NIGERIA: Abuja At 46: The Dreams, Strides, Challenges

The junta Murtala Muhammed announced on national broadcast radio the creation of Abuja as the Federal Capital Territory on February 13, 1976. Image via Premium Times

Today is the anniversary of the founding of Abuja as the federal capital of Nigeria. Forty-six years ago, there was no town or city situated on the present location of Abuja, the capital city of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Only a few patches of the approximately 8,000 square kilometres Federal Capital Territory (FCT) were not virgin, forested as of 1976. The few sparsely inhabited settlements largely dotted by round-shaped mud huts roofed with grass were Garki, Abaji, Gwagwalada, Kuje, Kubwa, Rubochi, Karu, Bwari, Ushafa, Gwagwada, Idu, Zuba, Karshi, Kwali.

While the main ethnic groups were Gwari, Gwandara, Gede, Ebira and Nupe, few Nigerians from other ethnic stocks like Fulani, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and Tiv also lived among them; undertaking activities like farming, petty trading, livestock herding, blacksmithing and other trades.

The evolution of Abuja as the capital city of Nigeria started on February 3, 1976, when the Head of the Federal Military Government, Murtala Muhammed in a nationwide broadcast, announced the creation of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The broadcast came on the heels of the acceptance of the recommendations of a committee headed by Akinola Aguda, a retired Nigerian jurist and former Chief Justice of Botswana. The committee was set up to review the need for a new federal capital city and the suitability of Abuja for that purpose. The committee was set up by the Murtala Muhammed-led Federal Military Government in August 1975.

The committee comprised of Akinola Aguda (Chairman), Mohammed Isma (Secretary), Ajato Gandonu, a geography professor and town planner, Tai Solarin, an educator and social critic, Owen Feibai, O.K. Ogan and Pedro Martins, the first Catholic Chaplain of the Nigerian Army.

The committee chose the current location of Abuja out of a wide range of other suggested areas such as Kafanchan, Kaduna, Lokoja, Auchi, Lafia, Okene, Osara, Makurdi, Agena, Ife and Agege. A rusty historical town located about 30 kilometres away in the contiguous areas with Niger State which was later renamed Suleja was the emirate town that originally bore the name, Abuja. It ceded the name to the then nameless new Federal Capital 46 years ago in 1976.

There are a number of reasons that informed the choice of Abuja as the new federal capital of Nigeria. Chief among these is its centrality of location in Nigeria, ethno-religious neutrality, availability of enough land for expansion and non-ancestral dominance of the area by any of the nation’s major ethnic groups.

By moving its capital from Lagos to Abuja, Nigeria joined the league of other countries that changed their capital cities. Some other countries that successfully changed their capital cities are Australia which moved its capital from Melbourne to Canberra, Brazil from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia, Tanzania from Dar-es-salam to Dodoma, Malawi which relocated its capital from Zomba to Lilongwe and Cote D’Ivoire from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro.

The decision to create a new federal capital from scratch in 1976 did not come without some scepticism, although they were largely stymied by the fiat of the military at that time. Some critics queried the rationale behind such a humungous project that would gulp trillions of naira. Others dismissed the argument of building a more centralized capital as puerile since many other capital cities such as London (UK), Washington DC (USA), Accra (Ghana), Cairo (Egypt) and Beijing (China) are not centrally located. A few sceptics thought the idea of a new capital was a utopia that would be discarded along the line by another regime.

In a similar vein, some argued that moving the Federal Capital city to a ‘virgin land’ would not work in a country like Nigeria that was notorious for project abandonment. But today, Abuja has not only become a reality but a relative success story. The enchanting city has become the pride of the nation and our veritable centre of unity. Yes, Abuja has become the desired destination for many Nigerians, irrespective of tribe, religion, geography or creed.

