Dimgba Igwe and our dysfunctional social spaces

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It was late afternoon on Saturday last week that I heard of the tragic killing of THE SUN newspaper columnist, Dimgba Igwe. I put through a call to THE SUN MD and President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Femi Adesina.

He somberly confirmed that Igwe was killed that morning as he jogged in the neighbourhood where he resided. I was never close to Dimgba Igwe; in fact, we never ever had a conversation. But I recall that he was an active presence at the Katsina conference of the Nigerian Guild of Editors two weeks ago. He made a contribution on a paper which Ray Ekpu presented, for which I sat on the high table as a discussant.

Then on Saturday morning, he animatedly followed the presentation and discussion about the health profile for Nigerian Editors. That he was to be killed just two weeks later as he kept fit was indeed a tragic irony and a sad moment for his family, friends and colleagues and Nigerian journalism.

It spoke volumes about the near-total erosion of social values in our country, that a driver would hit another citizen and run away, unconscionably. From all that I have read so far about the tragic incident, no one had the presence of mind to even record the car’s plate number.

We live in a very insecure country and within very dysfunctional social spaces, and each day that we survive the Hobbesian jungle that Nigeria has evolved into, we are merely lucky to be alive! I do an hour’s walk each day as part of a regime of healthy living, and because I live in the Wuse II neighbourhood of Abuja, there is a pedestrian walkway that makes it easy to walk each evening.

But last Thursday I was back in Ilorin and as is my wont, I changed into the walking gear and snickers to do my evening walk. I live in the GRA area in Ilorin which is supposed to be the elitist section of the city.

I noticed immediately that these were roads that were not friendly to pedestrians; there are no walkways (except on Ahmadu Bello Way); the road edges were very uneven, which meant that I suffered very serious pain to my broken leg which is held together with plate and screws. And because the cars on the roads were older, there was a greater level of carbon monoxide pollution along with that emitted by the motorcycle taxis.

The drivers were unruly; they drove dangerously and taxi drivers and motorcyclists hooted their horns persistently. I spent so much effort  trying to keep safe from the chaos all around me that the walk ended as a nightmare, not the exercise I meant it to be. Much later the following evening, my friend Nurudeen Abdulrahim, expressed surprise that I deliberately chose to risk my own life, by walking on the road the previous evening. I didn’t bother the following days, till I returned to Abuja at the beginning of this week.

My description of the situation in Ilorin would fit into the pattern in most of our cities around Nigeria today. It is certainly the same in the third city that I reside in, Kaduna. We have constructed and gradually distorted urban cities without the nuances associated with modern city living in many other parts of the world. Our cities were not planned with the needs of the pedestrian in mind and because there are no walkways on the roads of our cities, pedestrians are permanently endangered.

As more and more people adapt to a middle class livelihood, there has also developed a very healthy demand for gyms; walkways and city open spaces and parks.

Colonial authorities in many parts of Nigeria created open spaces but a succession of military and civilian regimes with a most philistine disrespect for the importance of those spaces, parceled them out as shopping complexes or residential plots for the elite. In a place like Kaduna, old GRA plots were re-partitioned and allocated, so newer houses then spring up, without a visual relationship with the old colonial architectural pieces from the 1950s. In the same Kaduna, the Lugard Hall was the Parliament of the old Northern Region and is today the House of Assembly of Kaduna state.

It is a remarkable architectural piece and the grounds had a lot of trees which kept the haloed precinct particularly green, lush and beautiful. But a few years ago, someone decided that most of the trees should be cut and they were, without any respect for the history associated with the compound and the trees.

We were living on Ahmadu Bello Way in the GRA Ilorin from the late 1960s. And up to the early eighties it was in fact an avenue of trees; loads of them. One could walk from one end to the other, without seeing the sun. Most of the houses were architectural pieces from late colonialism, from the 1950s. But as they began expanding the road, it stopped being an avenue; trees were felled; but most unacceptable of all, was the gradual pulling down of the houses. The residence that the late Alhaji Liman Umaru occupied from about 1967 till the creation of Kogi state was the first to go. The late Governor Muhammad Lawal tore it down to build what he called a Presidential Lodge.

