Imagined Nigeria, Real Nigeria

Residents of Abuja go to Friday prayers at the National Mosque, April 25, 2003
Residents of Abuja go to Friday prayers, April 25, 2003 (Photo: AFP).

“Here, you pay for everything but the view,” says Sony from the heights where he lives above Abuja. In the distance below, the city, Nigeria’s federal capital since 1991, appears as a mirage shimmering in the heat. It’s another world, far from the harsh and violent life that is the daily fare of Sony and other residents of this shantytown. The slum perches on the flanks of one of the buttes that surround what Nigerians know as “Africa’s fastest-growing city.” And with a little imagination, you can almost hear the presses churning out naira notes, the Nigerian currency, in the national printing works, whose building seems to float down below.

Unfortunately for Sony, he can’t get any closer to all that money than the discarded wooden crates in which the bills have been transported. “They’re very practical for making furniture,” he says, showing off his latest do-it-yourself project. Recently, Sony has been able to pick up a lot more of the crates than usual. “Probably because of the elections; they had plenty of votes to buy,” he says half-seriously. When he arrived a year and a half ago from Lagos, the former capital that remains Nigeria’s main commercial center, Sony was able to rent a room for 1000 naira ($7) a month, or about 150 times less than the rent for the villas you can see just 100 yards away. For a payment of 20 naira a day per bulb, residents can buy electricity from a resourceful neighbor with a generator, the only way for them to get power since Nitel, the national power company, cut off service because the nearby slaughterhouse, the big neighborhood customer, hadn’t paid its bill. Water carriers sell a bucket of water at the top of the hill for 60 naira; they paid 20 naira to fill it at the bottom of the hill. On the hill crest, piles of bricks and scaffolding testify to the arrival of new Nigerians trying their luck in the city that is the emblem of Nigeria’s new democracy.

Imagined Nigeria, real Nigeria
Officially, Abuja, set down in a quarter-circle in the eastern part of the 7,315-square-kilometer (2,824-square-mile) federal territory, is supposed to be an oasis from the chaos that reigns almost everywhere else in Nigeria. It’s an air-conditioned little stage where the players include Texans in Stetson hats and Nigerian politicians in elegant Savile Row suits who avidly handle the country’s vast oil revenues and get ready for future elections. A kind of cyber-Nigeria, where the inter-ethnic riots and daily misadventures among 129 million people in the real Nigeria make themselves felt exclusively on the magazines sold at the corners of Abuja’s four-lane avenues, topped by the only working traffic lights in the whole country.

“It’s a city where you can concentrate on business without risking your life. Nigeria’s Switzerland, if you will,” explains an entrepreneur who comes over regularly from neighboring Benin and sets himself up in the 15,000-naira-a-day rooms of the Abuja Hilton. And yet the slaughterhouse shantytown, threatened continually with demolition, an ugly wart on the sparkling city, illustrates the eruption of the real Nigeria in this capital initially planned to house diplomatic missions, ministries, the headquarters of the civil service, and the three branches of the federation’s government: executive, legislative, and judicial—all three rooted at the foot of the impressive Aso Rock.

Nearly two decades after the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida first moved government functions here from Lagos, Abuja is showing disturbing signs of becoming more like the rest of Nigeria as its population rockets, from 350,000 in the early 1990s to 2.5 million today. The display window for foreign investors is cracking, overtaken by the violence of Nigeria’s present. Last December, the anger of the country’s Muslims, provoked by the surreal affair of the planned, then canceled Miss World competition, burst out into the avenue leading to Abuja’s Great Mosque, leading to a rise in tension among the Western community. For the first time in its short history, Abuja lost its calm.

Since then, the Western makeup has kept peeling away from the visage of a city that diplomats moving here from overheated, chaotic Lagos as recently as two years ago were still calling a “ghost town.” The killing of an expatriate signals a breakdown in security. The corpse of a hanged convict rots in the sun before somebody picks it up and takes it someplace: Abuja’s original hospital has been closed for years. A people’s market lit by oil lamps makes an incursion into Area Two, Section Three, one of Abuja’s six zones and once reserved for embassies. A little later, a long line of cars in front of a Texaco filling station reminds the visitor that a gasoline shortage continues to affect the world’s sixth-leading oil exporting country. And in the early morning hours, amid the air-conditioned silence of Abuja, a nightclub run by the singer Baba 20/10 in the Wuse red-light district echoes to Afro-beat and political slogans that until recently were heard only in baying, tumultuous Lagos.

“When Obasanjo was first elected,” says the musician, referring to recently reelected President Olusegun Obasanjo's 1999 victory, “you could count the minutes between the passage of two cars. Today, we’re starting to have traffic jams.

