By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, I made my first trip to Abuja in nearly two years yesterday morning. Let me confess that Abuja is not one of my favourite cities. The reasons are legion. I find the city too disorganised for a federal capital territory that was built from scratch less than four decades ago. For me, Abuja is a poor imitation and a tragic mimicry of Canberra in Australia, where I’m told the original idea, concept and inspiration came from. It lacks the superlative infrastructure of Brasilia in Brazil, another purpose built capital city.
It even pales in significance to the wondrous creation of the late Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote D’Ivoire in Yamoussoukro. Abuja is a complete waste of resources and a terrible return on investments. It is an eloquent testimony to the stupendous decay that has eaten up the very fabric of our existence. For the humongous spending on Abuja, what we deserve is something close to a Dubai, Doha or the other nascent capital cities it was meant to emulate but of which it is an unpalatable parody. But let’s leave that matter for now.
I had parted company with that city where the collective common wealth of Nigeria is shared with impunity after the 2011 elections. I was not in the mood for the wheeling and dealing that compels most people to ingratiate themselves in that sinful system. I had resisted every temptation to invite me there for one event or the other. To ensure my near-total severance with Abuja, I promptly gave up my abode and evacuated my car to Lagos. I was determined to prove some people wrong who believe life begins and ends in Abuja.
I was not under any illusion that easy money resides comfortably in a few precincts of Abuja but chose to live like a Tibetan monk totally at peace with myself and my creator. I was tired of seeing fake friends milling around every government in power and calling every cow fat or skinny “My Big Brother” all in the name of looking for beef to eat. I succeeded in snubbing the city for about 22 months without missing, what is admittedly, its occasional giddiness.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I had compelling reasons to visit again, and this time I was fully prepared for the journey. It reminded me of the excitement I felt on my first trip to London. My planning was elaborate and meticulous. I did not want to be caught up in the deceptiveness and gentle mien of the city. Abuja must rank among the most expensive cities in the world. Beyond that, you must wake up as early as 4a.m to board the first flights out of Lagos if you must achieve anything meaningful and return same day to Lagos. Otherwise, you may be forced to stay in hotels and pay bills from $150 to $5,000 depending on your taste and the size of your pocket.
It is a place where the Lords of the Manor are never in a hurry and can easily help you turn your trip into an Israelite’s journey before you’re eventually left stranded and bruised. Many have had to turn to Pastors and Imams and marabouts to help with talismanic charms before approaching the big guns of Abuja for appointments and contracts. This has been amply acted and portrayed in Rita Dominic’s rib-cracking movie, The Meeting, a tragi-comedy per excellence.
Though I had slept at 2.30a.m, I did not waste my Course 101 in Travels & Tourism: “Never leave home late for Abuja because any eventuality can meet you on the way.” By 6a.m on the dot, I had deposited myself at the gates of MMA2. Say what you will, Dr Wale Babalakin of Bi-Courtney still runs the best airport in Nigeria.
Everyone by now knows me as a perpetual grumbler on the parlous state of our so-called international airports but Dr Babalakin has managed to maintain a decent structure which I hope the Federal Government can replicate in other places through PPP rather than seeking to be Jack of all trades and masters of none. By 6.45a.m, our flight was ready for take-off.
While airborne, I had Abuja on my mind. This was predicated on my knowledge of more functioning societies where the fortunes of a nation can turn around positively in a matter of months. For some inexplicable reasons, I started dreaming of a road paved with beautiful trees and flowers with ten beautiful lanes criss-crossing one another.
I don’t think it was too much to even envision some places in this magical city paved with gold and diamonds. I visualised a totally transfigured city that made Dubai look a distant cousin by comparison. But reality soon hit me where it hurts most. The road I left two years ago in the benevolent hands of our ubiquitous Julius Berger was still under perpetual construction. Though significant progress seemed to have been made, that singular road has become an embarrassment to right thinking people. I don’t even want to contemplate how much it would have gulped by now in reality and otherwise.
I noticed that the road had succeeded in eliminating some of the horrendous vehicular traffic until we got close to the Abuja gate where a new queue of traffic has become a way of life. Kai, Nigerians can endure serious hardships with no terminal dates in view, I soliloquised. My driver assured me there was no problem on this occasion because the day before it had stretched to over a kilometre. By which time I had tuned off completely and psyched myself ready for a quantum of suffering in a land I never trusted.
We crawled for about 20 minutes at snail-speed and escaped to a more glorious movement which took us past the under-utilised and nearly-abandoned National Stadium. The driver was triumphant as he rhapsodised about his earlier prediction that I had brought some good luck to Abuja. May be it had escaped his mind that the original landlord actually goes by the name Goodluck Jonathan. How then can a disloyal visitor like me have a say in the matters of such magnitude and importance.
I am reminded that in Lagos, our affable genial President is now referred to as “Gridlock” Jonathan for the standstill that he brings to our erstwhile, but still ever dependable, capital city whenever he deigns to grace the existence of the poor locals with his rampaging visitation.
We sped towards my hotel where I was just hoping to dive into the washroom. But man proposes and God disposes, my room was not immediately available and I was made to wait for the housekeepers to clean up the place. No one could have suspected the fire that was burning under that seemingly flamboyant dress. But I survived. Finally my room was ready and it was a case of escape to victory. I scampered into the long-awaited comfort provided by the room at last and embraced it with gratitude.
Soon it was time to go to the Nanet Suites’ venue of a seminar on Social Media & 21st Century Journalism. Again traffic had built up because of the Friday Jumat in Abuja where Muslim faithful were rushing to keep appointment with almighty Allah. You must know when to drive and move around this city or face huge disappointments. This was Lesson 102 for me. Here, you must create your own method to madness. That is the rule of the game.
On the road, I saw the convoy of a three-star General speeding to God-knows-where. The protection squad of the big man was from Military Intelligence and their camouflage and movement would have been described by Derek Walcott as “fearful original sinuosities.” They were awesome in all ramifications. Some of them cuddled their fiery guns like babies. Others dressed like the Japanese Ninja. They wore hoods that left only the eyes open. These masquerades were truly fearsome ready to hack down foolish intruders. For a moment, I thought I had mistakenly teleported my being to Iraq or some other country where bedlam reigns as a result of the ravages of war, for want of better description. This was certainly not the same Abuja I left two years ago. It had become depressingly but familiarly worse and decadent, like all things that our leaders manage to infest and pollute. I had become a stranger in a strange place. Some pestilence has obviously ravaged this land of merciless people.
My depression was further compounded on returning to the hotel and reading how the great country of Saudi Arabia has finally decided to challenge the effrontery of Dubai in the Middle East by erecting the new world’s tallest building in Jeddah. By the time it is ready, it would have pushed Dubai’s Burj Khalifa to a pitiable second place. The builders of The Shard Skyscraper of London, according to a Reuters’ report on Yahoo news, have been appointed Project Managers for a beautiful sum of $1.2billion (about N192billion). The Kingdom Tower Skyscraper is expected to stand at over one kilometre tall in the skyline of Jeddah.
Saudi Arabia is generally on a spending spree to improve infrastructure as well as meet its housing commitments. Now wait for this, the skyscraper will take just five years to accomplish complete with boutique hotel, luxury condominiums and serviced apartments. I was left with no choice than to wonder where our own leaders descended from that they can’t have such tall ambitions.
Why have they limited us to commissioning boreholes and building monuments to madness? How can we think of rehabilitating Abuja prostitutes with billions of Naira when we can use the same money to tackle the root causes? How can a new Abuja Gate become our priority when our children are crying for mercy and compassion? What about the laughable edifice that we now learn is meant to be the pied-à-terre of visiting African First Ladies long after our indefatigable First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, has gone into glorious oblivion?
We build our skyscrapers in the tummies of some politicians and their acolytes. We have not been able to construct a stretch of road between Lagos and Benin City in the last 14 years. We have failed to fully rehabilitate the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway within the same period. I doubt if any road in Nigeria can ever pass a rigorous test against international standards. We keep spending billions on our airports with no substantial results. What we wasted on fuel subsidy alone last year would have built six tallest buildings or more in the most famous capitals of the world. But we chose to fritter ours away.
My submission is that we can do better. And it won’t take much to achieve. Our leaders at the very top only need to make up their minds if they are in power to improve the fortunes of their people or to scavenge and embark on outrageous self aggrandisement at the expense of those luckless citizens of this great country called Nigeria. Our leaders must choose between creating sustainable, worthwhile structures that will lead to the greater emancipation of our people rather than embarking on white elephant projects which eventually become our albatross. Ultimately our leaders have to decide whether they want Nigeria to grow or whether they simply want to wreck it like many others before them. That decision is very crucial to the citizenry no matter how difficult it may seem for our present crop of titular leaders.
Their choice is the thin line between success and failure of the Nigerian nation. It is essentially more acute now we are supposedly preparing for the celebration of an imaginary centenary!