The authority’s explanation that the decision to relocate the capital city was informed by the realization that Lagos, a coastal city situated on the Southwestern tip of Nigeria, could no longer effectively continue to serve as both the federal capital of Nigeria and the capital of Lagos State, ultimately sunk in. The pressure exerted on the densely populated Lagos by the dual role was exacerbated by its relative poor spatial planning. Also the challenge of congestion arising from Lagos’ position as the commercial and industrial nerve centre of Nigeria buoyed the attraction of a more expansive and purpose-planned Abuja as the new capital.

After the designation of Abuja in 1976, Lagos continued to serve as the functional capital city of Nigeria until December 12, 1991, when the office of the President of Nigeria was effectively relocated to Abuja during the regime of Ibrahim Babangida, the self-styled president and a serving general in the Nigerian Armed Forces. Mr Babangida thus has the historical credit as the Head of State who mustered the willpower to implement the practical relocation of the seat of the Nigerian federal government from Lagos to Abuja on that date.

Abuja, as the capital of the Black world’s most populous country, is presumed to command pride of place on the African continent and the world generally. The effective relocation of the federal capital from Lagos to Abuja was followed by the graduated movement of all the federal ministries, parastatals and key agencies to the new and more spacious federal capital.

Against the backdrop of limitation of land space in Lagos for expansion, the Nigerian federal government, upon the founding of Abuja, set aside a large area of land measuring 8,000 square kilometres for the development of the new capital which was to be in phases. Out of this extensive land area, the Abuja Federal Capital City (FCC) occupies 250 square kilometres and constitutes the nucleus of the Capital Territory. The territory, which is larger than the entire Lagos State in territorial size, was, as earlier stated, designated as the FCT. After the nationwide broadcast by Murtala Muhammed pronouncing Abuja as the new federal capital on February 3, 1976, Decree No 6 (now an Act) was enacted by the federal government two days later on February 5, 1976, to back the creation of the FCT. The decree established the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA), charged with the responsibility of planning and developing the city and the FCT at large.

Successive federal governments since 1976 have kept faith with the Abuja dream by implementing programmes aimed at making it the irreversible reality that it has become. The governments of President Shehu Shagari (1979 – 1983) and Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993) rank among the most intense in terms of physical development. The regime of Olusegun Obasanjo, then a serving general of the Nigerian Army (1976-1979) prepared the groundwork for the development of the capital city by producing the Abuja Master Plan.

The only seemingly dull era in the building of Abuja was between 1983 and 1985 when Muhammadu Buhari, a serving army major-general who toppled the democratic government of Shehu Shagari in December 1983 was Head of State. Mr Buhari halted virtually all developmental projects in the city based on allegations of corruption in contract awards by the ousted civilian administration. That period of inertia perhaps explains the burst of energy unleashed on the fledgling capital city by the succeeding regime of Ibrahim Babangida to make up for the lull.

The Babangida administration notably built the International Conference Centre, Garki District, the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) Secretariat in Asokoro as well as commissioned the iconic Transcorp Hilton (formerly NICON NOGA) and the five-star Sheraton Hotel, Abuja. These edifices greatly helped to upgrade the architectural landscape of Abuja as a cosmopolitan city.

Based on the provisions of Chapter Eight, Part One, sections 297 to 304 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution as amended, the FCT shall be treated as if it were one of the states of the federation. For this reason, successive Presidents or Heads of State have always appointed the minister to administer the FCT on their behalf. Section 302 of the constitution provides that “The President may, in exercise of the powers conferred upon him by section 147 of this Constitution, appoint for the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja a Minister who shall exercise such powers and perform such functions as may be delegated to him by the President, from time to time.”

The first person to serve as a full-fledged Minister of FCT was John Kadiya who governed the Territory between 1979 and1982. Before him, Mobolaji Ajose Adeogun had served as the first and only administrator of the FCT between 1976 and 1979 when the new capital was still on the drawing board. Perhaps, that explains why he mainly operated from an office in Ikoyi, Lagos State.

