Preserving the past, capturing the present and inspiring the future, with culture and tourism—that’s the mission statement for the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library (OOPL) Foundation. Slated to open March 2017, the first Presidential Library in Africa will serve as a centre for the acquisition, preservation, and promotion of resources relating to the life, career and ideals of Olusegun Obasanjo, the former President of Nigeria (1999 – 2007).
Speaking with Obasanjo, his passion for historical documentation, the arts, and the curation of cultural artefacts is clear—viewing the OOPL museum collection proves this to be true.
This was one of the reasons why Obasanjo decided to build the Presidential Library: “One of the things that I found we, as Nigerians, are inadequate in, is institutional memory; we are bad record-keepers. If you don’t have institutional memory and you don’t keep records, then what is vital is lost—you lose your history. When you know where you’ve been (the obstacles, the challenges in getting there, and the achievements to date), you can prepare for where you want to go, you put your foot firmly in the future.”
“In America for example”, he continues, “from the time of Roosevelt, a President builds a Presidential Library to house the documents and artefacts of his administration, for study and discussion. Once he finishes building the Presidential Library, NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) takes it over and maintains it for the American people. It becomes part of national heritage, national monument and national archive. We don’t have that in Nigeria. So I believe that we must maintain our history in a space that is accessible to all nationwide, even globally.”
But if you’re going to curate a collection, you need a means of sustaining it says Obasanjo. “I asked myself, OK if we build this, how do we sustain it? There are only two alternatives if there is to be no government involvement—the first is an endowment, the proceeds of which will be the used for upkeep. The second, which we opted for, is to build some revenue generating subsidiaries (a resort, an amusement park, an events centre and an adire and African fabric centre) around the Presidential Library and hopefully, the revenue generated will sustain the collection.”
We asked Obasanjo about his collecting history and the objects which will be on display at the OOPL Museum: “Let me tell you about something we worked on this morning. I invited the African Union in Addis Ababa to provide certain documents for inclusion into the Museum’s collection. These include the original Organisation of African Unity (OAU) charter and the ratification document signed by the then Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in 1963. We also have records from the Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) that was held in 1977. This festival included the exhibition, ‘2000 Years of Nigerian Art’, a display of art objects including Benin court art, Igbo Okwu bronzes, Ife Yoruba heads and Nok terracottas.”
Culture makes us who we are, says Obasanjo: "Culture is the totality of your way of life as an individual and as a group of people. People have ways that are peculiar to them; the songs we sing, our marriage and naming ceremonies, our burial arrangements, the dresses that we wear, and the art that we use. We must be proud of our culture and maintain it.
I’ve always loved traditional art. Growing up, one thing that was very popular in my village were Yoruba ere ibeji carvings. If you had a twin, and one of them died, you had to carve an ere ibeji to take his or her place. If the two die, you carve two figures. If you had one boy and one girl, you had to carve an ere in female fashion and the other in male. The Yoruba have a saying, 'just because your ere ibeji may be carved with a smile doesn’t mean it can’t be annoyed, and when it’s annoyed, it can cause trouble'. That’s why the mother has to take care of the ibeji like it’s a living child. The ibeji may be dead but the spirit does not go away. By taking care of the ere ibeji, you take care of the spirit of the child."
"I’ve always loved these objects and I’ve collected them over time. I don’t collect on the basis of ethnic group, I don’t bring federal character into the collection of artefacts. Whatever I can lay my hands on I collect; carvings, textiles, historical documents. But I don’t stop there, I document everything that’s in my collection and include information on what is required to preserve these objects. Others have donated to the Presidential Library too—Professor Alexander Brown donated his entire collection of Nigerian traditional art to us, and the Asika family also gave us some of their collection."
Sharing advice for budding collectors looking to document and curate African culture, Obasanjo says: “First of all, as I said, these collections typify our history. When you collect in Yorubaland for instance, the Ife bronze has certain meaning and significance in the history of the Yoruba and in their traditions. Nok art objects have their own role and place in the history of certain parts of Nigeria. I think this is the first thing that must be understood. The second is that, as in my own case, I’m not collecting as a means of treasure or as an investment, no. What I am doing is preserving the past, I’m preserving history. So if your interest is in the past, in the history, traditions and culture of your people or any peoples for that matter, your collection of artefacts and cultural articles will be a treasure to you.”
Documenting cultural artefacts of Nigeria’s history is no mean feat—negative perceptions still abound about objects used in traditional religions. Speaking of what the future holds for traditional art in Nigeria and how he manages negative perceptions, Obasanjo concludes: “I will warn strongly against the ignorance permeating some people’s minds, ignorance of their so called religion. I have these cultural objects in my home, I don’t worship them, they are simply articles and artefacts of historical interest. But some people say I should burn them. Burn them for what?! Burn them to destroy history?”
“In other parts of the world, millions are being spent to preserve these objects. If we destroy them, even if they are recreated at a later date, that part of the Nigerian story is lost forever. So I think we must guard against that. I am not saying that anybody should encourage idolatry—but idolatry and the collection of artefacts are two different things! We must do everything we can to safeguard our culture, to preserve our history and to keep objects for coming generations to see, because that is the way history is built up and made.”