Who governs Nigeria?



During the Jonathan administration, an outspoken opposition spokesperson had argued that Nigeria was on auto-pilot, a phrase that was gleefully even if ignorantly echoed by an excitable opposition crowd. Deeper reflection should have made it clear even to the unthinking that there is no way any country can ever be on auto-pilot, for there are many levels of governance, all working together and cross-influencing each other to determine the structure of inputs and outcomes in society. To say that a country is on auto-pilot is to assume wrongly that the only centre of governance that exists is the official corridor, whereas governance is far more complex. The question should be asked, now as then: who is governing Nigeria? Who is running the country? Why do we blame government alone for our woes, whereas we share a collective responsibility, and some of the worst violators of the public space are not even in public office?

The President of the country is easily the target of every criticism. This is perhaps understandable to the extent that what we have in Nigeria is the perfect equivalent of an Imperial Presidency. Whoever is President of Nigeria wields the powers of life and death, depending on how he uses those enormous powers attached to his office by the Constitution, convention and expectations. Nigeria’s President not only governs, he rules. The kind of President that emerges at any particular time can determine the fortunes of the country. It helps if the President is driven by a commitment to make a difference, but the challenge is that every President invariably becomes a prisoner.

He has the loneliest job in the land, because he is soon taken hostage by officials and various interests, struggling to exercise aspects of Presidential power vicariously. And these officials do it right to the minutest detail: they are the ones who tell the President that he is best thing ever since the invention of toothpaste. They are the ones who will convince him as to every little detail of governance: who to meet, where to travel to, and who to suspect or suspend. The President exercises power, the officials and the partisans in the corridors exercise influence. But when things go wrong, it is the President that gets the blame. He is reminded that the buck stops at his desk.

We should begin to worry about these dangerous officials in the system, particularly within the public service, the reckless mind readers who exploit the system for their own ends, and who walk free when the President gets all the blame. To govern properly, every government not only needs a good man at the top, but good officials who will serve the country. We are not there yet. The same civil servants who superintended over the omissions of the past 16 years are the ones still going up and down today, and it is why something has changed but nothing has changed. The reality is terrifying.

The officials at the state levels are no different, from the governor down to the local government chairman and their staff. They hardly get as much criticism as the folks in Abuja, but they are busy every day governing Nigeria, and doing so very badly too. Local government chairmen and their officials do almost nothing. The governors also try to act as if they are Imperial Majesties. The emphasis on ceremony rather than actual performance is the bane of governance in Nigeria. Everyone seems to be obsessed with ceremony and privileges.

A friend sent me a picture he took with the Mayor of London inside a train, in the midst of ordinary citizens and asked if that would ever happen in Nigeria. The Mayor had no bodyguards. He was on his own. In the Netherlands, the Prime Minister is a part-time lecturer in one of the local colleges. Nigerian pubic officials are often too busy to have time for normal life. Even if they want to live normally, the system also makes it impossible. We need people in government living normal lives. Leaders need not be afraid of the people they govern. They must identify with them. There is too much royalty in government circles in Nigeria. No matter how well-intentioned you may be, once you find yourself in their midst, you will soon start acting and sounding like one, because it is the only language that is spoken in those corridors.

Elsewhere, ideas govern countries. People become leaders on the basis of ideas and they govern with ideas. That is why the average voter in Europe or North America knows that what he votes for is what he is likely to get. Clearly in the on-going Presidential nomination process in the United States, every voter knows the difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump on the Republican side. Such differences are often blurry in Nigeria: our politics is driven by partisan interests; a primordial desperation for power, not ideas. It is also why Nigerian politicians can belong to five different political parties and movements within a decade.

Even when men of ideas show up in the political arena, they are quickly reminded that they are not politicians and do not understand politics. Gross anti-intellectualism is a major problem that Nigeria would have to address at some stage. Some of the administrations in the past who had brainy men and women of ideas in strategic positions ended up not using them. They were either frustrated, caged, co-opted or forced to adapt or shown the door. The question is often asked: why don’t such people walk away? The answer that is well known in official corridors is this: doing so may be a form of suicide. Once inside, you are not allowed to walk out on the Federal Government of Nigeria, and if you must, not on your own terms. So, governance fails even at that level of values: that other important element that governs progressive nations.

