As a forty-plus-years-old resident of Surulere, my friends continuously tease me about being ‘stuck’ in Surulere; still a tenant with a no-leave-no-transfer mentality they chide. They have good cause to; I sometimes think, since most of them have built their own houses and now live in the new ‘exotic’ highbrow areas of Lagos like Ajah and Lekki.
But then, Surulere is an acquired and very pleasant habit. Very rich in Nigerian socio-cultural history; with vivid memories, facilities, institutions and present-day activities that attest to the wise town-planning decision to establish New Lagos now known as Surulere. Simply put, Surulere was established as a complete mini-town for the comfort of its truly cosmopolitan population of diverse Nigerians, mostly lower and middleclass.

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This is my opinion and experience having lived so-far on Ogunlana Drive, Ajao Road, Falolu Road and just off James Robertson Street; in what I consider as the core central Surulere; within convenient walking distance to Nigeria’s first ultra-modern Sports Complex; the Post Office; ECN [NEPA/PHCN] Office; NITEL Office; Super Cinema; Randle Dental Clinic; Eko Hospital; James Robertson Health Centre; Benson, Leventis, UTC Supermarkets; Gbaja Market; Fela’s Shrine; Olaiya’s Stadium Hotel & Club; Kilo Hotel; huge Baptist and Catholic Churches; Central Mosque, Surulere Local Government Headquarters; as well as many other community service-providers.

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Unlike the indigenous quarters of Lagos Island, Isaleko, New Lagos/Surulere was well-planned, easy to move around in by car or foot, safe [with its Police Headquarters, police stations and Fire Service] and provided with modern facilities and amenities.     Naturally, it attracted upwardly-mobile Nigerians, got nicknamed Suru-City and was geo-physically located in the centre of Lagos; then the capital of Africa’s and the World’s most prestigious Black nation. It was a showcase of urban development built after independence and meant to have a residential status slightly below that of the Colonial-built and exclusive Ikoyi.

…On sighting Lagos tax collectors during their tax drive people would conveniently jump into Western Region territory and taunt the tax collectors; daring them to come and arrest them in Western State territory.

It also provided a mix of social classes with the lower working classes provided for with high-rise estates such as Shitta. It’s central location traversed by a modern dual-carriage way; straight from Ikoyi through Western Avenue and Ikorodu Road to the Lagos Airport, the suburb of Ikeja on to the then Western Region on to the Eastern Region further made Surulere the in-place to be.
Before the creation of Lagos State, the old ‘core’ Surulere shared a geographical border with the Western Region. There are hilarious stories about the cat-and-mouse antics between tax evaders and Lagos tax collectors. On sighting Lagos tax collectors during their tax drive people would conveniently jump into Western Region territory and taunt the tax collectors; daring them to come and arrest them in Western State territory.

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During what could well be described as the Golden Age of New Lagos/Surulere; just after the creation of Lagos State and, in the seventies and eighties, it had succumbed to immense pressures of rapid urbanisation and become both a residential community as originally planned as well as a vibrant commercial centre.

Interestingly, both the residential population and the commercial ventures that sprang up during this Golden Age were middle class oriented. The population in the then tree-lined community enjoyed an environment conducive for raising their children. There was an abundance of excellent and affordable schools providing education at different levels. These included first-generation private nursery and primary schools like Yewande Memorial Nursery & Primary Schools, mixed and single-sex Secondary Schools and the first-class specialist Parcelli School for the Blind.

New Lagos/Surulere also became the undisputed hub of the creative industry and media in Nigeria; not just Lagos. Yes, the entire country and, by extension, West Africa! It became the place to be, day and night, for creative activities, leisure and entertainment.

It was the centre of the Advertising industry in Nigeria. The big players in the industry took root and grew from New Lagos/Surulere. Grants; Insight; OGA; Rosabel; Campaign Services; Blue Bird; Promoserve; STB MaCan; Graphics; Forum; Pulsar; Candid Advertising; Geo-Communications; TBWA; Zus Bureau; Cornelius Tay; Rockforte and some more were present, in what was then Nigeria’s New York Madison Avenue.

