Notre Dame de Nigeria, By Jibrin Ibrahim

#TrackNigeria: Yesterday, I was at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which was destroyed by a colossal fire last week. It had been cordoned off and even the roads around it were closed. Yet, there were thousands of people trying to catch a glimpse of the Gothic architecture that had made it so famous. The twin towers were still visible from a distance but not the stained-glass windows, statutes, gargoyles and flying buttresses – a colossal achievement that took more than a century to complete. Of course, the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site and between 12 and 14 million visitors from all over the world come each year to see it. Meanwhile, billions of Euros have been contributed for its rebuilding and top architects

I lived in Paris 36 years ago and what strikes me about the city is that it still looks essentially the same. Looking more closely however, you notice that the houses that accommodated families have been converted into hotels to receive visitors, while the monuments are preserved to attract more people. What has also grown is the number of shops to make people spend their money. About 30 million tourists visit Paris each year contributing 77 billion Euros or 10% to the French GDP. One of the greatest fears of the French Government in relation to the yellow vest protestors in Paris every Saturday is that it is beginning to have a negative effect on the number of tourists visiting the city. Of course, the French ruling class has also been worried that the “Deep State” in France is beginning to shake as poor marginalized rural people challenge the very idea of France as a country with agreed values implemented by an efficient technocracy. 

The people appear to be saying that after 30-years of stagnation in incomes, cuts to social services and closure of neighbourhood public services, it’s not alright to allow massive accumulation by the rich and growing poverty among the people to coexist. In other words, the social contract is broken and real negotiations can only happen if the ruling class is genuinely threatened by the masses. It was ironic that it was the introduction of an ecology fuel tax that precipitated the revolt. President Macron has been very committed to fulfilling his climate change promises while at the same time determined to reduce taxes for the rich. The people read the policy correctly, the poor were being imposed additional burden so the rich could pay less and the revolt took off.

Coming back to the theme of tourism, I wondered what was Nigeria’s Notre Dame that would have been attracting millions of visitors and rolling in the dollars. I remembered my visit years ago to the excellent Kainji Game reserve with its abundance of wild life and the Kainji Lake itself which could have been a centre for aquatic sports. For the three days we were at the reserve, my family members were the only tourists. Yankari Games Reserve attracts more visitors but the facilities have deteriorated and the possibility of terrorist attacks is growing. Obudu Cattle Ranch has the best facilities for tourism currently and of course the Calabar Carnival has been developing as a attractive site on the tourist agenda and we must continue to appreciate the good people of Cross Rivers for their advanced cultural work in addition to the great food they prepare but that is just one out of 36 States in the country.

Okay what of urban tourism. I remembered a discussion I had over three decades ago with Professor Sule Bello. He was then the Director of the Kano State History and Culture Bureau. His ambition was to rebuild Kano’s famous city walls using traditional building techniques and revive the artistry that produced wall paintings and designs. Today, there are no city walls in Kano and the space that had the walls previously have been carved out and given as plots for building shops. The space between schools, cemeteries, hospitals etc and the road reserved for the future in colonial cadastral plans that were supposed to be developed into gardens and walkways in all urban spaces in Nigeria have been carved out and built-up as shops, most of them unoccupied because there are just too many of them. Today, you cannot walk on urban streets in Nigeria so by definition you cannot have tourists who want to walk around and see things. In Kano, even the famous Mallam Qato Square, the site of the unknown soldier protected and beautified by Governor Audu Bako has been carved into shops.

Just a decade ago, I used to drive with my family from Abuja to a tourist resort near Kaduna airport to spend the weekend. The resort had a nice swimming pool, a polo field and vast grounds for healthy walks. Today, I dare not drive to Kaduna because of fear of kidnappers. They have completely taken over the road for the past four years and security agencies have been unable to do anything about the situation. Their standard advice after a kidnap is reported to them is – pay up and shut up. Why do we claim in our Constitution that the State has a responsibility to provide for the security and welfare of Nigerians. Any discussion about tourism in Nigeria is therefore more about dreams than reality.

Okay let’s be real and return to the theme of the development of tourism at some future date. For now, what about stopping the massive rural banditry that has made millions of people insecure in Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna States. Is it not high time that we stop the theft, mass killing and arson? Boko Haram terrorism has endured for a decade so can we say enough is enough. What of the series of killings between herdsmen and farmers in so many of our States, when would we seek for a peaceful resolution.

Meanwhile, can we have some governors that are mad enough to demolish the tens of thousands of shops that have blocked the spaces for walkways and gardens in our cities? Can we recover some green areas in our cities? Can we re-establish sports grounds and green spaces in our schools, which was the situation decades ago? As some uncultured governors develop plans to carve out golf courses, the last remaining open spaces in some of our cities, can we try and stop them?