Michaelangelo’s Pieta and Nigerian public property

Another flaw in the human character is that everyone wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance

— Kurt Vonnegut

Michaelangelo was one of the most famous artists of the Renaissance and one of his most acclaimed masterpieces was the Pieta.

It’s a magnificent sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus, carved from a single block of marble. The story goes that one day, Michaelangelo stood back in a room where the recently completed work was being displayed when he overheard someone credit the work to another artist.

So he took a lamp after dark, shut himself in with a hammer and chisel, and engraved his name on the work forever. It was the only work he ever signed.

What’s the point of this story?

Well, someone posted the below screenshot on twitter two weeks ago.

It’s an excerpt from an interview granted years ago by an anonymous visitor about his impressions of Lagos.

The aliens who built this sprawling city clearly felt no need to put their mark on their creation. Maybe they should have.

I had the misfortune of travelling into Lagos by bus in peak rainy season yesterday and that quote sprang to mind again. It was an opportunity to reap the consequences of Nigeria’s ‘anyhowness’ first hand.

You see, the highways are now terrible to a fantastic degree. The same roads that were constructed to world class standards in the 1970s, and have undergone multiple billion dollar restorations in recent years, are like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie today.

The scope of the ineptitude is baffling.

My journey started in Owerri but I’ll reserve that sad story for another day. Yet I have burning questions.

How hard could it be to observe that public assets degenerate EVERY TIME if left without constant maintenance?

What is the job of FERMA? Does it still even exist?

Whose job is it to maintain everything else besides roads? And this includes drainage, sidewalks, street lights, government buildings, public aesthetics, city planning, et cetera.

In general, why is everybody mad?

Let’s take a quick journey through time.

Michaelangelo’s Pieta was completed in 1499, which makes it more than 500 years old. The city of Rome has existed practically in its current form for centuries.

But Lagos, or Nigeria in general, is a fairly recent construction.

The aliens left only a short while ago.

In 1977, around the same time when our modern federal highway system was built, Nigeria hosted the world black festival of arts and culture.

It was a gigantic exercise in egotistical masturbation, carried out at the peak of an oil boom. It was also the second largest spending spree this country has ever embarked on, second only to the construction of Abuja.

An extravagant festival village was built as a show piece to host visiting diasporan contingents and also as part of an advanced urban housing project. The Nigerian government spared no expense to announce its new oil-rich status to the world.

Mama look at how we made it.

But today in 2016, there’s nothing pleasing to see in Festac town (festival village). The huge suburb, like the national theatre, federal highways, and Lagos’s city infrastructure are examples of our trademark aversion for the vital task of working diligently to keep things running.

Nigeria in the 1970s was something like Dubai at the turn of the millennium, a nation drunk on oil revenue and self-confidence. Here the ogas at the top had a blank canvass to create a masterpiece.

And to a certain extent, they did. If you look closely at the highway network, you can see its outlines.

The Lagos island skyline, the ports, bridges and those gigantic clover leafs are concrete receipts of this effort. Unsustained.


Then they left to build Abuja.

Because you see, creation is the easy part.

You do not really create anything enduring. Artistically speaking, you maintain a creation or object to allow future generations experience it. In practice, maintenance is vital to value optimisation. Then of course there’s the rare occasion where an object acquires a vintage.

The Pieta was savagely attacked by a deranged man with a hammer in 1972, damaging the priceless sculpture. It had to be painstakingly restored, dozens of shattered pieces meticulously put back together.

Today the sculpture can be seen publicly displayed at the entrance of St Paul’s basilica in the Vatican, behind bulletproof glass.

One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was losing a sketch from an Aladdin storybook which I then considered my greatest drawing ever. My young mind was devastated. The same can not be said for public property, which belongs to no one, in this society.

There was a huge public outpouring of sympathy when news of the Pieta’s vandalism broke but sadly, there would be no dirge here.