Kano, Nigeria – It was the time of the Fulani empire and this prosperous ancient city in northern Nigeria bustled with activity.
Hundreds of years before British colonisers set foot, Kano – now the second most populous city in the West African nation – was surrounded by a brown-mud wall standing 3.5-metres high and 1.5-metres thick to protect it from outside invasion.
The fortification covered an area of 24km and all entry and exit to the city, which at the time was home to an estimated 50,000 people, was through one of 13 giant gates manned by security guards.
The city was a centre for Islamic studies and a thriving trading hub with abundant water and rich iron deposits. The massive barrier protected the inhabitants inside, but that was the old days. Things are very different today.
Large parts of the barricade, which is more than 1,000 years old, is either destroyed or in a bad state of disrepair.
Abbas Yushau, 34, stands in front of one of the gates, talking to a group of young men taking cover next to the wall from the blazing afternoon sun.
The father of one is a campaigner who wants to preserve the barrier’s glorious past.
“The wall is our culture. That wall stands for us. When people think of Kano they think of the wall. It is our symbol. We need to preserve and maintain our ancient culture, not destroy or watch it go into ruins,” Yushau said, his eyes squinting because of the sunlight.
Kano has expanded exponentially since its early days, now with a population of about 3.6 million. At destroyed parts of the wall, homes and business have popped up. Other areas have been turned into a dumpsite.
Hamisu Bello just opened a mechanic shop to repair rickshaws that clog the city’s roads at a partly demolished section of the fortification. Business is booming and he is happy he chose this location to ply his trade.
“I have only been opened a month and as you can see I have more than 15 rickshaws to repair today,” he said, pointing to yellow-painted auto-tricycles awaiting his attention.
“I moved here because it has more space. I wanted to expand my business and this was the best place in the city. I want to expand the business further and this place gives me that,” he added.
Yushau, the wall-restoration campaigner, tries to talk Bello out of expanding his business space, fearing it will destroy the barrier further.
But Yushau accepts that many city residents have more pressing issues to worry about than the ancient fortification’s well-being.
“When a lot of people are struggling to survive, they will not take the issue of the wall as a priority. And I can understand that – but I won’t give up,” he said.
At the city’s Bayero University, the largest learning institution in northern Nigeria, the barrier’s historical significance is still taught despite the challenges of the present.
Professor Tijjani Muhammad works in the university’s history department and said he cannot emphasise enough the importance of the crumbling wall to Kano’s past.
“Kano will lose a lot of historic monuments if the destruction continues. The city will lose its cultural value. When people are unaware of their history, they will lose focus and will not have a reference point to look up to. The younger generation will grow up uninformed about the contributions of their forefathers,” he said.
Previous efforts to salvage and restore what is left of the ancient wall have been launched. At least two of the 13 gates have been painted and repaired.
But the Kano state government – suffering dwindling income because of the drop in the global price of oil – has other pressing priorities. Oil accounts for more than 90 percent of Nigeria’s earnings.
With a deadly uprising in the region, a large population and high unemployment, upkeep of the ancient barrier doesn’t resonate with most residents here.
“The government, to the best of its ability, has tried to maintain the wall. There is a lot of encroachment… We have reported and in many cases prosecuted people,” Ibrahim Muazu, the state’s executive secretary of the history and culture bureau, told Al Jazeera.
“We do not have the money to do a big project to restore the destroyed parts of the wall. A lot of money will be needed for that. To also stop people from encroaching and destroying the wall, we will need surveillance that will cost a lot of money, which currently we don’t have.”
But Yushau said the younger generation should not wait for the government to do something to preserve Kano’s history.
“The youth need to take matters into their own hands by educating the masses about the importance of the wall. If we wait for the government, nothing will ever be done,” he said.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa