Chineme Okafor writes that the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, may be losing its attractiveness as a cosmopolitan city with the increasingly uncouth lifestyle of its inhabitants as well as the lackadaisical attitude of those entrusted with its maintenance
“It’s been ten years since I came to Abuja, but I have always been a bit scared of what Abuja would become later,” Kenneth Umoren, an engineer who once had the opportunity to look into Abuja master plan said. “Abuja faces a huge challenge common with any metropolitan city that is content with what it has for today without a plan for the future, especially with the population surge.”
The changing face of Abuja has become a growing concern amongst its residents and visitors to the capital city. With the end of holidays and resumption back to work last week, traffic jams are back to a city with many wide lanes. In fact, there are fears that a city specially created to offer a good alternative to the chronic traffic congestion, overstretched infrastructure and unhygienic conditions of Nigeria’s former capital city, Lagos as well as other metropolitan cities in the country such as Portharcourt, Kano and Enugu faced with issues of poor planning and higher population may afterwards be heading in the same direction of cities characterised by slums and shanties.
“It’s a hard job to control population, so you have to continue to invest in infrastructure and in particular ensure people don’t sleep on the streets. The moment people are allowed to sleep under the bridges, you will surely find shanties in the neighbourhood and that may be experienced in Abuja because people are already sleeping under the bridges and the cars and commercial buses are many already,” said Tayo Akinjide, a development expert.
Although Abuja’s gradual evolution into a modern city has been in phases, it has not come without some hiccups that have overtime encouraged sharp practices and subversion of the city’s original master plan.
Prompted by the success stories the Nigerian government had heard of planned cities across the globe, the master plan for the FCT was developed by International Planning Associates (IPA) made up of a consortium of three American firms; Planning Research Corporation, Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd and Archisystems, which is also a division of the Hughes Organisation.
That plan defined the city’s general structure and major designs that are readily visible in its contemporary form. However, further detailed design to achieve substance for Abuja was accomplished by renowned Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, and his team of city planners at Kenzo Tange and Urtec Company.
Before Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, a one-time Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) began his demolition and facelift campaign meant to rid the city of incessant illegal and arbitrary structures that were then beginning to choke it up around 2003, Abuja had started to display the dots of infrastructural eyesores that were replicas of what existed in some of Nigeria’s major cosmopolitan cities with complete infrastructural breakdown; these gradual deterioration had began to defeat the original purpose of founding the city as a stable and conducive administrative seat for central governance of Nigeria.
When El-Rufai took over from Abba Gana as a Minister on July 17, 2003, he however took measures to revert the trend, explaining that former President Olusegun Obasanjo had mandated him to sanitise Abuja. At that time, he said: “This was indeed the vision of Abuja’s founding fathers, however, along the line, that vision became blurred by politics and the usual Nigerian factor and as a result, there have been some distortions which led to the disappearance of green areas and springing up of shanty towns even on sewer lines.”
The same week he arrived in his office as the FCT Minister El-Rufai rolled out bulldozers that demolished illegal structures along the Abuja Airport road ahead of the 8th Edition of All Africa Games in 2003. Other demolitions carried out affected even the ‘big men’ along the line with some high profile demolition cases in exclusive zones like Asokoro where houses belonging to former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Musiliu Smith, the current Governor of Kano State, Alhaji Musa Rabiu Kwankwaso, former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Admiral Ibrahim Ogohi and Senator Daisy Danjuma, the wife of former Minister of Defence, General Theophilus Danjuma, were pulled down as illegal structures.
El-Rufai may have lived up to his inaugural pledge to sanitise Abuja, but nowadays there is a gradual return to the old order.
For instance, in those days, basic infrastructure like streetlights, pipe-borne water, traffic lights, waste disposal system and approved road and street signs were routinely maintained. As a matter of fact, activities of social miscreants like motor park touts, child beggars (Al-majiri), indiscriminate street hawking and roadside shops, and even unnecessary loitering or unapproved gatherings that could cause social disturbance especially in some restricted areas of the city were reduced to the barest minimum.
