By Bisi Lawrence
Broad Street, in Lagos, might have been named just for the factual description of its being truly wide. Even by modern standards of an urban roadway, it covered some distance from one side to the other.
But it might just as well have been named, “Long” street for that same reason because it is, and has always been, the longest street by far within the Lagos Island. It starts off from what used to be called The Government House, when that was the official residence of the Governors and Governors-General of Nigeria in colonial days.
Thereafter, it became known as The State House when Nigeria attained her independence. At that time, it was occupied by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as the Governor-General and later, President – the first Nigerian to hold both posts.
The outer building is a single-storey affair and served as the office area. It hid the opulence and expanse of the residential areas comprising the halls and living quarters. I have gained admission into this very exclusive compound only three times in my life. ..
The first time was at the end of the 1959 elections. The results were inconclusive since the party which obtained the highest number of votes, The Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, could not form the government because it scored less than two- thirds of the votes cast as stipulated by the Constitution. However, a run-off was not on the board either, because the country was governed by a parliamentary system.
All the same, it was expected that Azikiwe, as the Governor-General and Head of State, would invite the leader of the NPC, who was none other than Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, to form the government. It would then be the duty of Balewa to find the way to a coalition that would compose the required two-thirds of the membership of the lawmakers in order to form the government.
The Constitution was clear on the point. But Azikiwe refused to send for Balewa.
After waiting in vain for three days, the NPC leader used his position as the former Prime Minister, to device a resolution to what was gradually becoming a national crisis. First, he ordered that the army should surround State House, and the Governor-General was virtually put under house arrest.
Then he made Azikiwe to render an undertaking that he would be given the mandate to form a coalition government. But, to make assurance doubly sure, he sent for his favourite reporter in Radio Nigeria to come and record the Governor-General actually giving the undertaking. I was that reporter,.
I was, at that time, the Nigeria Newsreel Editor. I was responsible for all the important voice reports in the Lagos area and beyond. I started my rounds, on most days, from the office of the Prime Minister during which I was privileged to see the eminent gentleman and sometimes exchange pleasantries with him, if there was no serious work at hand. So he felt really comfortable with me and sent for me by name.
But I had left Broadcasting House, so the Controller of Programmes volunteered to perform the task and promptly presented himself. But the Prime Minister insisted that I, and no one else, should do the recording. So the Controller went back to the studios and issued the order that I had to be fetched from no matter where, and no matter how.
That actually posed no problem for the chaps in Broadcasting House who knew where I would be. It was about five 0′ clock in the evening, and it was football season. Where else would I be but at the stadium? And so, there I was carrying on with the other “barrackers” about the finer points of one move or the other on the field, when they came to fetch me, having the good sense to bring the portable recorder along. I wasted no time in getting to grips with the assignment.
Zik willingly gave the undertaking and I streaked back to the office to make it the first headline of the day’s edition. I was sure it would make the first headline also in the news bulletin which preceded the newsreel by some 15 minutes. I waited to slam it on the air.
But, surprise, surprise! It was not included in the bulletin.. I at once called the Director-General, the Rev. Victor Badejo, on the phone. He pointedly instructed me not to use the undertaking that night. I was amazed. I at once regretted making that telephone call. I could have just gone ahead and put the undertaking on the air without any fear of reprisals. Now I had raised a barrier against such an action by my over-sabee. How would I now face the Prime Minister, that gentleman who had trusted me, and had specially called for me to render a legitimate service?
Two things happened in quick succession next morning. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe would not ratify his earlier undertaking, strengthened, it would appear, by the lack of evidence – such as would have been supplied by the recorded undertaking I had not broadcast. So, I quickly sent the recording to the DG’s office early in the morning, barely within seconds of the arrival of State House officials, who had come to demand the tape.
They were led by Mr. Kasumu, the Governor-General’s Private Secretary. I pointed them to the DG’s office and left the studios. The crisis was resolved, all the same, on the following day. Azikiwe called Balewa to form the government which resolved into a coalition between the parties of both men – the Northern Peoples Congress and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, the NCNC,.
At a subsequent press conference, the Prime Minister actually narrated the events that led to the settlement, including my role in the affair. But he protected my identity and merely referred to me as “a young man from Radio Nigeria”.
While regretting my indecision which led to the order from the DG to stop the broadcast of that recording, I shall always be grateful to Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, for leaving me out of that predicament which had the nation panting for some four days.
