The destruction of heritage in Lagos

The most ancient buildings in Nigeria’s commercial capital are under threat…

VIEWED from the old colonial prison nearby, the former ministry of justice building is a pitiful sight. White sheets barely cover gaping holes in the roof and upper storey. The word “distressed” has been daubed on the lower walls. “It’s going to collapse very soon,” says Theo Lawson, an architect who put up the sheets with a group of friends in March in an effort to keep the rain from files abandoned there. But they were ordered out by security guards before they could move the documents to somewhere safer. The fate of the building, once the colonial government’s secretariat, is uncertain.

Mr Lawson’s transformation of Her Majesty’s Broad Street Prison has been more successful. It is now Freedom Park, a leafy space amid the Lagos hubbub used for concerts, plays and art exhibitions. A stage stands on the site of the gallows, and food stalls where the prison kitchens were. A bar called “Esther’s Revenge” has been named after a famous inmate who stabbed her British lover in a jealous rage.

But places like Freedom Park are all too rare in Lagos. Much of the city’s architectural heritage is crumbling, or has been pulled down to make way for office blocks and luxury apartments. “There was a backlash post-independence,” says Ed Keazor, a historian. “We wanted to look forward.”

Now, though, it is more usually the lack of money for preservation and restoration that is destroying old buildings. Under particular threat from the bulldozers are the Brazilian-Portuguese-style mansions built on Lagos Island by former slaves who returned from the Americas in the second half of the 19th century. Many of those emancipados’ descendants cannot afford to stay in their decaying family pile once a patriarch dies and the house is the only asset to be shared out.

The most egregious example of such destruction was the razing in September 2016 of Ilojo Bar, a 162-year-old house built by a returning slave. The family succeeded in demolishing its historic home after several thwarted attempts, although it had been listed as a national monument before Nigeria’s independence. “I’m sure people cried [when they heard about the demolition],” says Sola Akintunde of Legacy 1995, an NGO that made a structural assessment of Ilojo Bar back in 2011 to prepare for its restoration.

Federal and Lagos state laws protecting listed buildings do exist, though the reality is that they are rarely enforced. But Legacy 1995 says it will lobby for those responsible for the destruction to be brought to justice, and hopes that its detailed drawings will allow a copy to be built on the now-barren site. “We can’t try to have a modern Nigerian architecture when we don’t even understand historical Nigerian architecture,” says Mr Akintunde. Perhaps, though, such carelessness about historic buildings should come as no surprise. After all, Nigeria’s turbulent modern history of coups and civil wars is barely taught in the country’s schools.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of The Econosmist print edition under the headline “Bulldozing history”
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