Names to facades

While some streets in Lagos bear the names of notable nationalist leaders and pioneering early Nigerians, less is known about the everyday social milieu in which they operated.

Photo by Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Unsplash.

It is often said that people who do not know where they are coming from, do not know where they are headed. The element of truth in this aphorism, as trite it may be, makes the decline of historical interest among Nigerians, especially the youth population, all the more concerning.

In some ways, forgetting history has been a matter of state policy. In the 2009/2010 academic session, the Federal Government of Nigeria removed history as a subject from the primary and secondary school educational curriculum.

It is hardly surprising, then, that most Nigerians do not know of the Afro-Brazilian community—still visible in the lingering Afro-Brazilian architectural influence—that took root in Lagos after the mid-late 19th-century return of the Agudas, as they were known. These (proto-)Nigerians, initially taken to the “New World” from kingdoms that existed along the Bight of Biafra and hinterland, began returning to various parts of West Africa after the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 1830s. The homes they built in Lagos drew inspiration from the Baroque architecture that predominated in Brazil, including Salvador de Bahia to which many Africans were taken.

Tombstone of Emma Otolorin Savage, Wife of Spencer A. Savage and Daughter of Richard Beale and Emily Blaize at Ikoyi Cemetery/Kelechi Anabaraonye/May 2021

Nor do many contemporary Nigerians know of the Afro-Cubans. Arriving in colonial Lagos based on a similar trajectory as their Afro-Brazilian counterparts, they formed a smaller group of the Lagos population and could easily be mistaken for Agudas. However, they marked out a distinct cultural heritage, shaped by prominent individuals such as Hilario Campos after whom Campos Square in Lagos Island is named.

Today, people walk through Lagos Island, the old quarters in Ibadan, Duke Town and Creek Town in Calabar, Ikija, Ake, and other areas in Abeokuta neither realizing nor coming to terms with the voluminous history that surrounds them. Shocked reactions usually accompany the little information occasionally made available about these histories (often on social media), since this information is not mentioned or taught in the history curriculum. While history was formally, this has not reversed the prevailing atmosphere of historical amnesia.

Continent-wide debates about the lingering legacies of empire and colonization that have gained moderate ground in Nigeria, might provide an opportunity for public discussion and historical education. Calls for the resignification of monuments, buildings, and street names that glorify European colonial proponents have grown more audible on the African continent in recent years. In 2000, calls were made in South Africa for the renaming of places, monuments, and streets that bore remnants of the Apartheid and colonial eras. In 2020, a campaign was born in Uganda, to decolonize its capital’s streets. The online petition, launched on June 9 of that year, urged the government to remove the names of British colonial figures from the streets, monuments, and landmarks in Kampala. The petition was signed by more than 5,000 people in less than a month.

In June 2020, the Lagos State House of Assembly called on Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the Governor of Lagos State, to direct the then Commissioner for Tourism, Arts and Culture to review the listed sites (Prevention) Law, 2015 with a view to removing all vestiges of slave trade and colonialism. The state parliament cited the gruesome murder of George Floyd, which sparked nationwide protests in the US,  as well as the hurling of the statue of a notable slave trader Edward Colston into a river in Bristol, UK. 

In 2018, human rights lawyer and activist, Femi Falana SAN, called for the renaming of streets named after colonial administrative officers, who brought untold hardship to Nigerians.

Feyisetan House, Brazilian Quarters/Kelechi Anabaraonye/December 2022

Despite the calls for change, many streets across Nigeria and especially in Ikoyi, the former historic European neighborhood in Lagos, still have English names such as Bourdillon (named after one of Nigeria’s Colonial Governors), Alexander, Hawley, Boyle, Brook, and others. In addition to raising interest in the individuals these streets are named after, could the demand for renaming them also spark curiosity about Nigerians who lived during the same period?

While some streets in Lagos do bear the names of notable nationalist leaders and some pioneering early Nigerians, less is known about the everyday social milieu in which these leaders operated, as well as the lives of the individuals that would shape the architectural landscape of the city for generations to come. Yet, there is an abundance of stories about Nigerians who made significant contributions to society and its development in early colonial Lagos and other pre-amalgamation colonies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These stories are crucial in enlightening and educating people about Nigeria’s history. It would seem fitting to rename streets across Nigeria, particularly in Lagos, after some of the protagonists of these people.

During a time of race and class segregation, exemplified by associations such as the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club and government departments such as the Medical Service and the Public Works Department—then exclusive to Europeans—notable events including The Herbert Macaulay Affair, led by CMS Bishop James Johnson, provided Nigerians with opportunities to create associations such as the Lisabi Club and other unions based on ethnic background or mutual benefit. These associations allowed them to socialize and develop themselves.

Societal life was not devoid of celebrations either. Weddings, which took place almost every weekend, were particularly significant. They involved elaborate decorations at both the church and reception venues, which were typically the homes of the bride or groom’s parents, a relative, or a friend. People from all sectors of society lined the streets to witness these celebrations.

These are the stories we have been sharing in our monthly publication, The Façade Nigeria Periodical. In our October issue, we highlighted the lives of both well-known and non-elite Nigerians, providing detailed accounts of their lives and showcasing photos of their intricately designed tombstones at the historic Ikoyi and Apena cemeteries. By providing readers with authentic, informative and accessible Nigerian history through our social media platforms and history booklets, we aim to reach a wider audience.

Further Reading

A private city

Eko Atlantic in Lagos, like Tatu City in Nairobi, Kenya; Hope City in Accra, Ghana; and Cité le Fleuve in Kinshasa, DRC, point to the rise of private cities. What does it mean for the rest of us?