Nigeria’s Treasure Trove Lessons from the Sukur Cultural Landscape

Despite its earlier listing ahead of the Sacred Grove at Osun-Osogbo, the Sukur Cultural Landscape is less known to most Nigerians.

Hidden high up the Mandara Mountains bordering Nigeria and Cameroon, in Adamawa State, is one of Nigeria’s two designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Sukur Cultural Landscape is a settlement whose existence dates back to Neolithic times and which has, for centuries, remained an independent kingdom and centre of iron production and distribution. This community of independent people lived and continued to depend on a terraced pattern of agricultural practice and extensive trading in iron ore. The people of Sukur came to monopolize iron production in the region owing to the availability of magnetite, an iron ore, and local wood for making charcoal. These resources gave the people a place of pride and dominance among other nearby kingdoms.

A people’s culture is said to define their way of life, their conduct of relations both in private and public spheres. Throughout the history of mankind, culture has been a pervasive reality that begs for understanding, adoption, and its transformation where applicable. As a nation that seeks to position itself as a tourist destination, we have a responsibility to foster the diversity in cultural production that is ever-present in Nigeria. Today, however, culture as a way of life has become for many, a hostile enemy whose importance must be diminished or limited. The huge sledgehammer of pacification that the British colonialists employed in their bid to subjugate the diverse societies in Nigeria transformed the worldview of many across these societies.

The deliberate cultivation of an inferiority complex in Africans by these colonialists is best captured in Professor E. A. Ayandele’s The Educated Elite in Nigerian Society. In this body of scholarly work, he refers to many who after acquiring western education saw their culture as inferior to the European’s as ‘deluded hybrids’. One could argue such delusion has left Nigerians uninformed about the beautiful cultural landscapes in our backyard like Sukur Cultural Landscape and the Osun-Oshogbo Sacred Grove (which lies in the forested outskirts of Osogbo); both of which have been designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

The Sukur Cultural Landscape was conferred heritage status in December 1999, while Osun-Osogbo attained the same status in July 2005. Despite this status and the existence of a Nigerian Cultural Policy enacted in 1988, few Nigerians, outside both landscapes’ immediate areas, know of their existence. Fewer still have given themselves to the thought of visiting these world treasures. Beyond poor appreciation by citizens, most disheartening is the fact that it took a whole 28 years after independence to develop a policy recognizing cultural landscapes as worthy embodiments of a people’s way of life in Nigeria and deserving of governmental protection.

Despite its earlier listing ahead of the Sacred Grove at Osun-Osogbo, the Sukur Cultural Landscape is less known to most Nigerians. Given the Federal Government’s proposed 365 days of celebrations in recognition of 60 unbreakable years, it begs to be seen if much attention would be given to this landscape. Cultural landscapes should be proud sources of identity, representation, and national pride. The National Cultural Policy states that, ‘the State shall preserve as Monuments old city walls and gates, sites, palaces, shrines, public buildings, promote buildings of historical significance and monumental sculptures.’

In the 32 years since this policy was enacted, little has been done at the national and sub-national levels to ‘promote buildings of historical significance’. The large modern edifice which we began to build as a cultural centre to house the national library and a distinct ‘Millennium Tower’ today sits in the middle of our nation’s capital as white elephants. We have lost the meaning of what is truly significant and how our cultural edifices could have at this challenging period in our nation’s history served, not only as symbols of national pride but also as viable means to generate substantial tourism revenue.

Sukur’s importance is characterized by its pre-colonial architecture and the brilliantly engineered paved ways that served its people for centuries. This unique style endeared many foreign scholars who came riding on the heels of information documented in the 1850s by the explorer Heinrich Barth, and several British Colonial District Officers who lived around its precinct. Sitting pretty, despite an invasion by Boko Haram insurgents in December 2014, is a walled enclosure on the plateau, and approached by broad, paved walkways leading to the valley below. The Sukur Cultural Landscape is a national treasure whose picture should adorn embassies and high commissions. Sadly, not even Tafawa Balewa House has a picture of this landscape, to capture the awe of visitors who might ask, ‘where in your country is this located?’

If we pride ourselves as having journeyed unbroken for 60 years, we must not see such cultural landscapes as old-fashioned or primitive. We are a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society whose misgivings towards one another must be eliminated if we are to move forward in a knowledge-driven era. We must, going forward, reconstitute our nation with the determination of a people who understand that there are aspects of our diverse heritage and experiences worth celebrating.

While our national treasures remain largely overlooked, other nations have taken notice. In 2018, the World Monuments Watch called for assistance in helping the Sukur community rebuild their livelihoods after the devastation caused by the December 2014 Boko Haram attack. This call was made to help protect this landscape while safeguarding the cultural values of a unique World Heritage Site. Hopefully, this will usher in a new period in the relatively unknown history of Sukur. Until then, the Sukur Cultural Landscape awaits your visit, your support of its traditional crafts, and your advocacy for its sustenance

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