City Of Unity Indeed
When was it I wrote about Nigeria’s Siamese Twins of Corruption in Tell magazine and Sahara Reporters? It must have been a while ago. Right now I think some echoes of that article have begun to haunt my memory again. I look at Lagos. I look at Abuja. I shake my head in wonder. How would the founding fathers of this magnanimous idea feel today could they witness the extent their vision has been so insensitively flawed by a mindless chain of public office holders who have insisted on holding sway over the land in these recent years?
Until Nigeria attained self rule in 1960, Lagos had remained the capital city of the amalgamated southern and northern protectorates. In 1960 the city was officially confirmed as the capital of a newly independent Nigeria. On its own, Lagos had always been a thriving commercial coastal city that held massive attractions to traders from many parts of the world.
It may have been Luggard’s idea that the strategic coastal position of Lagos meant that Britain could still have considerable influence over the city’s commercial activities, and in effect over the new country’s political direction. In other words, although Nigeria had its independence, Britain still longed to have unbridled influence over this its former colony, especially in terms of commerce and political activities. After-all, had Lagos not served well as a get- away coast through which slaves had been shipped to Gold Coast, and from there to the New World?
Lagos became both the commercial nerve centre and the seat of government of Nigeria. Lagos thrived. Lagos swarmed with people. Being a coastal city, crew men came from every nook and cranny of the universe to add to the glamorous night life that made Lagos tick.
All sorts of traders and businessmen and women of various persuasions trooped into Lagos in their droves to make money. Lagos became congested. Expansion became a necessity. But even at that, the coastal city was experiencing hardship in terms of accommodating the number of people who came to live and do business in the land. Lagos became polluted.
The infrastructure became inadequate for the swarming population that inhabited the coastal city. The atmosphere became more and more humid and hot. But beyond these was the fact that being surrounded by water meant that Lagos was vulnerable to invasion from the sea. It meant that the country was not safe from external attack by any other country.
Meanwhile, the post war years had seen Nigeria enjoy massive wealth from its newly found oil wells scattered all over the Delta Region and its environs. The scope of economic and social activities in Nigeria had expanded to an unprecedented level with increased earnings from oil, making it possible for the country to join the expensive Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC. But the period equally witnessed a massive increase in corruption, mostly within the circles of federal military government officials and their colleagues in the business community.
It was military era. And General Gowon was said to have turned a blind eye to the undesirable activities of his cronies who were Nigeria's public office holders at the time. With the first oil production in 1958, soon after Nigeria's independence in 1960, petroleum production and export began to play a dominant role in the country's economy. The new oil wells had created enormous wealth for Nigeria. Literally, money was flowing like a river through every nook and cranny of the country. Every Nigerian knew by this time that the main source of the nation's enormous wealth was its vast oil wells scattered all over the Delta region and environs.
Then the first problem hit the nation. The way most of the oil companies treated their host communities became a national embarrassment. Nigerians from the oil producing states felt bitter that the oil companies were extremely greedy. They never really bothered about the lands which produced the oil they were so profusely exploring, or the welfare of the people who owned the land. Although the oil companies made strenuous efforts to exonerate themselves from the allegation of neglect, one only needed to travel the very narrow roads in the Delta region, in comparison with the rest of the country, to have a feel of the level of injustice that was actually visited on those people. In particular, their polluted seas meant a curtail in the means of livelihood of riverside dwellers.
In the midst of the excruciating poverty ravaging vast swathes of the land, the oil companies were pillaging billions of pounds daily. Their chief executives and top officers were living like mini-gods in the big cities, feasting with senators and governors, walking tall in the corridors of power. Then, at the height of the oil boom, Gowon made a decision which was to have negative repercussions for the Nigerian economy in later years. His indigenization decree of 1972 declared many sectors of the Nigerian economy out-of-bounds to all foreign investors. The decree provided a financial windfall for many “well-connected” Nigerians.