Partisan interests are major factors in the governance process. These seem to be the dominant factor in Nigeria, but again, they are irresponsibly deployed. The crowd of political parties, religious groups, traditional rulers, ethnic and community associations, professional associations, pastors, priests, traditional rulers, imams and alfas, shamanists, native doctors, soothsayers and traditional healers: they all govern. They wield enormous influence. But they have never helped Nigeria and they are not helping. All the people in public offices have strong links to all these other governors of Nigeria, but what kind of morality do they discuss? Those with partisan interests, including even promoters of Non-Governmental groups (NGOs) all have one interest at heart: power and relevance.

The same priests who saw grand visions for the PDP and its members over a 16-year period are still in business seeing visions and making predictions. Those who claim to be so powerful they can make the lame walk and the blind see have not deemed it necessary to step forward to help the NNPC turn water into petrol. If any of these miracle-delivering pastors can just turn the Lagos Lagoon alone into a river of petrol, all Nigerians will become believers, but that won’t happen because they are committed to a different version of the gospel. As for the political parties: they are all in disarray.

The private sector also governs Nigeria. But what is the quality of governance in the corporate sector? The Nigerian corporate elite are arrogant. They claim that they create jobs so the country may prosper, but they are, in reality, a rent-seeking class. They survive on government patronage, access to the Villa and its satellites, and claims of indispensability. But without government, most private sector organisations will be in distress. The withdrawal of public funds into a Treasury Single Account is a case in point. And with President Muhammadu Buhari not readily available to the eye-service wing of the Nigerian private sector, former sycophants in the corridors are clandestinely resorting to sabotage and blackmail. A responsible private sector has a duty in society: to build society, not to donate money to politicians during elections and seek patronage thereafter. And if it must co-operate with government, it must be for much nobler reasons in the public interest.

The military are still governing Nigeria too. They may be in the background, but their exit 16 years ago, has not quite translated into a loss of influence or presence. In the early years of their de-centering, many of them chose to join politics and replace their uniforms with traditional attires. Their original argument is that if other professionals can join politics, then a soldier should not be excluded. They failed to add that the military class in politics in Africa has shown a tendency to exercise proprietorial rights and powers, which delimit the democratic project. In Nigeria such powers and rights have been exercised consistently and mostly by, happily for us, a gerontocratic class, whose impact, I believe, will be determined by the effluxion of time.

And it is like this: the President that emerged in 1999 was a soldier: the received opinion was that only such a strong man could stabilise the country. His successor was the brother of another old soldier; he and his Deputy were personally chosen by the departing President. He died in office, but for his Deputy to succeed him, it helped a lot that he was also a favorite of the General who chose his own successors. When this protégé fell out with the General, in retrospect now, a miscalculation, the General turned Godfather swore to remove him from office. And it happened. In 2015, another former soldier and strong man had to be brought back to office and power. When anything goes wrong, a class of old Generals is the one who steps forward to protect and guide the country. The only saving grace is that they do not yet have a successor–class of similarly influential men with military pedigree. But when their time passes, would there be equally strong civilians who can act as protectors of the nation?

The media governs too. But the media in Nigeria today is heavily politicised, compromised and a victim of internal censorship occasioned by hubris. Can the media still save Nigeria? It is in the same pit as the Nigerian voter, foreign interests, the legislature and the judiciary. But when there is positive change at all of these centres of power and influence, only then will there be change, movement and motion, and a new Nigeria.

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  • FirecloudOFGOD

    ‘But when their time passes, would there be equally strong civilians who can act as protectors of the nation’?
    Yes. With tongue in cheek, Saraki.

    He is proving to be very adept or is it adroit in ensuring the the status quo of corruption, manipulation and ingrained opulent living style of our politicians is guaranteed!

  • Ralph

    You had 5 years to change it. What did you do with them?

  • Efeturi Ojakaminor

    “… even if ignorantly echoed by an excitable opposition.” – Language reminiscent of Abati’s (in)famous “The Jonathan they do not Know.” The man is still hurting.

    • tayo johnson

      The article was classic

  • Tru

    Honestly, I’ve totally lost interest in what this man says. Abati is a man desperately trying to redeem himself. History will not be so kind to him because he has dined with the devil.

