As part of the build up to activities marking this year’s International Museum Day 2018, Aniete Akpan visits Old Residency Calabar to get firsthand experience what the state of the museum is.
Nigeria’s first Government House is on the brink of loosing everything that it stands for. The building is poorly maintained due to lack of funds. The environment is unkempt.
The gallery inside is always dark, as there is no electricity or diesel to run the aged generator.
To make matters worse, Cross River State Government has shut down the kitchen and the adjoining field that serves as source of revenue and relaxation.
It claims that its activities posed security risk, as it was a den for criminals.
The museum shares fence with government structures like the Perregrino Hall, Presidential Lodge, the Deputy Governor’s quarters and that of the Chief Judge, which are recent creations.
According to museum records, “originally known as the government house, it was prefabricated in Britain in 1884 and erected at Calabar to accommodate the early British administration of the Niger Coast territories.
The building and its compound were declared a National Monument (No. 20) in 1959 and was renovated by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in 1986.” Even Oba Overamwen of Benin was deported to Old Calabar in 1897 and detained in the same building, where he died.
The museum has existed for years before the current structures were put in place. It operated without hitch until March 5, 2017 when the police, at the instance of the state government, raided the museum and shut it down, claiming it harboured criminals.
Everyone present, including members of the Calabar Scrabble Club – lawyers, engineers, doctors, permanent secretaries, civil servants, businessmen and others, were asked to report at Diamond Hill Police Station for questioning.
Apparently, activities at the museum came to a halt as all the vendors were sent packing. It was also alleged that the Presidential Lodge, which accommodates government’s guests, now serves as the state government’s strong room, an equivalent of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), where money is kept, hence the restriction at the museum and its environ.
Now an iron barricade is fixed across the two roads leading to the museum and the Presidential Lodge to the right and Government Lodge and Perregrino Hall to the left.
Curator, National Museum and Monuments, Calabar, Anna Effiom, said, “For quite some time, we had a little challenge with the state government, who thought the museum poses security risk. For that, we had to close down. At a time visitors were not even allowed to come in but later they were allowed.”
When asked if the museum had recorded any criminal activities before the closure, she said, “Nothing at all; we have not even recorded anything that would have brought that suspicion. We cannot fight government but just to appeal to them to allow us continue to develop our tourism.
“The kitchen is part of the museum because in the museum you talk about our culture and apart from serving as a place where staff eat, it showcases our traditional cuisine.
I call it food gallery; so, it is part of the museum. But since the government said people coming here pose security risk, we just closed the place down.”
It is baffling that a statement government can override a Federal Government’s establishment. Effiom said, “it (FG) can, but since the governor is the chief security officer for Cross River state, we have to work with him.
But again the museum is a public place and it is for all, because everybody is expected to come and learn, do research and know the history.
It is for everybody and so far, I have not heard of any adverse thing that could bring any problem. But since the state government said we should close down, we had to. It has been shut down now for some months, but I believe it will reopen soon by the grace of God.”
Apart from that, Effiom said patronage had been low before the closure, as there was little traffic to the museum in terms of visitors and tourists.
“Shutting down the museum kitchen is part of the challenges we are facing,” she said. Right now we even find it difficult to maintain this place because we are not even making money.
The kitchen was like a revenue stream and we used to rent out the field for ceremonies, which also served as revenue point but it is no more.
We hope the state government will reconsider its decision and even allow us rent out our field for activities and the kitchen, which served as a relaxation point.”
On losses incurred so far from the closure, Effiom, said, “I cannot really quantify it now but we have lost so much. If nothing else people should have free access, money aside. The public should have free access into the museum. People from outside and the state should come in freely first of all.
“There is no assistance from this government but previous governments assisted the museum. When they come and see that certain things are not in order they take it up and fix it for us. Other governments have painted this place before and assisted the museum in many ways.
Funding is a big challenge for us. To maintain the aesthetic value of this place, we need money. We are in the rainy season now; we need money to cut the grass and prune the flowers.
“Another challenge is the barricade at the entrance. Although people are allowed to enter, once people see the police and the barricade, they just go their way. So it puts off a lot of people.”
Everybody is complaining that there is no money. For example, monuments like the Ekpo Ekpo house; if it is left for a while it may just collapse and we won’t have it again. It is one of the prefabricated buildings we have.
Even this Old Residency still needs a retouch. In Hope Waddell, we have the premier buildings there; we need to take care of them and these are all part of the tourism potential of this state. We have the monoliths in Ikom. There are lots of places we need to develop and maintain.”
On synergy between Museum and the State in respect of the Carnival Calabar, she said, “there is no synergy for now. We keep talking about other countries that don’t even depend on anything apart from tourism, if places like this are well developed, it will attract and much could be realized.
Also commenting on the National Museum, Calabar and its present state is the president of Calabar Scrabbles Club, Mr. Sonnie Bassey, who set up the club with membership strength of about 25, drawn from the private and public sector, has been in the museum since 1993.