But it was Bukola Saraki that was the most philistine of them all. He tore down the old colonial Government House; the former residence of the Chief Judge opposite the Government House and the former residences of the Icha family and the Aje family. He brought an architect from Lagos to create tasteless architectural pieces that had no relationship with the culture of our community; and in doing injury to our memory, even some old colonial graves opposite the Government House (within the former Press Centre) were torn down.

The place became a car park for his new Banquet Hall, which is as tasteless and incongruent with the culture of the community as all the other buildings that now occupy most of the area around the Government House on Ahmadu Bello Way. The only remaining representation of the late colonial architecture I have spoken about is the HQ of the Kwara State Fire Service adjacent to the Kwara Hotels.

In Sokoto, a former governor even parceled out the Sokoto Race Course to his cronies and they built up pronto! During the 1990s, I made a package for the BBC’s NETWORK AFRICA on the increasing alienation of the open spaces in Kano. Spaces where young people played sports in the evenings and which brought hundreds of people to watch were being gradually alienated and built up as shopping complexes. It took Governor Kwankwaso to revoke the allocations of open land on the BUK Road, around the Kofar Dan Agundi area; they had been parceled out to the very rich of Kano. For most of the 1980s, I lived in the Adewole Housing Estate in Ilorin. It was constructed by the late Governor George Innih and had many open spaces where young people also played sports in the evenings.

A few years ago, one of the military regimes closed up the main space and turned it into what they called a Baseball Park. The only thing is that no baseball is played there and the space was lost to the young people who would have creatively burned their energies there.

As I indicated earlier, this is a situation that will resonate with Nigerians all over our country. Our cities and towns are not organized with the interest of the Nigerian people at heart. Unfortunately, there is no serious development control in many of our cities, while a little amount of bribes can make planning officials look the other way as individuals choose to indulge themselves, to the detriment of the collective good. Most of the buildings in the centre of the great cities around the world are protected and cannot be torn down.

But that is not the situation in our country. A lot of the philistine and uncultured disrespect for architecture; green areas or open spaces are driven by the effort to steal. When they pull down old colonial residences to build monstrosities, the reason is often because they will steal billions from contracts for such new constructions!

And in pursuit of their personal greed, they wipe away many aspects of our history. And because cities are not treated as living spaces, there are no short and long term plans for controlled growth, which will look at the use of roads; the need for walkways; open spaces; green areas and protected buildings! But these things matter!

When we allow our fraudulent rulers to tear down old buildings and do not protest, we acquiesce in the wiping away of aspects of our history. Where we allow them to alienate old parks and green areas to build shopping complexes or partake in sharing such spaces (as they were trying to do with the Ilorin Eid Praying Ground before the Ilorin people strongly protested last year!), we help to kill the habitability of our cities and ensure that our children will not inherit functional communities. We must as citizens and cultured members of our communities become proactive in the protection of historical buildings as well as our open and green spaces. We should also build nationwide movements demanding that our urban spaces be made conducive to the pedestrian.

It was in fact the dysfunctional nature of our environment that made it easy for a “hit and run” driver to kill Dimgba Igwe as he jogged last Saturday morning. While we hope that the police will redeem the pledge to track down the irresponsible driver, it is clear that many more citizens face the same danger, for as long as our urban spaces continue to be as dysfunctional as they have become in recent decades.

The greatest tribute we can pay to Dimgba Igwe is to hold those in power in our society to account on how they husband our resources, especially in improving the quality of lives of all citizens. One of the easiest to track is how they work to make our urban spaces safe for pedestrians; sports lovers; and how they respect open spaces and green areas.

When citizens can jog in our urban cities without becoming prey to  “hit and run” drivers; or families can relax in well kept urban parks and open spaces are available for young people to play sports, we would have made a strong case for civilized living in our country! When we open these apertures of functional and civilized living, then Dimgba Igwe would not have died in vain.

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