    • Nuel

      Of course, the reason is because he served in Jonathan’s Govt. Your bias towards Jonathan has beclouded your sense of judgement. Abati is a very good writer.

      • Tru

        Hitler was an excellent orator. That’s why he was able to achieve maximum damage to humanity

    • tayo johnson

      I dnt knw why pple keep tau tin Abati

  • Otache Ada

    Governing Nigeria is not a child’s play, Abati has said it all. Criticizing is the easiest thing to do, but how we perform once we step in determines how good we are. Its like a game of football where we condemn both players and coaches but cannot even run round the pitch once. See how Oliseh fumbled despite his wonderful analysis on set For me I believe Abati, having experienced the position is in a better place to give advice.

  • Udeme Ukpong

    Reuben, you have shown that you learnt a lot during your marriage to President Jonathan’s regime.
    Permit that we thank you for being able to own up your failings. A lot of your admirers were worried.


  • nuruzak

    Reopen for the first time a looser can be sincere.God ll use u next tym to change all the criticisms and devil ll die like PDP

  • Tom O

    Vintage Abati …ever incisive and elucidating. For me this piece compares to a piece he wrote in The Guardian in 1993 ‘ A Hollow Symbolism’. He very succinctly captures the Nigerian condition in this essay. I would advise those who disparage him in their comments to let go of their bias and apply their intellect to embrace the inescapable truths in his opinions. Part of our problem as he mentioned is that our intellectual class has abdicated their responsibility to hold government to account through ideas and fervent interrogation and joined the bandwagon of mercantile politics. That is why in Nigeria you have professors who are ward secretaries of political parties. The task of building a new Nigeria will not be an easy one and it will require new kind of leadership with adequate intellectual capacity and prepared to confront our myriad of problems selflessly. Unfortunately, I do not see that leader within the ranks of the present leadership with the possible exception of the VP Prof Osinbajo. But I believe that society evolves and eventually, we will throw up that leadership. Only then can our journey to national salvation begin. I only hope that the country will still be here when that leadership emerges.

    • Nnabuike

      Am awed by Abati every time I read his composition. God bless you for appreciating him. I was worried by his submission “in retrospect now, a miscalculation”. I feel he is allowing the pressure of hatred towards Jonathan by the partisan noisemakers get at him. He should not. Those noisemakers are evil. They have kept loud silence to the intense hardship of 250/ltr fuel and Gulliver travel self loving President. They even worship his failures and lacks, and shut our complaints up. Reuben should continue his good intellectual write ups without the need to harm the innocent Jonathan.
      Mentioning Osibanjo has an intellectual or exception is wrong. In becoming commissioner under Tinubu till date, intellectualism had that long left him. Shallow follow following politician whose face seeking rhetoric can be conveniently denied by presidency if need be.

      • bobwekes

        all of you praise singers of Abati are just so hillarious. The man writes very brilliantlly when he is outside of power. The monent he joins government, he becomes another oppresor and supporter of evil. His boss Jonathan was one of the most useless Presidents Africa ever had. The man shared Nigerian money like it was going out of fashion. Of course he was sorrounded by trickstars like Abti

        • Auxtine Obas

          Your response is the best I’ve seen here so far.

        • Country Man

          I guess you are underage…

          • world ofmyown

            He’s a toddler.

  • iniabasi

    …Succinct and timely. This article clears every doubt and I think it explains…”why something has changed but nothing has changed”. Within our wishful instinct, we may want to wish our present predicaments away but “The reality is terrifying”. So terrifying that no matter how hard this president tries, we the people may never experience the impact good governance. ‘Prof.’ Agbati has beyond every doubt fingered the usual culprit and they are up to their usual shenanigans.
    Beyond this, however, shouldn’t we act? Or If we are a nation heading to the abyss, is there nothing we can do collectively or individually to ‘change’ this direction? Or should we pray for rapture (if there’s any) to salvage the few good men and women within our midst, so that they can escape the impending implosion from consuming them along with the impious?

