings and abandoned facilities compete for attention as a visitor’s eyes feast on the beauty of the agrarian community.
Now a ghost town, Zungeru wasn’t always so. A tour guide, Jibril Mohammed, who is also a student of the College of Education, Minna, led our correspondent through a bush path leading into a hazy interior.
Along the bush path stood two pillars on either side, signifying that a gate once existed there. Within the area was a land filled with rubble and old red bricks.
Mohammed, who picked up one of the bricks, said, “This was the amalgamation hall where the declaration of the unification of the northern and southern protectorates of 1914 was signed.
“This land was the seat of power in northern Nigeria; it was where the governor of the northern protectorate, Lord Frederick Lugard, operated from and this place was the Government House.”
He claimed that when villagers noticed that the building had been abandoned by the government, they began vandalising parts of it and selling its contents.
“The quality of red bricks used in constructing the building no longer exists in Nigeria. Each brick sells for as high as N200 in the black market and people began to sell it,” he said.
From the amalgamation hall, the journey moved to a dingy building tucked in a small compound located a few kilometres away. The building paraded broken ceilings, dirty walls, rusty furniture and shattered glass.
On a small stool sat an obsolete turntable, a small Bible and pictures of some notable Nigerians.
“This building used to be Lord Lugard’s guest house. It has not been repainted or taken care of since it was last used around 1914. However, we clean it once in a while and charge tourists N500 ($1.4),” Mohammed told SUNDAY PUNCH correspondent.
At the Governor-General’s mess, where he usually relaxed after work, the story was the same. But the stone table, south of the main building where he hosted guests and the swimming pool, were still visible reminders of a once glorious past.
The stone table still stands erect; so also is the flower vase and the swimming pool, where weeds now flourish in place of water. The marble stairs of the pool has also disappeared.
But these are not the only historic buildings that litter Zungeru. Apart from Lord Lugard’s office and residence, other historic sites include the United Mission Church, built in 1905; the railway terminus; the steam generators that provided transmission of electricity and water to colonialists’ homes, and the executioner’s gallows, where belligerent traditional rulers were tried and killed.
Others include the first military cemetery in northern Nigeria, the first bridge in northern Nigeria, officers’ mess, the head offices of pioneer multinationals, John Holt, the Royal Niger Company and the UAC.
According to Lord Lugard’s confidential report sent to the British Government, which our correspondent read at the National Museum Library, Zungeru was the capital of northern Nigeria as of the time of amalgamation and was his base.
Lugard wrote, “On January 1, 1914, the former governments of southern and northern Nigeria were formally amalgamated with some fitting ceremonial. After the oaths of office had been taken at each capital – Lagos and Zungeru – by the governor-general, the lieutenant-governors and the chief justice etc., a Durbar was held on the great plain at Kano which was attended by all chief Moslem rulers from Sokoto to Chad, who met for the first time in common friendship to swear allegiance to his majesty.”
Shortly after, however, Lugard decided to leave Zungeru, complaining about mosquitoes and the heat.
He wrote, “The capital of northern Nigeria had been transferred in 1902 from Jebba, which was merely the former strategic camp of the West African Frontier Force during the crisis with France of 1897-98 to Zungeru.
“This was the most central place to which at that time it was possible (by waterway of the Kaduna and a light line of 22 miles) to gain access. It has served its purpose well but it is excessively hot with much surface rock and infested with mosquitoes.”
Forgotten town, abandoned projects
According to historians, after the capital of northern Nigeria was moved from Zungeru to Kaduna, the former was abandoned not just by the colonialists but by successive post-colonial governments.
Nigeria’s first President, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and the leader of the defunct Republic of Biafra, Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, as well as some other notable Nigerians, were born in Zungeru.
On November 16, 1991, nearly 28 years ago, dignitaries, including former heads of state, converged on Kontagora Memorial Stadium, Minna, to honour 87-year-old Azikiwe and it was decided that an edifice would be constructed in his honour which he would inaugurate.
Some of the prominent Nigerians in attendance included the then serving Head of State, Gen Ibrahim Babangida; a former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon; and former President Shehu Shagari.
About N50m was required to build the edifice which would also include a museum, a conference centre and a library to attract visitors. It was projected that the edifice would provide over 1,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Till his death, however, many persons who pledged funds failed to redeem them while the cost of the proposed building was reviewed upwards several times due to inflation. In the end, it was Azikiwe’s corpse that was brought to the uncompleted edifice in 1996 as part of events to mark his funeral.
Our correspondent, who visited the building, sighted hoodlums smoking Indian hemp while several rooms glowed in human wastes.
The entire compound had been overtaken by weeds as the building stood out as a reminder of the wasted potential of northern Nigeria’s ex-capital.
A drive around other parts of Zungeru showed that several other abandoned projects littered the town.