According to him, “Sometimes on March 5, 2017, some police guys came and said we were being sent for or wanted by the Commissioner of Police. We had the Auditor-General and the chairmen of local government, some military personnel and other top personalities.
In fact, they pushed some people into their van brandishing their arms. I told them we were not criminals and if they actually needed us I could tell my men to go with them.
“Our properties are still there in the club house and our rent is still running and nobody has called us to say anything. Initially, we were told that we were not affected, that it was only the vendors.
They asked us to give our passport photos so that they could give us some form of identification so that we could go to our club. We did all that but we realised that each time we go there they would still stop us. That was how we now made up our mind to stop going there.”
Bassey, who is a legal practitioner, continued, “I know that this is a National Museum and it is a public place. I also know that apart from being a museum sited in Cross River State, this particular museum is very important to the Museum Society of the World because this was the very first seat of government in Nigeria and the house itself is a monument.
The house has been there right from the colonial times. I also got to know that this museum is numbered among the museums of the world; it is a reputable place and it is a tourist site where people all over the world come, but I am surprised that such action could be taken without taking all these things into consideration.
“As it is now, it is not just the regular people or regular visitors who are affected but tourists because of the bar there. Not much activities is really taking place there for now. As Cross River State is as a tourist destination, I think it will affect them adversely.”
On the charge of criminal activities at the museum, Bassey said, “No; I have not heard of one. I joined Calabar scrabbles Club in the year 2000 and prior to that time, I have been visiting Calabar museum.
We have never had or heard of any criminal activity there. In fact, it is because of it that such a large number of reputable members of the club could go there.
We have not recorded any incident of crime there and if we have any, the police themselves will have such record. Moreso because of where it is located, with Government House close by, Presidential Lodge, the Deputy Governor’s House, and the Chief Judge’s house, criminals will not like to come near there because of the heavy presence of security personnel.
“Before taking such action, the state government should have listened to the views of some people. And if such action were taken without appropriate information, they should revisit the matter and reverse it for the good of the state and the citizens.
Cross River is a tourist destination. It will not speak well for the state because museum is very central to tourism.
If the target was to stop the vendors, cuisine is part of cultural export. Like now, if you go out to Abuja, you will see some kitchen they call Calabar kitchen; it is because Calabar people have been able to export their cuisine. If you go to other museums, you will see such places in those other museums.”
Chief Press Secretary and Senior Special Assistant on Media to Governor Ben Ayade, Mr. Christian Ita, confirmed that the governor ordered the closure of a section of the museum.
According to him, “The section that they closed was where people sold drinks and food. It is a museum but suddenly it became a sit out. It was not created for that. He was just simply telling them to restore the museum back to its original plan.
It is just like going to the museum in Lagos or Abuja; instead of maintaining the building and taking care of our history and artifacts, you see people drinking beer and eating ngwongwo (assorted meat pepper soup), isiewu (goat head) and all of that. The museum was not meant for that.”
When reminded that cuisine is part of culture, which the museum promotes, Ita retorted, “It is not true! Let them tell me anywhere in the world a museum where they sell food. The money they were making by renting that place, were they remitting it to government?
People were just using that to make money and line their pockets. What cuisine are they talking about? Okay, is beer part of our culture? That puts a lie to that claim.”
The museum management said the kitchen was a source of revenue to maintain the museum since they didn’t get assistance from the state government, but Ita insisted otherwise, saying, “I think the place is called national museum.
So, are they telling us that the Federal Government does not budget money for museums? It is nonsense they are talking about.
The Ministry of Information and Culture: are they saying that there are no budgetary provisions? What is wrong is wrong. I have been all over the world; there is nowhere such thing (selling of food and drinks) applies.
If you go to museum, for example, in Baltimore, what attracts you is what you are going to see in a glass cage; so, that claim they are making is laughable. If they don’t have money, let them call Federal Government to give them money.”
Was the state government now regulating the activities of the museum in Calabar, the governor’s spokesman said, “The state owns the land; it is not regulating activities. Do you come and collect land and say you want to use it for a specific purpose and then distort it and you expect the state to just look at you?”
On issue of insecurity and the allegation that state government has turned the Presidential Lodge into a strong room where it keeps money, Ita said, “The Presidential Lodge now is just like Aso Rock. Don’t they keep money in Aso Rock?
All these things are petty. For God’s sake, we don’t live in isolation. It’s just like telling me that Buhari keeps money in Aso Rock, is that an issue?
The truth of the matter is that they distorted the plan and it has nothing to do with the presidential lodge. There is no security in Presidential Lodge, if that is what they are referring to.
You don’t say it is a national museum then you turn it into a market, where all sorts of things are sold, beers drunk. Let them go and do it in the National Museum in Abuja, then I will accept your claim. What is wrong is wrong; we live in a civilised world.
Even in Lagos if you collect land and the area is not meant for business, they shut it down. It is only in Cross River that this kind of thing will be news.”