[Text and Photos by Akintayo Abodunrin]
The museum at the Centre for Historical Documentation and Research, better known as Arewa House or, to use the local name, Gidan Arewa, is perhaps the only one in Nigeria housed in the residence of a former Nigerian politician—at No. 1 Rabah Road, Kaduna State, the home of the late Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello. It is also arguably the only one to house objects from a specific geo-political region in Nigeria.
Incorporating an archive, a library and conference hall, the Arewa House (built in the 1950s) was established in 1970 when a committee was tasked to write a book on the history of Northern Nigeria. The first director of the centre, the late Professor Abdullahi Smith, a founding member of the Department of History at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, is credited with making the Arewa House a foremost centre for research and for documenting the history and culture of the people of Northern Nigeria.
I did not set out originally to visit the Arewa House. My original intent was to visit the Kaduna Museum but I was turned back because the Radio, Television, Theatre and Allied Workers Union (RATTAWU), which the museum staff belong to, were on strike.
So at Gidan Arewa I meet the resident artist Emmanuel Abu, who has been running the place since 1975.
“[Ahmadu Bello] actually met his end in this compound,” Abu says heartily as he leads me around. “The historical aspect of this place is something we have been keeping over the years; we are trying to put back some of his personal effects in his house, which is right here in the compound. We have few of his personal belongings in the museum’s open gallery.”
A dozen galleries—and counting
The museum has a central gallery dedicated solely to the memory of the late Sardauna, who was premier of the Northern Region from 1954 until his assassination in the coup of 15 January 1966. There are two velvet chairs, which the Sardauna had earlier given as presents but which were re-donated to the museum; there are also rugs, Babarigas (flowing male attire worn in the North), caps and portraits, a mat and a battery-operated wireless radio, which Bello used in his office.
Behind a raised platform is a case containing wristwatches, drivers’ licence, religious articles Bello wrote and which he used for prayers, and a ceremonial key presented to the statesman by the Housing Corporation on the occasion of his opening of the Central Bank of Nigeria branch in Kano, on January 13, 1963.
There are 12 adjoining smaller galleries with objects reflecting the civilisation and culture of the 19 Northern states. “Our archival collection is vast. We have all the publications in Nigeria since the beginning of time in our archives,” Abu says, leading the way through the gallery of objects from Jigawa and Benue States. “But the museum itself was incorporated around 1994.”
The Katsina State gallery has, among other things, photographs of all the past governors, civilian and military; dresses, drums, farming implements, a Quran (attesting to the premium Katsina people place on Islamic religion), beautifully decorated horse saddles and a painting of Bawo Bayajidda who is said to have killed the snake that prevented people from drawing water at the well in Daura.
A painting of a peacock (the symbol of the people of Kwara state), drums, soup pots and hunting traps are in the gallery hosting Kwara and Yobe States. Also on display is Uthman Dan Fodiyo’s family tree, listing the descendants of the jihadist and the periods they presided over the caliphate.
An image of the late Sardauna, who hailed from Sokoto, and other items are in the Sokoto State gallery. Probably because of its status as host of the Arewa House, Kaduna State has a gallery to itself. And one of its key attractions is the first set of beds ever used in Northern Nigeria.
“That’s the office of Sir Ahmadu Bello. He constructed it though he never used it before he met his death,” Abu says as we step close to the entrance of the ‘Marble Office’, a one-storey building with a lush garden where the premier relaxed in the evenings. We can’t enter the building because it is locked; Abu says it has just two bedrooms on the top floor while the ground floor is taken up by the sitting rooms where the Sardauna received his guests.
Another locked door leads to a passage that connects the main building to the living quarters of the Sardauna’s wives.
According to Abu, when the coup plotters came on that fateful day in January, they did from the rear of the house and started shooting. They were unable to find him [Bello] immediately until they shelled the top part of the building which was later renovated by the government of the then Sokoto State.
“Sardauna went to meet his wives at the back. After he left his wives, he came out and met (Major Kaduna) Nzeogwu and his boys before he was shot. The first wife died with him here,” Abu says, pointing to the spot that is now cemented. “
For almost half a century, the centre has kept to the vision of its founders as proper historical documentation hub. “To date, we are updating our collection,” Abu says, as he walks me to the gate. “We are still sourcing files from offices that have something to do with the Sardauna himself.”