While I stayed in Lagos for about 27 years, I have been living in Abuja continuously for about 30 years. I was part of the government officials in the presidency that moved to Abuja on December 12, 1991 when the seat of government moved from Lagos to Abuja. And now in 2023, as I look back at the towns, I had resided in during the past 30 years, I suddenly realized that I have spent nearly 40 percent of my life in Abuja.
The first 12 years of my life were spent in Biu, my birth place; they were followed by eight years of senior primary and secondary school education in Maiduguri and there years of university education in Zaria. Evidently, I have stayed longest in Abuja.
In my autobiography, Hatching Hopes (Klamidas 2006, pp129-131), I recollected my experience of witnessing FCT development right from its early stage when the administration and development authorities were at Suleja. That was before their subsequent relocation to Berger Junction, Area 1, and later to their present site at Area 11. And below were my recollections:
I was privileged to be part of that movement on December 12, 1991, from Lagos to Abuja – the new federal capital city of Nigeria. I witnessed the ceremony at the city gate of Abuja. It was most colourful and heart-warming to watch the judicial, legislative and executive arms of government formally and symbolically enter the new city…I did not participate physically in the project execution of the capital city. However, I witnessed certain aspects of the project execution as the city development programme went along.
As part of the senior management team in the Presidency, we paid several visits to Abuja city in the early stages to see for ourselves how the nation was tackling the project in readiness for movement to Abuja. I remember visiting the Jabi Dam site when earth moving started. There was no water then.
I also remember visiting the site of Abuja Airport, now renamed Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport. When the contractors first moved to the site, the access road through Zuba was merely laterite and the runway was still under construction. The first few residential houses around Garki area were just completed and shown to us. We observed that the finishing was not good enough and said so. Before the nation’s second attempt at presidential democracy in May 1999, Abuja was already showing signs of congestion as a result of various deviations from its master plan. After two years of civil rule and the resultant influx of more persons into the city, it became clear that something needed to be done urgently to prevent it from following the disorderly path of Lagos (pp.129-131).
I then concluded that:
…those who think that without a dogged adherence to its master plan, regular maintenance of infrastructure and enforcement of sound social attitudes, Abuja would remain the beautiful city it was supposed to be will have to think again (p.131).
Undoubtedly, the city development authorities have tried to maintain the integrity of the Master Plan. It is apparent, however, that they seem to have been overwhelmed by the rapid growth of the population. Utilities services are overstretched with no mass transportation system in place. Power supply is epileptic, though this is a national phenomenon being grappled with. From the revelations during the ministerial screening by the National Assembly that took place in August 2023, it is quite apparent that it would take quite some time before the nation could get over the problem. This is on account of shortage of gas to power the generators, poor performance by the electricity distribution companies (DisCos for short) leading to several of them being placed under receivership. There is also lack of adequate transmission lines. All these challenges are not alleviated by what some people perceive as inadequate regulation of the electricity power industry by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, established by the Electric Power Sector Reform Act of 2005 to carry out that function.
Master Plan execution in the FCT generally seems behind schedule. In the early days, site and services were first provided in a new district before developers and dwellers were allowed to move in. Not anymore. Green areas have been turned into makeshift entertainment centres. It is currently hard to differentiate high-density residential areas from low-density ones or from business districts. Previously, residential dwellings had been turned into commercial houses, thereby violating the volume of traffic and serenity of some areas. Although street sweeping through broom-using manual labourers offers employment opportunities, it is inefficient. Sand deposits and other debris remain on the highways with drains blocked and their covers stolen. The vehicular evacuation of solid wastes, which has not been able to cope with high-level generation of such wastes, also has similar shortcomings. This is aside from the bad habit of people throwing trash all over the place. It seems practically impossible to stop the deterioration and restore sanity to the city which is growing at an alarming rate. However, the authorities, if they are really determined, can arrest some social challenges, such as the noteworthy ones discussed beneath.