El-Rufai practically waged war against the dreaded and menacing commercial motorbike operators, otherwise known as ‘Okada’, and succeeded in chasing them out of the metropolis back into some of the satellite towns. In no time, Abuja was working as an efficient cosmopolitan city with an enduring character; the city was alive with clean air owing to the discovery of its fresh and green environmental potential.
But a few years down the line, the situation appears sadly different now. Apart from the massive and commendable expansion of road networks in and around the FCT, Abuja has not in any way improved on its basic social infrastructures; from a near break-down of its infrastructural systems, to the increasing operations of social miscreants in almost every facets of the city’s daily life as well as the traffic jam problem of the city, Abuja has indeed gone back to its old self.
Within a timeframe of five years, the city is once again faced with an overwhelming variety of social challenges from touting, roadside trading, environmental disregard and indiscriminate refuse disposal by residents to an unbearable traffic jams that has now forced the city managers to introduce “park and pay” scheme that is managed by about four different groups for the various districts of the city.
The markets are equally dirty and polluted; there are also the new gangs of street beggars, allegedly believed to have migrated from the neighbouring Niger Republic.
Strolling down its streets, Abuja will easily come off as a city of beggars and with inefficient administrative verve that could revive the city, and driving through some of its major public places, streets and districts, a long-time resident of the city will ponder if this was the same city that five years ago radiated enviable beauty and administrative efficiency.
There are uncleared heap of wastes that now dots many of Abuja streets, damaged traffic lights polls and signposts, piles of sands from erosion activities as well as damaged walkways especially around the Wuse Market areas. The hitherto banned illegal street trading and road-side shops have also emerged at markets and some streets and at some locations, just as illegal structural setups were beginning to dot the green zones of the city.
But now, the huge influx of people into Abuja seems to have left managers of the city with very limited option as to what to make of the overwhelming situation.
In 2012, Abuja was estimated to have an urban population of 2,245,000, making it the fourth largest urban area in Nigeria and only surpassed by Lagos, Kano and Ibadan. Portharcourt with its urban population that is projected to be almost two million is the fifth most populous Nigerian city, however, Abuja’s infrastructural base continued to be overstretched by its number of inhabitants.
Even though there are ongoing road constructions mostly on the outer ends of the city like the Kubwa and Airport Expressways respectively, Abuja’s internal road network is overstretched and the threat of security breach occasioned by the Boko Haram insurgency has equally added to making traffic jams inevitable with ever growing security checks; some of Abuja major double-lanes have been cordoned off, leaving commuters with just one lane to ply on.
For instance, the ever-busy Adetokunbo Ademola Way, Ahmadu Bello Way, Ibrahim Babangida Way, Shehu Shagari Way, Herbert Macaulay Way, Sani Abacha Way, Tafawa Balewa Way, all of which are major roads leading into streets and crescents in Abuja have assumed the status of “no-go areas.”
A resident cab operator, Tajudeen Olanrewaju who spoke with THISDAY on the increasing traffic congestion said: “You see, for me I try to avoid certain areas at certain times but there are areas like the Adetokunbo Ademola Way starting from the NITEL Junction in Wuse 2 to IBB Way as you move to Zone 4 and then all those routes to Banex, Wuse market, Zone 4 Neighbourhood centre, to Garki through Shehu Shagari Way that are usually heavy on traffic. Virtually every part of Abuja is so busy now that travel hour has increased greatly.”
Olanrewaju also observed damaged traffic lights polls and road signs as well as street lights polls on major roads and said that, “residents of Abuja are quite reckless in their driving and so you will notice different road signs polls and traffic lights uprooted from their bases through reckless driving habits. The rate of accidents on the streets is high, some even go all the way to uproot all these tall masquerade trees that are planted on the demarcation pavements; this is not how it used to be.”