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Once, Nigeria had 450 unique priceless stones; today, only 119 found

Published on 5 August 2010

Author(s): Daily Sun

Type:  News

Hundreds may have been lost and the ones not yet missing remain almost completely neglected

Despite the festivities that attended the return of two Ikom Monoliths recovered in France and formally handed over to authorities of the National Commission of Museums and Monuments (NCMM) on 26 January, 2010 at Reiz Hotel, Abuja by the French Embassy; one can authoritatively reveal that this particular aspect of Nigeria’s classical antiquity has been looted beyond imagination.

By 1945, writings by a British anthropologist, Mr. Philip Allison, showed that Nigeria had at least 26 Ikom Monoliths, but during a chat with Mr. Yusuf Abdallah Usman in late 2008, when he was NCMM’s Director of Monuments, Heritage and Sites, the man had enthusiastically declared that finally, “an inventory of Ikom Monliths had been conducted. So, we now know the number of Ikom Monoliths we have”.

When asked how many of these antique objects his then just concluded documentation threw up, Mr. Usman, who is currently NCMM Director General, had said; “about 119”. However, the March/April 1999 edition of “Akwanshi,” a newsletter of the Calabar Museum Society had revealed: “Over 450 of these cylindrical monoliths are located in 34 sites in Nigeria’s south eastern parts.”

Curiously, there seems to be no reasonable explanation as to how the quantity of these priceless pieces of antiquity, which weigh between 50kg and 800kg and measure between 30cm and 2 meters in height; could have depleted so drastically, from 450 to “about 119”.

Nigeria Bakor-Ejagham Stone.jpg
Nigeria: Bakor-Ejagham Stone

Therefore, the fanfare that attended the event for the return of two monoliths last January in Abuja, was evocative of the Biblical lore of the lost sheep. Truly, the pomp and circumstance over the return of two monoliths; whereas hundreds may have been lost and the ones not yet missing remain almost completely neglected; was reminiscent of the “Parable of the lost sheep”, where much festivity greeted the recovery of one animal amid countless others in the fields.

The ancient stone sculptures called “Ikom Monoliths” or “Nkarasi Monoliths”, derived these names from the village or town nearest to the settlement, where the earliest object was unearthed. Lately, Bakor seems to be replacing Ikom as prefix to these monoliths’ name because all the settlements, where the stones have been found fall under Bakor community, which covers a vast, land area between Ikom and Ogoja towns. Ogoja is in northern part of Cross River, while Ikom stands in this state’s central parts.

The monoliths are also known as “Akwanshi”, a local language word, which translates as “dead people.” Although Akwanshi stands for dead people, it also refers to a family stone circle in some context. These circles developed from the funerary practices of Akajuk, Nnam, Nde, Nta, Nsle et cetera ethnics. Whenever someone died in those areas, the survivors would go and drop a stone in memory of the departed. The stones “are regarded as representations of ancestors by members of the central Cross River communities, where Akwanshi are found”, confirms the Calabar Museum Society newsletter. For reasons, which remain unclear, the tombstones; which belong to two categories, basalt and volcanic rocks; were dropped in such a way that after a while, a circular pattern evolved.

Bakor Monoliths can be viewed at many sites, such as Alok, Emangabe and Nkirigum et cetera, which collectively make up the Alok Open Air Museum (AOAM). Aside Alok, Emangabe and Nkirigum; Nlul, Ntutugho, Agba, Edamkono, Ekulugum, Manden, Old Toe 2, Oonto, Ntoe Atal, Ntol Shie and Nyarkpor also boast an Akwanshi circle each. Chief Sylvanus Akong, head of station at Alok Open Air Museum, said there are some 27 such sites altogether, each with varying number of stones.

Alok latest

On 22 July, 2010; I had returned to Alok Open Air Museum, and this was one of dozens of visits since I made my first trip here in 1992. Although this open air repository is named for Alok, the museum’s original site is Emangabe (also called Victoria), which stands roughly 2km from the present hub. After its establishment at Emangabe in 1983, two other sites, Alok and Nkirigum, were subsequently added to this museum field.

Apart from Emangabe, which lies 2km away from Alok; some 7km distance separates Alok and Nkirigum. In other words, the three old sites stand kilometres apart. During a recent encounter with Chief Akong, NCMM Technical Officer in charge of this open air museum complex; we gathered that Alok holds 34 monoliths, whereas 18 of these antique stones are displayed at Emangabe. We further learnt that about 22 monoliths are on ground at Nkirigum.

Although we visited Emangabe and Alok Circles during our latest sojourn, it was not possible to confirm what obtained at Nkirigum because Ntim Enyin (Enyin stream), which borders that settlement is over-flowing with water during the rainy season, and makes access impossible except by boat or canoe. Since there’s no commercial boat plying this route, locals simply swim across; which was more than we came prepared to do.

A time frame on Nigeria’s classical artefacts should help put in perspective the importance of Bakor Monoliths to our national heritage. In chronological sequence, Nok artefacts found around southern Kaduna and so on, said to be between 2,000 and 2,500 years old; are next to the 8,000-year-old Dufuna Canoe, discovered in Yobe State, North Eastern geopolitical zone. Bakor Monoliths rank third because some are as old as 1,900 years, followed by the roughly 1,500-year-old Calabar terra cottas, found in Cross River State in Nigeria’s South-South geopolitical zone.

Nigeria CALABAR MONOLITH.jpg
Nigeria: Calabar monolith

After the Calabar terra cottas, the next set of classical antiquities, all 1,000 years or younger, include objects excavated in Igbo Ukwu, Ile-Ife, Owo as well as those discovered in or around Nupe lands (called Tada), the world famous Benin artefacts and Esie soap stone statuettes; in the states of Anambra (South East geopolitical zone), Osun (South West), Ondo (South West), Niger State (North Central), Edo (South South) and Kwara (North Central) respectively.

Despite the age of each Bakor Monolith, their ill-secured open air gallery and their kilometres-apart scattered locations, aside the fact that looters had laid siege to these sites in the past; Alok Open Air Museum boasts only seven workers. Chief Akong alias Orlando is assisted by three gardeners and the same number of security men; a workforce ostensibly inadequate to manage these sites and secure the antique objects.

Like lame ducks

The fact that thieves had made away with some Ikom Monoliths in previous decades, is ample proof that more hands ought to be posted to Alok Open Air Museum. In 1992, during one of our visits to Alok we had encountered 30 monoliths at this hub; and, even in those days, one had gathered that there used to be 32, but two were lost to thieves that invaded this sanctuary some years earlier.

Mr. Akong again: “Thieves once came here at night and carted away some priceless antiquities. We managed to recover some, but not all”. He was referring to another scenario. According to Mr. Akong, swift reaction on the part of Mrs. Mary Coker, the then Curator of National Museum Calabar, which oversees Alok Open Air Museum, made recovery of two of the stolen pieces possible.

Speaking further, this technical officer, who added that the police were very helpful during that crisis; however, rued: “But, two monoliths were recovered”. We had gathered from reliable sources that three monoliths were removed by the looters. In other words, one has still not been located more than 15 years after that theft.

Sadly, instead of deploying additional workers to Alok, the 2006/2007 massive retrenchment in the Federal Civil Service practically swept six of the seven staffers away! After we raised the alarm concerning the nude state of Alok open air museum and how the priceless monoliths were now at the mercy of looters; then Cross River State Governor, Donald Duke, stepped in and directed the sacked workers to return to station, continue with their duties but to subsequently collect their salaries from Cross River treasury. That, in a nutshell, is how Ikom Monoliths literally enjoyed some respite.

However, Mr. Duke’s intervention, which his successor, Governor Liyel Imoke, has sustained; is mere panacea not the cure because the issue of additional hands; has not been addressed by the NCMM. Currently, what obtains is a return to the status quo ante, which leaves a lot to be desired. And, to think that we made this suggestion since 2007!

The recovery of another monolith near Ntutugho Village earlier this year further reinforces our advocacy for additional hands to be deployed to Alok Open Air Museum urgently; but whether NCMM authorities would see reason, only time can tell. When they eventually wake up from their hibernation, one can only hope that their response would not prove too little, too late.

Nigeria monolith  Cross River region, 18th–19th.jpg
Nigeria:monolith Cross River region, 18th–19th

It remains uncertain, where the recently recovered monolith was removed from but the object was found abandoned on the ground near Ntutugho. So, how safe are these stones? Hear Akong’s rue: “Since we don’t have adequate security, there’s always the threat of theft”. This museum technical officer also sounded particularly worried about the risk to which monoliths at Oonto Circle were needlessly exposed.
Oonto, which stands near Nkirigum, holds over 15 monoliths. But, these are monoliths like no other; “This is where you have the tallest of the monoliths, each one beautifully carved with some of them standing as tall as 2m (over 6 feet)”, Akong mused.

Myriad problems
Theft is not the only problem plaguing Bakor Monoliths; several of these stones are now covered by fungi. This infestation is most glaring at Alok Circle, where the whitish, dust-like, microbes thrive both on stones as well as the stems and foliage of surrounding plants.

Aside theft and fungal infestation, Bakor Monoliths sometimes fall victim to man-made disasters. For example, certain locals do not really understand the importance of these stones; consequently, such people frequently set fire to these priceless pieces of antiquity in the course of preparing the grounds for farming. According to Akong, Nlul 1 Circle requires urgent attention in this regard. Moreover, owing to the inadequate number of gardeners and lack of a lawn-mower; the few workers on ground are condemned to back-breaking chores almost without end seven days a week, yet Nkirigum and several other sites are often overgrown with weed; we learnt.

