Abuja is not in a hurry to change. However, in a city famous for its bad habits fostered by wayward politicians, I think the dial may have moved a bit in the right direction. It’s hard to say if this slight movement has been fortuitous, or whether it had anything to do with the threat of the new minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nyesom Wike, to tackle lawbreakers with an iron hand.
I have noticed that one week after Wike’s swearing in, more traffic lights in and around the Central Business District began to work. More than I can remember at any other time in the last two years at least. I got so used to seeing dead and malfunctioning traffic lights, I began plotting my commutes around these mostly dead or dying instruments, even if it sometimes meant using longer routes.
After my car was bashed once at an intersection where the traffic light had failed and the warden was absent, I learnt to skirt around the lights to save myself from Abuja’s suicidal drivers. Even in the few places where the lights work, it would be foolish to move without first looking left and right, and left again. For the sane few the restoration of more traffic lights is a welcome relief.
However, in a city nearly overwhelmed with filth, dead street lights, bad roads, occasional deadly police brutality and rising crime – not to mention well-connected land speculators and violators of the masterplan – it seems like trivia to talk about traffic lights back in service.
Yet, it is, in fact, because of the festering decay and spectacular all-round collapse of the city that a small matter such as the restoration of a number of traffic lights has become even more noticeable.
Not that Abuja’s numerous drivers from hell care, light or no light. They will not stop at a road sign even if you beat them on the head with a flashing light pole. The point is, the resuscitation of the lights gives hope that perhaps there just might be fewer than the 348 motor vehicle accidents, 39 of them fatal, that occurred in Abuja between January and December 2022, according to data from the FCT Transport Secretariat.
Yet, the story of the failure of Abuja, as I said before, is more than the chaos in the Central Business District, more than its malfunctioning traffic lights and, certainly, much more than all its crazy drivers combined. Abuja is a victim of elite abuse. It took me years of living and working in and out of the place to understand and sympathise with the city over its misery.
In fact, sometimes I secretly wished that Obafemi Awolowo had won the 1979 election and invited Walt Disney to make the place an amusement park as he contemptuously promised during his presidential campaign that year.
Like most typical Lagosians, I disdained Abuja. Not out of a feeling of metropolitan hubris, but because even in its hubris, Lagos has a method, a soul. Until 2010, I tried, if I could help it, never to stay more than one day in Abuja, which had earned a reputation as the refuge of scoundrels.
Of course, Nigeria’s former military head of state, General Murtala Mohammed, who first announced Abuja as the new Federal Capital on February 3, 1976, had very good intentions for doing so. The argument of the military, under General Yakubu Gowon, was that Lagos had become congested and unlivable. Nigeria’s capital of the future had to be more than a concrete jungle.
Squandering of riches
President Shehu Shagari tried to move things along rather gingerly but anyone who has watched Onyeka Onwuenu’s BBC-NTA documentary, The Squandering of Riches, might see where Abuja finally lost its way and inherited its perverted DNA.
When the military government of General Muhammadu Buhari struck in 1983, the mess in Abuja – huge contracts awarded at fantastically inflated costs – was a part of the charge sheet against Shagari’s government and a number of politicians of that era.
After Gideon Orkar’s 1990 coup attempt in which military president General Ibrahim Babangida, escaped by the skin of his teeth, however, he felt vulnerable in Lagos. He gave construction giant, Julius Berger, a carte blanche denominated in sweetheart crude oil deals, to get Abuja ready for his government.
If Abuja looks like a shadow of its former self today, a far cry from the model of Brasilia, planned by the US consortium of three companies – Wallace, Roberts, McHarg and Todd; and its Central Business District is anything but what was conceived by Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, it’s not because of lack of effort by at least two notable persons to save it.
Major General Mamman Vatsa was one. Julius Berger may have done the main construction work, but the credit for the greening of the new Federal Capital goes to Vatsa, an outstanding poet and humanist whose execution remains a big stain on the Babangida era.
Somehow, where the lush greens, gardens and open spaces in FESTAC Town, Lagos, could not withstand the philistinism of elite land grabbers, Vatsa’s green footprint legacy in Abuja has managed, at least in the many parts, to withstand the ravages of the elite and assorted trespassers.
The second notable Abuja steward was former Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufai, when he was minister of the FCT. In a city where politicians believe they can get away with virtually anything, El-Rufai’s fanatical insistence on compliance with the Abuja masterplan brought him in collision with the high and mighty.
But it was a fight worth having. Without El-Rufai’s stubborn insistence, Abuja would be a far worse place than it is today, especially as a result of the collapse of many industries in the North, not to mention Nigeria’s dysfunctional federalism. Imagine a city where the CCTV cameras installed with a Chinese loan of $460 million which was supposed to help manage crime became a crime scene, with the cameras, cables and poles all stolen on former Minister Bala Mohammed’s watch?
And as if that is not bad enough, we’re now being told in a Bloomberg report on Tuesday, that the city train service, a star project of Rotimi Amaechi’s era, is an example of “how not to build public transit!”
Abuja is not yet like living at a warfront, which was how Chinua Achebe once described Lagos. But I guess it depends on which Abuja you’re talking about. The rise in insurgency in the surrounding states, especially Niger, Kaduna and Nasarawa, in the last 10 years, has led to a surge in the city’s population from 2.2 million 10 years ago to 3.8 million.
Abuja has become Nigeria’s fourth most populated city, and life in such satellite towns as Bwari, Kubwa, Karshi, Gwagwalada, and Kuje may not be too different from warfront existence, not to mention slums like Deidei, Mpape and Nyanya, Abuja’s own copies of Ajegunle in Lagos.
These places are congested and chaotic, bereft of basic amenities, and frighteningly unsafe. The satellite towns, apart from being hotbeds of crime, have also become flea markets of sorts exploited by Abuja landlords for house-helps, drivers, cooks, nannies and clerical staff. The Kuje Prisons, one of the most popular landmarks of that satellite town, is a metaphor of life not only in Kuje but also in other satellite towns surrounding the city.
Any revival plan by Wike that excludes the satellite towns where the bulk of Abuja’s population resides, and respect for the culture, landmarks and wellbeing of the indigenous people, will return to haunt the city.
Framing Wike as an urban bulldozer misses the point. Abuja needs salvation not from Wike but from decades of elite abuse. Otherwise, we may hand the city over to Walt Disney as a zoo franchise!
Libreville, the Gabonese capital, is only roughly two hours’ direct flight from Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. In the early hours of Wednesday, soldiers struck, deposing President Ali Bongo, who has been in power for 14 years. It was the country’s first successful military coup in its 63 years of post-independence history. But it was also the seventh successful coup in Africa in five years, extending the coup belt southward. It’s OK to blame Bongo, and in fact, excoriate him for the notorious incest that kept Bongo father and son in power for nearly 55 years. Indeed, all previous deposed leaders in the region have also been blamed for failing to deliver on their promises. But show me one African country that has fared better under military rule and I will show you at least three that have done far better, in spite of the obvious imperfections of democratic rule. I’m afraid that at this rate, the next coup may arrive at a destination less than two hours away from Lagos, carrying the letter, “C.” There must be an end to this epidemic!
Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP