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Saving Abuja From Wike, Really?

Sep 1, 2023 | Politics | 0 comments

Abuja is slow to adapt. But, in a city known for its bad habits nurtured by wayward politicians, the dial may have shifted in the correct direction. It’s unclear whether this minor shift was lucky or related to Nyesom Wike’s promise to punish lawbreakers. I saw more traffic lights in and around the CBD working one week following Wike’s swearing-in. More than I can recall in the previous two years. I became so accustomed to seeing dead and broken traffic signals that I started planning my travels around them, even if it required longer routes.

When my vehicle was hit at a crossroads where the traffic signal failed, and the warden was missing, I learned to dodge the lights to avoid Abuja’s suicidal drivers. Even in the few spots with working lights, moving without first checking left, right, and left again is unwise. Restoration of additional traffic lights relieves the sanity.

But, in a city completely inundated with dirt, dead street lights, terrible roads, sometimes lethal police violence, escalating crime, well-connected land speculators and masterplan violators, traffic lights back in operation seem trivial.

But, the city’s festering degradation and dramatic collapse have made a little issue like traffic light repair much more obvious.

Not that Abuja’s many hellish drivers care, light or not. They will not stop at a traffic sign even if a flashing light pole hits them in the head. The FCT Transport Ministry reported 348 motor vehicle accidents, 39 of them fatal, in Abuja between January and December 2022. The lights’ revival provides optimism that there may be fewer.

Broken City

As I noted previously, Abuja’s failure is more than the pandemonium in the CBD, its broken traffic signals, and all its insane drivers. Elites abuse Abuja. It took years of living and working in and out of the city to comprehend and sympathise with its suffering.

I sometimes wish Obafemi Awolowo had won the 1979 election and asked Walt Disney to build an entertainment park as he contemptuously promised during his presidential campaign.

Like most Lagosians, I hated Abuja. Lagos has a method and spirit, not because of urban arrogance. Abuja was known as a scoundrel’s haven. Therefore, I avoided staying more than a day until 2010.

General Murtala Mohammed, Nigeria’s previous military leader, had noble intentions when he named Abuja the Federal Capital on February 3, 1976. The military under General Yakubu Gowon said Lagos was unlivable due to congestion. The Nigerian capital has to be more than a concrete jungle.

Throwing money away

President Shehu Shagari attempted to move things along slowly, but anybody who has seen Onyeka Onwuenu’s BBC-NTA documentary, The Squandering of Wealth, knows Abuja ultimately lost its way and acquired its distorted Genetics.

The 1983 military coup of General Muhammadu Buhari used the Abuja mess – big contracts given at exorbitant prices – as an allegation against Shagari’s administration and other lawmakers.

His vulnerability in Lagos followed Gideon Orkar’s 1990 coup attempt, in which military president General Ibrahim Babangida narrowly survived. The construction behemoth Julius Berger was given free rein in sweetheart crude oil transactions to prepare Abuja for his rule. Abuja looks like a shadow of its former self today, far from the model of Brasilia, planned by the US consortium of three companies – Wallace, Roberts, McHarg, and Todd – and its Central Business District is nothing like what Japanese architect Kenzo Tange envisioned, it’s not because at least two notable people didn’t try to save it.

One was Major General Mamman Vatsa. Julius Berger built the new Federal Capital, but Vatsa, a poet and humanist whose execution tarnished the Babangida period, greened it.

In contrast to FESTAC Town, Lagos, where privileged land grabbers destroyed lush greens, gardens, and open spaces, Vatsa’s green imprint left in Abuja has survived in many sections.

As FCT minister, Nasir El-Rufai, former governor of Kaduna State, was the second noteworthy Abuja steward. El-zealous Rufai’s insistence on following the Abuja blueprint drew him into conflict with the powerful in a city where politicians think they can get away with anything.

Yet it was worth fighting. Abuja would be far worse without El-stubbornness, Rufai’s particularly since many Northern businesses have collapsed and Nigeria’s federation is broken. Imagine a place where former Minister Bala Mohammed’s $460 million Chinese loan to install CCTV cameras to control crime turned into a crime scene with the cameras, wires, and poles stolen.

Achebe’s battlefront

And to make matters worse, a Bloomberg investigation on Tuesday called the city rail service, Rotimi Amaechi’s flagship achievement, an example of “how not to develop public transit!”

Abuja still needs to be like Chinua Achebe’s waterfront, Lagos. It may depend on which area you’re talking about. The city’s population has grown from 2.2 million to 3.8 million in the recent decade due to insurgency in Niger, Kaduna, and Nasarawa. Abuja is Nigeria’s fourth most populous city, and satellite towns like Bwari, Kubwa, Karshi, Gwagwalada, and Kuje may resemble waterfront life. Slums like Deidei, Mpape, and Nyanya are Abuja’s counterparts to Lagos’ Ajegunle. These areas are chaotic, without basic comforts, and terrifying. Besides crime hubs, satellite towns have become flea markets for Abuja landlords to hire housekeepers, drivers, cooks, nannies, and clerical staff. The Kuje Prisons, one of the town’s most famous landmarks, symbolises life in Kuje and other satellite towns. Any revival plan by Wike that excludes satellite towns, where most of Abuja’s population lives, and respects indigenous culture, landmarks, and wellbeing will backfire.

Using Wike as an urban bulldozer is misleading. Abuja needs salvation from decades of elite abuse, not Wike. Otherwise, Walt Disney may get the city as a zoo franchise!

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