“Everybody’s rushing to Abuja,” the singer goes on. “Businessmen from the Muslim north are running away from sharia, young people from the southeast are fleeing civil unrest, and all of our country’s many adventurers are flooding in, eager for a share of the millions of naira in the hands of our political elite: girls, crooks, gangsters. Take my word, this city is turning into a jungle that will be worse than Lagos. Because here, it’s every man for himself. And it’s even more expensive.”

Uncontrolled growth and townships
The city’s 50,000 government employees are in the best position to discuss the ways in which the rest of Nigeria is encroaching upon the capital. With an average salary of 30,000 naira per month (about $200), most of them can’t afford housing downtown and have to live 40 kilometers or so from their offices, in a string of townships subject to the usual “weather report” in Nigeria: electricity outages, shortages of water, growing lack of security, and chaotic public transportation. In Nigeria, everything is considered a profit center. Thus, after the white-collar crowd lays out 120 naira to travel into town, this same captive audience must then pay some 20 naira more to return home in the evening. Over the weekend, when the city is empty of workers and dust storms sweep the deserted avenues, only the rare expatriate will hazard a crossing of the “danger line” running along the road to the international airport.

The foreign community lives cordoned off, turned in on itself, in an “intellectual desert” that the new French Cultural Center was created to do something about. Sophie, a Frenchwoman from Bordeaux who is married to a Nigerian and employed under local terms, is one of the few whites to know anything about the underside of Abuja, the side the foreigners don’t usually see. “It’s becoming unbearable. You have to fight for everything. I’m really starting to get scared. Just recently, I saw a dead body alongside the road. It had been cut up into pieces. I would guess it was a ritual murder. Money is poisoning everything in Nigeria. And the richer they get, the crazier they get.”

Martins Ojola, the Abuja bureau chief for the best known of Nigeria’s daily newspapers, The Guardian, recalls his early days in the capital. “It was all so easy for a journalist, because of the geographical concentration of power. Within a few minutes, you could travel from an office in Aso Villa, where the president’s headquarters are, to an interview with the president of the Senate. But yesterday’s advantage has become today’s nightmare. The center of power has gotten completely outsized and out of control.” Illustrating the point, a World Bank study shows that in 2002, 80 percent of Nigeria’s $15 billion in energy revenues went to feed this bureaucratic monster that represents only 1 percent of Nigeria’s population. As a result, Martins Ojola explains, “The 36 state governors spend at least three days a week in the capital begging for additional budget. To use a soccer analogy, they’re so busy playing the ball into the center of the field that the players around the edges are neglected. The federation has ceased to function.”

Ojola has written a pessimistic article on the likely future of Abuja, “a city that so many people want to control that in the final analysis it doesn’t belong to anybody.” With a hint of cynicism, he notes other paradoxes of his adoptive city: “Abuja is unofficially Nigeria’s 37th state. Except that it has no governor. A senator represents the city in parliament. It’s also the only city in the world that has hosted a conference of mayors without itself having a mayor! And it’s the only capital I know of without any public transportation! In any case, they planned it for a maximum of 2 million people,” a figure now considerably exceeded. The National Assembly, which meets under a dome resembling the Capitol in Washington, is supposed to make laws for the development of the federal territory of which Abuja is part.

“However,” Ojola notes, “the assembly has other fish to fry. We are still a fragile democracy, and unfortunately there are many other emergencies to attend to.” As a political capital that is also turning into an economic capital, Abuja has naturally become the symbol of the corruption that each year drives Nigeria to the top of the list of badly behaved countries compiled by the nongovernmental body Transparency International.

“This is worse than under the dictatorship,” opines a Western businessman. “With the advent of democracy, there’s been a quantum leap in the number of middlemen who supposedly can cut through the red tape and get you a green light from the authorities for your project or investment.”

For the traditional chief of Ushaffa, these are distant concerns. Lying south of the capital, the village of a few thousand people lived its glory days in 2000. That year, this center of the Bwari people, the indigenous people of a federal territory that has today become an ethnic stew, welcomed a VIP: Bill Clinton. “We dressed him in our traditional garb, and he promised us three things: a high school, a hospital, and running water,” the chief recalls with visible emotion. Since that visit, countless expatriates have come to stretch their legs on the slope of the hill that overlooks this village, so beautifully African for foreigners who know little of Nigeria beyond downtown Abuja. But the school, the hospital, the piped water are still lacking.

“It’s not Clinton’s fault,” the village chief sighs. “It’s our own politicians in Abuja. If you could go tell Clinton to come back, maybe we could get something done.…”