A water treatment facility being built by the federal and state governments in conjunction with the World Bank was also abandoned halfway while the pipes had been left to rust.
The story was the same at the Niger Fertiliser Company Limited which was inaugurated by the late military dictator, Gen Sani Abacha, on January 21, 1998. The fertiliser plant, which was the biggest employer of labour in the town, was also mismanaged and eventually shut down.
The old Zungeru Police Division was also not spared the tales of neglect.
A lively cemetery
Ironically, while several historic sites have been reduced to rubble, the military cemetery, where most British army officers and a few Nigerian soldiers were laid to rest, is still lively.
This is perhaps the only silver lining in the story of what has become the once historical town.
The site, it was learnt, was renovated by the last Niger State Government led by Babangida Aliyu in collaboration with the Nigerian military and now attracts many tourists, many of them the relatives of the buried officers.
Mohammed stated, “In the past, grave diggers would exhume corpses of the British soldiers with the belief that they would recover valuables like gold chains, rings and other items. However, efforts were made to stop this and the place was fenced while a team of soldiers were deployed to man the cemetery.
“The weeds are cleared regularly and the whole place was repainted to give it a new look. The Zungeru Military Cemetery attracts tourists more than the other sites because it is beautifully maintained. Many white people also come to visit the graveside of their relatives.”
Nigeria’s failing tourism sector
In a report by the World Economic Forum, Nigeria was ranked the eight least competitive country to visit.
In its 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index, WEF ranked 136 countries on their business environment, safety and security, health and hygiene, and international openness, among other metrics.
While Nigeria ranked 84th under business environment and 61st under cultural resources and business travel, the nation also ranked 132nd under safety and security, and 132nd in health and hygiene.
Nigeria ranked behind Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa, Morocco and even Zimbabwe. The only countries that Nigeria performed better than include Yemen, Chad, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Mali.
However, the Secretary-General of United Nations World Tourism Organisation, Zurab Pololikashvili, says Nigeria has the potential to be one of the world best tourist destinations.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, while tourism-related activities accounted for 34 per cent of the GDP and about 20 per cent of the nation’s employment creation in 2017 — mostly due to the burgeoning entertainment sector, recreation and trade — tourism had the potential to be a $500bn industry in Nigeria.
The Vice-Chairman of the Zungeru Community Development Association, Dr. Abubakar Usman, said the historic value of Zungeru had been ignored by successive governments both at the federal and state levels.
Usman stated, “The government has not played its part even when the community has shown interest in the development of tourism. Little is done to protect these relics and even when we report cases of vandalism, nothing is done.
“The only place that was taken care of is the cemetery, which the military has taken over and renovated. However, we thank the current state government for improving the road network.”
Also, Salmanu Yusuf, who is also the Director-General, Public Affairs, Niger State, said the state government had promised to breathe a new life into the community in its second term.
He added that the roads in Zungeru were being rehabilitated by the government while a huge electrification project had been initiated.
Experts bemoan neglect of monuments
According to a lecturer of History and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos, Prof. David Aworawo, the neglect of historic relics was badly affecting cultural and history studies and tourism.
Aworawo recalled how France immediately raised funds to repair the Notre-Dame de Paris after it was affected by fire last month.
He said serious governments would take deliberate action to promote tourism by preserving key historic sites not only for the preservation of history but also to generate revenue.
The historian added, “The inability and unwillingness to maintain these monuments and keep them in shape will not attract tourists.
“It is simple and straightforward and that is why fewer tourists visit Nigeria than other countries because what monuments or historical places will they visit? Visiting tourist sites leaves a lasting impression in the minds of people.
“Tourism is a big industry. Nigeria is losing billions to this. We keep talking about diversifying from oil but in the end, it all seems to be rhetoric. It has been like that in virtually every state except Cross River where Tinapa was inaugurated and then a cultural festival was launched and people come from all over the world to identify with it.
“That also tells me that if the monuments in Zungeru are kept in the shape which they ought to be, tourists will come from all over. If attention is put on reviving monuments, tourists will come. And Nigeria will gain billions from tourism.”
Also, a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos and prof of Creative Arts, Duro Oni, lamented the wasted potential of Zungeru.
He stated that when government talked about diversifying the economy, it seemed like a lip service.
Oni added, “We can borrow from countries that have utilised their heritage to accomplish diversification. Kenya and South Africa are good examples.
“We must grow our domestic tourism to attract international tourism. Investors that visit a country for tourism end up coming back to invest. There are enough studies that have been conducted in this area.”
He said there was a need for government agencies, especially those at the federal level, like the National Commission for Museums and Monuments; the National Council for Arts and Culture; the National Institute for Cultural Orientation and the Centre for Black African Arts and Civilisation to collaborate more effectively.
Efforts to speak with the Niger State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Danjuma Salau, proved abortive as he neither returned calls nor responded to a text message sent to his mobile.