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african resistance

Nigerian architect and one-time president of the International Union of Architects Olufemi Majekodunmi has offices in three African states but still takes time to speak up for international members at RIBA council meetings by robert booth

One day in 1966, the father of Nigerian architect and RIBA council member Olufemi Majekodunmi looked out of his Lagos house to see an armed military detail on his lawn ready to shoot him.

Nigeria was in the grip of civil war, a military coup had succeeded and Olufemi's father, the then minister for health, was in line for execution. The minister knew what was happening because the president and other ministers had already been executed, but fate smiled on him and he was saved when the officer due to give the order to kill failed to arrive. It proved a turning point, not just for the fallen politician, but for his son, then aged 26 and just qualified as an architect from Kingston Polytechnic in the UK.

At this traumatic time Majekodunmi Senior paid for his son to sail home from Liverpool to Lagos. Out of power but still in touch with senior civil servants, Olufemi's father encouraged him to return to work with one of the most senior Nigerian architects of the day, Augustine Egbor, the director of works in the government. This was a connection which had already secured Olufemi a year working in Washington DC with a US practice.

But after also using contacts at the Nigerian High Commission in London to secure a job with Ronald Ward & Partners working on projects such as the Millbank Tower, Olufemi this time decided against taking advantage of his family status.

'I had my own ideas about architecture and so I decided I wanted to join the office of Goodwin & Hopwood, British architects and acknowledged as the best practice in Nigeria at the time, ' he says. 'In a way I rebelled against my father and he wasn't very pleased. '

In 1973, after a four-year stint with the practice, an impatient Olufemi set up on his own, designing schools at first and steadily building a reputation in Nigeria. Thus began a career in African architecture which would see him set up offices in Botswana, South Africa and Nigeria, and eventually become president of the International Union of Architects.

In 1987 the practice first expanded into southern Africa, entering a competition to design a new headquarters building for Zimbabwe's prime minister, Robert Mugabe. Olufemi came second but was the only black architect in the competition.

'I was encouraged by black officials in Zimbabwe to persist and practice there in order to encourage more blacks to take up the profession, ' he says. 'But resistance from white Zimbabweans to me setting up independently meant I was ready to go back to Nigeria. '

Instead, he started an office in nearby Botswana, where he now employs seven architects and is working on one of the country's biggest jobs, a £30 million police college. Two offices in South Africa followed and although some work from the ANC government was forthcoming in the years after the collapse of apartheid, Olufemi felt resistance again. He says private work remains in the hands of white architects, servicing white businesses and his mostly Nigerian staff suffered prejudice. Olufemi is now seriously thinking of closing the practice.

But ironically, working in South Africa delivered him one of the most memorable experiences of his career so far. 'We built a series of schools in poor black areas in the North West Province and this gave me a lot of satisfaction, 'he says. 'They had to be built cheaply and durably in locations where there had never been schools before. It was immensely satisfying to feel I was alleviating the problems left by apartheid. '

In stark contrast to the second-class status of blacks in South Africa, Olufemi grew up in an extremely privileged environment. He describes his family as 'a wealthy family, well-known in the west of Nigeria', and his grandfather was a rich merchant who traded goods such as cloth between the UK and Nigeria. 'It was undoubtedly an elitist thing to be sent to England to study and privilege was not unusual among Nigerian students in London, ' he admits. But despite the silver spoon, he is proud to say that during his studies, he spent Friday nights working in a Tolworth bakery and his holidays labouring on building sites to make up his allowance, which was limited by his father.

The work ethic has stayed with him and in a memorable intervention during a RIBA council session earlier this year, he reminded the student representatives of his hod-carrying student days while they argued for better pay from year-out employers.

Olufemi flies to London four times a year for these meetings, where he is the international member, and stands up for the dwindling number of RIBA members from Africa, now numbering about 500. It's no wonder, because in Nigeria, for example, membership fees account for half a novice architect's annual salary.

'I think it is important to push the case of African architecture, particularly in terms of the quality of education and also the quality of buildings, ' he says, hinting at the poor- quality buildings in many African cities commissioned by western ex-colonial powers. 'I, like many other African architects, have a somewhat American or European view of design but we need to develop an architecture which is more amenable to the social, cultural and climatic conditions here. It pleases me so much when I see young architects who are not just copying the European models and are creating something unique to, say, Johannesburg or Lagos. '

However, Olufemi admits that quality architecture in Nigeria has been hampered by corruption. 'The government often started projects which it couldn't afford and contracts were handed out to people, who may not have been qualified, because of their political inclination. And so corruption follows. ' Until recently contractors were even paid in advance and it was common for buildings to stand incomplete after builders had disappeared with their payment.

Now 60 and married with four grown-up children, Olufemi is determined not to make a similarly swift exit from African architecture, which he thinks is starting to find its feet. 'Change may be a long time coming, ' he concludes, 'but let's stick around to see this through. ' His father would be proud.

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