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Independence House not many know about

Written by Peter Nkanga.

Arguably, Nigeria’s most symbolic edifice in honour of its independence from British rule in 1960, the Independence House, remains virtually an unknown historic testimonial. Fifty years on, Nigerians, possibly in their millions, do not know that this building at 25 storeys high, and 300-feet from the ground is one of the tallest buildings in the country.

Even more shocking about the Independence House located at the Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS) in Lagos Island, is the almost non-availability of accurate information, both in print and electronically, about the structure which was a kind of present from the British government.

Enquiries with the engineering company that handled the construction of the building, G. Cappa Plc. (then Ltd), on when precisely the Independence House was built could not be established, as staff of the company located on Taylor Road, Iddo, Ebute-Metta, after several searches admitted, “We have searched all records but nothing. We don’t have staff then still in the company as it has been a very long time. Unfortunately, our archives don’t have anything.”

Unique architecture

Further enquiries at the Office of the Federal Controller in the Federal Ministry of Works, Housing and Urban Development; and at the Presidency, both located at TBS, returned with many of the staff not knowing of the origin of the building. The few who knew said their establishments had no records of the building which many say should have long become a national monument.

According to John Godwin, a British professor of architecture who since 1954 has lived in Nigeria and chronicled the changing phases of Lagos State, the construction of the Independence House began in 1959 but was completed in 1961. His knowledge is founded on his close links to the architect who worked on the building.

“It was being built at the same time with Western House in Broad Street Lagos which is a steel frame building.

I had no particular involvement with the building but I knew who the architect was. And being an architect here in Lagos, I watched the building with interest when it went up,” said Mr Godwin.

The professor, who taught architecture for over 10 years at the University of Lagos, explained why the Independence House remains “a remarkable piece of architecture” 50 years later.

He said one ‘extraordinary thing’ about the structure which was built with reinforced concrete is that, despite its height, the inaccuracy of the outside columns of the building are not more than a quarter of an inch.

He said an unusual feature of the Independence House is that its “foundations are, in fact, on very hard yellow sand which actually forms the core of Lagos Island”. He said to build upon the sand, a solid raft called a raft foundation, instead of piles, was used.

“One big problem was the foundations. The Federal Ministry of Works had an engineer from England called Skempton who predicted that if they put a normal raft foundation on that sand bed they would get a settlement of a maximum of two inches. In fact, they only got half an inch of settlement at the end. So that building is not actually on piles which is rather unusual. It’s really quite an amazing building,” Mr Godwin said.

Historical but not monumental enough

A visit to the National Museum in Onikan, Lagos State, which was established in 1957, also had several of the staff clueless as to which is the Independence House. The museum had no records of the building which served as the federal secretariat for several ministries in the years after Independence, when Lagos Island played the dual role of State and Federal capital respectively.

The deputy curator at the museum, Vickie Agili, however, said that though “it is a historical building” and by virtue of its history, it warrants being a monument, the museum “only keeps records of scheduled monuments” as declared by the federal government.

Mrs Agili who is an assistant director with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), explained that structures like the Independence House must be declared a state monument first by the state government where they are located, and “subsequently an application will be made for the declaration of the state monument as a national monument if deemed necessary”.

There are also no records of the Independence House at the Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture (LSCAC) which, under the Lagos State Ministry of Home Affairs and Culture, initiates programmes in the interest of the state. An official said “the Independence House is only listed as a sight attraction in Lagos State. And there are only four identified declared monuments in Lagos State by the national museums.”

A legacy for posterity

According to John Emah, a deputy director in the National Orientation Agency (NOA) promoting positive attitudinal change amongst Nigerians and respect for national symbols, the case of the Independence House is a reflection of “the lack of maintenance practices in Nigeria”.

“The Independence House symbolises the lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the Nigerian Flag. It is like a breakaway from the colonial era. It is a legacy for generations of Nigerians yet unborn to be able to reflect back on the development of their country. It symbolises our independence” Mr Emah says.