Mr Kadiya was succeeded by Iro Abubakar Dan Musa (1982-1983); Haliru Dantoro (October 1983-December 31, 1983); Mamman Jiya Vatsa, a poet and major-general of the Nigerian Army (1984-1985) and Hamza Abdullahi, a major-general (1986-1989).

Others were Gado Nasko, a lieutenant general (1989-1993); Jeremiah Useni, a lieutenant general (1993-1998); Mamman Kontagora, a major-general (1998-1999); Ibrahim Bunu, an architect (1999-2001); Muhammed Gana, an electrical engineer (2001 – 2003); Nasir El-Rufai, a quantity surveyor (2003-2007); Aliyu Modibbo, a university lecturer (2007 – 2008), Adamu Aliero, former governor of Kebbi State (2008-2010), Bala Mohammed, a former civil servant (2010-2015) and the incumbent Muhammad Bello, an ex-banker.

On December 12, 1991, during the regime of Ibrahim Babangida as military president and Gado Nasko as the FCT minister, a historical landmark was recorded as the seat of the federal government eventually moved from Lagos to Abuja. From that date onwards, Abuja began to grow exponentially in population. Apart from the accompanying movement of federal civil servants with their family members and dependents to Abuja, many other persons, companies and organisations that transact business or seek public service relationships have been migrating in droves to the new capital since then. Also, politicians and political activities usually gravitate to and concentrate on Abuja as the seat of the central government.

The phenomenal growth of Abuja and expansion of the new federal capital from 1976 till date together with the attendant gains and challenges of the area as an evolving megacity has remained a burning issue on the national stage.

Among the challenges being grappled with by the federal government through the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) and the FCDA are the pressure exerted by the surging population on available infrastructure. The pressure has given rise to sundry problems in the capital territory such as illegal structures and squatter settlements, environmental hazards, insecurity, congestion, vandalism and widening infrastructure gaps among others.

n recent times, requests for land allocations in Abuja by various categories of the territory’s residents have continued to surge. More migrants including business people, companies, investors, politicians and top government officials seek land to build more houses of different types including residential, institutional, office, commercial and mass housing or estates.

In their response to the rising demand for land allocation, the officialdoms have been unwittingly creating bigger problems in the process of solving less pernicious ones. Some have complicated matters through the allocation of thousands of plots in phases and districts that are yet to be provided or serviced with critical infrastructure like underground sewerage for liquid and solid wastes, power grid, access roads, pipe-borne water and other facilities.

More efforts are needed in the enforcement of the Abuja Master Plan to curb illegal developments and impunity in land administration. Adoption of better techniques of securing lives and property in the capital city leveraging modern technology is a desideratum in Abuja’s journey towards becoming a megacity.

The Abuja Town Centre along the Central Business District (CBD) corridor deserves to be fully developed as a world-class 24-hour business district comparable to Manhattan in New York, Oxford Street in London, or the Champ D’Elysee in Paris for Abuja to thumb its chest as a global megacity. This can only be achievable through government engagement with well-heeled private sector investors.

The remodelled Land Swap Project in the FCT which has the richest man and woman in Africa, Aliko Dangote and Folorunsho Alakija, among the key investors should be properly wooed by the government for accelerated development of more districts and the solving of the lingering infrastructure challenge.

Despite these and other related challenges, the city of Abuja which doubles as the headquarters of the ECOWAS has become a veritable melting pot for many Nigerians and West Africans. And it is debatably so, for many other Africans and Black people elsewhere. Abuja has been widely recognised as one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. It has evolved into what it is today as the ultimate conference destination of Africa.

Abuja, the city of the enchanting Aso rock, is still an evolving huge construction zone which if well superintended can be a beautiful tourist destination and a dream city of abode for many Nigerians that have made it either in the country or the Diaspora. The new capital city has transformed as one of the strongest factors binding the country together as one. Abuja can be the citizens’ cherished common heritage as Nigerians. At 46, Abuja has the potential to become the pride of the black man anywhere in the world.