The past cannot be brought back it can only be preserved. But when a vital cultural heritage site is neglected by the world, something precious will continue to be lost, until there is nothing left

 

‘Cultural heritage’, as Stefan Simon puts it, ‘is about identity, knowledge, and the future, as well as the past’. [1] Just like the Palace of Versailles tells the story of France, each cultural heritage, European or African, is the relic of human civilisation, linking us to the past in a physical way.

In an effort to safeguard cultural heritage, the World Monuments Fund, a private non-profit organisation, announced on the 15th of October the 2016 World Monuments Watch, a biennial list that features 50 endangered sites from around the world. While the WMF advocates for the Birmingham Moseley Road Baths, which are ‘at risk of closure due to cutbacks in government spending’, it neglects African heritage sites that are, in their words, ‘under constant attack by . . . human actions’. [2] WMF has forgotten Sukur Cultural Landscape, a Nigerian heritage site looted by Boko Haram.

According to UNESCO, Sukur Cultural Landscape, one of the seven wonders in Nigeria, stands out as an ‘ancient settlement with a recorded history of iron smelting technology, flourishing trade, and strong political institution dating back to the 16th century’. The Palace of the Hidi (Chief), along with terraced fields, ‘dry stone structures’ and ‘stone-paved walkways’ physically expresses how society intersects with ‘spiritual and material culture’. More than being mere architectural remains, the Sukur Cultural Landscape serves as a living heritage, where the Sukur residents live and farm. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1999, Sukur Cultural Landscape matters because it illustrates ‘a form of land-use’ that stands out in human settlement, testifying to the ‘spiritual and cultural tradition that has endured for many centuries’. [3]

Sadly, Boko Haram changed everything. After Boko Haram’s intrusion, the Sukur Cultural Landscape and the Sukur community, as experts have put it, ‘no longer exist as they once did’. Boko Haram devastated the Sukur wards and unarmed Sukur people in December 2014. They killed men, kidnapped women and children, burnt houses and stole all the goods and livestock they could carry.[4]

Boko Haram sabotaged this precious cultural heritage site. They destroyed the thatched roofs and granary covers. The raids permanently damaged the structure of the residence of the chief. They also burnt newly harvested crops and grasses gathered for restoring the matting roofs. Without thatched roofs, granaries are exposed to rain. The food will not last. Famine will follow. Epidemics of diseases, such as cholera, have threatened the region. To quote an informant (JL) from Sukur, ‘Our people lives [sic] in the bushes now, most of the Baba people migrated or narrowly escaped to Sukur Hilltop, Kurang, Wula and some to the borders of Cameroon. They are in a harsh condition, no food, no clothing and no shelter. The amount of suffering they are going through [sic] cannot be quantified … ‘. [5]

Sukur Cultural Landscape represents the disproportionate attention across frontiers. As the 2016 Watch List has shown, Africa receives far less attention than Europe. Europe alone accounts for 15 endangered sites, around two times more than the 8 African sites listed. The negligence of WMF towards the Sukur Cultural Landscape, indeed, parallels the ignorance of the world towards crises in Nigeria. Under Boko Haram, a violent militancy that even ‘Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb has spoken against’, 1,500,000 Nigerians became Internally Displaced Persons in the north-east of Nigeria. Around 13 million Nigerians flee to neighbouring countries and even Europe. [6] The number of refugees from Nigeria is, startlingly, 4 million more than that from Syria. [7]

The world needs to watch over the Sukur Cultural Landscape and other African heritage sites. They are, like those in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, ‘irreplaceable treasures . . . that span the history of human civilization’. [8] Whether it is the Brussels Palace of Justice in Belgium or the Sukur Cultural Landscape in Nigeria, ‘the loss of any of its components is a loss to all of humanity’. [9]

 

Sources:

[1] http://news.yale.edu/2015/04/09/preserving-culture-times-crisis-focus-international-conference-0

[2] https://www.wmf.org/press-release/2016-world-monuments-watch-includes-50-risk-cultural-heritage-sites-36-countries ; https://www.wmf.org/what-we-do

[3] http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/938/

[4] http://www.sukur.info/home.htm

[5] http://www.sukur.info/home.htm

[6] http://www.sukur.info/home.htm ; http://www.bokoharamvictimsrelief.org/

[7] http://syrianrefugees.eu/

[8] https://www.wmf.org/what-we-do

[9] http://news.yale.edu/2015/04/09/preserving-culture-times-crisis-focus-international-conference-0