  • Nnabuike

    Am awed by Abati every time I read his composition. God bless you for appreciating him. I was worried by his submission “in retrospect now, a miscalculation”. I feel he is allowing the pressure of hatred towards Jonathan by the partisan noisemakers get at him. He should not. Those noisemakers are evil. They have kept loud silence to the intense hardship of 250/ltr fuel and Gulliver travel self loving President. They even worship his failures and lacks, and shut our complaints up. Reuben should continue his good intellectual write ups without the need to harm the innocent Jonathan.
    Reuben, Jonathan leaving Presidency was no mistake. Those who pushed him out by intimidation, threat, blackmail, rigging and set ups now have the pleasure of ruling and looking back to condemn him for their lack of grasp of governance.
    The bias lots who tried without success to convince us to hate Jonathan, and who in failure sold us promises, are all queuing for fuel with us. They trecked in victory, and now in pain. Dollar would soon become 1(thousand) naira, and fuel 40 (x10) naira. Prudence (plundering) globe trotting is to regain Nigeria image forever and ever.
    Reuben just go on. Nothing was a mistake.

    • Omhenra kingsley splendour

      I’m highly impressed

    • Auxtine Obas

      I can see you have soft spots for Jonathan. I don’t hate him either. What people like you should know is that we’re presently suffering from the errors of previous bad governance and getting it right has a sacrifice. You cry foul because things aren’t like before? Even Abati’s write up doesn’t discredit PMB if you read well. You seem to highlight a phrase that only looks like what you need in his article.
      I am yet to see a literate (not only educated like you) and patriotic Nigerian discredit this regime. It just started, check the score card after four years….enjoy!

      • Nnabuike

        Auxtine, your comment, like your name (Auxtine not Austin or Augustine) is neither here nor there. Jonathan was a good president with many good assistants. They gave their best and in doing so where not busy castigating Obasanjo or Yaradua. This present regime rigged, blackmailed, cried, forced and forged their way to power on promises beyond their capacity and competence. They are failing on every promises (job, 5000, 1 dollar to naira, 40 naira for fuel) that displayed Buhari and their change as the super messiah. And like shameless frauds, they are re explaining their promises, and denied some outrightly. And for lack of plausible excuse they often attribute problems to Jonathan and beg for time.
        Na lie, the regime change should not be for excuses. Stop passing bulk, stop travelling, stop painting Nigerians black and you and your APC families white. The world is seeing your incompetence.
        Obama inherited a system. He sat down and improved it. He was not travelling from China thru Sudan to Germany, and blaming George Bush in every trip. He sat down with good men and worked.
        A long time, after the deceitful waste of this time, Nigeria would have genuine work or repair and rebuilding to do. Let’s just watch how low we go before the retrace. Lai lie incompetence reigns for now

        • Auxtine Obas

          Smiles… What made you think I’m either Austin or Augustine? Haven’t you heard Austen, Haustin and Auxten before? Well, names aside.
          To start with, let me tell you where I am. I am on the side of Nigerians who wants the best for the country. I am not a politician, not APC or PDP.
          Jonathan is a good man, agreed. He was surrounded with some (not all) good hands. What we fail to see is that Jonathan’s men/women seems to have a better say in the decisions he makes. I’m shying away from calling my president weak.
          Talk about rigging, no one election is clean! From Obasanjo to Buhari. The people who rigged for Obasanjo, did for Yar’adua (which he admits). Same people did for Jonathan against Buhari, and then for Buhari against Jonathan.
          Talk about electoral promises, they are mostly not done. From Obasañjo to Jonathan… Maybe after four years we’ll see weather to add Buhari to the list. Smiles.
          That too aside. My point is this; we needed change, we got it. Some people like you belief this change is not better than the previous government, I belief it is better. From your judgement, our present economic challenges makes this government bad, to me I disagree. My brother, can’t you see the amount of money our so called leaders are able to steal under Goodluck? Can’t you see the level of impunity in our public systems and institutions? Can’t you see? Do you think those who are feeding fat on the mistakes of our past governments would want them corrected? The country has been structured for easy looting by some selected few, undoing this means war with them! War through scarcity, through hardships, through pains…. Jonathan too knew but “too good” to fight. We now have a ready leader, let’s fight it.
          Most people will agree with me that the mentality of the populace is being redirected…. from “share the money” to “where is our money?”. Can’t you see?
          Abati’s point was that some people who like acting the god father, got angry with Jonathan when he stop being a godson and decided to enthrone another for same purpose but “in retrospect…..”
          To me, the new regime is niether APC or PDP for they are all the same.
          I belief these new policies are for good, not minding the short term pains.