Saturday, September 2, 2023. It was mid-day in Wuse District, Abuja. Along a walkway beside a four-lane highway, in full glare of the public, two teenage boys among six others were exchanging punches. A uniformed private security guard standing by was appealing to them to stop fighting. Yet, they continued while their colleagues shuffled around, jeering at them. I saw them across the road, crossed over and appealed to them to end the fight. Seeing a grey-haired elder talking to them, they heeded my appeal and stopped. I asked them why they were fighting. One of them explained that they were fighting over some money given to all of them. I made them realise the futility of the fight, pointing out that should they seriously injure themselves, they would require much more than the money they were fighting for to treat themselves. To help with reconciliation, I brought out a few Naira notes and started giving them one by one. Upon noticing that I did not have enough to go round, they snatched the last ones from my hands. Anyway, having secured peace among them, I turned and walked away. Teenagers hanging around commercial areas begging shoppers for alms as they enter their vehicles after conducting their businesses are now a common sight. What the future holds for such teenagers in the FCT is hard to tell. However, it is perceptible that the life they are leading portends danger for them and for the society as they could constitute potential breed of gangsters. This is possible as such kids are apparently not formally educated and appear unlikely to take to farming or to some skill-acquisition endeavour.
Menace of Robbers
That same Saturday, in the evening, I had a dialogue with a lady in her thirties. She sells food somewhere in Maitama District but lives at Mpape, an outer district of the city. I asked her about the situation of things at Mpape. She said the residents of the area were squatting, waiting for the time Abuja authorities would claim the place for permanent development and give them quit notice. About potable water, she said Mpape residents usually buy water from water vendors but that in the past few days, because of the rains, many residents were able to gather water from their roofs. More worrisome than water scarcity, she said, was the security situation at Mpape. Robbery has become rampant; she narrated how armed robbers broke into her room and carted away her cooking pot and a generator. Luckily, she was in the inner room and was spared the likelihood of physical attack on her person. Concerning police presence in the area, she said there was a police post at Mpape and occasional siren-blaring vehicular patrols but that often the police arrived at the scene after the robbers had escaped.
Robbery by youthful gangsters was not limited to living quarters, she said. Mpape commuters, particularly when returning home from their daily business outings in other parts of the FCT, faced the threat of being robbed by ‘one chance’ fraudsters who would use their supposedly commercial vehicles to attract passengers only to stop midway, dispossess them of their handsets and other belongings, and push them out of their vehicles.
Robbers sometimes also waylaid legitimate commercial vehicles. In one instance, they attacked commuters and stole their valuables; one victim who resisted the robbers was attacked and his stomach ripped open with a knife. She stated that such incidents brazenly took place even where the police were nearby. The frequency of such attacks, she said, has made commuting to Mpape a nervous and risky experience.
She still commuted daily, though, because she had to make a living by selling food by the Maitama District roadside where I met her, and where she usually encountered harassment by environmental staff on patrol to keep the city clean. She said that now and then, they carted away her foodstuff; sometimes, they returned to drop her utensils, after they had supposedly thrown all her victuals away. Strangely, Abuja environmental workers tend to overlook the affluent discharge from overflowing drainpipe manholes along the highways while zealously focused on chasing away petty traders.
Menace of destitutes and beggars
Motorists in the Federal Capital Territory cannot fail to observe the pitiful sight of destitutes at traffic light points along the highways. As soon as the red light comes up and traffic is forced to stop, destitutes and physically challenged persons on wheelchairs pushed by young children surge forward to beg. There are several notable spots, particularly in the Wuse District. The menace of beggars in the streets, put under control in the FCT during the Obasanjo administration, has returned to the nation’s capital. The present FCT administration seems to have realized this and was recently appealing to the public through the media to desist from giving them alms. Because people give alms for different reasons, and sometimes due to their sense of religious obligation, a more effective and lasting measure is required to rid the city of the menace.
It is not too late to take concrete steps to correct obvious deviations from the FCT master plan. Other purpose-built capital cities, such as the United States’ Washington (1800), Australia’s Canberra (1927), Brazil’s Brasilia (1960) and Tanzania’s Dodoma (1996), thrive on the continuous determination of their respective administrators to ensure that the infrastructural and social development of their city is strictly based on its original concept. Current anomalies in the FCT should be immediately checked, and future abnormalities prevented, if Abuja, in the next 30 years, would grow to remain a city Nigerians would be proud of.
Bukar Usman, a former Permanent Secretary in the Presidency, wrote from Abuja