To many Nigerians, living the Abuja dream is already a reality, and to many others it is still a dream, one of the many that faith keeps out of their reach but hope still keeps in sight.
For a first time visitor, it is difficult not to fall in love with the town, especially if you have spent all your life navigating Lagos traffic jams, and breathing its poisonous and polluted air. Lagos pales in comparism to Abuja, where Lagos can be said to be a has-been town which has seen better days, Abuja is the town, a virgin land waiting to be explored (or plundered depending on your ideological leaning). All the gold that once littered the streets of Lagos (well, supposedly) have now transformed into diamonds on the streets and pavements of Abuja.
The founding architects of Abuja did indeed succeed in achieving what they didn’t tell the rest of Nigerians during the early days of ‘scramble for partition’ in the town, which is to create a new town for themselves, devoid of any scroungers and social irritants, beggars, the poor and the rest of the earth’s wretched. They must have been inspired by the Las Vegas story, and they have succeeded as well. Abuja is now their city, a paradise for the rich, the famous and the corrupt. It is not the place for folks who are still on the other side; Nigeria’s capital is nothing but another symbol of capitalist exploitation, the triumph of the minority over the majority.
My first visit to Abuja was in 1993, I had been referred to a certain Abuja big man, by a close family friend, to seek his help in effecting my NYSC re-deployment from Tse-Agbaragba in Konshisha Local Government Area of Benue State to either Lagos or any other Nigerian city where I could at least have a 0.5% chance of getting a job after the compulsory one year national youth service.
Although the Abuja that I visited in 1993 is no longer the Abuja of today, but still back then, being that the only big city outside eastern Nigeria that I had ever been to in my life was Lagos, I couldn’t help but feel enthralled and taken in by the freshness, as well as by the potentials and opportunities that I felt were present in the growing town. When I presented my case to the then director at the NYSC secretariat, he turned it down, but I still spent a couple of days soaking in the city lights before leaving.
My next visit was in 2003, and by then a lot had changed. Abuja had been transformed into one of the best cities in Africa, with its beautiful mansions, street lights and zero traffic jams. A drive through the Asokoro, Ministers Hills and Maitama districts leaves one wondering if indeed he or she is in Nigeria and not in any of the upscale districts in suburban New York. There are wonders –on-wheels and state-of-the- art cars all over the streets; you could smell money in the air. Stories of the nouveau rich especially young women who have made good are told far and wide.
The 90s was particularly good for those who braved the odds and moved into the city at inception, the military were still in power, government contracts was the game in town and corruption was at its peak.
Because most of the big ogas and politicians had left their wives back in Lagos and in the other towns where they were transferred from, an opportunity arose for young women who quickly cashed in and became mistresses for the rich. Many of these young women as a result became millionaires pandering to the sexual needs of the rich and mighty, some of them were paid with lucrative government contracts and choice land allocations. Life was good, but not for everybody.
There are those that seemed to have been left behind, those that live on the fringes; these are the ones that their stories should also be told, because in the spirit and excitement to tell the story of the successful few, the suffering of the many are often overlooked and neglected.
Again as a result of poor planning, there was no provision in the Abuja master plan to accommodate the majority whose services will be needed to prop up the lifestyles of the rich, and so cleaners, drivers, gardeners, store traders, cooks, okada and taxi drivers and all such artisans and sundry services providers found themselves with jobs serving the rich, but without decent houses to live in.
In solving a problem, the town’s planners succeeded in creating another. This situation gave birth to the slums in satellite towns such as Kubwa, Nyanya etc which the FCT minister (Mallam Nasir El-Rufai) is now bulldozing, how could the government officials not have seen it coming? These people can’t afford the rent for a one bedroom boys quarters apartment inside Abuja, which goes for as high as N400, 000 per annum, on the meagre wages if any that they earn, not to talk of a standard 3 bedroom flat which goes for about 1 million naira annually.
During my last visit to Abuja in 2005, the opportunity arose to banter with some of these Nigerians living on the fringes whom the Abuja dream seem to be passing by, some of them would fall under Frank Olize’s common men classification, their stories are also the type that Ekarette Udoh of Concord newspapers fame normally wrote about in his popular stories that touch the heart column.
Mr. John Bassey (not his real name) is one of those Nigerians who heeded the Abuja call but 15 odd years later, he is still asking himself why he ever bothered coming to Abuja. I met him at the Federal Road Safety Commission’s (FRSC) office in Mabushi – Abuja, our encounter was coincidental, I had gone with a friend to negotiate t
he release of her car which had been clamped earlier by the traffic patrol unit, as I stepped outside the offices to go across to one of the shops that offered photocopy services, I saw him sitting under a shed beside a nearby kiosk, something about his countenance drew me to him and I edged closer.
I introduced myself and asked him if he would mind granting me a quick interview about his life in Abuja, he wondered why, saying that only rich people and government officials granted interviews. He did accept though he found it funny that I asked.
He is an insurance agent, but has no fixed office address, he ekes out a living mainly from motorists who run foul of the law and drive without insurance, such motorists are usually brought to the FRCS’s Mabushi offices. He helps such motorists to provide quick insurance documents. The problem is that Mr Bassey is not the only ‘tout’ that provides such services, competition is quite strong and so there will be weeks when he won’t even get any punter., meaning that his family will just have to survive on friends’ goodwill.
He lives with his family in the outskirts of the city in a single room. I asked him if he had any message for Nigeria’s rulers.
‘They should think about the masses, we are suffering in this country’ he said.
‘Have you ever contemplated moving to another town, maybe back to Lagos or any other Nigerian town with more prospects?’ I asked him.
‘I do think of that always’ he replied, ‘but which other town should I move to? I hope that one day, God will answer my prayers, the thing about living in Abuja is that one should never lose hope’.
As I left him to pursue the private matter, which had brought me to Mabushi, I wished him well and pondered deeply on his last statement.
There are also the has-been politicians from the old order, broke to their bones and not able to meet up with the financial challenges and intrigues of the modern political game, they are all over the town having migrated from their old serfdoms in search of contracts, or hoping to feast from the political appointment crumbs of the new kids on the block. You can never mistake them in their washed up and faded Babanriga dresses and you can’t help but wonder what has happened to their stolen wealth. Our politicians will never learn.
Abuja’s political graveyard is littered with such yesteryears men and women but like every other Nigerian that has ventured into Abuja in search of either fame or fortune, they dare not leave, they are all buoyed and united by Mr Bassey’s once there is life there is hope philosophy. Do you blame them?