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Abuja; Nigeria's Unfinished Capital City

Abuja; Nigeria's Unfinished Capital City

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When one of Nigeria’s long line of military rulers,
General Olusegun Obasanjo, seized the land on
which Abuja was to be built in the late 1970s, he
could hardly have imagined that the city would
remain unfinished 35 years on.
Abuja has a makeshift, haphazard feel to it: A place
of bureaucrats and building sites, its streets eerily
empty after the buzz of Lagos or the enterprising
bustle of Kano.
It is one of the most expensive cities in Africa, and
one of the most charmless.
The skyline is dominated by the space-rocket spires
of the National Christian Centre and the golden dome
of the National Mosque, facing each other
pugnaciously across a busy highway at the city’s
centre.
Its other striking landmark is the vast construction
site of the Millennium Tower, which, if it is ever
completed, will be Nigeria’s tallest building.
The skyscraper was intended to mark Abuja’s 20th
birthday in 2011. Now delayed until who-knows-
when, hugely over-budget and the subject of
numerous official investigations.
All the people of Abuja have to show for the billions
invested in the project are two stunted fingers of
scaffold-clad concrete.
I had been in Abuja for three days – about two-and-a-
half too many – when my friend, Atta, a sociologist,
picked me up from my hotel.
We drove out towards Aso Rock, the monolith
looming over the presidential palace.
On either side of the road there are complexes of
bulky, imposing mansions, most of them unfinished.
Some had empty swimming pools; others had mock-
Tudor timbering, but were windowless and often
roofless.
From the desert
Atta told me that 65 per cent of the houses in these
developments were uninhabited, put up only to
launder Abuja’s dirty money.
Like the Millennium Tower, these grandiose schemes
are ruins before they are completed, bleak
monuments to a city built by kleptocratic politicians
on stolen land.
We pulled off the Murtala Mohammed Highway at
Mpape Junction, and immediately the road
deteriorated.
“I am going to show you the real Abuja,” Atta told
me, as his car struggled up a deeply-rutted dirt track.
A warm wind from the desert to the north – the
Harmattan – whipped clouds of red dust around us as
we climbed through rocky scrubland into the hills.
People began to appear on the streets – men carrying
ancient Singer sewing machines, women balancing
baskets on their heads.
We entered a vast shanty-town of shacks with
corrugated iron roofs, slums stacking to the horizon.
Nissan minivans scuttled past – they are called “One
Chance” buses, as they barely stop on their manic
journeys through these uncharted streets.
Crowds thronged between skinny cows, beneath
posters advertising beaming televangelists.
Dance music blared out, interrupted by a muezzin’s
call to prayer. Bright-eyed children kicked footballs
about.
This was the home of the Gwari people, the original
inhabitants of the land where the capital was built.
Hundreds of thousands of them were summarily
evicted in the 1970s, and now scrape a living in the
hills.
Abuja is itself a Gwari word and, although the city of
generals and politicians below us had barely 700,000
inhabitants, two or three million people live in these
shanty towns, many of them Gwari.
The Gwari people continue to fight for compensation
for the land wrested from them by the Obasanjo
government, land now worth more per square
kilometre than almost anywhere else in Africa.
Smiling and suffering
We got out and walked through the smoke and dust
towards a row of shacks.
In one of them, a woman knelt on the ground
plucking a chicken, a man above her leaning on a
makeshift bar.
They were Frank and Mary, Gwari people in their 30s,
children of one of the thousands of families originally
evicted during the foundation of Abuja.
The four of us sat in the shack sipping Fantas, staring
out at the swarming life of the shanty town:
Motorbikes and cattle and people, all of them
through a veil of reddish dust.
“I trained as an architect,” Frank told me. “I have an
education. But I do not have money, I don’t know the
right people. So I work here with my sister. In Abuja,
money defines everything.”
I ask him about the empty mansions lining the roads
into the city.
“That is pseudo-Abuja, a false place. It’s unjust – we
should be living in those houses. Instead…” He
gestured to the squalid lean-to that jutted from the
back of the bar.
Mary looked up from her chicken. “Life here is
difficult,” she says.
“Often we can’t see across the street because of the
smoke and dust. If it rains, you can’t move for the
mud. But we pray hard.”
Frank pulled out a CD. It was Fela Kuti’s Suffering
and Smiling.
“This,” Frank said, as the music coiled out from an
ancient hi-fi, “is the compressed statement of
Nigerian society. We suffer, but we smile. Nothing
will change until we get angry, until we stop
smiling.”
A storm was coming in, red clouds rolling overhead
and thunder crackling down the valleys.
Frank and Mary stood waving to us, the music
playing still, as we drove off down the hill, towards
pseudo-Abuja.

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