our shrinking civic spaces

Ifeoma Malo argues that on the matter of our shrinking civic spaces, one of the biggest challenges holding Nigeria back is our unwillingness to revisit our history.

old pictureeque Ikoyi
Picturesque Old Ikoyi…
new ikoyi concrete jungle
… and a new concrete jungle

Thinking about our shrinking civic spaces, one of the biggest things holding Nigeria back as a country is the inability to revisit our history. We are so afraid of our history, of examining the lessons we can glean from it. We just continue to plod on hoping to somehow make progress without learning lessons from the past to guide us. Or to help us see why we are here and get an understanding of our identity.  

I see this in how we treat historical structures and spaces in Nigeria. On a recent trip to Lagos, a friend drove me through some of the neighborhoods I grew up in at old Ikoyi. I could barely recognize that neighborhood at all. It was all estate plus mini estates upon banks and shiny new commercial edifices. The number of old colonial buildings that have been torn down to make way for new banks, companies, and new estates is just depressing. Because a better part of my childhood was spent there, memories of parks, playgrounds, lots of green areas and trees came flooding back. Memories of beautiful trees and flowers that provided flora and fauna that added to the ecological beauty of the neighborhood. From the way things are going, given another 10 years, Ikoyi will surely be like Admiralty Way and indeed the whole of Lekki Phase 1!

The first time I went to Lekki Phase 1, it was to see my father’s farm. I must have been nine years old and Lekki Phase 1 was just a year or so old. This was close to 25 years ago. Before my eyes, I saw that the swampy region has been turned into a gleaming new residential estate. The second time, I entered into the estate and to an actual house in the old Phase I Lekki wasteland. This was shortly after another friend got married and invited me to her new home. I thought the concept of a gated estate was really nice.

Fast forward to about 20 years later after that visit. The entire Phase 1 has become almost unrecognizable. I shudder at the anyhowness that is now the landmark of structures that dot the estate, with shiny new blazing neon lights announcing a new business, bank, hotel, and even adult stores and night clubs at every street corner. I have gone back to Google images to try and remember what that piece of land looked like 40 years ago, 40 years and 20 years…

Yesterday, whilst leaving our team retreat venue in Wuse 2, Abuja, I noticed something happening at a popular park on Adetokunbo Ademola and has a large expanse of green areas, where folks could go and relax, eat fish under natural ambiance and have their kids play and relax. I saw that the place has been cordoned off. There is now a shopping mall being built there. However, one could still see the Park signage, including one that indicates clearly that the administration and management of this park falls under the Abuja Parks and Recreation Department.

I just shook my head as I drove away. Like really SMDH…

You all recall the governor that wanted to mow down the largest rain forest in the world located in the Niger Delta to build a superhighway? Yeah that was about to happen until a sustained global campaign halted things. It will still happen eventually. I have often joked that if the Taj Mahal, the Great China Walls or Egyptian Pyramids were in Nigeria, they would have long been dashed to a Nigerian big man who would have torn down all the tourist things going there to build an estate, or build a shopping mall…

It’s no longer a joke. Why does it look like Nigerians have a strong aversion to history or historical structures? On the matter of our shrinking civic spaces, we don’t like digging into our past, and we hate examining how we got here. This is why there is little progress, or they come in little snippets. How will we know what has been done, how we got here, what has been tried, and what pedagogy underpins what we do collectively? How will we know what steps we need to take to move forward, to develop collectively as a people and to avoid mistakes of the past? It is unfortunate that we will never know where we are going as a country …. can never move forward as a people when we so easily destroy, repackage and whitewash history and landmarks, we so easily move on and ignore history and what it teaches us. There can be little development, and no sustained progress without history, without looking back to benchmark or to hold ourselves to account so that we do better.

When we complain, we find that there are two sets of people asking us to take it easy or move on. The more dangerous of the two are not the fence sitters. Rather, they are the pacifists, the “let’s move on crowd.” They expect you to pass through any sort of anguish or trauma or experience whether good or bad, and just move on. While the fence sitters always want to mollify and do everything not to offend both sides, pacifists on the other hand have tools and instruments of change in their hands (those tools could be position, knowledge and information) but will prefer the house to burn down than say or do anything to set records straight and put us on the right path. The let’s move on crowd sound like they want development. They act like it. They say stuff that sounds like it. But watch closely; they are the complete anti-thesis of development. And they act for self-preservation.