Poised to service the advertising industry were photographers, numerous photo-processing laboratories including the German Gisela and her professional colour laboratory, Don Barber’s Profo Lab that trained a generation of today’s top Nigerian photographers and, where the Photographers’ Association of Nigeria-PAN was formed. Music Studios such as Ayo Bankole’s were available for jingles and music recordings.

It was Nigeria’s mini Fleet Street. Nigeria’s pioneer news magazines New Breed and President were published by Chris Okoli on Ogunlana Drive. Nduka Obaiagbona also published his ThisWeek magazine [the precursor of the daily ThisDay newspaper] also on Ogunlana Drive. Then there was Ophelia, a society and general interest magazine and, long before that comedian John Chukwu’s culture magazine Mailbag. Quite a few Surulere community newspapers like Arena and other advert-oriented give-away publications have come and gone. Currently Diamond Publication’s watchdog Media Review has been published for well over twenty years on James Robertson. There are many printing presses in Surulere.

Given the literary activities that abound, the list of distinguished journalists and writers who have lived, and still live, in Surulere include Olu Akaraogun, Gbolahon Ogunsawo, Toyin Makonju, Sola Odunfa, Angus Okoli, Dr. Pat Utomi, Andy Akporugo, Lindsay Barrett, his son Igoni Barret, Dulue Mbachu, the Obi of Ikate Maxim Uzoatu, Nkanu Egbe, and Adewale Maja-Pearce.

Akin to America’s Hollywood, Surulere can rightly claim to have nurtured the Nigerian Nollywood film industry. One of the earliest meeting places for producers, directors, actors and actresses; and a place that also served as an impromptu audition and casting venue was Winnie’s Hotel. Since then, frontline filmmakers like Zeb Ejiro and Mahmmud Ali-Balogun have established production offices in Surulere while Kinks Studio is a leading post-production company like many others that operate out of Surulere.

In over forty years of its existence, the National Stadium has been the venue for mega sports and cultural events such as the All-Africa Games, FESTAC ’77, Africa Cup of Nations, FIFA Under-19 Championships, International Music Concerts and even Pentecostal Church Conventions. In its Golden Age, Surulere boasted of Nigeria’s best discotheque Subway and, of course, Fela’s Shrine that drew the world to come and appreciate and enjoy Afrobeat music.

New Lagos/Surulere has long changed. Most of the trees and greenery are gone. So also are most of the advertising, media and creative industries. It has now become overcrowded with most of the facilities and social services bursting at the seams. It is still a fairly civil community, quite safe and the bad boys, for now, successfully being kept at bay. It may have now gone down a further notch below Ikoyi, Victoria Island and Lekki in terms of its residential status. It definitely will not descend into being a slum. It’s glorious past and robust tradition will not allow that.

Traces of its creative greatness are still present and struggling fervently for greater heights. Commercial activities are booming. Its major high streets – Ogunlana Dive, Akerele Street, Adeniran Ogunsanya – as well as prominent side-streets are ‘decorated’ with shops selling luxury goods, eateries, IT outlets, telecommunication providers, banks and commercial ventures. The entertainment sector has grown with lots of intimate nightclubs with state-of-the-art cars parked outside them. A huge shopping mall with a Shoprite outlet stands next door to a new cinema house. It is still the unrivalled centre for tie-and-dye fabrics in Nigeria.

Rents have shot up ten-fold which means more people want to come and live with the professionals, middleclass and regular people who still live there. The bottom line is that, if you are a genuine ‘old school’ Surulere person, the neighbourhood holds on to you, not vice versa.
Now that civilian politics is the in-thing, Surulere is extremely proud of its true sons who have made good and still live there. These are the two-term Governor Fashola of Lagos State, three-term member of the Federal House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila and new member of the Lagos State Assembly, actor Desmond Elliot. They have proven the truism of the Yoruba expression, Surulere: ‘there is eventual reward/gain in patience!

Tam Fiofori is a first-generation Nigerian independent film-maker, writer and photojournalist. He has lived in Surulere since the early 1970s.

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