          • Nnabuike

            Auxtine is an educated balanced man. I appreciate that from your write up. I am sympathetic of humiliation suffered by Jonathan and appreciative of his humility in defeat. I am unconvinced about the grasp of skill for modern governance by Buhari nor the sincerity of white APC. All I see are hypocrites covering incompetence with excuses, blame and command for patience. I would not say the whole impression I have of Buhari. I know it is our cross to bare. 2016 we are like 1976 with the ‘whole’ of our Leader. But it is okay

          • BankyMons

            Neither here nor there? Take a stand or shut up!

          • Tanko Maihula

            You are an extremist.

          • toefunmi

            You just explained rightly what is in the hearts of well meaning Nigerians.Kudos to you for that. To the “Goodluck symphatisers”, can you pls put down your symphathy and lets do some real work in getting our nation back to shape? Let us all as Nigerians think of how we can increase our area of influence instead of this area of complaint that we insist on growing.

          • Tunsj

            Couldn’t have said it better myself. Well laid out.

          • BankyMons

            “To start with, let me tell you where I am. I am on the side of Nigerians who wants the best for the country. I am not a politician, not APC or PDP.” You are an APC shill – an idiot. That statement exposed you for who you truly are.

          • Tanko Maihula

            can’t you people be civilise even for once. why abusing him (Auxtine) simply because you cannot engage in intellectual discussion with him? well, that shows who you are……. ( member of let share the money group)

          • Tanko Maihula

            A true Nigerian. God bless you. I totally agree with you and please, don’t mind the extremist, who normally resort to abuse when they can’t engage in intellectual discussion.

        • Uchamma

          Thumbs up!

      • Olusegun Olawonyi

        We don’t have to wait for the complete 4 years to grade this government. To do that would be suicidal. The morning, as they say, tells the day. From the initial steps he is taking, we can make calculations and deductions as to what is likely to be the coloration of the future under Mr. President. He needs to sit down more, and get on with the business of governing the nation. With positive and constructive criticism we contribute our quota to governance – assuming the government listens. And that would enable this government to get it right early enough for us to benefit from his administration.

      • BankyMons

        “,,,,,that we’re presently suffering from the errors of previous bad governance and getting it right has a sacrifice” So Buhari has not been part and parcel of this “previous bad governance” (sic)? What nonsense! So GEJ’s government inherited Nigeria that was a paradise and then destroyed her? How low can you people get? Shame on you idiots.

  • Me

    Dr. Abati, in spite of my misgivings with your service in the previous government, you remain one of my most revered writers having read your articles for over 25 years since secondary school. This article and the ones since the end of your public service reassures me that there quite a lot in you that can profit this country. Best wishes Sir.

  • Mazi JO

    It is a pity. Isn’t it? We know our weaknesses but are afraid to leverage them successfully. The power these people you enumerated are flaunting is the same power the people endowed on them which in an instance can be revoked. It is unfortunate both are blind to its(power) volatility. That creature, the fly that keeps avoiding counsel has a destiny of being buried with the corpse. We all know that; the population, the officials and our Government. Time is the oldest thing in our Universe. Only God knows WHEN He crafted our space. The intent is nothing but we brought our collective problems on ourselves; all of us, bar none. The write up refers!
    Who are ‘we’ in this ‘view-burning’ judgment. Learn to be liberated in your editorial approval or dis-approval of opinions on matters. When you decide what to publish or not, you are not shinning light on true journalism.

  • Randolph ErumaGborie

    Great write up by Ruben Abati. But yet this is another excuse for the failure of leadership that has been the lot of our country Nigeria. Very true that we need change at all levels of the Nigerian society. However it is complete utopia to think they must all happen at the same time before noticeable change can take place. Whilst all the centres of power as mentioned by Abati are truly critical, the principal one and the driver of change is the Political with the Presidency up at its apex. I believe in the power of one. Great nations have emerge and fallen at the power of one. Nigeria is yet to be blessed with that one leader that will make the difference. The likes of Gandhi for India, Washington for USA, Churchill for the UK, Mandela for South Africa, and Lee Kuan Yew for Singapore to mention some of these icons. Our Obasanjo was so mandated but failed to deliver. What we need is a process that will throw up this leadership that we so desperately need. All we need is this one leader for Nigeria.

  • YK

    Abati has been rescucitated and now regained his consciousness.

