I was in University of Calabar recently, at the invitation of their Economics students, and one of the other speakers was an accomplished comedian/on-air personality. He made a profound statement that people (like me) who are too serious, never make money. And he is right. The powers-that-be at any point in time, also have more time for people who will make them laugh and absolutely none for people who are stressing them about doing the right thing. I also do not want to end up as a doomsday prophet. One thing I can say for myself, though, is that I try to offer real solutions. Most of them are ignored, a few are stolen, but majority of them are timeless. In spite of all this, there is work to do. There are facts to deal with.
As for the coming war in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), I do not mean the war that will be stepped up by the deprived indigenes. The other day, they blocked the airport road and engaged the vice president. We hear that all indigenes of what is today known as the Federal Capital Territory were compensated a long time ago. But at least a generation has died since 1976 (43 years ago) when the Abuja project started. Chances are that the compensations were haphazard, incomplete, embezzled. Chances are that it was inequitable, and inadequate. But here we are. A problem is brewing in that department. Is the FCT going to go down the route of the Niger Delta? Usually, and in organised societies, indigenes in such peculiar settings are relocated, and houses are built to set new standards of living for them. But here we haven’t done anything at all for people that governments – or businesses, as in the case of the Niger Delta, displace.
I am also not talking about the war between prostitutes and night clubs and the Abuja authorities who chose the Ramadan season to do some clean-ups. I must say I am one of the few who supported the actions of the FCTA to close down a certain notorious strip club in a residential area, but I don’t support the demolition of the building that was subsequently carried out. I recently noticed that the Voice of Nigeria now occupies the fraudulently acquired ultramodern plaza which hitherto belonged to the late Alex Badeh at Wuse 2. As an economist, I detest waste where value can be had. That Caramelo night club could have been converted to better use, or reverted to its original use – a clinic. However, I am not one of those who speak about job loss for the strippers and bouncers in an illegal club whose stock-in-trade is immorality. Many Nigerians are actually challenged in this area, and we don’t see the line between good and bad.
My chief concern today is simple. When next you are flying into Abuja and you happen to have a window seat, look down. If you are used to Abuja, you will see the explosion of shanty towns. The poor and neglected in Abuja have returned with vengeance. Shanty towns or ghettos are spreading across the face of the FCT like a nasty rash. This time, as someone commented, they are no longer building with mud but with bricks. Those who can afford to, cast ‘german floors’ before erecting their usually unplanned buildings. The real problem with these ghettos is that no one is in control. On the ground, people build haphazardly and there is no provision for niceties like sewage disposal. Government services never get to such places. These are tough places to live in, but this is what the people can afford.
I recall in 2005/6 when El Rufai was the minister of the FCT, he embarked on some merciless demolitions and, of course, showed the usual Nigerian planlessness but with a massive dollop of heartlessness. In better countries where people value human lives, there will be mass engagements to know how to provide for people because every human deserves survival – except if one were to play God. I recall El Rufai on TV saying that anyone who earned less than N50,000 monthly should return to their village as Abuja was not for the poor. I recall asking on these pages how many of us who live in Abuja could afford to pay over N50,000 for our maiguards, washmen, drivers and other domestic workers – except perhaps those like El Rufai who have been in government for decades now. Anyhow, as at 2006, the UN Commission for Refugees noted that Nigeria had 500,000 displaced people (mostly from Abuja), the second highest number in the world, and we were not in war time. I recall families in Kubwa and elsewhere, in the heavy rain – father mother, children, even newborns – after the diminutive El Rufai had done what he knew how to do. Many died rushing back to their villages. Many lost businesses and homes at the same time.
That was an era. Some may say El Rufai is the best FCT minister so far, but I believe he could have done better. We need profound, humane and far-reaching policies.
Anyhow the era has changed. Whereas ministers like Aliero and Bala Muhammad embarked on some demolition of their own – albeit not as ruthless as El Rufai did – the last FCT minister probably didn’t have any perspective on the matter. Like in other departments of governance, under Buhari’s government and leadership, the FCT has properly and fundamentally fallen apart. There is danger ahead. Serious danger. Any minister that comes in, in the future and seeks to correct the ‘ghettorisation’ of this built up city is going to have a proper war on his/her hands because of the sheer scale of what now needs to be done. Nigerians have become angry, and many more years of oppression, failed promises and gross mismanagement have hardened the hearts of many and turned them away from the possibility of cooperation. More than any other state administration, the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) has totally let go, and sat around while a total mess is being made of whatever master plan it lays claim to.
I am not advocating for demolitions, but something more profound. I am advocating for us to have a government that truly thinks – and understands the value of human lives. I have studied other countries which managed to rein in their citizens from slums. Singapore did theirs early in the day. It is indeed a great sociological exercise to get people to move away from the ghetto mentality and enhance their standards of living. A great amount of investment must be made. A prototype must be developed across the country, of very cheap urban houses that current ghetto-dwellers can upgrade their lives into. It will be rough and tough, and mistakes will be made, but what must be done, must be done. The animalistic way we behave to each other must stop. And for certain, Abuja must be recovered from its current descent into a coming anarchy. Each passing day that no action is taken, the intensity of the coming war will be fiercer.
Abuja should be the bellwether for the rest of our state capitals. We want to see our own ‘projects’ and ‘council houses’ in Nigeria, massive housing schemes for the poor. We should be able to try and mitigate against the mistakes other countries made with theirs. But in spite of those mistakes, mass housing for the really poor is better than ghetto life and the coming war. I just wonder when we will stop deceiving ourselves that housing development is about building luxury houses everywhere for the corrupt civil servants – many of which are empty presently.