Apart from absorbing sacked federal museum workers into Cross River Civil Service, the then Mr. Duke-led state government had also built a perimeter fence around Alok Circle site. In the same vein, Emangabe also features something like a wall, except that the proposed perimeter fence is still far from completed. By contrast, Nkirigum is still completely naked, with neither wall nor fence.

Gone, million dollars’ worth of stones

Unconfirmed reports indicate a thief could earn as much as $50,000 (N7.5 million) for one monolith, even though there are laws, both at national and international levels, against such trade. Assuming 120 monoliths can still be accounted for, deduct this figure from 450 and the difference is 330 stones gone. Multiply 330 by $50,000, and you get $16.5 million. At an exchange rate of N150 to $1, Nigeria has lost N2.5 billion! It is, however, worth noting that the nation loses much more than money, each time a piece of antiquity is lost. Whenever such tragedy strikes, we lose a bit of our soul, so to speak.

Sadly, thieves will always try to lift classical objects; not only because of the perceived large sums involved but because of lax laws, which prescribe rather lenient penalties for such heinous crime as selling one’s soul and that of the entire nation in one fell swoop. To worsen matters, the apathy of Nigeria’s federal authorities toward antiquity objects, be they Bakor, Benin, Esie, Ife, Igbo Ukwu, Nok et cetera serves to egg looters on.
Nigerian authorities may not care about Bakor Monoliths, but neither the inextricable relevance of these antiquities to world heritage nor the perilous conditions to which they are subjected is lost on the global community.

Nigeria Ancestral monolith (atal) of the Bakor-clan.jpg
Nigeria: Ancestral monolith (atal) of the Bakor-clan

This was proven in 2007, when the nation’s reckless handling of Ikom Monoliths backfired, leaving Nigeria bespattered with embarrassment. On 6 July, 2007; Nigeria came under a darkening spotlight, when Ikom Monliths turned up in the “Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites” for 2008, unveiled by the World Monuments Fund (WMF).

Making it into the WMF Watch List is not an honour but akin to an induction into a Hall of Infamy and could be interpreted as a clear pointer to a society’s incompetence at managing its resources. The WMF Watch List hints at failure to protect invaluable cultural endowments, and by extrapolation, national wealth, generally. It is proof of vacuous perception of one’s heritage and an unpatriotic attitude to national culture.

Symptomatic of pandemic miasma

Painfully, the deplorable state of the Bakor Monoliths is a microcosm of the larger picture of wanton mishandling of numerous National Monuments, Sites and Heritage icons across the country. For example, it took a report by this writer, after a 10-year watch, to compel Nigerian authorities to launch a Joint Management Committee for Sukur, Nigeria’s first World Heritage Site (WHS).

Still on Sukur; after procurement of a gigantic electricity generator for this premiere WHS, quite contrary to the green considerations that should have been given to the ecology of Sukur Kingdom; the plant was dumped at Yola more than four years before our story forced NCMM monuments, heritage and sites managers to tow the equipment closer to its final destination.

Nonetheless, it is instructive that inhabitants of Sukur Kingdom, which stands over 3,000 feet above sea level in Madagali Local Government Area of Adamawa, whose culture, especially the architectural devices of their ancestors, led to the listing of the place as WHS; are not among the beneficiaries of the power for which the generator was bought.

In Jos, millions of naira is spent year after year on maintenance of replicas of model structures at the Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture (MOTNA) all to no avail. The replica of the Kano City Wall is of particular interest here: Sources said the project is a cipher designed to siphon money at regular intervals; otherwise, critics reasoned, the structure would not crumble annually shortly after huge sums of money had been expended on its rehabilitation. Interestingly, museum insiders allege there seems to be a colossal disparity between what is usually voted for the project and what is eventually remitted for that purpose.

To be candid, the Department of Monuments, Heritage and Sites must be the weakest link in the NCMM chain. Interestingly, however, the current NCMM DG, Mr. Usman, came from this unit, as did Dr. Joseph Eboreime; whom he succeeded as DG. Although some of the crises plaguing the NCMM predate Usman’s appointment to office of Director of Monuments, Heritage and Sites as well as his emergence as Director General, the man has no option but to redress the sticking drawbacks, such as problems at Jos Zoo, plaguing this Commission. Since his appointment, Usman has embarked on numerous measures, including a flurry of seminars and workshops as well as staff retreats all in a bid to further awareness, re-position and strengthen the NCMM.

However, prudence is necessary here, even as the NCMM needs revisions of the statutes guiding its functions and more funds to enable it pay for things it must do, in order to meet its responsibilities to the nation. For starters, the precious stones called Bakor Monoliths deserve better than to be left at the mercy of thieves, fungi, mosses and lichens.

Epilogue

Only yesterday, 4 August, 2010; the Ministerial Council on Tourism, Culture and National Orientation began a two-day retreat in Calabar: It is hoped that concrete and sustainable strategies would have been devised to preserve Bakor Monoliths, before the forum rises today. Otherwise, the summit would have ended up another motion without movement, like countless other quasi-jamborees couched in fancy names before it.

 

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