  • Arize Nwofor

    Running a large and complex system like Nigeria is not a walk in the park. You do not rule such a country with body language and buck-passing, but with carefully thought out programs and flawless execution.

  • +Truth -Lie

    Abati, this your pontificating is tiring. We have seen your nakedness and know that you are worth ‘anini’. I read the first two paragaphs and I see your holier than thou thinking. Please spare us this and go and enjoy your looth.

  • Rev

    medieval capital now lost without trace

    With its mathematical layout and earthworks longer than the Great Wall of China, Benin City was one of the best planned cities in the world when London was a place of ‘thievery and murder’. So why is nothing left?

    Read other articles in our story of cities series

    Ancient Benin city.

    Benin City was described as ‘wealthy and industrious, well-governed and richly decorated’. Illustration: Decompiling Dapper: A Preliminary Search for Evidence

    Mawuna Koutonin

    Friday 18 March 2016 03.30 EDT Last modified on Thursday 24 March 2016 06.37 EDT

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    This is the story of a lost medieval city you’ve probably never heard about. Benin City, originally known as Edo, was once the capital of a pre-colonial African empire located in what is now southern Nigeria. The Benin empire was one of the oldest and most highly developed states in west Africa, dating back to the 11th century.

    The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.

    Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.

    Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.

    Barely any trace of these walls exist today.

    View along a street in the royal quarter of Benin City, from 1897.

    View along a street in the royal quarter of Benin City, 1897. Photograph: The British Museum/Trustees of the British Museum

    Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

    When the Portuguese first “discovered” the city in 1485, they were stunned to find this vast kingdom made of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages in the middle of the African jungle. They called it the “Great City of Benin”, at a time when there were hardly any other places in Africa the Europeans acknowledged as a city. Indeed, they classified Benin City as one of the most beautiful and best planned cities in the world.

    In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed: “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”

    In contrast, London at the same time is described by Bruce Holsinger, professor of English at the University of Virginia, as being a city of “thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market made the medieval city ripe for exploitation by those with a skill for the quick blade or picking a pocket”.

    African fractals

    Benin City’s planning and design was done according to careful rules of symmetry, proportionality and repetition now known as fractal design. The mathematician Ron Eglash, author of African Fractals – which examines the patterns underpinning architecture, art and design in many parts of Africa – notes that the city and its surrounding villages were purposely laid out to form perfect fractals, with similar shapes repeated in the rooms of each house, and the house itself, and the clusters of houses in the village in mathematically predictable patterns.

    As he puts it: “When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganised and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”

    A plaque showing an entrance to the palace of the Oba of Benin.

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    A plaque showing an entrance to the palace of the Oba of Benin. Photograph: Alamy

    At the centre of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium with an outlet to carry away storm water. Many narrower side and intersecting streets extended off them. In the middle of the streets were turf on which animals fed.

    “Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other,” writes the 17th-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper. “Adorned with gables and steps … they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected.”

    Dapper adds that wealthy residents kept these walls “as shiny and smooth by washing and rubbing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are like mirrors. The upper storeys are made of the same sort of clay. Moreover, every house is provided with a well for the supply of fresh water”.

    Family houses were divided into three sections: the central part was the husband’s quarters, looking towards the road; to the left the wives’ quarters (oderie), and to the right the young men’s quarters (yekogbe).

    Daily street life in Benin City might have consisted of large crowds going though even larger streets, with people colourfully dressed – some in white, others in yellow, blue or green – and the city captains acting as judges to resolve lawsuits, moderating debates in the numerous galleries, and arbitrating petty conflicts in the markets.

    The early foreign explorers’ descriptions of Benin City portrayed it as a place free of crime and hunger, with large streets and houses kept clean; a city filled with courteous, honest people, and run by a centralised and highly sophisticated bureaucracy.

    What impressed the first visiting Europeans most was the wealth, artistic beauty and magnificence of the city

    The city was split into 11 divisions, each a smaller replication of the king’s court, comprising a sprawling series of compounds containing accommodation, workshops and public buildings – interconnected by innumerable doors and passageways, all richly decorated with the art that made Benin famous. The city was literally covered in it.

