Sightseeing in Lokoja

Pelu Awofeso rode in a car with two other adventurers. Their plan at the outset was to traverse Nigeria from the Lagos end all the way to the Maiduguri end (in Bornu State), the longest distance between any two Nigerian state capitals. Diary excerpts

Sun 17 Jan 2010

After a light and leisurely breakfast, we leave calm and laidback Okene for busy and historic Lokoja, speeding past roadside sellers displaying bottles and bottles of honey. The honeys, blackened by God-knows-what, look so original and rich that I make a mental note to buy one bottle or two on the return journey in a week’s time. Typical of most Nigerian highways, the road to Lokoja—roughly an hour’s drive from Okene—is appalling for a long stretch but it levels up just after the junction that leads into Kabba on our left, perhaps because Setraco is on the ground working.

The last time I travelled from Lagos to Lokoja, my very first trip to the town the British first settled in Nigeria (on Jan 1, 1900), the journey lasted 11 boring hours in a Peugeot station wagon. For one, the vehicle filled up late in the day, leaving the Park after midday; and so the car travelled through Lagos, Ibadan, Ife, Ondo and Akure in the scorching heat of those cities. Afterwards, the evening shade and breeze set in and the remaining kilometers of the trip was spent under the dim glow of the half-moon and a sprinkling of stars.

Somehow, I felt I needed that tortuous ride to re-configure my senses to the rigours of overland travel. “It usually shouldn’t take more than eight hours,” Tope Joel, a resident for many years and a lecturer at the Kogi State Polytechnic, said when he picked me up at about midnight at ABC, a major bus station.

European Cemetery, Lokoja

A journey to the past

This current journey is a lot more comfortable and leisurely. At the outset, Tona, SOJ and I had planned for an overnight stay in Okene, so that when we leave in the morning we are not only well rested but also very alert and ready for the exploring that awaits us in Lokoja. Lokoja, it must be said, carries the burden and the beauty of Nigeria’s history; if all goes as planned, we intend to see a bit of the town’s historical assets.

Lawrence Ikuboroje, Vice Chairman of Lokoja LGA, meets us on Murtala Mohammed Road (by WAEC) and we all drive down to his home in the Phase 2 area. We spend the next two hours there getting to know the man and hearing him share his insights of the city—over servings of red wine. In the midst of that, lunch (pounded yam, vegetable and stew with an assortment of meat) is served — just what we need having had bread, egg, noodles and tea for breakfast.

And while we wait, the Vice Chairman makes a couple of calls to his friends and colleagues to tell them we are around and so we should be meeting them shortly. Minutes later we drive to the Local government premises (Murtala Mohammed Way), where we’re introduced to Alhaji Nasidi, a newspaper publisher and an authority of sorts on local history; the Chief of Staff to the Local Government chairman; and the Local Government Information Officer.

Nasidi offers to lead the tour, which begins from the famed European cemetery, a short distance from the Local Government offices. At first sighting the cemetery, about the size of two football pitches, is unimpressive: it’s unkempt and smelly and overgrown with weeds.Wilted leaves from the shade-trees cover a good portion of the ground. Its waist-high fence is crumbling in many parts, and we scale over the front fence to be able to see the graves at close range.Buried on these grounds are men and women, though foreigners, who shaped the course of Nigerian history from as far back a century ago. Some of the headstones are dated as far back as the 1800s.

“In the past, some of the grand- and great-grand children of these people used to come here every year,” Nasidi says, clearly unimpressed with the cemetery’s sorry state. “They used to pay for the place to be kept tidy till their next visit.”

 ‘Iron of Liberty’

From the look of things the surviving relatives perhaps lost interest in that arrangement and decided to cease funding it, and both the State and Local Governments, it appears, feel no such responsibility for this vital slice of history. We come out the same way we came—scaling the fence—leaving the stench and eyesore behind.

After that, we all get in the car and ride to the first primary school to be built in Northern Nigeria; like the cemetery, it’s in a bad shape and none of us feel any need to linger in the premises (Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion) for too long. On our way out, we stop by the “Iron of Liberty” monument, said to be where former slaves in Lokoja were brought to be set free. Right there is an artwork of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the former slave-turned-priest and who helped to translate the Bible into Yoruba language.

This structure is believed to be the first primary school in Nigeria. A short distance from it is the Íron of Liberty

“The most painful thing is that since Kogi State was created it has never had a governor who appreciates tourism enough to capitalize on all the gems of history we have here,” sighs the Chief of Staff, “that’s why all these monuments are run down the way they are.”

Afterwards we head to the Cenotaph (IBB Way) built in honour of fallen heroes of the two World Wars. Instinctively I begin to count the names engraved on one side of the white structure. The others joined in. We count some 380 names in all, comprising 24 European officers. Here is about the best maintained of the entire attractions we visit. If any tourist attraction in Lokoja looks good, this is it.

 “You know that the governor has to come here every year (Jan 15) to lay wreath. So they always give out the contract for renovating it,” Nasidi explains.

Finding Lugard

But other than preserving the memories of long dead soldiers, the Cenotaph holds no special attraction.

From there we move to the National Museum of Colonial history, which is not open to visitors today (being Sunday). But I get to see the exterior of the plank building which houses the photographic collection detailing a bit of the history of Lokoja and is said to have been built sometime around 1900-04 by Sir Frederick Lugard, the first Governor-General of the Northern Protectorate (1900-1914) and later the Governor-General of Nigeria (1914-1919).

‘This piece is excerpted from ‘Tour of Duty’, Awofeso’s second travel book. Orders: 08175909300

The building, says the in-house guide when we return the next morning, served as Senior Officers’ quarters in the Lugard era. A similar structure is just a few metres adjacent it.

“That was Lugard’s office,” the guide adds. The wooden building is also in bad shape; from a distance it appears to be sinking. And more than a century after it was put up, the best use the community has found for it is as a beer parlour, a hub for the town’s residents looking to have a relaxed evening.

Well, we are in ‘Rome’ so we opt to do as the ‘Romans’ do. Over bottles of beer on the upper floor, Nasidi walks me to a back room to show me a bath tub supposedly used by Lugard in his time. Bathed in the early morning sunlight it’s covered in burnt charcoal and looking like someone has tried to set it alight. If truly this is a Lugard-era relic, then someone at the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) is overlooking avitalpiece of Nigeria’s past.

A view from Mount Patti

Nasidi hints that the local authorities as not aware that the tub exists. He later shows me downstairs, where Lugard, he says, used to park his car, the spot where the generator used to be, his staff quarters (also stinking like mad). And the little door/stairway he enters his office through.

We all get into the cars and we drive up Mount Patti to see the Baobab tree which Lugard is said to have planted when he first settled there in 1900 or thereabout. We see the abandoned bungalow, scribbled all over with indecipherable markings. We end the tour inside the Grace TV and FM station, where we enjoy a brief facility tour.

The sightseeing over, we retreat into town and made for one of the outdoor bars on Lugard Way, with some of the city’s residents also seated.

In no time, a young grill master places a 5kg fish (known locally as Kurungu) on the table; it’s covered all over with pepper-sauce, cabbage, onions, potatoes and slices of lime. Even under the dim lighting provided by the nearby bulbs and the moonlight, I need no one to tell me that this is going to be a great bite.

“Kogi People have as much appetite for drinking as they have for the fish that is here in abundance,” Ikuboroje says. “That’s why fish is expensive.”

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