Elegy to Zungeru, the forgotten capital

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor

ImageDilapidated, crumbled and overgrown by weeds… The famous house where Frederick Lugard signed the amalgamation of Northern and Southern protectorates

ON the bank of Kaduna River lies Zungeru in Wushishi Local Council. It is about 56 kilometres away from Minna, the Niger State capital. A laidback town with rustic realities, the serenity of the environment, the friendly ambience and wondrful people are salvation tunes for anybody looking for where to relax in a place close to nature. For a writer, creative juice flows in the town because there aren’t much distractions. On a market day, the town is sure to breath life. It welcomes everybody, as people come from far and wide to trade. This Wednesday afternoon, light poured in on the town brilliantly, as traders haggled and bargained.
   The wealth of this town is from its history: The star attractions being the house that Lord Frederick Lugard lived in opulence, and where, indeed, he signed the amalgamation document. The town holds a great deal of significance to the Nigerian state, as it was the birthplace of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first Nigerian Senate President and later president of the country; the current Senate President, David Mark; and Biafran warlord Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. It equally has the reputation of being the burial place of the founder of Nigerian Scout Movement, Australia-born Henry James Speed. Unfortunately, there is little in the town today to show that it had once served as the fulcrum of the nation’s history.
    But unfortunately, the town has not preserved its history as to make the desired income. These monuments have crumbled and decayed and their images are washed out like faded photographs of a distant forgotten era. The town is now a patchwork of both splendid moments, tragedies of funereal black, and darkly coloured vignettes.               
PRIOR to the advent of British colonisation, the region now known as Nigeria, at a time a geographical expression, comprised several contiguous nationalities, each having its distinctive structure, political, economic and social systems that defined relationship with outside world.
      But the extortion of agreement by Britain and forced institutionalisation of a barbaric colonial system ensured the emergence of a town like Zungeru as an administrative and commercial town.
   In the early 20th century, Zungeru was one of Nigeria’s most important towns. It was the capital of Northern Protectorates between 1902 and 1916. It was gathered the village was densely populated because of the concentration of federal civil servants, especially railway workers. With the high presence of Europeans, as well as the native colonial soldiers, commercial activities increased. Most of the soldiers made their shopping in the village market. 

   According to oral history, when the British colonialists came, their inability to call the place Dunguru brought about the corrupted form Zungeru. British forces occupied Zungeru in September 1902, which was then populated by the Nupe tribe. Lugard chose the town as capital of Northern Nigeria over Jebba and Lokoja due to its central location.
   It grew from an almost virgin territory of small scattered settlements of the indigenous population, mostly Nupes, Hausas and the Gwaris, to a town of over 35,100 residents. The population comprised the British, artisans from other West African British colonies and clerks from the Southern Protectorate as well as labourers and traders from Hausa, Nupe, Kanuri, Fulani and other tribes in the Northern Protectorate.
    Being a railway town, with sparse and scattered settlement of the indigenous people, Britain couldn’t have got a better bargain. They cleared the forest and established a market, military barracks and hospital, among other things. Thus, Zungeru became one of the most peaceful, cosmopolitan and politically important towns in Northern Nigeria.
      The movement of administrative headquarters from Zungeru to Kaduna in 1916  was like plucking the goose to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing. But in a way, this decision led to the town’s gradual descent, which  is evidenced in the neglect and lack of interest on the part of government and the citizenry to preserve national heritage.
   To fully understand the extent of this neglect, a journey through the community tells some revealing stories.  Zungeru, the forgotten capital of Northern Nigeria, by Bamtsoho Mohammed, a retired Brigadier General of the Nigerian Army, best capture it.

Government House at Zungeru, where Lugard once ran his government and which was declared one of Nigeria’s national monuments, is gone. The site  was declared a National Monument on February 13, 1962, and the building was erected in 1902, the year that Frederick Lugard established the administrative headquarters of the Northern Protectorate.
   Not even its foundation stones remain. What’s left of Lugard’s office and residence are ruins. With the exception of its columns and the structure’s concrete foundation, the House was completely dismantled in 1916, when the seat of government relocated to Kaduna.
   Aside from the remnants of the building itself, this particular national monument also includes 100ft of land on either side of the crest of the hill on which the house stood
Zungeru’s first church, the United Mission Church was built in 1905, but has been mostly washed away by erosion. Though the church’s original bell and furniture are still in use, the structure is in need of attention.
  The house and its surroundings are a testament of the neglect and vandalisation that have coloured the heritage. Stripped of its original fittings and all, what remains is a carcass nestling among weeds and thorns.
       Other historical sites such as the railway terminus, the steam generators that provided 24-hour transmission of electricity and water to colonists’ homes, and the Officers Mess are still existing; but are badly damaged. The head offices of pioneer multinationals John Holt, the Royal Niger Company and UAC are also visible, but only as ruins.
   The ‘dungeon’, an underground prison dug deep into the ground like a well but without the water. Here, the British lords lowered offenders as punishment. They are lowered into the deep end with a long rope and lifted out with the same rope once they’ve served their term, so to speak. 

    Lamentation, just as it is in the Holy Bible,  rents the air. The people are not really happy with the situation of things in the community on this market day, as many wondered what would have become of the town if Kaduna had not replaced it as favoured land.
   A motorbike rider,  Alhassan Musa, who spoke to The Guardian,  said. “we are not happy that government has neglected Zungeru.  There is nothing to write home about here, in terms of development, from the time the country’s headquarters was moved from the old railway town to date. He also complained about the nonchallant attitude of successive administrations toward preserving the historical monuments.
   Last year May, President Goodluck Jonathan kick-started the N162.9 billion Zungeru Hydroelectric Power Project in Niger State. According to the President, the hydro dam project, when constructed, will generate 700 megawatts of electricity for the country.   Benefits of the dam 
President Jonathan listed employment opportunities, agricultural development and tourism as benefits from the dam.
  The Zungeru Dam was conceived about 30 years ago and the first feasibility study done on the project was by Messrs Chas T. Main International of USA.

Zungeru’s abandoned historical sites
• Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe Centre, a gigantic structure that was initiated during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. It was built in memory of the late Azikiwe. The edifice was well-conceived and brilliantly structured to house the administrative and library blocks of the centre. Today, it is absolutely abandoned.
• Dr. Azikiwe Primary School is the elementary school that Dr. Azikiwe attended as a boy. And it is still standing.
• Colonial bridge, built by colonial masters is in existence, but rarely used.
• Museum in Zungeru houses excavations of items used by the colonialists. Many of such items can also be found in the state’s museum at Minna. Such items include guns and bullets used by the colonialists, the telephone used by Lord Lugard when he was in Zungeru, the bottles used for storing water and wine, colonialists’ head wears, among others.