With no prying eyes to see what was going on inside the military government circles, the growth of bureaucracy created a rise in corruption levels. There were stories of tons of stones and sand imported into the country, and of General Gowon saying to some foreign reporters: "the only problem Nigeria has is how to spend her money." The situation was not arrested then. Nor has it been arrested even as we speak. Nigeria started talking about moving the capital from Lagos to a new site. Lagos was congested. Lagos was polluted. Lagos didn’t have sufficient infrastructure. Lagos was hot and humid. But beyond that, Lagos was a coastal city and was as consequence vulnerable to attack.
The oil boom of the 1970s may have partly been responsible for the accelerated desire to relocate Nigeria’s capital from Lagos to Abuja. From increases in oil earnings, Nigeria had the funds to build the new capital. But the immediate desire to relocate the national capital came through change in military politics. When the military government of General Yakubu Gowon ended on 29 July 1975, the new military Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed, appointed a panel to evaluate the possibility of relocating the capital.
What was government to do with Lagos which doubled at the time as a state capital and the federal capital, in addition to being the nation’s commercial nerve centre? The panel approved a relocation of the federal capital and seat of government and recommended that while the seat of government is moved to a new location, Lagos should remain as the commercial nerve centre of the nation. Of course, no one would have expected anything different. It had all been mapped out in the military agenda.
Nigerians set out to study world capitals. They looked at Brasília, the new capital of Brazil . They visited Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. They went to Paris, the capital of France, and to Washington D.C., the capital of the United States . Nigeria was looking for a central place to build a new national capital where its entire people would be equally represented or so it seemed at the time. And the new territory was to have favourable climate conditions, vast acres of land and plenty of water.
In 1976, after Abuja had been chosen as the land for the new national capital, General Mohammed spoke to the nation. He said: “We believe that the new capital created on such virgin lands, as suggested, will be for all Nigerians a symbol of their oneness and unity. The Federal Territory will belong to all Nigerians.” The General proclaimed a new era of “justice, peace and unity” for all Nigerians and seven days later, he was assassinated.
Murtala Mohammed’s vision lives on, but how?
A competition was held and won by International Planning Associates (IPA), a consortium of firms. Planning was extensive. Two zones were created: a central zone with government buildings and cultural institutions on broad avenues, and a residential and shopping zone. Within the government facilities there was water supply. There was an airport. There were schools, health care facilities, and public transport. Construction began in 1980. By 1987, water and telephone systems to accommodate a million people were in place. The population of Abuja at the time was still about 15,000. A university was founded in 1988. The area became a great success. People streamed into Abuja faster than houses could be built to accommodate them. Private developers were encouraged to build. A slogan for the new capital was created: Center of Unity.
But look at Abuja today. If there is any form unity in that well conceived idea called the Federal Capital Territory, it is only the unity of a cabal of irresponsible civil servants, over-greedy public office holders and unscrupulous bank officials who collude to pay ghost workers, steal pension funds meant for the upkeep of hundreds of thousands of elderly Nigerian citizens who spent the better parts of their lives serving their country and defraud the petroleum industry of billions of pounds every day.
If there is any unity in Abuja today, it is the unity of a mindless political class whose only concern in government is to find ways to enrich themselves, their families and their hangers-on while tacitly making life most miserable for the teeming population of voters who defy heavy rains to troop out to vote them into authority to represent them in government. If there is any unity in Abuja, it is the unity of these official and unofficial criminals who have vowed that Nigeria’s wealth must go to few families of the already wealthy and that the majority of the country’s rural dwellers must continue to wallow in darkness.
Why can’t Nigerians have a unity of like-minded patriots who can fix a nonstop electricity supply in every village and every town and every city in the country because they know that with uninterrupted electricity supply, middle-size industries will thrive and people can work two 12-hour or three 8-hour shifts daily and the issue of youth unemployment will be meaningfully addressed? Why can’t Nigerians have a unity of teachers whose preoccupation will be the sincere upbringing of the children entrusted into their care? Why can’t Nigerians have a unity of media practitioners who will sincerely direct government on the best way to achieve economic and social stability for the nation and report what could be wrong to the authorities? Why can’t Nigerians have a unity of purpose in obeying traffic and other laws, even in Abuja? I look at Abuja, and I sigh in wonder. Abuja, centre of unity indeed!