Widely believed as the reason for the decline in the prestige of the Independence House is its take-over by the military for many years. It became the Ministry of Defence Headquarters and was subsequently renamed the Defence House.

Plan for transformation

Also, since 1993 when the building caught fire under suspicious circumstances, it has remained in a state of disrepair despite several contract awards for its renovation.

However, a change of the building’s fortunes is being promised by the Tafawa Balewa Square Management Board (TBSMB), an agency under the Federal Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The board’s managing director, Aisha Bakari, exclusively told NEXT the federal government has approved the Independence House to be renovated and turned into a World Trade and International Business Centre (WTIBC), adding “the next 50 years at the conception of the World Trade Centre will be a new beginning.”

The officer coordinating the project, Joseph Umar, who doubles as the board’s Commercial Services Head, explained that the proposed World Trade Centre which will be “fully integrated to accommodate office suites, hotels, exhibition floors, conference suites, leisure and business facility, government agencies,” is a potential successful business venture based on indices including the building’s structure, it’s location, the state’s population and ongoing developments in the state.

“We got the presidential approval to the proposal in 2004. But the final handover of the building from the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry was done in October last year (2009). It’s actually going to be a PPP so we are working with the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission to ensure the building is redeveloped to international standards,” Mr Umar said.

For Mr Godwin one can only wish better days for one of Nigeria’s physical symbols of its independence, even as he remembers the mood of Nigerians during the period.

“There has never been a period as important as far as I am concerned because at that time other ex-British colonies had a lot of difficulty getting independence. But in Nigeria it was a very good handover and everybody was very happy. In my opinion it should be regarded as one of the great buildings of Nigeria.”


Souvenir of A Monument (2011- Ongoing project)

by Otobong Nkanga

There are monuments that we pass by everyday. Do we know that they are an important part of our history?

I have been considering our interactions with valuable architectural site, especially as it plays an integral role in the history of my country, Nigeria. I have realized that there are no shops or structures for the promotion of landmarks in Lagos; this is despite the diverse influences that have shaped our city and contributed to its present status as a mega city. Given this reality, how can we celebrate and honor our city’s landmarks?

Souvenir of A Monument (2011) is a long-term project that, beginning with the Independence House, explores prominent architectural sites and monuments that mark the transformation of Lagos’ social, political and cultural landscapes. The Independence building upon its completion was the tallest building in West Africa and signified Lagos’ status as a modern city in transition. Throughout its history, the building has had several different names—first it was called the “Independence House” and later it became the “Ministry of Defense”. Now most people refer to this building as “The Defence Building” without realizing that it is an important and iconic piece of architecture that is meant to symbolize our independence from British colonization.

The first part of Souvenir of A Monument (2011) is a performance-based public space project that will be presented in front of the Independence building in Lagos later this year. Having explored this area of the city, I noticed that there is no information or space that communicates or narrates the history of this site. I therefore decided to intervene by transforming myself into a portable stand/shop—equipped with information and items for sale such as postcards, posters, etc. relating to the building. This portable stand will also function as a space of dialogue, as I hope to exchange information with passersby, visitors and the locals who live or work nearby.

My interest in developing a dialogue with the public is crucial so it is important that I collect a variety of stories and memories from different sources. The data (images, facts, narratives, etc.) that I collect will then be archived and re-disseminated. The act of archiving plays an important role in my attempt at putting together unheard stories with an eye toward creating a bank of collective memories that speak to and/or honor the Independence building.

Postcard image for "Souvenir of a Monument".

Souvenir of a Monument I, 2011, by Otobong Nkanga A performance-based project that explores the history and memory of architectural landmarks in Lagos. Independence House built by G. Cappa Limited Building Contractors Photograph from Nigeria Magazine June 1962, No. 73.

 I am also interested in your reaction to this project, as well as any kind of story or crucial information about or related to the Independence building. So feel free to leave your comments.