    The exterior walls of the courts and compounds were decorated with horizontal ridge designs (agben) and clay carvings portraying animals, warriors and other symbols of power – the carvings would create contrasting patterns in the strong sunlight. Natural objects (pebbles or pieces of mica) were also pressed into the wet clay, while in the palaces, pillars were covered with bronze plaques illustrating the victories and deeds of former kings and nobles.

    At the height of its greatness in the 12th century – well before the start of the European Renaissance – the kings and nobles of Benin City patronised craftsmen and lavished them with gifts and wealth, in return for their depiction of the kings’ and dignitaries’ great exploits in intricate bronze sculptures.

    “These works from Benin are equal to the very finest examples of European casting technique,” wrote Professor Felix von Luschan, formerly of the Berlin Ethnological Museum. “Benvenuto Celini could not have cast them better, nor could anyone else before or after him. Technically, these bronzes represent the very highest possible achievement.”

    A drawing of Benin City made by a British officer in 1897.

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    A drawing of Benin City made by a British officer in 1897. Illustration: akg-images

    What impressed the first visiting Europeans most was the wealth, artistic beauty and magnificence of the city. Immediately European nations saw the opportunity to develop trade with the wealthy kingdom, importing ivory, palm oil and pepper – and exporting guns. At the beginning of the 16th century, word quickly spread around Europe about the beautiful African city, and new visitors flocked in from all parts of Europe, with ever glowing testimonies, recorded in numerous voyage notes and illustrations.

    Lost world

    Now, however, the great Benin City is lost to history. Its decline began in the 15th century, sparked by internal conflicts linked to the increasing European intrusion and slavery trade at the borders of the Benin empire.

    Then in 1897, the city was destroyed by British soldiers – looted, blown up and burnt to the ground. My great grandparents were among the many who fled following the sacking of the city; they were members of the elite corps of the king’s doctors.

    Nowadays, while a modern Benin City has risen on the same plain, the ruins of its former, grander namesake are not mentioned in any tourist guidebook to the area. They have not been preserved, nor has a miniature city or touristic replica been made to keep alive the memory of this great ancient city.

    A house composed of a courtyard in Obasagbon, known as Chief Enogie Aikoriogie’s house – probably built in the second half of the 19th century – is considered the only vestige that survives from Benin City. The house possesses features that match the horizontally fluted walls, pillars, central impluvium and carved decorations observed in the architecture of ancient Benin.

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    Curious tourists visiting Edo state in Nigeria are often shown places that might once have been part of the ancient city – but its walls and moats are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps a section of the great city wall, one of the world’s largest man-made monuments, now lies bruised and battered, neglected and forgotten in the Nigerian bush.

    A discontented Nigerian puts it this way: “Imagine if this monument was in England, USA, Germany, Canada or India? It would be the most visited place on earth, and a tourist mecca for millions of the world’s people. A money-spinner worth countless billions in annual tourist revenue.”

    Instead, if you wish to get a glimpse into the glorious past of the ancient Benin kingdom – and a better understanding of this groundbreaking city – you are better off visiting the Benin Bronze Sculptures section of the British Museum in central London.

    • Rev

      Europeans have been destroying our cities, our culture from time immemorial…!!!
      We often we need to copy them selectively as they do copy us selectively…not excluding governance!
      Mind you the Christian faith is not European in history or origin…Christianity predates European history by thousands of years!!!!

  • Blonde Johnny Bass

    Over to those followers of blind Buhari, pick holes in this careful analysis of the bone of contention.

  • land37_akanbi17


  • Isaac Boro

    Abati u thief ….u armed robber.. u serial philanderer ..u money launderer. Rueben Abati u time is up. SHUT UP.

  • Isaac Boro

    Evil Abati u thief ….u armed robber.. u serial philanderer ..u money launderer. Rueben Abati u time is up. SHUT UP.

  • world ofmyown

    I greed with most of the things you said but mentioning that PMB will tackle BH heads on I think you messed up your comment.
    Note: Nigeria is more divided under PMB’s adminstration and directionless, lies-filled, and unrepentant government.

  • otomololu

    This is, no doubt, a master piece. I hope we can all reflect on this and chart a new course in the nation’s political path.

  • Tanko Maihula

    Hmmmmm. Reuben Abati……… so it’s the media of today that was heavily politicised and compromised? Please, help and explain the Nigerian media before GEJ administration. what a tragedy……….