Memorials and the Culture of Remembering in Nigeria

This article was originally posted at: Anthropology News

In Lagos, memorials of disasters are unkempt and often unnoticed. What might they tell us about the character of the state and public commemoration?

What is the extent of public memory provoked by memorials of disasters in Nigeria? Do they serve the purpose of remembrance or of forgetting? What forms of encounters are suggested from a memorial site? I interrogated these questions in research I conducted on culture of remembering in Nigeria. During a year of fieldwork in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, I investigated three memorial sites: (1) the Oke-Afa Memorial Arcade, built to commemorate over 1,000 victims of armory explosion at a military cantonment in January 27, 2002, (2) the Iju/Ishaga Memorial Arcade built in honor of 157 victims of Dana Air crash on June 3, 2012, and (3) the memorial arcade at Lisa village built in honor of 117 people killed in the Bellview Airlines crash, which occurred on October 22, 2005. In these sites I see commemorative projects, which, rather than memorialize disaster victims, inter their memory permanently, and confine them to a category that Bauman (2004) describes as “wasted humans.” For me, the experience and representation of memory that the three disaster memorials mediate are not of individual and collective loss, but have to do with a particular mode in which the Nigerian state is commonly encountered by her citizens.   

On my first visit to the Oke-Afa Memorial Arcade, I discovered that the entrance was closed. An improvised lock, in the form of a piece of cloth, held the doors firmly together. There was no sign of anyone around to open it on request. I turned to a street trader on other side of the road for information, and she directed me to a welding shop beside the arcade, whose owner was better placed to answer questions about the memorial site. I had a similar experience with Iju/Ishaga Memorial Arcade. The case of the arcade at Lisa village was different. The surrounding was completely taken over by weeds and therefore difficult to access.

Photograph of a locked Gate entryway
Image Description: A closed, locked iron gate sits below a white sign that says “Oke-Afa Memorial Arcade” in large red letters and “(In Honour of the Victims of 2002 Ikeja Bomb Blasts)” just below. The front view of Oke-Afa Memorial Arcade. Babajide Ololajulo.

These three sites were not impressive structures by any means. They only stood out at night, when the already dimmed solar-powered lighting set them apart within communities customarily enveloped in darkness. In the case of the Oke-Afa Memorial Arcade, the cenotaph did not in any direct or indirect way inspire memory of the dead or disaster in a way understood by Nigerians. Most of the people I interviewed had no idea of its symbolism, while the few that attempted an interpretation read it differently. One fellow described it as a missile head, and yet another termed it a tomb. The ambiguity in interpretation depicted the social distance between people and a method of remembrance. Meanwhile, the symbols of cross and crescent engraved on the cenotaph allowed observers to reach conclusions about the religious orientations of victims. Engraving religious symbols on the cenotaph aligned with a dominant conception of Nigeria as evenly divided along Christianity and Islam.

In the three memorial sites, I came to terms with a condition Achilles Mbembe (2001) described as banality of life in the post-colony. For instance, at Oke-Afa, the plaque on the cenotaph indicated that over a thousand lives were lost to the armory explosion. However, fewer than 60 names were represented in the memorial. The identities of other victims were unknown and therefore situated outside of remembrance. I likened the circumstance of the unidentified victims to that of the Nigerian roadside corpse, whose fate was sealed by a condition I describe as social anonymity. For Iju/Ishaga Memorial Arcade, life was symbolically devalued and embedded in death when the name of a disaster survivor was engraved alongside those of victims.

Photograph of a White Marble Memorial
Image description: An outdoor memorial of white marble sits on a tile pathway. A black plate is inset within the wall of white marble; names are inscribed on it. A short, rectangular marble pillar stands in front of the wall and appears to be roughly half its height. On the pillar, there is a plaque bearing an inscription.
Caption: Inner section of Oke-Afa Memorial Arcade.
Babajide Ololajulo

Discourses of memorials encompass the material, aesthetic, spatial, and ideological components. These aspects, apart from their importance to framing specific meanings, which public memorials do convey, also reflect individual and political considerations that go into remembering. The material and aesthetic facets, for instance, have to do with a notion of pacifying the dead or lessening the pains of loss borne by their relatives. Unfortunately, the three sites were lacking in the above areas. I asked one of my interlocutors what he considered appealing in the design of Iju/Ishaga Memorial Arcade. His reply was thoughtful, “Nothing can be attractive in a site where people died.” The detachment people exhibited suggested a dominant attitude toward memorial sites. 

Words engraved on the cenotaphs in the three sites indicated that these memorials were built as marks of honor to victims of disasters. We may well assume that the victims were indeed honored. Apart from having their bodies properly interred, occasions of inauguration of the memorial sites and subsequent commemoration events were graced by officials of the state and important dignitaries. These, no doubt, were determinants of honor to the dead in Nigeria. Interestingly, it was also in the honor aspect that disaster memorials appeared most challenged. Beyond the ritual dimension that defined honor for the dead in terms befitting funeral rites, the idea of honoring the dead also encompassed material dedication. Flowing from the latter idea of honor, the decision with regards to erecting memorials could have made much sense. However, while engraved texts advertised well the intention of the state about honor, the same could not be said of the understanding that Nigerians have of cenotaphs, headstones, and other components of memorial sites.

From observation and comments of interlocutors, I concluded that disaster memorial sites in Nigeria encapsulate three dimensions of waste. The first speaks to a condition of abjection, and has to do with a process of victimization or that which renders victims as wasted humans. It suggests the disasters upon which memorials are erected were avoidable if the state had been responsive. In the example of the deaths from the Ikeja armory explosion, the institutional negligence that caused the explosion and the lack of state response, particularly in terms of timely information, produced the dead as wastes. Secondly, the memorial sites in their physical states receive little or no attention from the public, even as the environments are largely unkempt. The memorials suffer the same fate as most public infrastructure, which when newly opened often look great but quickly fall apart due to lack maintenance. The third dimension of waste is the economic. From an economic standpoint, there is little or no sense building a memorial if it will not strike a cord with the people. To think that huge resources of the state go into projects that are sooner abandoned or that make no specific impression on people leaves the whole enterprise of memorials an economic waste.

More importantly, disaster memorial sites as cenotaphs, tombstones, and other markers, while making sense of events in their past, are expected to stimulate a sense of closure among relatives of victims. In the examples of memorials of disasters that I researched, the neglect and the lack of commemoration activities ensure that they signify no conclusion. These are no sites of closure, especially for the family of victims, and there is no evidence to suggest that they assuage the sense of loss of a collective or have brought about national healing. Rather, all that I have seen are spaces that highlight spontaneity, negligence, detachment, and banality. In these sites, we are presented with the very character of the Nigerian state, which at independence in 1960 offered many promises but gradually fell short of its mandate to provide for the needs and aspirations of the people. The message from the sites commemorating victims of unfortunate disasters is clear: it is not only the living in Nigeria that suffers deprivation. Even the promises of remembrance and of honor made to the dead through memorials are breached.

Babajide Ololajulo is a senior lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Ibadan. He is he author of Unshared Identity: Posthumous Paternity in a Contemporary Yoruba Community (2019), and is currently writing a book on memorializing victims of disasters in Nigeria.

Christian Vannier is the contributing editor for the AfAA’s column (rktrojan@umich.edu).

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