Chidi Amuta

Daily Times, December 16, 1991

We relate to our history with bulldozers and concrete; levelling, razing, demolishing only to rebuild new characterless structures in concrete, iron and glass. That is why our buildings and places of historic significance disappear by the day while land speculators, property developers and new rulers intent on awarding yet new contracts have a field day. Our children may tomorrow look in vain for such colonial homes that used to dot our urban areas, the pen with which Philip Effiong signed the surrender document ending the existence of Biafra, the relic of Uli Ihiala Airport, the scenes of battle between colonial forces and indigenous resistance and many more landmarks in our history.

I raise this concern now in relation to Dodan Barracks which I consider the symbol of a phase in our political history which Nigerians unanimously feel should never return. It has been the home of successive heads of state: Gowon resided there, directing the civil war and the post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation, Murtala did not live there but he ruled from there. It was on his way there that tragedy struck, depriving Africa of one of its most courageous sons. Obasanjo perched in Dodan Barracks until he became the first African military warlord to voluntarily relinquish power to an elected civilian government.

When Shagari came, he was convinced to stay in Dodan Barracks for “security” reasons even if, in symbolic terms, that means that the head of a supposedly democratic Second Republic lived in virtual captivity in the hands of the military whose barrack dominates Ribadu Road. Buhari lived and ruled from Dodan Barracks more or less terminating Shagari’s occupancy and reminding civil society that the Second Republic political leadership were merely tenants at Ribadu Road living there at the mercy of the soldiers.

 Buhari’s tenure at Dodan was characterized by an aloofness which literally made the place inaccessible to the governed. It is a fortress from where the oracular voice of the frowning duo-Buhari and Idiagbon-talked to us through decrees and detention warrants. And Babangida, too in spite of his liberal “democratic” approach to military governance had no choice but to continue in what was becoming a tradition, namely, governing Nigeria from the security of a Barrack. Whatever efforts he has made to give military rule a human face have not diminished the symbolism of Dodan Barracks largely as the abode of successive dictators spawned by our history. Even in lamenting the inglorious legacy of the military dominion that Dodan Barracks has come to represent, it is difficult and in fact, foolhardy to ignore the symbolic import of that setting in our national life.

It is not just important as the home and power centre of a succession of leaders, mostly self-appointed, of varying degrees of substance and relevance. But during the reign of Dodan Barracks, some of the most important decisions that condition our present perception of Nigeria were made. The Civil War and its official end.  Twelve….    Nineteen….twenty- one and thirty states structure federation; coups and counter coups, chains of decrees on virtually everything under the sun, reception of dignitaries from far and near, intrigues, plots, manoeuvres…. But by far the most enduring symbolism of Dodan Barracks in our national life is its embodiment of a wayward streak in our political culture. Simply put, the long period of importance which Dodan Barracks enjoyed in our national life must be seen as symbolizing a period in which our collective democratic instincts were sent on compulsory leave.

Last Thursday, Babangida moved again, with characteristic courage out of Dodan Barracks, taking with him the entire coterie and paraphernalia of state. What the public has since concentrated on is the importance of moving the nation’s capital finally out of the sweet chaos of Lagos; at last government can breathe fresh air, move freely and the business of government can be carried out in a more congenial atmosphere devoid of the airless cacophony of Lagos.

At this level, what took place last Thursday is obviously historic. But will the more conducive atmosphere of Abuja improve the quality of the way we are governed from now? Will the monumental expenditure on Abuja be an investment in good governance or another exercise in landscape decoration? Will the serenity and quiet, its openness and centrality lead to greater openness, greater accountability and less crooked and clandestine ways of conducting public business?

These are the questions and challenges which I imagine Babangida has posed by courageously deciding to pull the usually sluggish machinery of government out of Lagos. They are questions and challenges which, I am afraid, confront more the leadership of the third Republic than the lame duck that the Babangida administration can now be rightly regarded to be. There is even a greater challenge posed by the flight from Dodan to Aso Rock. It is that of ensuring that we do not obliterate the symbolism of Dodan Barracks as a historical landmark. What to do with the place? If we continue to maintain it as an alternative seat of government and a military zone, for that long shall we be perpetuating the lingering notion that the barrack holds the logical alternative to civil authority. So, what to do?

  1. Close down Dodan Barracks as a military base soonest and send the soldiers there far – far away from the posh neighbourhood of Ikoyi and the proximity of Victoria Island with their twin connotations of wealth, gadgetry, night clubs and opulence.

  1. Convert the structures, of the barrack into a training school for a bipartisan-Centre for Democratic Studies. As for the residence, offices and council chambers of the State House on Ribadu Road, they all should be kept as a tourist attraction, a museum of sorts where our children and visitors alike shall be told repeatedly about the period of military rule in our country, if only as a way of bidding farewell to this stage of our history.

  1. Similarly, the FRCN premises – that favourite launching pad of all coup makers – should be left as it is with bullet holes and all. It, too, should become a tourist attraction where we can take visitors and repeatedly play back tapes of the first broadcasts of all our “illustrious” succession of coup makers.

National history and advancement is better served if, as we move to new habits and habitations, we carry along the memories of our past experience and transform them into higher and nobler potentials. That is why I will continue to treasure places like Dodan Barracks