It is now left to history and political analysts to ponder on why Nnamdi Azikiwe, himself a truly honourable man, fomented such a political logjam, in the first place. Could it have been to force the hand of the Prime Minister to team up with the NCNC, his own beloved party? Such thoughts would find free accommodation in the prevailing atmosphere of this day
Broad Street was a street of a wide variety of features – educational, religious, doleful, and others. One that falls fairly into the category of the “doleful” was the strip between the General Hospital and the maximum-security prison directly opposite it. The hospital was then known as the African Hospital. It was meant for Nigerians and contrasted the European Hospital, about a mile away, which was meant for the expatriate officials and other white men.
It was one of the examples of the barefaced discrimination practised against Nigerians in their own country during the colonial era, but which the attainment of Independence swiftly swept away. The African Hospital thereafter became the General Hospital, and the European Hospital, which could now treat anybody, Nigerians and all, was re-named The Creek Hospital.
At the end of the General Hospital was the mortuary which no one finds particularly attractive, and across it was the maximum-security prison where convicts who had been sentenced to death were hanged. No one wanted any part of that either. Most of those who passed through that part of the street usually wore a long face.
The mortuary still exists but the maximum-security prison has mercifully been shifted to Kirikiri. The atmosphere of “doomsday” somehow still lingers, though plans are afoot to develop the area. This prison, by the way, was where Chief Obafemi Awolowo was detained, and it was where that he learnt about the tragic death of his first son, Olusegun, in a motor accident.
On the other side of the road, in the mortuary, a rather colourful character held sway.
Sunday, Gb’okugb’oku (the corpse-carrier) was one of the attendants, but his preoccupation was really the pushing and pulling of the hearse to the church and the cemetery afterwards. That indeed earned him the nickname of “corpse-carrier”.
There was hardly any motorized hearse in those days, some half-a-century ago. Those available were carts on metal wheels with the body made of glass, which were pulled by hand by Sunday, and others in the same occupation. With the rolling of the wheels creating a racket on the tarred road, he made a show of it, sharing scant sympathy with mourners who surrounded him as the cortege wended its way to the final resting place in Ikoyi cemetery.
He became a very well known figure in Lagos circles where he would be entertained by the relatives of the deceased at the functions that usually wound up the social side of funerals in the city.
A little distance away was the Baptist Academy, one of the three or five, counting the female counterparts – secondary schools then on Broad Street. The others were the Methodist Boys’ High School which, by the way was the alma mater of Zik; and its female counterpart, the Methodist Girls’ High School, and the CMS Grammar School, with its counterpart, the CMS Girls’ School.
Baptist Academy was a mixed school and gave an austere representation of itself It also sought to acquire the pre-eminence of being the first secondary school in Nigeria, having been founded before the CMS Grammar School. But it was only a primary school before the Grammar School was founded. All the schools have now been re-located, but the memory of crowds of school children moving in different directions in the morning on weekdays lingers. Unlike today, they all wore white uniforms and that made the scene more easy to the sight..
Broad Street also had a touch of the good life. There was the Grand Hotel which, now that one recalls it, did not look particularly grand, though it had an exclusive clientele . The location at the junction of Odunlami Street was later taken over by the Chase Manhattan Bank. There was also the Crystal Palace which I visited only once before it faded out. That was part of Tinubu Square which Broad Street traverses to dip gently towards the Northern part of the Marina to the Niger House.
The glory of Tinubu Square was removed by … development, or what? On the square was the house of Henry Carr, a unique administrator and educationist. His house was turned into the Ministry of Finance. There also was “The Orange House”. The mansion of Otunda Payne, the first Sheriff of the island of Lagos, who had the onerous duty of giving all the streets in Lagos, both on the Island and the Mainland, their names.
He did a magnificent job, and it is remarkable that he never named any street after himself At the base of Customs Street adjoining the Square, was a police station which was scrapped for the erection of a part of the Central Bank; I don’t believe there is a police station in any part of that busy area any more.
Only the ancestral home of Victor Olaiya, the musician, with another edifice, still stands from the past, and that is because it was officially named a heritage item. Not much care seems to have been taken of it. The other is the Methodist Church which has endured many decades and has happily been rebuilt in recent times, to the glory of God.
The centrepiece of Tinubu Square today is a serious comedown from what was there .. It was a beautiful edifice of a courthouse – the Supreme Court, as a matter of fact – finished in yellow colour, and capped with a dome. In its foyer was a life-like bust of Queen Victoria; the legend was that any convicted person who could throw his arms around it would be freed. True or false, none was known to have gone near enough it to do that anyway. In the evenings on week-ends, the Nigeria Police Band would come into the beautiful gardens of the courthouse from where they regaled a select group of eminent citizens with selections of Bach, Mendelssohn, Handel and the music of other great masters.
That was what they broke down. Lower down the street, however, another courthouse of less note has been retained and languishes in utter desuetude. It even still has the name of the British monarch preserved on it. That is the measure of our “development”.